by Jason Martinez
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CHICAGO CUBS 2012-13 OFFSEASON PREVIEW
General Manager Jed Hoyer will have some money to spend this offseason and plenty of holes to fill, beginning with the starting rotation. Matt Garza could be a trade chip but he could also be the team's Opening Day starter. The team has held in-season auditions for several relief pitchers but not too many questions have been answered in regards to the 2013 bullpen. Cubs fans will give Hoyer and Theo Epstein a pass for a 100-loss, or near 100-loss, year one. They're currently at 97 losses with six games to go. The big league club, however, will need to show significant improvement in year two. While a playoff appearance might be too much to ask, another losing season probably won't be acceptable for Cubs fans.
STARTING LINEUP ANALYSIS
For a team near the bottom of the league in many important offensive categories, it's surprising that there are only a couple of obvious holes in the lineup as we head into the offseason. Anthony Rizzo (.290-15-47) has proven that he can handle a spot in the middle of the Cubs order while 36 year-old Alfonso Soriano (31 HR, 106 RBI), who the Cubs couldn't give away last offseason, showed that he still had plenty left in the tank. David DeJesus has had a strong debut season with the team and Starlin Castro, who recently inked a seven-year, $60 million contract extension, continues to improve and could be the face of the franchise over the next several years. Add second baseman Darwin Barney and catcher Welington Castillo to that group of Cubs who have done enough to secure starting jobs in 2013.
Now for those obvious holes. Prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters, after a reasonable amount of success in Triple A, had a chance to show what they could do with semi-regular playing time in center field and third base, respectively. The 24 year-old Jackson is hitting just .174 with 4 HR, 20 BB, and 54 K in 39 games while the 23 year-old Vitters is doing even worse. He's 11-for-96 with 4 BB and 32 K, giving the Cubs no choice but to continue giving at-bats to Luis Valbuena (.671 OPS). Ian Stewart, who started the season at the hot corner after being acquired from Colorado, is a non-tender candidate as he enters his second year of arbitration and coming off a very unimpressive Cubs debut. Unless they feel that injuries hampered his production, I'd expect him to be out of the picture.
It's worth mentioning that three of the organization's top prospects -- if not the top 3 -- are all 20 years old or younger but have the talent to move quickly. Outfielder Jorge Soler, a 20 year-old Cuban who signed a nine-year major league contract in June, could be knocking down the door to the big leagues in 2014. Shortstop Javier Baez, still only 19, was the team's 1st Round draft pick in 2011. He could eventually be the answer at third base but might need two more seasons in the minors. Outfielder Albert Almora, this year's top draft pick, is only 18 years old and several years away from the big leagues. It might be a small consolation when your team loses 100 games but that's a trio of hitting prospects that could be among the best in baseball.
STARTING PITCHING ANALYSIS
Shopping Garza might not be on the agenda this offseason considering the lack of pitching depth they currently have. For instance, journeyman Justin Germano has been in their rotation since late July. He has a 6.18 ERA and there really aren't too many better options. Lefties Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley, successful soft-tossers in the minors, were roughed up. Chris Volstad, another non-tender candidate, has been a model of inconsistency with too many games of 5 ER+ allowed in between those of 3 ER or less allowed.
Former reliever Jeff Samardzija has been one of the lone bright spots on the pitching staff, finishing his season with a 3.81 ERA in 28 starts. The 27 year-old had 56 BB and 180 K in 174.2 innings pitched. Between Garza, Samardzija, and lefty Travis Wood (4.23 ERA in 24 starts), the Cubs have the makings of a solid starting rotation. Filling out that rotation and providing some depth with no capable internal candidates could be a challenge. Expect the Cubs to be aggressive in accomplishing this goal in November and December.
RELIEF PITCHING ANALYSIS
The good news is that closer Carlos Marmol, who is owed $9.8 million in 2013, turned things around in the second half. The potential bad news is that the Cubs could choose not to address this area and then watch as he totally falls apart again in 2013 as he did in April and May of 2012 when he lost his closer's job. What the Cubs did learn -- or maybe they already knew this -- is that they had absolutely no depth behind Marmol and needed to start looking for a closer of the future.
They may have done this when they traded Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino, a hard-throwing 21 year-old who was supposed to play an integral role in the Braves' bullpen before Tommy John surgery sidelined him before the season started. Now he could be that guy in Chicago once he's completely healthy again. He should be ready to return early next season, if not by Opening Day.
While there is a need for some more late-inning help, Michael Bowden and James Russell have been the most reliable of the current group and are good bets to win middle relief jobs next season. A few others have shown flashes, but none have been consistent enough to trust in a role next season without showing some serious improvement next spring. Converted starter Alberto Cabrera might have the best arm of any pitcher who made an appearance out of the Cubs' bullpen but he may need another half-season in Triple-A before he's ready.
The Cubs appear to be making strides in building up their farm system but have a ways to go before their big league club is competitive again. If they can acquire two good starting pitchers via trade or free agency, a veteran setup man who can close if Marmol falters again, and a third baseman and center fielder who can just put up league average numbers, then we're looking at a much-improved Cubs team. This is easier said than done, however. They'll need a very good offseason from Jed and Theo if that's going to happen.
TOP OFFSEASON PRIORITIES
1 Starting Pitching
2 Third Base
3 Setup Man
4 Center Field
5 Lefty Reliever
2012 HITTING STATS
2012 PITCHING STATS