2013 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is Theo Epstein pushing the Cubs any closer to contention?

He most definitely is, but it’s doubtful to show up in the standings this year because the other teams in the National League Central are — on paper — quite clearly superior. Epstein has helped breath life into the Cubs’ minor league system since taking over as team president in October 2011 and he has been making incremental roster improvements in free agency with the help of talented general manager Jed Hoyer. But the lovable losers are not built for championships yet.

Starlin Castro is entering his age-23 season and has already tallied 529 hits in 445 career major league games, but he had a .323 on-base percentage in 2012 and his defense rates poorly at shortstop. He may become a superstar one of these years, but he’s not there now. Though you probably don’t want to tell him that. Castro will bat second in the Cubs’ lineup this year behind 33-year-old center fielder David DeJesus, who registered an underwhelming .263/.350/.403 batting line last season. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo does pretty much everything well and should hit third for Chicago for many years to come, but he still has some developing to do. Alfonso Soriano is the Cubs’ cleanup man and made plenty of noise in 2012 with his 32 home runs and 108 RBI. But he’s a liability in the outfield and he turned 37 years old this winter.

And the batting order takes a sharp dive from there. Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston will share time in right field. Luis Valbuena will start at third base until Ian Stewart recovers from a quad injury. Welington Castillo will start behind the plate, and Darwin Barney and his .654 career OPS will man second base.

This is not a good offense, and it looks especially poor when stacked against the lineups of the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates. With the Astros gone, the National League Central is no longer a breeze.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The rotation is fine right now and could actually be pretty good once all the pieces are in place. Jeff Samardzija, who will serve as this year’s Opening Day starter, posted a cool 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 180/56 K/BB ratio across 174 2/3 innings in 2012. It was his first full season in the starting rotation and he absolutely flourished. Edwin Jackson was signed to a four-year, $52 million free agent contract this winter and Scott Feldman was brought in on what could be a bargain one-year, $6 million deal. Matt Garza should return from his lat strain by early May and Scott Baker should be recovered from Tommy John surgery by the end of April. Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are solid fill-ins.
  • The Cubs have been trying to trade closer Carlos Marmol since last summer but have been unable to work anything out. The wild 30-year-old right-hander had a 1.54 WHIP in 2012, yielding 45 walks in 55 1/3 innings. If the Cubs do figure out a way to part with Marmol this season, newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa will likely slide into the ninth-inning role. The 32-year-old from Kochi, Japan had a 1.77 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in 12 years of Nippon Professional Baseball before deciding to head overseas this offseason.
  • About that rejuventated minor league system. The Cubs signed Cuban defector Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract last June and then watched the 21-year-old outfielder bat .338/.398/.513 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 20 games at Low-A Peoria. Albert Almora was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and carries high upside as a center fielder. Javier Baez, the ninth overall pick in 2011, hit .294 with an .888 OPS, 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases last year between two different classifications of Single-A. The 20-year-old shortstop could eventually push Castro to third base.
  • There’s no better atmosphere for a midsummer baseball game than Wrigley Field, but the structure needs some care. Which is why the new Cubs ownership group — led by chairman Tom Ricketts — is hoping to break ground on a massive $300 million renovation as soon as the 2013 regular season comes to a close. All of the logistics are still being worked out, but the plans look really great.

Prediction: Last place in the new-look, five-team National League Central.

Blue Jays place Troy Tulowitzki on 10-day disabled list with strained hamstring

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Blue Jays’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is headed to the 10-day disabled list, club manager John Gibbons announced on Saturday. Tulowitzki left the eighth inning of Friday’s series opener when he injured his right hamstring in an attempt to steal third. Gibbons doesn’t have a concrete timetable for the infielder’s return, but told reporters that he doesn’t anticipate a lengthy recovery period.

Tulowitzki has battled numerous injuries before, from a serious quad strain to a chip fracture in his thumb, but this appears to be the first hamstring issue that has cropped up in his 12-year career. He’s the latest casualty on Toronto’s roster, which has lost Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, J.P. Howell, Dalton Pompey, Aaron Sanchez, Bo Schultz and Glenn Sparkman to various injuries in the last month. No official replacement has been named yet, though MLB.com’s Austin Laymance suggests that infielder Ryan Goins is ready to step in for Tulowitzki going forward.

Prior to his injury, Tulowitzki slashed .263/.295/.386 with one home run and a .681 OPS in 16 games with the Blue Jays. He went 1-for-3 on Friday with a base hit and a walk.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Saturday’s slate featured all the components of great (read: entertaining) baseball, from Aaron Judge‘s double-deck moonshot and Jacob May‘s first major league hit to the worst squeeze bunt attempt of Chase Anderson‘s career. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 12, Reds 8: The Cubs didn’t have to mount another rally to clinch their tenth win of the season. Jake Arrieta led the charge through six innings, allowing five runs, striking out eight batters and putting up his fourth career triple on a changeup from Lisalverto Bonilla:

The rest of the Cubs feasted on home runs, from Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast in the first inning to Jason Hayward’s three-run shot and Wilson Contreras’ first major league grand slam. The Reds got in a few knocks of their own, with Eugenio Suarez putting up a solo homer in the first and Joey Votto coming just a triple shy of the cyclebut 12 runs ended up being more than enough to see the Cubs through to another win.

Tigers 5, Twins 4: A benches-clearing confrontation, two ejections and a disastrous hit by pitch isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but at the end of the day, the Tigers stood atop a 5-4 win for their ninth victory of the season. A better reward? Knowing that while JaCoby Jones needed nine stitches in his lip after taking a 90 m.p.h. fastball to the face, he isn’t expected to miss significant time on the disabled list this year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: First place in the AL West may be an unattainable goal for the Athletics right now, but it sure looks like they’re starting to gel. Adam Rosales and Jed Lowrie wasted no time getting on the board in the first inning with a pair of home runs, and Khris Davis added an RBI groundout in the third to give the A’s a much-needed edge. The Mariners, on the other hand, will need to work fast to solve their problems on the road, since they still have another seven games to play before they return to Seattle on May 2.

Nationals 3, Mets 1: Every start Gio Gonzalez has made in 2017 has looked near-flawless, but Saturday showcased some of his best work. The Nationals’ left-hander carried a no-hitter through five frames, retiring 15 of 18 batters, striking out three and issuing three walks before Juan Lagares broke up the no-no in the sixth. Two at-bats later, Asdrubal Cabrera singled home the Mets’ first run of the night, but Gonzalez settled down to strike out the side and the Nats’ bullpen took care of the rest, cementing the lefty’s second win of the year.

Yankees 11, Pirates 5: In the words of the inimitable George Orwell: All home runs are equal, but some home runs are more equal than others. Specifically, this home run — a ninth-inning, 2-2 fastball obliterated 457 feet into the second deck of PNC Park — was created to stand above the rest.

Rays 6, Astros 3: Fun fact: George Springer currently leads all active MLB players with 205 consecutive major league appearances. Not-so-fun fact: That streak likely came to an end on Saturday, when Springer exited in the fifth inning with left hamstring discomfort. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that the outfielder is expected to sit out of Sunday’s finale against the Rays.

Phillies 4, Braves 3 (10 innings): The dramatic finish to Saturday’s 10-inning marathon was less the product of individual heroics and more of a group effort, due in part to some defensive miscues that perfectly positioned the Phillies for a walk-off win. Third baseman Maikel Franco had the honor of driving in the winning run with a two-run, bases-loaded single, his first game-winning knock since August 3, 2016.

Orioles 4, Red Sox 2: No retaliatory measures were taken against the Orioles on Saturday after Dustin Pedroia was injured on a takeout slide during Friday’s 2-0 loss, but Boston manager John Farrell is still pretty upset about the whole ordeal. Baltimore prevailed a second time, turning in a four-run fourth inning on back-to-back home runs from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop and an RBI single from Adam Jones.

Indians 7, White Sox 0: Jacob May probably slept a lot easier on Saturday night after recording his first major league hit during the White Sox’ 7-0 loss. The 25-year-old center fielder subbed in for an injured Melky Cabrera in the seventh inning and promptly singled off of the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, ending his streak at 26 hitless at-bats.

The crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation for his feat, though the team would go on to lose 7-0 after Carrasco and Zach McAllister joined forces for the club’s second consecutive shutout of the year.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 1: Bunts are tricky animals, nearly impossible to wrangle unless you get the timing and circumstances just right. Neither the timing nor the circumstances were aligned for Brewers’ right-hander Chase Anderson, who attempted a squeeze bunt in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 4-1 loss and watched the play unravel in the worst way:

Rangers 2, Royals 1: Heading into Saturday’s game, the Royals’ rotation held a combined 2.36 ERA, good for lowest in the league. Their 2-1 loss to the Rangers did little to move the needle there, though their offense still leaves much to be desired. Mike Moustakas drove in the Royals’ only run of the night, making Saturday’s loss the sixth consecutive game in which they’ve mustered two or fewer runs.

Diamondbacks 11, Dodgers 5: Dodgers’ skipper Dave Roberts is weighing his rotation options, which should come as little surprise after Kenta Maeda was shelled in Saturday’s loss. The right-hander, who self-diagnosed his problem as being more “results-oriented” than “process-oriented,” gave up nine hits, five runs and four homers in five innings against the Diamondbacks. It was a significant boost for the D-backs, whose double-digit win helped tighten their grip on the NL West with a 12-7 record, just half a game shy of tying the Rockies for the division lead.

Rockies 12, Giants 3: Speaking of NL West competitors, it’ll take some effort to unseat the Rockies after they bulldozed the Giants in a 12-run finish on Saturday. It wasn’t an entirely fair match, however, as the Giants have lost several players to injuries over the past week and were forced to remove outfielder Denard Span in the second inning after he sprained his right shoulder on a catch at the wall.

Marlins 6, Padres 3 (11 innings): Giancarlo Stanton‘s home runs bookended the Marlins’ first extra-inning victory of the year, but the win wasn’t all about flashy home runs and game-winning knocks. Martin Prado snared a would-be walk-off hit in the 10th inning, preserving the tie and giving Stanton — and the rest of the Marlins — another chance for redemption in the 11th.

Angels 5, Blue Jays 4: There have been quite a few grand slams circulating in the majors this weekend, and the most recent one belongs to Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ slam off of Casey Lawrence in the third inning proved the deciding factor in the Angels’ 5-4 win, providing Anaheim with just enough of a buffer as Toronto attempted a comeback in the ninth.

It’s a nice break for the Angels, who snapped a three-game losing streak and currently sit fourth in the AL West. The same can’t be said for the Blue Jays, whose 4-13 record is the worst across both leagues.