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.

Aaron Judge ties the rookie home run record with his 49th blast

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Monday afternoon baseball that isn’t either (a) part of a doubleheader; or (b) on a holiday is always a bit unsettling, but today’s rare Monday tilt gave us a gift in the form of history: Aaron Judge hit his 49th home run, tying the rookie record.

The dinger came in the third inning of this afternoon’s Royals-Yankees tilt. It was the sixth pitch from Jake Junis and left via right field. Mark McGwire also hit 49 with the Athletics in 1987. Judge has the rest of today’s game and five more games after it to hit number 50 and claim the record for himself.

Watch:

Major League Baseball wants you to look at a screen while you’re at the ballpark

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During the debate last week involving expanded netting at major league ballparks, the familiar refrain from the anti-netting crowd rung out: “hey, netting wouldn’t be necessary if you simply paid attention!” These folks get particularly upset at the idea of people looking at their phones or other electronic devices during the game, implying — or sometimes explicitly stating — that if you do that you almost deserve to be hit with a 100 mph foul ball.

The problem with that, though, is that Major League Baseball increasingly encourages fans to use their phones during games. You can order your concessions through them now. Fans are encouraged to use the MLB.com Ballpark app for an increasing number of in-game features. And, of course, the video boards — always in the opposite direction of the hitter — are getting larger and larger and contain more and more information that the clubs and the league want you to see.

But it goes farther than that. Or at least it will soon. As this article from TechCrunch makes clear, in the future, Major League Baseball wants you actually watching the game action through your phone or your iPad. It’s an augmented reality feature in which you hold up your tablet and . . .

In essence, it’s a bit like watching TV broadcast in person, with information overlaid on the action as it happens in real-time. The data is gathered from Statcast, MLB’s in-house analytics tool . . . Players on the field, meanwhile, get small, square popups featuring their faces that can be tapped open to offer up personalized player information

Which is kind of cool, actually. Personally I am fascinated with the possibilities of augmented reality. For me it usually comes to mind when I’m out hiking and I want to know what a certain kind of tree is or something (my natural education was sorely lacking as a child), but there are tons of other applications. Even though I probably know more about the players and what’s going on on the field than your average American, I’d still probably use such a product, at least a little bit at a game.

But, of course, there is that safety tradeoff. How can Major League Baseball continue to be hands-off about a netting policy and maintain that fans assume the risk of foul ball injuries while simultaneously encouraging the use of electronic devices that will, necessarily, distract them from directly observing on-field action? Indeed, if they do continue to maintain that paradoxical approach, I’d expect this quote from the article to be used at a trial of an injured fan suing for damages:

“People are already using their phones, and we don’t think this is all that different,” MLB Product VP Chad Evans told us at the event. Of course, in a sport where small spherical objects are regularly projected into the stands at high speeds, it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the field. Perhaps popping up an alert on screen when a ball approaches would be a good start.

That last bit — not the quote, but the article’s suggestion of a warning — is comical given how quickly a ball can make it into the stands. Even fans paying rapt attention can get hurt by fast foul balls. Expecting them to process a warning and then act based on it when instinct often isn’t fast enough is ridiculous.

Cool product, for sure. Like I said, I’d probably even use it on occasion. But the more technology and the more distractions Major League Baseball pours into the game, the more responsibility it will have when those distractions contribute to fan injuries. In light of that, they simply cannot continue to be hands-off with respect to the matter.