Springtime Storylines: How will year one of the Cubs’ rebuilding plan fly in The Friendly Confines?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: 103 years and counting.

The Big Question: How will the first year of the Cubs’ rebuild go over on Chicago’s north side?

The modern-era Cubs have tried just about every strategy, it seems, to snap one of the most embarrassing stretches of futility in professional sports history. And yet baseball’s ultimate prize is as far out of reach as it has ever been for the baby bears and their Old-Style swilling, day-game loving fans.

The 2012 Cubs roster is a run aground cruise ship — reeking of wasted wealth and rusting on most sides.

Still owed $54 million over the next three seasons, left fielder Alfonso Soriano hasn’t finished with an OPS better than .818 since 2008. Marlon Byrd, who scored a three-year, $15 million contract in January of 2010, hasn’t come close to the kind of numbers he produced during his three-year breakout tenure with the Rangers. Darwin Barney drew due praise last season for his defense, but he batted just .238/.286/.328 in the second half and .276/.313/.353 overall. The sophomore second baseman is already 26 years old.

The Cubs just rid their books of the Kosuke Fukudome mistake, but they’re on the hook for $15 million of the $18 million owed in 2012 to Carlos Zambrano, who was shipped off to Miami shortly after the New Year.

It’s going to be a long summer at Wrigley Field. And there won’t be a quick in-season fix to the Cubs’ myriad problems. Which has us thinking that attendance in The Friendly Confines might fall below three million for the first time since 2003, with those depressing empty-bleacher photos appearing far earlier than usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Cubs mercifully put an end to the Jim Hendry era this winter, throwing a five-year, $15 million contract at Theo Epstein to take over as club president. Epstein helped break an 86-year World Series title drought in Boston and will look to conquer another “curse” in Chitown. He brings with him Jed Hoyer, who had been serving as the general manager of the Padres and will now assume that role with the Cubs. Both are bright, forward-thinking baseball minds with impressive résumés in the area of team building.
  • The starting rotation comes with no quick fix for Epstein and Hoyer. Ryan Dempster is nice, but he turns 35 years old in May and will be a free agent after this season. Former Notre Dame wideout Jeff Samardzija has enjoyed a successful month in the Cactus League, but chronic command issues seem likely to ultimately derail his transition from reliever to starter. Chris Volstad had a 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in his four years with the Marlins and left-hander Paul Maholm isn’t any better than league-average. Matt Garza is only under contract through 2013 and is likely to be used as a trade chip this July.
  • Dominican shortstop Starlin Castro is the lone gem in the Cubs’ starting lineup. A newly-turned 22-year-old, he’s the youngest player in franchise history to amass more than 200 hits in a season and is still a couple years short of his physical prime. All indications are he’s going to be a difference-maker for a long, long time, even if filling out that slender frame is accompanied by a move to third base.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Cubs do have quite a bit going for them: a massive and passionate fanbase, a world-class game day experience and an intelligent new front office. But the on-field product could be as bad it has been in the past 20 years. They’ll struggle to reach 70 wins, finishing fifth in the six-team National League Central.

The Nationals could pursue Sonny Gray

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Jon Morosi of MLB Network says that the Nationals could pursue Athletics right-hander Sonny Gray if Stephen Strasburg‘s forearm issue lingers. Strasburg left Sunday’s start early due to forearm tightness, saying he was unable to get loose. Sometimes that’s a sign of a major injury. Sometimes it’s just a thing that happens and then goes away.

The Nationals will have to make a determination as to how big a deal this all is pretty soon, though, as a lot of other teams, including the Yankees, Brewers and Astros have all been linked to Gray. It seems inevitable at this point that the A’s will move their ace before Monday’s trade deadline.

Gray is set to start tonight. It may very well be his last in an A’s uniform.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

White Sox 3, Cubs 1: Cubs were hot, White Sox had lost nine straight so of course the Sox beat the Cubs. Baseball is cool on the merits, but one of the best things it has going for it outside of the game action is that it does not lend itself to people spending an hour talking about each game on some studio show beforehand, making predictions about who will do what, the “keys to the game” and all of that. Baseball is wonderfully random. It just . . . happens.

As for what happened here: Adam Engel and Matt Davidson homered and Miguel Gonzalez allowed one run and seven hits in seven and a third.

Astros 13, Phillies 4: Well, some things are predictable, like Jose Altuve getting his hits. He got four on Sunday. He got four last night. He has a 16-game hitting streak now, during which he’s hitting .528 (38 for 72). He’s batting .365/431/.574 on the year. He’s like Wade Boggs with more power and, presumably, a lower tolerance for airplane beers. Altuve drove in three. Alex Bregman homered and doubled twice. Brian McCann went deep. Josh Reddick, Yuli Guriel and Carlos Beltran each drove in two in this rain-interrupted game which gave the Houston batters a number of Phillies relievers to feast upon.

Blue Jays 4, Athletics 2: Francisco Liriano pitched on three days rest to cover for the blister-afflicted Aaron Sanchez. He could do so because his last two outings were short affairs due to, you know, not pitching so good. Here he was fine, giving up two runs over five innings. After he left three Toronto relievers pitched four no-hit innings. Russell Martin homered. Justin Smoak walked with the bases loaded.

Indians 6, Reds 2: Josh Tomlin gave up a couple of solo dingers but that’s all he gave up, allowing two runs on four hits over six. Carlos Santana himself hit a couple of solo homers negating all of that. Bradley Zimmer drove in two with a sac fly and an RBI single. The Indians tie up the 2017 Ohio Series 2-2. As we always note, the loser of the series wins Ohio.

Royals 5, Tigers 3: The Royals jumped out to a 3-0 lead but the Tigers tied it up with RBI singles from Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila in the sixth. The Royals put it away in the 12th inning, however, with homers from Sal Perez and Mike Moustakas. This 12-inning game was shorter than the Tigers’ nine inning game on Sunday.

Orioles 5, Rays 0: Kevin Gausman tossed six shutout innings, striking out eight and the bullpen added three shutout innings to close it out. Adam Jones homered. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop turned a nifty double play:

Cardinals 8, Rockies 2: Mike Leake shut out the Rockies for seven innings as his mates scored two in the first, fourth, seventh and eighth for a nice, symmetrical bit of run support. Randal Grichuk, Jose Martinez and Tommy Pham homered for the Redbirds.

Marlins 4, Rangers 0: Adam Conely caught the seven shutout inning bug himself — lot of that going around lately — and Giancarlo Stanton homered twice to tie Aaron Judge for the league lead. He’s on pace for 53 dingers.

Diamondbacks 10, Braves 2: R.A. Dickey‘s flutterball didn’t flutter so good and he was touched for four runs on five hits in three and two-thirds. Braves reliever Matt Wisler gave up four runs on five hits in two innings and he doesn’t have a knuckler to blame. A.J. Pollock did a lot of the touching up, driving in four with a homer and an RBI double and single. Zack Greinke allowed two over eight innings in this non-contest.

Mariners 4, Red Sox 0: James Paxton tossed — you’ll never guess — seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and striking out ten. Kyle Seager hit a solo homer. The Red Sox’ bats are snoozing lately. Boston’s lead in the East is down to two games, but they’re tied with the Yankees in the loss column. It must be Dennis Eckersley’s fault.

Dodgers 6, Twins 4: The Dodgers were down by a run in the eighth when Cody Bellinger launched a three-run homer on an 0-2 pinch to put the score in cement. That made a winner out of Dodgers reliever Edward Paredes, making his major league debut at age 30 after ten years toiling in the minors. Bartolo Colon pitched for the Twins. He wasn’t bad for the 2017 version of him, allowing three runs over five innings. No telling if that buys him another start or if he continues to consider retirement.

Mets 5, Padres 3: Jacob deGrom is one of the few things that has gone right for the Mets this year, and it’s gone really right. He wins his eighth straight start, allowing two runs and striking out eight over eight innings. Wilmer Flores homered and Yoenis Cespedes tripled in a run.

Pirates 10, Giants 3: Andrew McCutchen hit a three-run homer and grounded in a run and Jordy Mercer hit his own three-run shot. Gerrit Cole won for the fifth time in six starts. Both sides took issue with home plate umpire Chris Conroy’s strike zone, with Bruce Bochy and acting manager Dave Righetti getting tossed and with Clint Hurdle acknowledging that it was a tough zone. Bochy kind of cut to the heart of the matter, though, when he said, “. . . but that really had nothing to do with what happened tonight. We gave up three-run homers.” Yup.