Hey, guys! I'm Z.W. Martin and in 2012 the Chicago Cubs will be my beat. This is where a long sigh could be heard if you were sitting next to me right now. Yes, I'm a Cubs fan and like all Cubs fans, I have self-esteem issues. It's safe to say I loathe me. Why else would I follow this club? If you're reading this you understand. Anyway, I also coach high school, college and professional baseball players, so I may have a different angle than some of your normal reads (old white guys and Carrie Muskat -- I love you, Carrie). Please read the following because it took me a long time. Enjoy and thanks for reading.
Off-season in review: In short, the Cubs got younger (see: assets, controllable). They let their aging corner infield -- Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez -- walk. Traded away arguably the best left hand relief pitcher in the game in Sean Marshall for 25-year-old LHP, Travis Wood, and prospects and dumped Carlos Zambrano (and cash) for (another) 25-year-old RHP, Chris Volstad. Both newly acquired arms are currently back-end rotation guys with some upside. Each are controllable, young and inexpensive and will be nice pieces on a winning ball club some day, either in the bullpen or rotation.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. also signed outfielder David DeJesus, who holds a career .284/.356/.421 slash line and combined outfield UZR/150 of 6.0 (rated excellent in LF, above-average in RF and slightly below in CF) on the cheap (2-years for $10 millon and an option) after a disappointing 2011 season. The Cubs also inked Paul Maholm, a LHP coming off an injury shortened, yet career year (3.66 ERA in 162 1/3 IP), for a measly $4.25 million (with an option). Again, nice complimentary pieces on the cheap.
Lets not forget the waiver claim of the defensively defective second baseman, yet offensively solid, Adrian Cardenas (he was rated as high as the #74 prospect in MLB by Baseball America as recently as 2009 -- power/glove haven't developed). Also the flips of potential-future-stud first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, and will-he-ever-meet-his-potential third baseman, Ian Stewart, for fire-baller, Andrew Cashner, and they-were-never-that-good-anyway, Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, respectively.
Considering what Chicago was working with and their new long-term plan, this off-season can only be seen as a success. Patience. Intelligence. Sustainability. 2012 is just the beginning.
The season: The 2012 season really doesn't matter beyond learning what the Cubs have, deciding who to keep around for the long haul and who to dump like it's the week after Valentine's Day.
However, it will be a big year for veterans like Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd to regain value heading into free agency/for the Northsiders to trade in July. On a similar note, Geovany Soto and Carlos Marmol are fighting to be part of Chicago's future. If neither fit into Epstein's plans, they both could be traded either in-season or after when they are still a year away from free agency and hold more value. Or not, and the Cubs lock them up for the foreseeable future.
Bryan LaHair and Stewart are interesting cases as well. LaHair, 29, is a late bloomer who is finally getting his shot at an everyday major league job after decimating triple-A pitching to the tune of a .331/.405/.664 slash line in 2011. Is he Chicago's next Micah Hoffpauir (AKA my old man crush/favorite NPB player) or will he become a steadfast major league caliber first baseman? 2012 will decide. Either way, -- bust or trade chip -- I think he's just holding down the fort until Rizzo is ready to take over. Stewart, on the other hand, was a highly touted first round draft pick who got his first taste at the bigs at 22. In 432 games, he's posted a career .236/.323/.428 line and 2.3 UZR/150 at 3B, good for a WAR of 1.9. Frankly, he's been a disappointment. This very well may be his last shot at regular playing time (I don't think he'll be hitting all that much against LHP anyway).
The lineup is fairly fun to play with because it will vary a lot depending on whether or not Chicago is facing a starting lefty or righty on the mound. It's easy to imagine the Cubs swapping Stewart or LaHair for Jeff Baker, Darwin Barney for Cardenas and Reed Johnson for DeJesus against lefties.
The rotation has depth, too. Mediocre depth, but depth none-the-less. Matt Garza, Dempster and Maholm appear to have the top three spots locked down, but beyond that, T. Wood, Volstad and Randy Wells will be vying for the final two spot. Furthermore, Jeff Samardzija will get his yearly shot at making the rotation (consider it a complete win if Casey Coleman doesn't see an inning in Chicago).
Regardless, whoever doesn't make the rotation will make an already above average bullpen better. With Kerry Wood, Samardzija (probably) and Marmol locking down the final three innings and James Russell showing he's good against lefties out of the bullpen, holding them to a .256 OBP in 2011, the pen should once again be a strong point.
Even if I think this is a throwaway season, games must be played.
MLB 12: The show must go on. PECOTA has Chicago winning 74 games and it's hard to argue with that assessment. The Cubs have an it's-extremely-hard-to-see-even-when-I'm-squinting outside shot at playing .500 baseball, but will not compete for the NL Central or the new Wild Card(s) and will definitely not win the World Series this season, despite what some video commercials may suggest.
As we sadly say: Wait 'til next year (or the year after).
Things that will happen: Garza will either be traded or signed to a 4-6 year extension ranging from $12-13 for his final arbitration year with a yearly average in the $15-16 million per year range for his free agency years. Rizzo and Brett Jackson get called up at some point. Barney and Johnson hit more like Barney and Johnson (i.e. Barney's second half and Johnson's every year). Josh Vitters will refuse to take a walk, asking the umpire for a fifth ball. Alfonso Soriano will frustrate old white people (well, actually, pretty much everyone). Byrd will be traded. Marmol will cause daily myocardial infractions throughout Chicagoland. Starlin Castro kills someone in the third row with an errant throw (can you believe it took me this long to mention him?). Tony Campana makes people happy for no reason (probably because it's fun to say his name all Italian like: Tooooo-nee-Caaahhm-paaahh-na).
Things that may happen: An unknown team gets super desperate for a right hand power bat and trades for Soriano (assuming the Cubs will pickup about 2/3 of his contract). Matt Szczur gets called up and challenges Samardzija for the hardest name to spell. Soto decides he's good again, repeating his 2008 and 2010 successes (it's an even numbered year, after all). Dempster will be traded (he just makes so much money and has the ability(?) to pitch so well below-average that I can't guarantee he will have any trade value). T. Wood and/or Volstad breakout. I learn more about Rafael Dolis, John Gaub and Steve Clevenger (no promises).