Who's up next in the End of Season Post-Mortem series? Chicago Cubs, come on down!
If you're new here (which about 90% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from the playoffs, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated. Also, for the first ten teams eliminated, we're going to post a series called "Hope for the Hopeless", which is going to be an expanded version of the "What Went Right" portion of the Post-Mortem series pieces.
Anyway, here we are…the Chicago Cubs. Even with the hiring of Theo Epstein to run the Cubs, expectations were even lower than normal as the directive of the day was quite clearly to shed money and start rebuilding for the future. This isn't just a standard case of the Cubs "there's always next year" motto, more like there's always three years from now. So seeing them eliminated with several weeks left in the season comes as no surprise, nor does it come as a disappointment as the Cub franchise took some major steps forward in this otherwise lost season.
What Went Right: As backhanded as this might sound, the best thing that happened to the Cubs is they finally established a direction. After flailing under the leadership of Jim Hendry for the last few seasons, the Cubs brought on board former Red Sox wunderkind GM Theo Epstein (after mind-numbingly long compensation negotiations with the Red Sox) and his band of merry men to set a new course. That course was a firm rebuilding that saw the Cubbies jettison several expensive and/or malcontent veterans like Carlos Zambrano and Marlon Byrd and simultaneously slashing payroll to a more modest $109 million. Only for the Cubs can losing 90+ games with a $109 million payroll be considered a qualified success.
Epstein's (and GM Jed Hoyer) early moves did pay immediate dividends though. Turning a one-year flier on Paul Maholm into a trade deadline trade for Arodys Vizcaino, a top-20 prospect entering the season. The signing of David DeJesus provided some much-needed filler production. But probably the biggest move of all was swapping Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo who looks to be a big part of the team's future since being called up mid-way through the season.
Also, Alfonso Soriano had something of a bounceback season and might actually have some trade value again… which would be nice if he would stop vetoing the efforts to trade him. Really, Alfonso, San Francisco is a lovely city.
What Went Wrong: This might be nitpicking, but the Cubs were unable to trade Matt Garza in what shaped up to be a market where teams were falling all over themselves to overpay for quality pitching. Garza was having another strong season and primed to bring back a bounty of high quality prospects, however some arm problems cropped up before the deadline and foiled those plans.
The North Siders also finally had to deal with the Carlos Marmol implosion that everyone had been waiting for. Marmol not only lost his closer job but also wound up back in the minors to try and recover whatever semblance of command he ever had. While Marmol did eventually work his way back into the closer position, his struggles served to magnify just how miserable Chicago's relief situation was by stretching the bullpen's depth well past the breaking point. Even with quality work from Shawn Camp and James Russell, the Cub relievers currently own -1.4 fWAR for the season. That's right a NEGATIVE 1.4 fWAR. While the fWAR stat might have some flaws, those flaws pale in comparison to the compisition of the 2012 Cubs relief corps.
Most Surprising Player: This one is a tie. Bryan LaHair looked like one of the greatest stories in baseball for the first few months of the season and even earned himself an All-Star nod. Unfortunately, he fell apart in the second half and now probably isn't even in the team's long-term plans.
The more enduring surprise though is Jeff Samardzija. With higher profile relievers like Daniel Bard, Chris Sale and Neftali Feliz converting into starters, few took note when Shark made the same transition and even fewer seemed to notice how successfully he made it. While he has struggled with bouts on inconsistency, Samardzija would have been on pace to possibly break the 200-mark in both innings pitched and strikeouts while potentially finishing the season with a sub-4.00 ERA if the club hadn't decided to shut him down early because they just so badly wanted to emulate the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg. That isn't ace material, but it is definitely #2 starter worthy.
Most Disappointing Player: Before you fire off your angry comments, please note that this is a qualified disappointment. What the Cubs really needed this season was a franchise centerpiece to step forward. That centerpiece could have been Starlin Castro, but instead he ended up taking a small step backwards. While not disastrous, his .316 wOBA is a career-worst and comes in a season in which the Cubs would've hoped to see him continue to grow as a player, not regress. The lowpoint of his season had to have been when he allowed a game-winning run to score because he lost track of the outs and was subsequently called out by manager Dale Sveum for his mental lapses, which have plagued him his whole career. None of this stopped the Cubs from inking him to a lucrative long-term contract, so clearly the team is betting that the 22-year old will eventually mature and blossom into a star, but it does look like a major gamble given the kind of year Castro is finishing up.
Prospects Up: The biggest splash in the Cubs system came all the way from Cuba thanks to the signing of Cuban refugee Jorge Soler. Soler has all the makings of a future star and did not disappoint in his first taste of action in the low minors. He is still years away from being big league-ready, but the early returns suggest he will be well worth the wait and the money.
From the more conventional side of the prospect pipeline, reliever Alberto Cabrera caught the eye of the Cubs brass this year in his first season as a full-time reliever. He posted an eye-popping strikeout rate (12.1 K/9) in the minors and earned a promotion to the majors where he continued to miss bats, though he has thus far also missed the strike zone quite a bit as well. Even with his uneven major league debut, Cabrera could soon find himself as a much-needed weapon in the Cubs bullpen next season.
The Cubs also bolstered their system with 2012 sixth overall pick Albert Almora, who is still very raw. 2011 ninth overall pick Javier Baez destroyed the Midwest League before earning a promotion to high-A Daytona, where he struggled in a month of playing time. But Baez is still just 19, and his potential is tantalizing.
Prospects Down: The aforementioned Arodys Vizcaino was by all accounts a heist for the Cubs, but it was more like knocking off a bank in Buford, Wyoming than robbing Fort Knox. Vizcaino saw his prospect star dim this season due to Tommy John surgery he underwent prior to being traded. Tommy John surgery is a much lesser concern nowadays, but it does raise the specter of durability issues with Vizcaino that could relegate him to the bullpen and thus vastly reducing his overally career value.
Those durability concerns look like mere trifles in comparison to the strikeout concerns surrounding Brett Jackson. Jackson was one of the top prospects in the Chicago system going into the year and some thought he might even have an outside shot at breaking spring training with the team. Instead, he reported to Triple-A where he put up a respectable but not overwhelming .256/.338/.479 slash line, however he did that while striking out an ungodly 158 times in 407 at-bats. His contact problems where only magnified further when he was called up to the majors where he continues to go down swinging in well over 40% of his plate appearances. There is still plenty of time for Jackson to right the ship, but that kind of strikeout rate is incredibly foreboding.
The same can be said for 2007 third overall pick Josh Vitters, who performed well with Iowa this year before earning a callup to the majors and falling flat on his face. Vitters is only 23, but the Cubs may have been overly aggressive in promoting him to the big leagues this year, given that his 2012 season was his best year since 2008. Pitching prospect Trey McNutt, talked about in compensation talks for Theo Epstein, struggled in his second go-around with AA Tennessee, and actually earned a demotion to the bullpen for the second half of the year.
The Future: The future is bright for the Cubs, granted, it is the distant future, but it is bright nonetheless. The farm system added several intriguing pieces via trade throughout the course of the year and the big league club shed a ton of salary as well and will enter the season with just over $41 million in pre-arbitration commitments. They also still have that big Garza trade chip to cash in to improve their outlook even more. With the glut of young talent waiting in the wings and ample payroll flexibility, Epstein and Hoyer should have all they need to start making major moves to kick the rebuilding process into overdrive. 2013 is destined to be yet another wasted season in Wrigleyville, but come 2015, the Cubbies could finally be back in position to give their fans hope that their World Series drought will come to an end… that hope almost certainly be dashed into smithereens since they remain the Cubs, but still, hope is fun.