theo epstein getty

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.

Bartolo Colon hit a foul ball with 102 MPH exit velocity on Monday

New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon  adjusts his cap after giving up a base hit to Philadelphia Phillies' Cameron Rupp during the fifth inning of a baseball game, Saturday, April 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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Everyone seemed to be able to hit Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz on Monday night. The right-hander served up three home runs to the Mets in the first inning, as David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes, and Lucas Duda each took him yard.

Even Mets starter Bartolo Colon wanted to get in on the action. Colon is not much of a hitter, as evidenced by his .089 career batting average and this swing he took two years ago.

Colon got a neck-high fastball from Foltynewicz and he was somehow able to make solid contact on it, sending a line drive down the left field line. It was foul, but it registered an exit velocity at 101.9 MPH via Statcast. Not bad for a guy whose hitting prowess is often the butt of a joke.

White Sox will designate John Danks for assignment

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher John Danks walks off the field after the third inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, Thursday, April 28, 2016. Baltimore scored four runs against Danks in the third. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes reports that the White Sox will designate starter John Danks for assignment. He notes the move is not yet official. Erik Johnson is expected to draw the start on Thursday as a result, Hayes adds. Danks was scheduled to start on Wednesday against the Red Sox, but Carlos Rodon will move up a day and start instead.

Danks, 31, was off to a bumpy start to the 2016 season. He lost each of his first four starts, compiling a 7.25 ERA with a 16/11 K/BB ratio in 22 1/3 innings. The lefty showed promise early in his career, but put up an aggregate 4.79 ERA since the beginning of the 2011 season. Danks was never able to find his stuff again.

Once Danks’ DFA is made official, the White Sox will have 10 days to find a trade partner, otherwise Danks will likely be released and become a free agent. Expect the latter, as Danks is owed the balance of his $14.25 million salary for the 2016 season, the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in December 2011.

Danks has been in the White Sox organization since they acquired him from the Rangers in December 2006.

Pablo Sandoval had successful shoulder surgery

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Pablo Sandoval underwent successful surgery today to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The Red Sox said afterward that he will be out the remainder of 2016 and that they anticipate him being ready for 2017. That’s the official word, of course, on what many reported last night. But it’s nice that it’s official.

It’s also nice that the surgery was “successful.” Of course it’s always “successful” the day of the surgery. No one has ever released a statement saying “Shlabotnik had knee surgery today. It was an unmitigated disaster. Like, oh my god, you don’t want to know and I can’t even with this.” If there are problems, they’re always revealed later.

Here’s hoping there are no problems for Sandoval.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Tuesday’s action

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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We’re back to a full slate of games on Tuesday night. The game to watch tonight, especially if you’re a fan of mismatches, is Braves-Mets. The Mets easily handled the Braves on Monday night, winning 4-1. The club blasted three home runs in the first inning off of Mike Foltynewicz, which is nearly as many homers as the Braves have hit all season (five). The Mets went on cruise control from there. Bartolo Colon finished with seven strikeouts over eight shutout innings. Jeurys Familia gave up a run but was able to reach the finish line.

The Braves are now 6-19, a game ahead of the Astros and Twins for the worst record in baseball. It’s not particularly shocking since the Braves have embraced tanking in their final year at Turner Field. How low can they go? The Atlanta record for losses in a season is 106 by the 1988 club. The 1935 Boston Braves went 38-115. The Braves’ current .240 winning percentage would rank as the worst in franchise history — including Atlanta, Boston, and Milwaukee — if the season were to end today.

Tuesday’s pitching match-up features Matt Wisler for the Braves and Matt Harvey for the Mets. The two will square off at 7:10 PM EDT at Citi Field tonight.

The rest of Tuesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Justin Verlander) @ Cleveland Indians (Josh Tomlin), 6:10 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Jake Arrieta) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Jon Niese), 7:05 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Luis Severino) @ Baltimore Orioles (Chris Tillman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Martin Perez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marco Estrada), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Patrick Corbin) @ Miami Marlins (Justin Nicolino), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Scott Kazmir) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Matt Moore), 7:10 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants (Jeff Samardzija) @ Cincinnati Reds (Jon Moscot), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Steven Wright) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Angels (Nick Tropeano) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Junior Guerra), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Alex Meyer) @ Houston Astros (Collin McHugh), 8:10 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Aaron Nola) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Michael Wacha), 8:15 PM EDT

Washington Nationals (Tanner Roark) @ Kansas City Royals (Chris Young), 8:15 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Hisashi Iwakuma) @ Oakland Athletics (Sonny Gray), 10:05 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Eddie Butler) @ San Diego Padres (Andrew Cashner), 10:10 PM EDT