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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.

Trevor May joins eSports team Luminosity

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 04: Trevor May #65 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Cleveland Indians in the sixth inning at Progressive Field on August 4, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Twins 9-2.  (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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When he’s not throwing baseballs, Twins pitcher Trevor May is an active gamer. He streams on Twitch, a very popular video game streaming site, fairly regularly and now he’s officially on an eSports team. Luminosity Gaming announced the organization added May last Friday. It appears he’ll be streaming and commentating on Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter made by Blizzard Entertainment.

May is the only current athlete to be an active member of an eSports team. Former NBA player Rick Fox owns Echo Fox, an eSports team that sports players in games including League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Street Fighter V, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Mortal Kombat X. Jazz forward Gordon Hayward is also a known advocate of eSports.

The NBA in particular has been very active on the eSports front. Kings co-owners Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov launched NRG eSports in November 2015. Shortly thereafter, Grizzlies co-owner Stephen Kaplan invested in the Immortals eSports team. Almost a year later, the 76ers acquired controlling stakes in Team Dignitas and Team Apex. The same month, the Wizards’ and Warriors’ owners launched a group called Axiomatic, which purchased a controlling stake in Team Liquid, a long-time Starcraft: Brood War website which has since branched out into other games. And also in September 2016, Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko bought team Renegades, moving them to a group house in Detroit. In December 2016, the Bucks submitted a deal to Riot Games in order to purchase Cloud9’s Challenger league spot for $2.5 million. The Rockets that month hired someone specifically for eSports development, focusing on strategy and investment. Last month, the Heat acquired a controlling stake in team Misfits.

Once an afterthought, eSports has grown considerably in recent years and now it should be considered a competitor to traditional sports. League of Legends, in particular, is quite popular, reaching nearly 15 million concurrent viewers at its peak in the most recent League of Legends World Championship. That championship featured a prize purse of $6.7 million with $2 million of it being split among winner SK Telecom T1’s members.

Orioles re-sign Michael Bourn to a minor league deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04:  Michael Bourn #1 of the Baltimore Orioles hits a single in the fifth 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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The Orioles have re-signed outfielder Michael Bourn to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports.

Bourn, 34, joined the Orioles last year in a trade from the Diamondbacks on August 31. Though he compiled a meager .669 OPS with the Diamondbacks, Bourn hit a solid .283/.358/.435 in 55 plate appearances with the O’s through the end of the season.

Bourn, a non-roster invitee to camp, will try to play his way onto the Orioles’ 25-man roster. If he does make the roster, Bourn will receive a $2 million salary, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports points out.