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.

Phillies’ 6-run ninth tops Cardinals in 6-3 wild-card win

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Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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ST. LOUIS — Philadelphia scored six times in the ninth inning off the stingy St. Louis bullpen, highlighted by a bases-loaded single by Jean Segura, and the Phillies beat the NL Central champion Cardinals 6-3 on Friday in the opening game of their National League wild-card series.

The Cardinals, who were 74-3 on the season when leading after eight innings, were poised to put away another close game after Juan Yepez connected for the first go-ahead pinch-hit homer in franchise history with two outs in the seventh inning.

But after struggling all afternoon against Jose Quintana and the St. Louis bullpen, the Phillies finally got their powerful offense going against Ryan Helsley. JT Realmuto began the ninth-inning rally with a single, and walks for Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos loaded the bases before the All-Star closer plunked Alec Bohm to score a run.

The Cardinals training staff came out to check on Helsley, who had jammed the middle finger on his pitching hand earlier in the week in Pittsburgh. He tried to throw another warmup pitch but was pulled for Andre Pallante, who gave up Segura’s hit through the right side of the infield that put Philadelphia in front.

Edmundo Sosa added a run when he brazenly scored on Bryson Stott‘s grounder to first base, and Brandon Marsh drove in another run when a tough hop got past Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

By the time Kyle Schwarber added a sacrifice fly, Phillies reliever Zach Eflin had plenty of wiggle room in the ninth.

It looked as if Eflin might need it, too, when Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson reached base and Nolan Gorman hit a two-out single to right. But Eflin responded by striking Yadier Molina to end the game, leaving Philadelphia a win away from facing NL East champion Atlanta in the divisional round.

There was a sentimental breeze sweeping through Busch Stadium before the game. Ozzie Smith cheerfully walked to the mound to deliver a ceremonial first pitch, and if the flag-waving Cardinals fans packed into every nook and cranny closed their eyes during introductions, they might have thought they were watching a game a generation ago.

After all, some familiar faces were in the lineup from the last time St. Louis and Philadelphia met in the playoffs.

That was 11 years ago to the day Friday, when the Cardinals beat the Phillies in a dramatic pitchers’ duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL divisional series. Molina and Albert Pujols played for St. Louis that night while erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright, pitching out of the bullpen this series, also was there to celebrate.

Just like that night in Philadelphia, pitching dominated most of Friday’s series opener.

Quintana, who arrived in a deadline trade from Pittsburgh, was masterful for the Cardinals, allowing only a single to Matt Vierling and a double to Bohm while pitching into the sixth. His day was done after fanning Schwarber for the second time on his 75th pitch, handing the game over to a relief corps that had been downright dominant this season.

Zack Wheeler was the equal of Quintana, allowing a leadoff single to Lars Nootbaar and nothing else until Tommy Edman‘s leadoff single in the sixth. Edman was left stranded on third when Paul Goldschmidt grounded out.

Wheeler departed after retiring Arenado to start the seventh. He struck out four and walked one on 96 pitches, his most since Aug. 20, shortly before the right-hander landed on the injured list with forearm tendinitis.

Then it came down to the bullpens, and the Phillies managed to overcome one of the best in the game.

UP NEXT

The Phillies will try for the wild-card sweep on Saturday night when they send right-hander Aaron Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA) to the mound. He was stellar his last time out against Houston in clinching Philadelphia’s wild-card playoff spot.

The Cardinals will turn to right-hander Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29 ERA) to force a decisive Game 3. Mikolas struggled in a tune-up out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh but allowed one earned run over his last two starts.