Carlos Villanueva is one of many new Cubs for 2013. - Jamie Squire
Part nine in our Cactus League preview series covers an NL Central rival trying to bounce back from an awful 2012.
BCB: The 2012 Cubs lost 101 games for just the third time in franchise history. They've had a busy winter and I assume they're better, but just how much better are they?
Other BCB: What's best about the winter is that the Cubs upgraded their rotation. No longer will we have to see the likes of Jason Berken and Justin Germano start games; Edwin Jackson, signed to a four-year deal, isn't a superstar but is dependable, eats innings, and has lots of postseason experience. Jeff Samardzija will build on his fine second half; if Matt Garza is healthy, the Cubs have at least five competent inning-eaters (including Scott Baker and Scott Feldman), which will take the pressure off the bullpen, which last year was among the worst in the major leagues -- largely because of the number of innings they had to throw.
In addition, a full year of Anthony Rizzo should give the Cubs a strong middle-of-the-order bat. If he's as good as he was last year, the Cubs could have a possible All-Star first baseman.
Contention? Probably not, but I see a year somewhere in the mid-70s range in wins, which is a significant improvement.
BCB: Starlin Castro appeared in all 162 games as a 22-year-old for the Cubs a year ago and appeared in his second All Star game, but his batting average (.283) and on base percentage (.323) were actually career lows. Is there reason to believe he'll bounce back this season?
Other BCB: There was some talk that Castro's contract negotiations -- which eventually got him a seven-year, $60 million deal -- were weighing on him early on in the season. That deal was signed August 18. From that day to season's end Castro hit .297/.359/.451, much more in line with his career averages, with 13 doubles and 20 RBI in 45 games. He should be near those levels for a full season this year, and remember he doesn't turn 23 until later this month -- some guys that age are still in Double-A. He does need to work on two things: keeping his head in the game at all times, and measuring his throws. He's got great range and a great arm. He just needs to be more accurate.
BCB: The Cubs dipped pretty heavily into the free agent pitching pool this winter and came away with four starting pitchers: Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman and Scott Baker. How does the new rotation line up?
Other BCB: As noted above, that's one reason for optimism. The rotation depth is better than it's been at any time since the 2008 division title year, and don't forget the Cubs still have Travis Wood, who posted a 3.56 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his final 13 starts of 2012. Wood just turned 26, and there's reason to believe he could help out in the bullpen if he doesn't make it in the rotation.
BCB: Counting David DeJesus and his 2014 option, the Cubs have five pretty significant free agents-to-be with Matt Garza, Carlos Marmol, Scott Feldman and Scott Baker, and two years remaining on Alfonso Soriano's contract. If the Cubs don't make a push for the playoffs, what are the odds that some or all of those guys become available in trade?
Other BCB: Theo Epstein has already gone on record as saying that if the Cubs are in the playoff hunt, they're in a position to add players at the deadline. If not, he said he won't hesitate to break up the team for parts -- and all the players you mention could be trade bait. It's even possible Marmol could be gone by Opening Day; they already tried to trade him to the Angels in the offseason, only to back out at the last minute because they didn't like Dan Haren's medicals.
Soriano is likely to stay, only because he has 10-and-5 rights and can veto any deal.
BCB: Finally, I'd be missing something if I didn't ask about Dale Sveum. What's your read on the former Brewer bench coach as he enters his second season at the helm in Chicago?
Other BCB: It's too early to truly judge Dale Sveum as an in-game manager, because he really didn't have anything to work with in 2012. On July 31 the Cubs were only 2 1/2 games behind the Phillies and 3 1/2 games behind the Brewers -- and those teams managed to contend for the 2nd wild card until the last weekend, because they had talent left after shipping players off in deadline deals, while the Cubs had no such talent. Sveum was essentially managing a Triple-A team for the last two months; they had the second-worst record in the major leagues (18-42) over that span; only the Red Sox were worse (16-42).
I sometimes roll my eyes at Sveum's lineup selection and bullpen usage. That said, what baseball fan or writer doesn't wonder that about his or her team's manager?
Here's the best thing about Dale Sveum as a manager. Despite the bad start and worse finish, his players played hard for him in every single game. No loafing, no excuses, they always gave maximum effort. That's a real credit to him as a manager, and as a man. It's the kind of thing that will, I think, make him a fine manager when he has talented players, because he already commands respect. You might know this old Casey Stengel saying: "The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided." Dale Sveum will never have that problem; he's an eminently good guy who everyone respects. There is much value to that for a major-league manager.
Thanks to Al for taking the time, and check out Bleed Cubbie Blue for more on the Cubs!