In our Hope for the Hopeless series, we take a look at all of the teams in the league that finished under .500, and examine what their fans can be optimistic about after a disappointing 2012 season.
When the Cubs reset their front office regime this past offseason, hope was seemingly restored on the north side of the windy city. However, that hope came along with the realization that this year might not be the year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that one. Make no mistake about it, Theo and Co. took on a project, not a finished product. Year one of the challenge may have ended without a shred of hope for a 2012 postseason, but it will end with a sense that hope is definitely a part of their future.
The silver lining to 2012 is that the Cubs were able to rid themselves of some unwanted contracts while adding depth to their minor league system. The first and perhaps most significant move in terms of wiping the slate clean was purging themselves of the woeful Carlos Zambrano, who was sent to Miami in exchange for starter Chris Volstad. One of their best offseason moves came a couple of days later, when they sent fireballer-with-control-issues Andrew Cashner to San Diego as part of a deal that landed them the bat they envision as their long-term solution at first base in Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo, after once again annihilating Triple-A pitching --.342/.405/.696 line with 23 home runs in only 284 Triple-A plate appearances -- has more than held his own in his second look at big league action, hitting .293/.346/.464 with 12 home runs in 268 plate appearances.
As the trade deadline approached, the Cubs were more than happy to sell high on some veteran pitchers. Paul Maholm was traded to the Braves for top prospect Arodys Vizcaino -- though he is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery -- and Ryan Dempster was dealt to the Rangers with promising young third base prospect Christian Villanueva, who has some speed and developing power, as the key component joining Chicago's farm system.
Two of the Cubs' bigger moves this season came via the signing of two young and potential star-level players. The first was heavily sought-after Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who inked a nine-year commitment to the Cubs worth $30M. Soler, by many accounts, has flashed signs of stardom in his limited minor league time. He'll be under team control through 2020 and has the potential to be a franchise talent. Then, just recently, the Cubs locked up their 22-year-old shortstop, Starlin Castro, to a seven-year, $60M deal. Clearly, the focus at Wrigley has turned from, "Wait 'till next year." to "Just wait, it's a process."
After showing signs of major regression in 2010 and 2011, Alfonso Soriano has had himself a nice bounce-back season. His .260 AVG and .316 OBP don't exactly shine, but he has slugged over .500 with 29 bombs to-date while playing solid defense (though I believe defensive metrics greatly overvalue him in that regard). Don't look now, but there are only two years left on his contract and the Cubs could be looking to sell high this offseason. With a lot of money coming off the books over the next two seasons, they could probably eat a lot of Soriano's salary to sweeten the pot on their end.
A handful of Cubs prospects made their way to The Show in 2012. Catcher Wellington Castillo (TOC's #3 preseason Cubs prospect) has made an impact at the dish, but part of that success can be attributed to an inflated .370 BABIP. His strikeout rate (27-percent) is a bit concerning, but should stabilize with more big-league at-bats. Down on the farm, 2011 first round pick, Javier Baez, tore up Midwest League pitching to the tune of .333/.383/.596 with 12 dingers in 235 plate appearances, but he only walked nine times, which is a definite concern going forward. Still, despite his agressive approach, many see him as one of the better offensive prospects in the game.
Brett Jackson (TOC's #1 preseason Cubs prospect) disappointed at Triple-A this season (.256/.338/.479) and hasn't done much with the big club since getting the call (.191/.309/.404). However, there is still potential for Jackson to turn into a 20/20 threat while playing good defense in center. Former third overall draft pick, Josh Vitters, seemed to find a bit of a stride in his first full season at Triple-A (.304/.356/.513), but he continued to show a lack of above average plate discipline (6.6-percent walk rate). Major league pitchers have completely exposed this weakness by getting Vitters to expand the strike-zone, resulting in a horrible 0.15 BB/K ratio. His defense and swing still draw rave reviews, but he'll need to make some major adjustments to become anything more than a replacement level player.
The Cubs minor league system definitely has some projectable talent. However, that talent doesn't come without some significant risk as well.
Unlike many of the small market teams, the Cubs will have the luxury of trying to build through inexpensive youth as well as the ability to dip their cash into the free agent market when the time is right. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have a plan in place and year one is just about in the books. While the immediate future still looks bleak, there is still hope that this front office team will be the one to turn the lovable losers into World Series champions.
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