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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.

Report: Mark Trumbo signs three-year, $37.5 million contract with Orioles

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04:  Mark Trumbo #45 of the Baltimore Orioles runs the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the American League Wild Card game at Rogers Centre on October 4, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Update #2 (6:21 PM EST): Make that $37.5 million, per Heyman.

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Update (6:02 PM EST): The deal is for “around” $37 million with deferrals that lower the present-day value, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.

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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that free agent 1B/OF Mark Trumbo is close to a deal with the Orioles. He first reported that the two sides were back in touch earlier on Thursday afternoon. According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, the deal is expected to be for three years and under $40 million.

Trumbo’s market hasn’t developed as he expected. The slugger turned down the Orioles’ $17.2 million qualifying offer back in November. Then the Orioles reportedly made a four-year contract offer to him in December but pulled it off the table. Most recently, a report indicated that Trumbo lowered his expectations to a three-year deal in the $40-50 million range.

Trumbo, 31, led the majors with 47 homers for the Orioles this past season. He also hit a solid .256/.316/.433 with 108 RBI in 667 plate appearances. With Trumbo back in the fold and some slight offensive upgrades made, the Orioles figure to have a formidable offense in 2017.

Astros avoid arbitration with Mike Fiers

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 17: Starting pitcher Mike Fiers #54 of the Houston Astros walks to the dugout after pitching an inning during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 17, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Astros won the game 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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The Astros avoided arbitration with pitcher Mike Fiers, agreeing on a $3.45 million salary for the 2017 season, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. The right-hander was in his first of three years of arbitration eligibility.

Fiers, 31, made 30 starts and one relief appearance for the Astros in 2016. He finished the year with a 4.48 ERA and a 134/42 K/BB ratio in 168 2/3 innings.

Fiers had a much better showing in 2015 as well as in limited action in 2014, so the Astros are hoping he rediscovers that effectiveness going forward. He’ll slot into the back of the starting rotation.