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.

The Players’ Weekend uniforms are terrible

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The Yankees and the Dodgers have a storied World Series history, having met in the Fall Classic 11 times. Part of what made those falls so classic was the livery worn by each club.

The Yankees’ uniforms have gone unchanged since 1936. The Dodgers, though changing cities in 1958, have had the same basic, classic look with only minor derivations for almost as long. You can’t even say the names of these teams without picturing pinstripes, those red Dodgers numbers, both teams’ clean road grays, the Yankees navy and the Dodgers’ Dodger blue.

They looked like a couple of expansion teams last night however, at least sartorially speaking.

As you probably know it’s Players’ Weekend this weekend, and teams all over the league wore either all black or all white with player-chosen nicknames on the back. We’ve had the nicknames for a couple of years now and that’s fine, but the black and white combo is new. It doesn’t look great, frankly. I riffed on that on Twitter yesterday a good bit. But beyond my mere distaste for the ensembles, they present a pretty problematic palette, too.

For one thing the guys in black blend in with the umpires. Quick, look at these infields and tell me who’s playing and who’s officiating:

The white batting helmets look especially bad:

But some guys — like Enrique Hernandez of the Dodgers, realized that pine tar makes the white helmets look super special:

There was also a general issue with the white-on-white uniforms in that it’s rather hard to read the names and the numbers on the backs of the jerseys. This was especially true during the Cubs-Nationals game in the afternoon sunlight. You’ll note this as a much bigger problem on Sunday. It’s all rather ironic, of course, that the players have been given the right to put fun, quirky nicknames on the backs of their jerseys but no one can really see them.

The SNY booth was reading many people’s minds last night, noting how much Mad Magazine “Spy vs. Spy” energy this is throwing off:

I’ll also note that if you’re flipping between games or looking at highlights on social media it’s super hard to even tell which team is which — and even what game’s highlights you’re seeing — just by looking which, you know, is sort of the point of having uniforms in the first place.

I’m glad the players have a weekend in which they’re allowed to wear what they want. I just wish they’d wear something better.