After losing 100 games for the first time since 1966 -- the Cubs ranked 15th in the National League in batting average and on-base percentage while walking the most batters and striking out the fewest -- the front office pair of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer surfed the free-agent waters and came up with a nice group of complementary players.
Jackson was signed to a four-year deal to provide the Cubs a much-needed durable innings-eater for the rotation and Fujikawa to a two-year deal with an option. He should replace Carlos Marmol as the ninth-inning guy. Baker and Feldman were signed to one-year deals and become deadline trade bait if they're pitching well and the Cubs are out of it. Unfortunately, Alfonso Soriano and the $36 million left on his contract are still here. For a team rebuilding, it's a nice group of low-cost veterans who should help make the Cubs more respectable on the field and perhaps show enough value to be flipped for some prospects.
There is some hope here. Shortstop Starlin Castro enters his age-23 season, and it's time for a breakout season or the resolution that this is what he is -- good but not great, some medium-range power undermined by a mediocre on-base percentage. Anthony Rizzo hit a solid .285/.342/.463 in his age-22 season. If the Cubs are to contend in a couple years, Castro/Rizzo will be the offensive foundation. Soriano actually had a productive season with 32 home runs and a .499 slugging percentage, but David DeJesus was the only regular with a .350 OBP. If you don't get on base, you're not going to score runs, and prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters aren't going to improve that area of the team.
As bad as the rotation was in 2012 -- a 4.52 ERA that ranked better only than the Astros and Rockies -- the Cubs have constructed a group that could be sneaky-good, especially if Matt Garza bounces back from the elbow issues that cut his season short in July. He just threw a bullpen session and reported no ill effects. Scott Baker is coming back from his own elbow injury that cost him all of 2012, but he's been a solid starter in the past with the Twins. And Scott Feldman should enjoy getting out of Texas. Travis Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who serves up too many home runs to be more than a back-end starter, but he's around for additional depth.
If anything, the bullpen was even worse than the rotation in 2012, allowing the highest OPS in the NL and easily having the worst strikeout/walk ratio. Fujikawa is a 32-year-old righty who pitched in the World Baseball Classic for Japan in 2006 and 2009. His highest ERA since 2005 has been 2.01 and he was at 1.32 last season, although he pitched just 47 innings due to an abductor strain (and hasn't pitched 70 innings since 2007). He throws hard and, unlike Marmol, actually throws strikes.
Heat Map to Watch Jeff Samardzija surprised everyone in his conversion from mediocre reliever to very good starter, going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts/56 walks in 174.2 innings. Among qualified starters, he had the second-highest average fastball velocity, behind only David Price. The fastball sets up his wipeout pitch: A deadly split-fingered fastball that darts away from lefties and into righties. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Samardzija threw the pitch 515 times in 2012, 196 of which concluded plate appearances. Batters hit just .128, with 100 strikeouts and six walks.
Jeff Samardzija was dominant when he threw his split-fingered fastball last season.
The Cubs should be a lot better in 2013. Just go through their 2012 roster and see how many bad plate appearances and bad innings they gave to marginal major leaguers. If Castro, Rizzo and Samardzija improve and Garza and Baker stay healthy, the Cubs could even chase .500.
On the other hand, there are still issues with depth and top-end talent in the lineup, the bullpen and the rotation if somebody gets hurt. Soriano is a good candidate to regress, and the upper levels of the farm system are pretty weak. Amazingly, 2012 was just the third season in Cubs history with 101 losses, following 103-loss seasons in 1966 and 1962. This isn't a playoff team, but it should at least be more interesting to watch.