As the Astros prepare for their final season in the National League, Climbing Tal’s Hill begins a series of articles previewing the teams of the N.L. Central. We’re calling it The National League Central Farewell Tour.
The first stop on the tour is Chicago, a favorite destination among Major League players, reporters, and fans alike. The Windy City offers plenty of opportunities for sightseers, restaurant goers, and those who enjoy the nightlife. It’s also the home of Cubbies Crib Senior Editor Jordan Campbell. Young Mr. Campbell has agreed to bestow some of his vast Cubbies knowledge upon us by answering a few questions about the 2012 team. We thought it would be fun to inundate Jordan with a barrage of questions from our entire staff. Let’s get things started with a few questions from CTH Staff Writer Alex Sandoval.
Alex: Dale Sveum seems like a good choice for the manager position but I know a lot of Cubs fans wanted Ryne Sandberg as the new skipper. It now looks as though that may never happen. What’s your reaction to the “Ryno” drama this winter?
"The Ryne Sandberg reaction was overblown if you ask me. Sandberg was a successful minor league manager and hall of fame second baseman for the Cubs, but that does not in any way make him qualified as the best managerial candidate. It was my belief that Cubs’ fans were allowing their personal feelings for Sandberg interfere with what is right for the Cubs. Sveum is going to be a good manager. To be honest, he reminds me of a less-eccentric Ozzie Guillen. That is the type of manager I would want."
Alex: Theo Epstein is innovative but understands history and tradition. Do you see any type of updates or adjustments being made to Wrigley Field?
"There are already a handful of updates in place to Wrigley Field. Some of which, I am sure that Theo Epstein has had a hand in creating. The biggest change that will be on display during the 2012 season will be the changes made to the right field portion of Wrigley Field. The Cubs are adding a Right Field patio level, and in addition, there will be a 70 foot LED scoreboard underneath that patio section. The scoreboard will not show replays, but it opens another avenue of advertisement for the Cubs. OF course, when a team is restructuring their ballpark, the goal should be to create new lines of revenue. And, that is what the Cubs are doing."
Alex: With Sean Marshall in Cincinnati, Cashner in San Diego and Marmol’s struggles last season, the back of the bullpen seems a bit in flux. Are there any names that fans should lookout for that might give Marmol a run for the closer’s job?
"To be honest, I thought Marmol would have been traded by now, but it appears that he will begin the season with the Cubs. There are two names to watch however. The first being Chris Carpenter, and the other being Jeff Samardzija. Both Carpenter and Samardzija have a live fastball, and of course that is usually one of the first signs that there is a potential of being a closer. But as long as Marmol is on the team, I get the sense that he will be he closer. Though if you ask me, Marmol’s best position is as a set-up man."
Alex: I loved the ESPN documentary about Steve Bartman and all the behind the scenes information. Did that help Cubs fans have some closure or did it just reopen old wounds?
"Catching Hell was a fascinating documentary. Though, any Cubs’ fan that still get fired up by the mere mention of Steve Bartman should really look in the mirror. One thing the documentary proved, was that Bartman was not the only one reaching for ball. On top of that, Moises Alou is far from a gold glove left fielder. I think that arrival of Epstein should close the book on all the phony excuses that Cubs’ fans have been using up to this point."
Thanks Jordan. Now here are a few questions from CTH Staff Writer Brian Hamilton. Don’t worry, I’ll get in the big question at the end.
Brian: Outside of Anthony Rizzo, what other Cubs prospects are in the pipeline that could make an impact in the near future?
"Anthony Rizzo definitely is going to be a major player for the Cubs and their long-term future. But, Rizzo is not the Cubs’ top prospect. That title belongs to outfielder Brett Jackson. Jackson spent a good half of last season with the Cubs’ AAA affiliate. Jackson is expected to begin the season in AAA, but the consensus is he will be called up by June. Jackson is more of a line-drive hitter rather than a power-hitter, and he should be a nice addition to the upper-half of the Cubs’ lineup. The arrival of Jackson will likely mean the departure for center fielder Marlon Byrd, and left fielder Alfonso Soriano."
Brian: The Cub’s recently jettisoned Carlos Zambrano and his huge contract. Do you see the same thing happening with Alphonso Soriano anytime soon?
"Prediction: Alfonso Soriano will not be with the Cubs’ come opening day. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have spent all off-season trying to find a way to trade Soriano. Like Zambrano, the Cubs’ are willing to eat 95% if not all of the $54 million owed to Soriano over the course of the next three seasons. The Cubs have been in trade discussions with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles, but those talks don’t seem to be making any progress. Cubs’ chairman has already given Epstein permission to release a player no matter how much money is owed to that player. With that knowledge, I suspect that Soriano will be released at some point before Opening Day."
Brian: Is there something you would like to see Epstein and Hoyer do with the Cubs, be it a trade, Free Agent signing, or even something tedious that isn’t being discussed publicly?
"That is a good question. If anything, I would like to see the pair of executives continue to do what they are doing. I know it may seem like I am taking the easy way out, but it is the truth. Epstein and Hoyer have already improved the Cubs’ farm system with the addition of Rizzo, and the organization’s pitching depth for the first time in a couple of seasons is deep. Epstein and Hoyer are showing why they are widely respected, and that is all any Cubs’ fan could ask for."
Greg: As the Senior Editor for a widely recognized Cubs blog you must have achieved a certain amount of celebrity status. When can we expect to see you singing “Take me out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley?
"The one thing the Chicago Cubs could do that several other major league teams have done is recognize online bloggers and reporters. It has been two years since I have joined the FanSided team as Cubbies’ Crib senior editor, and not once have the Cubs done some type of recognition for online bloggers. While Cubbies Crib is certainly gaining a lot of readers and a great following, there are plenty of other Cubs’ blog that deserve some type of recognition from the team. But to answer the question, that is on my bucket list of things to do."
Thanks Jordan, you are a man with wisdom well beyond your years. Now here’s my take on the 2012 Cubs.
The news that Soriano could be released if the Cubs can’t trade him is evidence that the team is committed to cutting their losses and head in a new direction. In addition to Epstein, Hoyer, and Sveum, the Cubs have added former Astros bullpen coach Jamie Quirk as their bench coach. So pretty much everyone who is in a position to make important decisions, both on the field and off, is new to the organization.
The Cubs lost a couple of big bats to Free Agency this winter. Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez will be missed in the middle of the order. Pena will be replaced by Brian LaHair. The 6 foot 5 inch, 240 pound LaHair enters his age 29 season with only 219 Major League plate appearances under his belt. LaHair blasted 38 homers at AAA Iowa last season and added 15 more in the Venezuelan Winter League. The Cubs are hoping that the big man can approach those numbers in Chicago this season. If not, Anthony Rizzo is waiting in the wings.
Spring Training could provide a three way position battle at the hot corner between Ian Stewart, Jeff Baker, and Josh Vitters. Stewart and Vitters both came over from the Rockies in an off-season trade for Tyler Colvin and D.J. LaMahieu. The Cubs are said to be leaning toward Stewart as the starter even though he had a disappointing 2011 season. Baker is likely to return to his familiar utility role but could fill in if Stewart’s struggles persist. Vitters is the heir apparent at third, but the first round pick in the 2007 draft has yet to play at the AAA level. Rounding out the infield SS Starlin Castro is one of the most exciting young players in the league and 2B Darwin Barney faded down the stretch after a hot start to his rookie campaign.
David DeJesus becomes the Cubs new rightfielder after signing a two-year Free Agent contract this winter. DeJesus, 32, is looking to bounce back from a down year in Oakland. Veteran Marlon Byrd patrols center and we will have to wait and see what happens with Soriano in left.
Geovany Soto returns behind the plate but backup Koyie Hill has signed with the rival St. Louis Cardinals. Non-roster invitee Jason Jaramillo will compete with youngsters Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger for the backup role.
The starting rotation has experienced almost as much turnover as the front office. Carlos Zambrano is gone and number one starter Matt Garza is on the trade block. Number two starter Ryan Dempster is one of the few familiar faces that remains. Ground ball specialist Paul Maholm was signed as a Free Agent and should be a solid innings eater in the #3 spot. New additions Travis Wood and Chris Volstad are the favorites for the last two spots in the rotation but will be pushed by Casey Coleman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Randy Wells.
Kerry Wood joins the trio of relievers that Jordan talked about in the Cubs bullpen. Promising right-hander Marcos Mateo will try to bounce back from an elbow injury that kept him out for the last three months of the 2011 season. Lefties John Gaub and James Russell could break camp with the team and Rafael Dolis is also in the mix.
The rotation would look pretty iffy without Garza. If he is dealt the Cubs could be in for a long season. Even with Garza the rotation is definitely below average. Carlos Marmol has been inconsistent and the rest of the bullpen, outside of Kerry Wood, is unproven. This team figures to need to put a lot of runs on the board to stay in games. Without Pena and Ramirez I just don’t see that happening. If guys like Tony Campana and Reed Johnson wind up getting substantial playing time the offense will be in trouble. We may see Brett Jackson sooner rather than later if Soriano is indeed dealt.
Epstein and Hoyer inherited a mess. Add one more to the streak of 103 years without a championship. Prediction: Cubs finish in fifth place.