Cubs Looking Bearish or Bullish?

In September, Theo Epstein had this to say to Chicago Cubs fans:

“I think obviously we really care about our fans and we want them to have a great experience, but we’re trying to be transparent about it,” Epstein said. “We have a plan and we have a vision and it won’t happen overnight, but given the way of things I think this is the best way to go.”

“There might be some tough things we have to tell (fans) along the way, and there might be another trading deadline in our future where we trade away 40 percent of a really good rotation,” Epstein said.

Since then, it’s been a fairly busy winter for the Cubs.

It began innocently enough, with the waiver claim of hard-throwing enigma Carlos Gutierrez (which, ironically, led to the release of Anthony Recker, who was picked up by the Mets). In another quiet move, they received 21-year-old pitcher Marcelo Carreno from the Tigers as the PTBNL in the late-season trade of Jeff Baker. From there, player movement picked up steam. Here’s a quick rundown on the more notable moves:

Scott Baker signed as a free agent
Brian Bogusevic signed as a free agent
Dioner Navarro signed as a free agent
Shawn Camp signed as a free agent
Barret Loux and PTBNL acquired from Rangers in return for Jacob Brigham
Bryan LaHair released (to play in Japan)
Scott Feldman signed as a free agent
Hector Rondon claimed off waivers
Jensen Lewis signed as a free agent
Kyuji Fujikawa signed as a free agent
Ian Stewart signed as a free agent
Nate Schierholtz signed as a free agent
Cory Wade signed as a free agent
Chang-Yong Lim signed as a free agent
Carlos Villanueva signed as a free agent
Edwin Jackson signed as a free agent

Some of the above moves are relatively minor. Some are gambles. The pitching staff needed an overhaul, and the acquisitions reflect that. Their offense also needs an overhaul, and I imagine that’s next on the docket. Already, though, the Cubs are beginning to look like an interesting team, and one that shouldn’t lose 101 games. Like the Mets and every other team with a losing record last year, the Cubs have many question marks and several “ifs” that prevent a winning season in 2013 from being a sure thing. A particularly interesting point is that while it seemed a no-brainer for the Cubs to dump Alfonso Soriano this winter, it suddenly wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he returned in 2013. As painful as it is to watch his adventures in left field and frequent swings and misses, Soriano did club 32 homers and post a .821 OPS — not too shabby. His teammate David DeJesus was also supposed to be dealt this winter, but he also remains (for now). Assuming both veterans are still with Cubs on Opening Day, they, along with Schierholtz and youngsters Brett Jackson and Dave Sappelt, would form a decent outfield corps.

The infield has promise as well, especially if former first-round pick Josh Vitters finally realizes his potential and takes over 3B. He and Anthony Rizzo — who looks like the real deal — could anchor the Chicago corners for the next ten years. In the middle is Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney and the still-maturing Starlin Castro. I look at these four young infielders and wonder if they’ll stay together the way the Dodgers’ infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey did through the 1970s and early 80s.

Behind the plate is one of those question marks; it appears that Dioner Navarro could get significant playing time, though he could just be motivation for Wellington Castillo, who reminds me in many ways of Ramon Castro (slothlike, sometimes lazy, strong arm, occasional homerun power). I imagine Theo Epstein would like to upgrade the backstop situation — but there aren’t many other Travis D’Arnauds laying around.

The rotation now appears it will be some combination of Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva. It doesn’t look like a championship rotation, and a few of these hurlers are coming off injuries, but, it’s not an awful foundation with which to work. As with many teams, the bullpen is looking like a crapshoot — particularly assuming that Carlos Marmol returns as the closer. At least a few of the above-mentioned acquisitions will find their way into the Cubs ‘pen.

So why do we care about the Cubs? First, because the Mets will be playing them six times (though, not at all after June 16th; weird, right?). Second, because they are one of the teams against which the Mets compete in the Wild Card standings — so it’s important to see how the two teams compare. Third, there are parallels with the two teams; in particular, their respective rebuilding projects, which are happening in similarly demanding large markets — ones that historically don’t have patience for rebuilding projects. The Mets began their organizational overhaul by hiring Sandy Alderson in October 2010, the Cubs a year later (almost to the day). So, I find it interesting to watch how the two highly visible, highly hyped GM (and front office teams) go about their task of rebuilding.

It’s still too early to determine whether one is doing a better job than the other. But, from my vantage point, it appears that Epstein, Jed Hoyer, etc., are moving much more quickly than the front office in Flushing — at least in terms of personnel turnover. I wonder, for example, if it would’ve taken Epstein and Hoyer two entire seasons before realizing Josh Thole was not a Major League catcher, or that Jason Bay needed to be released. At the same time, if Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi, and Paul DePodesta were in Chicago, would Marmol, Soriano, and DeJesus still be Cubs’ property? Might they have received better packages for Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at last July’s deadline?

We’ll never know. But I’ll continue to keep an eye on what’s happening on the Windy City’s north side. What about you? Are you interested in watching the moves of Theo Epstein and co.? Do you find any similarities or contrasts in styles, speed, and spending? Do you think the Cubs’ future looks brighter or bleaker now than it did a year ago? Why or why not? Answer in the comments.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Mic December 21, 2012 at 4:42 am
    ‘The pitching is where it all starts, and no matter what you think of the Dickey trade, the Mets future starting rotation has promise. Consider that Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard are projected to anchor what could be a dominant staff. Of course, we were saying the same thing back in the mid 1990s when the Mets brought up Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson. But you at least have to be excited about the fact that the Mets have three of baseball’s top pitching prospects in their organization. (Harvey started 10 games for the Mets last season.)’
    ……Charles Costello /
    • Joe Janish December 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm
      Is Charles Costello related to Lou?
  2. Dan B December 21, 2012 at 8:04 am
    You forgot to mention the Cubs have money and their first goal is to win. I once read a study by a panel of economists that studied how wins effect attendance. Of all the MLB teams, wins have least effect on attendance for the Cubs. As a matter of fact, beer prices had more effect. It explains how they survive so long without winning. The team for which wins have the most effect on attendance? The Yankees, the team with the most championship.
    • Joe Janish December 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm
      I didn’t forget – I was counting on someone else to bring it up. Thank you.
  3. derek December 21, 2012 at 10:03 am
    Great post Joe…i guess soriano is his beltran…wonder what he gets for him in a trade
    • Dan December 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm
      Mostly dependent on how much salary is absorbed. I imagine they might give him away to save 36M over the next 2 years.