CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 15: Starlin Castro # 13 of the Chicago Cubs catches a line drive the Milwaukee Brewers on June 15, 2011 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
The most exciting part of the Cubs' offseason was Theo Epstein. Oh, Jed Hoyer was part of the package deal, and Anthony Rizzo fanatics have a case, but if there were a book about the off-season, Theo Epstein would be on the cover. And, man, would that be a boring book. But it would accurately describe the real story of the winter months.
When the story of an off-season is the hiring of an executive, you can safely guess that the team in question was sort of a bummer during the previous season. There are other clues to suggest that the last season didn't end well for the team in question. The big red "C" on the caps. Buncha plants on the outfield walls. The Cubs finished below .500 for the 33rd time in the last 50 seasons. It's been 105 years since Solly Hofman threw to Frank Chance for the last out of the 1908 World Series. The Cubs have this under-the-radar history of losing, see. You might have heard of it.
But there was, once upon a time, another team that had a similar history of losing. It's not like Theo Epstein's magical breath was the thing pushing Dave Roberts around the bases in 2004, so he can't take all the credit. He can sure take a lot of it, though. And just to make sure, he was there when the Red Sox won their second World Series, too. Theo Epstein was a huge part of the Red Sox winning two championships. His grandfather figured out a way to get Laszlo and Ilsa out of Morocco. There's magic in them genes, dang it. Cubs fans have a right to be excited.
Any thoughts of some sort of instant turnaround, though, were far too optimistic. It wasn't as if Epstein (and Hoyer, who is kind of the GM, you know) was going to sign Albert Pujols, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes. He wasn't going to pay Grant Desme to follow Alfonso Soriano around and proselytize. There weren't any miracles to be found on the Cubs' roster.
The Cubs, at least on the surface, are going to follow the same plan that several other rebuilding teams are going to follow. They're going to sift through the detritus and figure out what they should take with them on the next leg of their journey. They're going to lose in the name of science. Is Bryan LaHair a quad-A slugger, or does he have a legitimate future? What in the absolute hell happened to Ian Stewart, and can he be fixed? Can Chris Volstad sink his way to success? Maybe one of those three players works out. Maybe none of them do. But the Cubs are willing to lose to find out.
That isn't to say that they were willing to nuke the team from orbit completely. They signed David DeJesus, who trades in competence and excellence in alternating years. They kept Marlon Byrd around, even as it seems it should take just a couple of text messages to make him a Washington National. Matt Garza might have brought back a package similar to what the A's received for Gio Gonzalez. The Cubs are either holding out for better packages for Byrd and Garza, or they just aren't that excited about turning into the '62 Cubs quite yet.
That's left them with a top-heavy roster. For the lineup, maybe the best way is to categorize the likely starters:
Should be fantastic
Should be competent to good
Should be quite bad
I have no idea, and neither do you unless you're some manner of warlock
There were three starters on the 2011 Cubs with on-base percentages over .350. All three of them are gone. I'd put the over/under on above-average hitters at four, and I'd be tempted to take the under considering the age of Byrd and DeJesus. But it's not a frightening offense, at least not until July 31, or so.
The rotation is similarly top-heavy. Matt Garza was superlative last year, finding the strikeouts he lost in his last year with the Rays. Ryan Dempster allowed a lot of runs last year, but he didn't allow more home runs or walks than he usually does, and his strikeout rate was still impressive. He'll be fine. After that, though, there's human riddle Jeff Samardzija and the chronically underachieving Chris Volstad. Paul Maholm might be the least exciting pitcher in baseball, but he's effective enough to be a fine #5 starter. I trust Garza and Dempster. I also trust that they'll be somewhere else in August. The rest of the rotation could be just as combustible as it was last year, though there is talent there.
And when the dust settles in August or September, the Cubs likely hop wille that some of the minor-league talent will start to worm its way into the lineup. Brett Jackson should be a regular by the end of the year, if not the end of the first half. Anthony Rizzo is still just a pup, and the Cubs should feel lucky to have acquired him for a pitcher with shoulder problems. Josh Vitters is still young enough to qualify as a prospect, and Wellington Castillo might make it easier for the Cubs to trade Soto for more prospects. The team isn't going to expecting to win, but they can still consider the season a success if they figure what they have.
That's Epstein's job. And Hoyer's. Don't forget Hoyer. He's the GM. Has many leather-bound books and an office that smells of rich mahogany. Jed Hoyer. Keep him in mind. But Theo! He isn't magic. He was never going to work miracles. He wasn't going to … how does the expression go? … turn chicken salad into some sort of chicken-based sandwich that doesn't involve that scummy egg-paste known as mayonnaise. There was too much mayonnaise. The stores were charging too much for bread and mustard. Have an energy bar. It's going to be a while.
But there's a plan. And a baseball Camelot in place at the top. The Cubs have a plan. And after July 31, we'll have a much clearer idea of what that plan is. Until then, the Cubs are just trying to figure out who's good with the rest of us.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they should have made)
Seriously, why isn't Marlon Byrd on the Nationals? Brett Jackson could excite the fans, and he wouldn't embarrass himself. The Nationals are planning to start Roger Bernadina in center field, and Byrd is making a reasonable $6.5 million this year. You had college friends who wouldn't get together even though you all knew they were perfect for each other. This is the same thing, but with fewer awkward drunken conversations.
For some reason, I like playing the cherry-picking game with young players. Set up a search you know that will be favorable for them, and watch the awesome names pop up. It's easy to do with Castro. Look at those names! Cobb! Kaline! Rodriguez! Williams! Ott! And Starlin Castro. He also just made an error as you were reading this, but that's not the point. It's hard to imagine him plateauing after such a good season at 21, so he's a wild card because it's hard to tell just how good he can be.
Fourth place. The NL Central is the Harvey Dent of baseball, and the Cubs are on the icky side. But they're not that bad. Just bad. Ryan Dempster will be good again. Alfonso Soriano won't be. I'm sure if he works on a few things, he'll be right back on top in 2014, though.
Kansas City Royals
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New York Yankees
San Diego Padres
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