PITTSBURGH -- Amidst the tiring back-and-forth of the Wrigley Field renovation project (including a silly dalliance with the city of Rosemont), a greater interest in their minor leaguers and the promise of the upcoming No. 2 overall pick in the draft, the Chicago Cubs have a season to play.
It starts Monday in Pittsburgh in case your attention was elsewhere, maybe on the back fields of Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz. where most of the future hangs out.
Come October it’s more than likely -- heck, it’s nearly a guarantee -- that the Cubs will be a half decade into a second century of futility. One hundred and five years will have gone by without a championship. The good news is they should be a year closer.
Maybe you’ve heard that notion before. After all, the phrase "Wait 'til next year" didn’t just materialize, it’s been the Cubs' motto for years. But in the most ironic of twists, the losing which defined the team last year and the losing that’s to come this year is by design. We couldn’t always say that in the past.
What’s worse? Thinking there’s a contending team on the field and losing 100 games or knowing there isn’t one and still losing 100? I’ll take the latter any day. At least the Cubs aren’t fooling anyone this time around.
That’s not to say the Cubs are simply pulling a move from the musical “The Producers." They aren’t tanking it just to make money. Of course that happens to be a by-product of reducing payroll without reducing ticket prices. But that’s the fans’ problem. They could stay home from Wrigley. (Yes, you could.) It’s the one and only way ticket prices might be reduced.
As for the losing, what do you think the word "rebuilding" entails?
Team president Theo Epstein has been given an unprecedented opportunity: A chance to truly rebuild a franchise in a large market with a patient owner. There is no executive in the game who wouldn’t love that scenario. Yes, he might draw a nice salary for a few years while the Cubs lose and then ride off into the sunset, but do you really believe that’s what he cares about?
Epstein is already a sacred name in one sacred baseball city. Winning with the Cubs would secure his legacy for all-time. It would make winning with the Boston Red Sox -- a pretty good accomplishment -- a mere appetizer. And this would be even more rewarding. Epstein didn’t strip the Red Sox down to it’s foundation as he’s doing the Cubs. Building from scratch is always more rewarding than with a head start.
It’s with this backdrop that another season begins. The final one in which the Cubs should be in the acquiring-talent mode, the final one in which the words "fire sale at the trade deadline" should be uttered. It’s the late stages of phase one of rebuilding, if you will. Last year was about establishing the new regime, this year is about making progress.
Progress will be defined in many ways. The organization has new hitting coaches and the Cubs manual of how to do things is complete.
They can dress it up all they want, but working the count and getting on base by whatever means is still what it’s all about. There is no better correlation for runs scored than on-base percentage. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.
As for pitching, hard throwers who hit the lower portion of the strike zone should see the least damage. The Cubs want their hitters hitting the high ones while their pitchers are throwing strikes at the knees. That’s one way progress will be defined throughout the organization. But, again, there is a season at hand. What’s important? Not wins and losses.
If the Cubs wanted to avoid 100 losses last year they would not have traded so many veterans or shut down pitcher Jeff Samardzija, for example. The same is true this season. They can win more games if they want to. But they don’t want to. They’d rather acquire more talent.
But this has to be the last season of doing so. Another draft, another trade deadline, at some point it has to end and development -- and actual winning -- has to start.
This isn’t something Cubs brass doesn’t know. But there is no shortcut between here and there. And if the Cubs are going to win in the near future there are players on this roster who will be there. How good can those individuals be? Those are the storylines of 2013.
Players to watch
You know the names by now, and none of them are a finished project. Anthony Rizzo is still an infant at the Major League level. Half a year doesn’t make a career. If he doubles his production of a season ago (15 home runs and 48 RBIs) then the Cubs have found their first baseman for When They Contend (WTC).
Starlin Castro is already the guy at shortstop, but he has the talent to take his game to another stratosphere. All great teams have a superstar or two. Here is Castro, on the verge of becoming one -- if you believe the things he’s said and done this spring. He’s such a natural at the plate, and in the field it probably won’t take much for him to get to another level. But baseball has a funny way of making sure things look difficult. Can he do it?
Samardzija’s career arc has been a good one so far. But his mission isn’t complete. A good year secures him a spot for WTC. A multi-year contract will assure that as well. But we don’t know if he’s that guy yet either. Like Rizzo, Samardzija hasn’t done it for a full season. Now he’ll get his chance.
Darwin Barney can pick the ball up with the best in the game. He and Castro are arguably as good a double play combination as you’ll find. But all field and no hit might not be enough for Barney to be here WTC. This year will tell a lot, considering he put so much time and emphasis on his approach at the plate.
Edwin Jackson is probably here WTC but we’re not sure on Travis Wood. Will Kyuji Fujikawa take over as the closer sooner rather than later and what does that mean for Fujikawa's long-term prospects in Chicago?
So there are names that matter, both at the big league level and of course in the minors. Names like Brett Jackson, Junior Lake, Josh Vitters, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler just to name a few. Their advancements are as important as the ones at the major league level. They are on parallel tracks, all with an eye on contending. Maybe next year, more than likely the year after.
Once the season begins Monday afternoon it will be hard not to get caught up in the wins and losses. And if the Cubs can get off to a good start there’s always a chance at a surprise later on -- it doesn’t take much to contend for the Wild Card these days. And there would be some good to come of that.
The more “meaningful” games the core players participate in the better they’ll be for it. The playoffs are all about dealing with the pressure of the moment, now more than ever. But first things first.
If there is any chance for the Cubs to be respectable in the standings and surprise the baseball world there are a few things to watch.
Keys to the season
On offense, assuming Castro, Rizzo and Soriano all hit, two players become vitally important: David DeJesus in the one hole and Nate Schierholtz in the five hole. Schierholtz might be the key. Never before has he been a starter and hitting behind the “big three” he’ll get plenty of chances to drive in runs. He needs to do so. And DeJesus, coming off a fabulous spring, can really set the table for the big three as well.
Pitching still wins. There is so much uncertainty in the starting rotation it’s hard to know what the No. 1 key is. Maybe it’s getting Matt Garza healthy as soon as possible. A frustrating lat injury has lingered too long. After that, hoping that Samardzija is a true ace might not be a reach. He seems like a man on a mission. And Scott Feldman might be a classic veteran pitcher who showed very little in spring training but, as he switches leagues and ballparks, makes it look easy starting this week. There’s more wishful thinking with the rotation than actual evidence it will be good though. Wood and Carlos Villanueva could go either way while Edwin Jackson might be the lone hurler that you can rely on -- even if he’s not dominant.
Defensively the Cubs are solid in the infield, with or without Ian Stewart. Elsewhere, a new centerfielder, right fielder and full-time catcher make the rest of the defense a question mark. They might be able to get by in the outfield, but Welington Castillo needs to be solid behind the plate. That includes calling a game and throwing out runners. It remains to be seen if he can handle the job.
Many thought Carlos Marmol would be traded by now, but despite manager Dale Sveum’s insistence he had a good spring, he’s still inconsistent. How soon Fujikawa takes over the closer role might go a long way to deciding how April goes for the Cubs. Either way, will we see the Marmol of last year at about this time (he was bad) or the Marmol that threw strikes and got people out in the second half of the season? It’s anyone’s guess right now, but I wouldn’t count on the latter happening.
Finally, there is something to be learned of Sveum. In-game moves aren’t of huge importance but how players thrive under him are. It’s an under-rated aspect of managing. For example, his strategy of playing his core guys –- especially young ones -- as many as 162 games isn’t shared by all in the game. Will he be rewarded for that kind of confidence? Is that going to make Castro better in the long term? A good manager doesn’t just make the right calls on double switches, he brings out the best in players. Of course, the more talent he has to work with the easier his job will be.
So let the journey of another season begin. Off the field news will dominate as much as on the field and that might be a good distraction at times. Simply put, don’t make judging the Cubs by wins and losses your top priority. If you do, it’ll be another long season. If it’s a long year in the standings yet core guys take necessary steps -- and new core guys emerge -- then that’s a victory in itself.
When it comes to the Cubs one saying still holds true: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.