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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.

Joe Mauer reveals he’s had blurred vision since 2013 concussion

Joe Mauer
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After a decade as the best all-around catcher in baseball Joe Mauer suffered a concussion in August of 2013 that forced him to change positions and marked the end of his time as a great hitter.

Mauer was doing his usual thing at the time of the concussion, hitting .324 with a .404 on-base percentage and .880 OPS. Since returning from the brain injury he’s hit .270 with a .348 on-base percentage and .725 OPS while seeing his numbers decline across the board.

Mauer revealed today to Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that “lingering symptoms occasionally blurred his vision at the plate the past two seasons” and “he will experiment hitting with sunglasses for the first time to improve his pitch tracking” this season.

Here’s more from Murphy:

Bright sunshine sometimes triggered blurred vision that Mauer links to the concussion with which he was diagnosed in August 2013 after absorbing at least “two significant blows” from foul tips while he was still catching.

“I don’t want that to be kind of an excuse. If I’m out there, I’m out there. That’s just the way I am,” Mauer said. “There are times I’ve gone up to the plate and I just couldn’t pick up the ball. That’s part of the frustration because I’m trying to do everything I can to get back. It just takes time.”

There are more quotes along those same lines and Mauer’s numbers in night games were much better than his numbers in day games last season.

I live in Minnesota and it has been incredibly frustrating to see such a large (or at least vocal) segment of the Twins fan base treat Mauer’s steep decline as if it has nothing to do with the significant brain trauma he suffered. I’m hopeful that Mauer going public about literally struggling to see the baseball while at the plate will convince people to treat him more humanely, but that’s probably wishful thinking at this point.

What a shame, on every level.

Masahiro Tanaka can’t say for sure if he’ll be ready by Opening Day

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Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka said today that he “can’t say for sure” whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Tanaka underwent arthroscopic surgery in late November to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. Tanaka threw off a bullpen mound Tuesday for the first time since undergoing a cleanup procedure on his right elbow last October and, while healthy, may be behind other pitchers.

Tanaka posted a 3.51 ERA and a 139/27 K/BB ratio across 154 innings last season. He also has a partially torn UCL he’s been pitching through for some time which is always something the Yankees have on their mind when it comes to schedules and workouts for their ace.

Denard Span, not Angel Pagan, will be Giants’ center fielder and leadoff hitter

Denard Span
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Making official what was assumed when the Giants signed Denard Span to a three-year, $31 million contract last month, manager Bruce Bochy announced that Span will start in center field and bat leadoff.

That means 34-year-old Angel Pagan, who’s been the Giants’ starting center fielder and primary leadoff hitter for the past four seasons, will slide to left field and bat further down in the lineup. About a month before the Span signing Bochy said Pagan would remain in the center fielder/leadoff role, but the situation obviously changed.

It’s a move that makes sense, because Span–if healthy following hip surgery–is a superior defensive center fielder with better on-base skills. And if Pagan doesn’t bounce back following a rough 2015 season then having him in left field will make it easier for the Giants to platoon him or bench him in favor of, say, Gregor Blanco or a bigger bat.

Pitchers to receive new visor-like protective headgear

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For the past few years MLB, the MLBPA and cap and helmet manufacturers have been working on various models of protective headgear for pitchers. Some of the models have been unworkable, some of them have not met the satisfaction of pitchers and others have, well, looked a little odd. At present the only pitcher who routinely wears any headgear is Alex Torres, who wears the bulky isoBLOX helmet.

Now, however, there is a new option. And, as you can see above it’s a bit different than what we’ve seen before. It’s more or less like a visor, which will have a nylon top on them to give a full cap-like appearance. The ear flaps will be lefty and righty-specific, given that righties are more likely to be hit on the right and lefties on the left given their follow-throughs.

The new caps will be given out to players this spring and, like the old ones, will be used or not used at the choice of the players. You can read more about the new helmet at ESPN’s Outside the Lines report.