Much like their division-mates in Houston (well, the Astros are moving to the American League starting in 2013), the Chicago Cubs found themselves in a state of disarray in 2012 for the sake of fixing what is truly broken. Long saddled with bad contracts and poor player development, the Cubs sought out heralded former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to turn things around. Epstein obviously couldn’t make this kind of transition happen in a day, which may frustrate fans expecting an immediate contender, but he’s already shown he has his new organization’s best long-term interests in mind.
Epstein made the kind of moves in 2012 that you want your GM to make when he inherits a bad situation. Prior to the season starting, Epstein grabbed first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a deal that sent hard-throwing pitching prospect Andrew Cashner to the Padres. The deal gave the Cubs a real potential building block, and once Rizzo got the call to the Majors again, he appeared much more ready than he had as a Padre. Rizzo was one of Chicago’s bright spots in 2012, hitting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers in 368 PA. Rizzo just turned 23 and figures to improve as his approach adjusts to the game’s highest level.
Before the 2012 season began, it would have been fairly easy to recognize shortstop Starlin Castro as the lone man on the roster with the talent and youth that necessitated keeping him around for a long time. Epstein obviously recognized this and signed Castro to a seven-year extension worth $60 million. Given Castro’s ability to already hit for a high contact rate and plenty of power for his position at the age of 22, it’s hard not to love this move for the Cubs. Castro should give them surplus value at a tough spot to fill, and he’s even shown encouraging signs defensively as he gets older and more experienced.
Epstein wasn’t done cleaning house and taking names there, though, as he also made a concerted effort to clear out veterans and stock up on players who could help boost the value of the farm system. Ryan Dempster was sent packing for Texas before the July 31 trade deadline after a fast start that rewarded him with a shockingly-low ERA. In his place, Texas sent back third base prospect Christian Villanueva, a guy who projects to be a solid hitter with speed and excellent defense to boot. Given the failure to progress by former top third base prospect Josh Vitters, the move looks even better. Long time Cub catcher Geovany Soto, he of some excellent and some terrible years at the plate, was also sent to the Rangers for minor league hurler Jacob Brigham.
The Cubs are clearly committed to building the kind of team that can last in the spotlight for years, and this is commendable. Epstein will surely spend his off-season looking for ways to bring in more prospects and young Major Leaguers with upside while ditching expensive veterans or cogs he doesn’t feel will be a part of the team’s ultimate plan. This plan will mean at least another year, and likely a few, of scuffling for a team that finds itself in a division with several teams already in contention mode, but it’s the right thing to do. The Cubs were a dismal 61-101 in 2012 (36 games out of first), and it’s hard to expect much more going forward; the organization isn’t going to suddenly pull the plug on the rebuild project and start handing out millions to questionable free agents in an attempt to establish quick relevance.
As for that 2012 edition of the Chicago Cubs, it couldn’t have been easy for fans of the team to swallow. It’s a good thing the team has such a strong fan base already built in, as a lesser and younger franchise might have risked crumbling under the weight of a lengthy rebuild. Things never even began to get on track for the Cubs, as the team started off 3-10 and never approached .500. All of the team’s positive contributions from veterans like Dempster and Matt Garza weren’t even all that gratifying, as both pitchers were rumored to be dealt pretty much all season.
Jeff Samardzija‘s conversion from relief to starting was a particularly bright spot that could bode well for his future and that of the Chicago rotation. The former wild reliever made some extensive mechanical changes in spring training and the results were evident right away. The 27-year-old righty struck out 180 in 174 2/3 innings while posting a 3.81 ERA, and his walk rate (which was 5.1/9 in 88 2011 innings) shrunk all the way down to 2.9/9. Veteran outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who has also been firmly in the trade rumor mill for what seems like forever thanks to his bulky contract, also contributed with 32 home runs and a .499 slugging percentage. Soriano was worth 4.0 WAR per FanGraphs in 2012, easily the best mark he’s managed since 2008.
The Cubs are going to have an unimpressive product on the field for 2013, and that likely won’t change for 2014 either. Despite this, there are lots of reasons for Chicago fans to celebrate their team’s future, as Epstein and company have a clear plan in place and have shown devotion to following it until we get a chance to see a new Cubs team that is both good and largely homegrown. The Cubs may have ventured into deep free agent waters before, but Epstein knows what he’s doing and I expect he’ll soon create a roster with young, cheap talented that is only bolstered by expensive veterans in the best of scenarios.