Tempering Expectations

Milwaukee’s Season Hinges on the Rotation

 By: Ryan Smith (@ryanhenrysmith2)

After a rough 2013 season for the Milwaukee Brewers – one that saw the suspension of Ryan Braun, the continued decline of Rickie Weeks, a regression in Yovani Gallardo’s performance, and a litany of injuries – it would have been understandable for Brewer Nation to approach the 2014 campaign with apprehension.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

Then the first 12 games happened.

A 10-2 record, best in Major League Baseball.

A nine-game winning streak, including sweeps over the reigning World Series champion Red Sox and 2013 playoff participant Pittsburgh Pirates.

Cue the grand speculation.  There was some warranted attention being focused on Milwaukee, reminding fans that this team is not far removed from one that seriously contended for the National League pennant.  Sports writers from national sources and local publications were very quick to point out that this roster was not simply a flash in the pan, but instead was built for sustained success throughout the season.

Needless to say, expectations were running high.  The pitching staff – both starters and the bullpen – was lights out on the mound.  The lineup was providing timely hitting.  10-2.

And then the Cardinals came to town.

Not only did St. Louis stop the winning streak that had the entire state abuzz, they did so in a very Cardinals-y way, shutting out the Brewers at Miller Park, 4-0.  That was followed up with a 6-1 loss to the hated Cardinals.

All the “happy” feelings that went along with the nine-game winning streak had been wiped out in a 28-hour span at the hands of the team that seems to have Milwaukee’s number more than anyone else.

So where does that leave this Milwaukee squad?  Are they the team that started 10-2 with a pitching staff that could hang with anyone?  Or are they the team that gets crushed by St. Louis every time they play?

The fact of that matter is that they are probably somewhere in between.

Lohse's leadership has been as important as his consistency.

Lohse’s leadership has been as important as his consistency.

As of right now, the Brewers stand at 11-5, a win percentage of .688 through 16 games.  The early season success that the Brewers have experienced begins and ends with the pitching staff.  The starting rotation of Gallardo, Lohse, Garza, Estrada, and Peralta has an ERA of 2.55 with a 3.66 FIP.  Over 102.1 innings, they have recorded 85 strikeouts and only 29 walks.  The bullpen has been just as good, posting a 3.16 ERA with an impressive 3.28 FIP over 42.2 innings.

I’m not delusional; I don’t expect the pitching staff to keep this up over the course of the season.  In Thursday night’s 11-2 loss to the Pirates, we saw the first real implosion by the bullpen, taking over a tie ballgame and giving up nine runs over two innings.  The numbers that Brewers pitchers were putting up are simply not sustainable over a full season.

That does not mean that they can’t continue to be a point of strength for this team for the remainder of the year.  Yovani Gallardo has shown flashes of being a staff ace before, so while his 1.46 ERA and 2.89 FIP won’t be as impressive in July, he could still very well be leading the way for a dominant staff.  Kyle Lohse has continued to be one of the most reliable starters in  Brewer uniform for the second-straight year.  Perhaps more than anything else, Lohse’s leadership has been key in helping turn this staff around.  If Garza can stay healthy and Estrada maintains the progression that he’s made over the last few seasons, Milwaukee will have a pretty formidable one-through-four in the rotation.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

That brings me to Wily Peralta.  I’ve been a fan of Peralta for quite some time; I always saw the potential that he brought to the mound.  He just had the pitching ability that the Milwaukee farm system seemed to lack ever since Gallardo was promoted.  His early returns have been mixed; he showed admirable durability in starting 32 games last year, but his 4.37 ERA and 4.30 FIP left something to be desired.

Through three starts this season, Peralta has shown improvement in some important areas.  He has lowered his BB/9 by over a full walk while posting similar K/9 numbers, and his ERA is a spectacular 1.96.  However, his 4.58 FIP and .222 BABIP seem to indicate that his success thus far is a product of a good amount of luck.

As the number five starter in the rotation, Peralta doesn’t need to have a sub-2.00 ERA; he doesn’t need to pitch like the staff ace.  Frankly, if Peralta can bring his FIP down closer to 4.00 and keep his ERA in the 3.75-range, Brewers fans should be thrilled.  If our number five is pitching like a three, we’re going to be trouble for the rest of the National League.

I could go on and break down the bullpen arms a little more, or I could discuss the possibility that Aramis Ramirez loves batting with runners in scoring position.  But, in all honesty, I think the hopes of a playoff run for the ‘14 Milwaukee Brewers begins and ends with the rotation.

If they can find a way to continue to produce quality starts even after the supposed lucky numbers stop going their way, the Brewers are going to force themselves into the playoff conversation, along with other National League contenders.

But, if Garza gets hurt, or Gallardo has his past issues creep up, or Peralta steps back to his ‘13 version, Milwaukee will be in trouble.  If the rotation struggles for prolonged periods of time, the bullpen will get taxed and start to break down.  If the pitching staff begins to implode, the curious struggles of the lineup will be magnified.

For the record, I think this Brewers team will challenge for a playoff spot.  I think they are capable of winning 88-90 games in 2014.

But any sustained success begins and ends with the rotation.  If that domino falls, Miller Park will be in for a long summer.

Welcome to the new Cream City Cables – First Podcast!

By Nathan Petrashek

You might have noticed by now we’ve given the website a facelift.  We used to be tied to the MLBlogs.com movement, but they stuck ads all over our blog and the format was far too restrictive for what we wanted to do.

What did we want to do, you ask?

Well, today we’re introducing our first ever podcast, something that will perhaps become a regular feature here.  Writer Ryan Smith (@ryanhenrysmith2) and I talked first base, Matt Garza’s contract, the rotation, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis.  We’re still getting a feel for this thing, so it’d be much appreciated if you’d let me know on Twitter (@npetrashek) or in the comments below what you liked or didn’t like.

You can listen to it or download the file using the link’s below.  We anticipate having it and subsequent podcasts available in the iTunes store soon.


Podcast Season 1 Episode 1

*Note: the podcast was recorded late last week

Stay tuned to CCC, as position previews start this week, and we’ll be introducing some fantasy content this month!  You can find all this and more using the navigation menu below the header.

Garza as the new Lackey

By Nathan Petrashek

I said yesterday that I couldn’t think of a deal structured quite like Garza’s, where the Brewers get an extremely cheap club option in the event the pitcher misses significant time.

Turns out, there are other such clauses, but they’re of relatively recent vintage.

On Twitter, Alex Poterack of Disciples of Uecker clued me in to the fact that John Lackey has a similar clause in his deal, as does Felix Hernandez in his extension.  Sure enough, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has a writeup comparing the risk management features of those deals.

The Lackey Clause, as it is apparently coming to be known, was created after Lackey’s 2009 physical turned up an elbow injury, but the Red Sox didn’t want to scrap the deal.  So, they created an insurance clause: if Lackey missed significant time with an elbow injury, a year could be tacked on the deal at the veteran minimum, at the club’s election.  That clause was triggered when Lackey missed 2012 after having Tommy John surgery, so he’ll likely pitch for the Red Sox in 2015 for $500,000.

The Mariners picked up on this and put a similar clause in their extension with King Felix.  The Brewers appear to have lifted the terms of Garza’s Lackey Clause almost directly from Felix’s deal.  Under Felix’s extension, the Mariners get a $1MM team option in 2020 if Hernandez spends 130 consecutive days on the DL.  Here’s where the clauses differ, though; the team option is only triggered if Hernandez hits the DL due to an elbow injury.  The Brewers option is apparently much broader, and activates if Garza spends the requisite number of days on the DL for any reason.

It seems Lackey Clauses are gaining in popularity, and perhaps rightly so.  While a team will likely never recoup the full value forfeited if one of their major pitchers hits the DL, the clause does allow the team to recover something.  When taken in conjunction with Garza’s vesting option, it allows the player to gain something if he stays healthy, too.

The question now is why the Brewers thought they needed such a clause.  Was it simply Garza’s injury history, or something in the physical?

The Surreal Matt Garza Deal

By Nathan Petrashek

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Cincinnati RedsIt seems the Brewers could be paying Matt Garza a mere $1MM to pitch for them in 2018.

Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that.

According to various media outlets (e.g. Cots, Tom Haudricourt, Joel Sherman, and Adam McCalvey), Garza is set to earn a base salary of $12.5MM between 2014 and 2017.  $2MM of salary in each of those years is deferred without interest, payable beginning in 2018.  But 2018 is also the year in which things get kind of … odd.

Garza has a vesting option for 2018.  There is nothing particularly unusual about this contractual device.  It basically means that, under a defined set of circumstances, the Brewers are willing to guarantee Garza a fifth year at a predetermined salary.  That salary is $13.5MM, and it will be due Garza under the following circumstances:

  1. Garza starts 110 games between 2014-17
  2. He does not end the 2017 season on the disabled list
  3. He pitches at least 115 innings in 2017

If Garza meets all of those requirements, he’ll get a fifth year at a nice payday tacked on the end of his deal.

Satisfying those three requirements won’t be easy, though.  Garza essentially can’t miss more than a year’s worth of starts between 2014 and 2017.  Garza has had several maladies over the past few seasons-the most troubling being a stress reaction in his elbow-and his mechanics could lead to future shoulder problems for the 30-year-old.  Between the 2010-13 seasons, Garza only made 105 starts, so if we were to go by his last four years, the first requirement would not have been satisfied.

But that’s not all.  Not only must Garza remain healthy for at least three years, but he basically has to pitch for at least half of the 2017 season.  And even then, any missed starts (i.e. a DL stint) can’t come at the end of 2017.  Pretty brilliant contractual maneuvering by the Brewers to get out from under the option if Garza breaks down at the end of his deal.  Remember, most teams wanted to give Garza only  three guaranteed years.

But what’s really bizarre is what happens if the option doesn’t vest.  Then, according to the previously mentioned media sources, the vesting option becomes a $5MM team option.  In other words, even if Garza does break down, the Brewers can choose to bring him back anyway at a substantially reduced rate.  Even as things stand now, Garza wouldn’t have to do much to be worth $5MM, and who knows how much a win will be worth in 2018.

But if Garza misses a lot of time between 2014 and 2017, the Brewers get him in 2018 at an even bigger discount!  If Garza lands on the disabled list for 130 days in any 183-day span of time, the Brewers’ team option is reduced to a paltry $1MM.   The only scenario in which I could see the Brewers declining that option is if Garza’s arm is completely shredded and he just can’t pitch any more.  I don’t recall ever seeing a provision like this, in which a player essentially agrees to give the team a year of his time for next to nothing if he fails to take the mound due to injury.

The cheap rates on the potential team options have led some to speculate that these are actually buyout amounts for a $13.5MM team option that springs to life if the option doesn’t vest.  That’s now how they’ve been reported, though.  And if you think about it, it makes sense that the Brewers would hedge their bets against future injuries.  If the Brewers would wind up picking up the $1MM option, it would mean that Garza has spent nearly a full season or more on the DL at a $12.5MM salary; why shouldn’t they attempt to recoup some value on the back end of the deal?  Conversely, Garza has the ability to earn substantial additional salary if he remains generally healthy for the duration of the deal.

It’s always interesting to see the final result of extensive negotiation, and the Garza contract looks like the parties did a great job of balancing risk.

The Cream City Cables 2013 NL Central Division Preview: Taking a Look at Milwaukee’s Competition

By: Ryan Smith

pitchers and catchersLet’s be honest: if you’re reading this article, you’re either a close friend of mine or you get slightly turned on by these four words: Pitchers and catchers report.

Perhaps baseball, more than any other sport, allows fan bases all over North America to look forward to the next season and think that this could be our year.

Think about it for a second.

In the NBA, it’s basically LeBron and everybody else. If you don’t have a stable of genuine stars, you’re basically playing for a second-round exit from the playoffs.

In the NFL, there are typically a few “surprise” teams. But in the end, the Super Bowl often comes down to teams that have already been there or teams that were previously on the cusp of greatness. Even this year, the Super Bowl pitted the two teams who lost in their conference championship games the year before.

In the NHL…who knows? I hate hockey.

But baseball? Baseball has teams that stay consistently dominant, teams that slowly build through the minors and eventually reach their greatness, and teams that seem to turn it all around in a few short months. Going into a new season, everyone has a shot.

Well, everyone except Houston.

This brings me to the topic of this article: the National League Central Division.

AL-West-gets-a-present-from-the-NL-Central2013 will be the first season with Houston-less NL Central. With their move to the American League, Houston has opened up a spot in the cellar of the division. To figure out who will claim their rightful position in the division’s basement, I thought I’d take a look at the four remaining non-Milwaukee teams in the NL Central.

I’ll take a look at the teams in the order I believe they will finish in the division standings, going from worst to first. My Brewers preview will be coming in the next few weeks. After all, I want to wait until I have an idea of who might be playing first on Opening Day.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

(All stats courtesy of Fangraphs)

Chicago Cubs
2012 Record: 61-101
2012 Division Finish: 5th

Before I start, let me make one thing clear: I think Theo Epstein is doing a pretty impressive job in turning around the Cubbies. Perhaps the most intelligent thing he is doing is avoiding knee-jerk reactions, passing up opportunities to make pointless signings simply to make a splash. Instead, he seems to be focusing on slowly building up the organization’s farm system while also waiting for those albatross contracts to finally come off the books.

Epstein's is doing the right thing by focusing on developing long-term success for the Cubs.

Epstein’s is doing the right thing by focusing on developing long-term success for the Cubs.

That’s the good news for Cubs fans. The bad news? They still have to play the 2013 season, and this time they don’t have Houston as a cellar-buffer.

At this point, I think the Cubs have gotten used to bad news during the season. They didn’t even have to wait for Spring Training games to start for their first bit of bad news this year, with reports of Matt Garza’s strained lat coming in recent days. Garza’s health may be the most important item to focus on in Chicago this season. It’s not that Garza could help Chicago contend; they might not truly contend until 2015. With Garza, the Cubs own one of the most intriguing trade chips in all of baseball. If Garza is healthy, Epstein could use him to drive a mid-season trade that could bring more young talent to Wrigley, much like how the Brewers were able to get Jean Segura in exchange for Zack Greinke, a player who seemed to already have his bags packed. If Garza is not healthy, the Cubs simply have a player of little-to-no value.

The rest of the Chicago rotation lacks the punch needed to survive an NL Central that features three rather dangerous lineups. Jeff Samardzija was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Cubs last season, proving to be a more-than-capable starter. While I don’t think he will duplicate his 2012 numbers (9.27 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 3.38 xFIP), I do think he’ll continue to be a reliable starter who gives Cub fans a reason to hope.

The lineup for the Cubs looks pretty similar to the 2012 version that finished with 101 losses. Anthony Rizzo had a nice debut with the Cubs last season, producing a .285/.342/.463 line in 87 games with the big-league club. As far as additions go, Ian Stewart will be a new face at third, Nate Schierholtz will line up in the outfield, and Wilington Castillo looks to be in line to replace Geovany Soto behind the plate. While none of those names are going to sell any tickets outside of their immediate families, they do prove my earlier point that Epstein is taking the slow and steady approach, which should help Chicago in the long run.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle mightily this year. It looks to be another brutal year for the Cubbies.

Predicted 2013 Record: 65-97
Predicted 2013 Division Finish: 5th

Pittsburgh Pirates
2012 Record: 79-83
2012 Division Finish: 4th

For two years now, the Pirates have taunted their fans with flashes of improvement, even hinting at genuine contention, only to crush their fan base with massive second-half collapses. I do have some good news for any Pirates fans reading this article:

There will be no second-half collapse.

However, I only say this because I don’t see the Pirates having the hot start they had in each of the last two seasons.

The Pirates’ rotation appears to be one of the few non-Andrew McCutchen bright spots for Pittsburgh. A.J. Burnett appears to have found a comfort zone in Pittsburgh, providing the Pirates with a very respectable arm at the top of their rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is a recognizable name in the #2 slot, but last year was a substantial step back for the former Astro. He saw his K/9 dip to 6.08 while producing a 4.09 xFIP. James McDonald surprised some people last year by proving to be a capable and relatively consistent starter. After that, the Pirates have Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, and Francisco Liriano fighting for two rotation spots. I personally think Liriano is a name-only pitcher at this point, a guy who can provide a gem for five innings and then disappear for two months. Too much inconsistency for my taste.

mccutchenThe lineup? Well, there’s superstar Andrew McCutchen, one of the four or five best players in baseball today. After that? Starling Marte has potential to be an above-average regular in their lineup. Russell Martin provides an offensive upgrade from Rod Barajas at catcher, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The addition of Travis Snider could prove to be a pleasant surprise for the Pirates; I’ve always thought he could be a good player if he was given a real shot, which he should get in Pittsburgh.

In the end, Pirates fans will be in for yet another losing season in 2013. There is some help on the way in the farm system, but bringing up any of their really valuable prospects this season would only be rushing them. For now, enjoy that beautiful stadium and the joy that is watching Andrew McCutchen on a nightly basis.

Predicted 2013 Record: 75-87
Predicted 2013 Division Finish: 4th

Cincinnati Reds
2012 Record: 97-65
2012 Division Finish: 1st

Chapman's conversion to starter will be one of the major storylines for the 2013 Reds.

Chapman’s conversion to starter will be one of the major storylines for the 2013 Reds.

I’ll be honest. Picking the bottom teams in the division was a relatively easy task for me. I just don’t see Chicago and Pittsburgh being in the same conversation as the other three teams in the NL Central. And frankly, I think the Brewers are firmly entrenched in the middle of this top-heavy division. The real debate for me was deciding who would come out on top between the Reds and the Cardinals. Last year, I correctly picked the Reds to win the division. This year, as much as it pains me to say it, I have a feeling St. Louis finishes in first, with the Reds following in a very close second-place.

The aspect of the Reds that makes them a really dangerous team is that they really don’t have a glaring weakness in their lineup. By adding Shin-Soo Choo in their trade with Cleveland, the Reds added a legitimate top-of-the-order bat. Choo is followed by Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, and Jay Bruce. By the time you are to #6-hitter Todd Frazier, you may already be making a visit to the mound. A team is rarely going to stop the Reds from scoring; instead, teams are going to need to spray hits to the outfield, where Cincinnati does appear to have a less-than-stellar defensive outfield, lacking a true centerfielder with the departure of Drew Stubbs.

As far as pitching goes, the Reds have a couple of strong arms at the top of their rotation. Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos give the Reds one of the more imposing 1-2 punches in baseball. Bronson Arroyo is what he is at this point; an innings eater who will sport a mid-4.00 ERA. Homer Bailey doesn’t do much for me, but he’s proven to be reliable over the last few seasons. The arrival of Aroldis Chapman in the rotation is the real wild card here. If he can successfully convert to full-time starter, the Reds could end up walking away with the division. If he struggles, which I think he will, the Reds will not only have a question mark in the rotation; they will also have to fill the gap that Chapman created in their bullpen. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I’ve seen too many examples of lights-out bullpen arms struggle in their transition to a larger workload in the regular rotation.

As I stated at the beginning of this section, I am torn between picking the Reds and the Cardinals. Cincinnati has such a dangerous lineup and some starting pitching to back it up, and I’m not even looking at their potential mid-season call-ups, such as speedster Billy Hamilton. Still, I just feel like St. Louis will figure out a way to steal the division from the Reds. However, I still see the Reds getting into the playoffs and making some noise in October.

Predicted 2013 Record: 94-68
Predicted Division Finish: 2nd

St. Louis Cardinals
2012 Record: 88-74
2012 Division Finish: 2nd

This is painful for me to write. If you know me, you know that I hate the Cardinals. I hated Tony LaRussa. I hate Chris Carpenter. I really hate Yadier Molina.

But even with all of that hatred, I can’t help but think that the Cardinals are the best team in the NL Central, and they will win the division in 2013.

First, let’s look at reasons why the Cardinals could finish behind the Reds at the end of the season. Chris Carpenter’s season-ending (and possibly career-ending) injury has to be at the top of the list. I can’t say I was saddened upon hearing this news. I don’t care if that makes me a bad person. I already stated that I hate Carpenter. This injury is definitely a blow to the Cardinals this season and beyond. But keep in mind, Carpenter missed almost all of last season as well. Quite frankly, the Cardinals have gotten used to not having a pitching staff at full-strength over the last few seasons. The Cardinals rotation also got a bit weaker after losing Kyle Lohse to free agency in the offseason. At least, it appears that they got weaker on the surface. The fact of the matter is that Lohse is still a free agent. I’ve never been a big fan of him, and apparently all of the teams in Major League Baseball share that feeling, at least at whatever his asking price is.

Now on to the good news. Last time I checked, Adam Wainwright is still at the top of the rotation, and he remains one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. His curveball still makes hitters look foolish quite frequently. Jaime Garcia has elite stuff but durability issues. When those issues arose last season, Joe Kelly stepped in proved to be a very useful arm. Lance Lynn’s transition to the starting rotation worked out quite well. And 2-13 will mark the first full-season look at top-prospect Shelby Miller. Even without Carpenter and Lohse, that is still a very strong rotation.

As much as I hate him, I can't deny the fact that St. Louis has baseball's best catcher in Yadier Molina.

As much as I hate him, I can’t deny the fact that St. Louis has baseball’s best catcher in Yadier Molina.

I believe the Cardinals also improved their lineup in the offseason, if only by moving on from Lance Berkman, who came back down to earth in 2012 (.259/.381/.444) after a very impressive 2011 (.301/.412/.547). Rafael Furcal enters the final year of his contract, which is good for two reasons for St. Louis. First, we all know how players seem to step up their game in contract years. Second, it means they can move on from the aging Furcal after 2013. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and the previously mentioned Molina provide a dangerous middle of the order for the Cardinals. Allen Craig had an abbreviated coming-out party last year, putting up impressive numbers in 119 games, including 22 homeruns and 35 doubles. If he can stay healthy all season, that makes a dangerous 2-6 in the lineup, and then David Freese comes to the plate. Much like the Reds, this St. Louis lineup just doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath.

In the end, I think St. Louis’s deeper rotation, superior farm system, and better game management will lead them to the division title in 2013. In a race this close, a mid-season trade or call-up could prove to be the difference, but as it stands now, I think St. Louis will be finishing on top.

Predicted 2013 Record: 96-66
Predicted Division Finish: 1st

2012 NL Central Division Preview: Chicago Cubs

By: Ryan Smith

You can usually predict the type of season a team is going to have based on that team’s biggest offseason move. The Angels? They signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, so they’re going to push Texas to the brink for the AL West crown. The Tigers? Signing Prince Fielder pretty much puts them in the driver’s seat in the AL Central. The Marlins? Bringing in Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Heath Bell indicates that they’re going to push for a playoff spot this season.

That brings us to the Cubs; a team whose biggest offseason move didn’t involve adding anyone to their 40-man roster. After years of bloated contracts to past-their-prime players, GM Jim Hendry was finally shown the door.

Epstein and Hoyer bring a feeling of hope to the Cubs and their fans.

The Cubs decided to follow the model laid out in 2002 by another thought-to-be-cursed franchise, hiring wunderkind Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer as new General Manager.

So what can we make of that type of offseason move?

Well, for the first time in a few years, Cubs fans have cause to be optimistic. Just not about this year.

Epstein and Hoyer have already started to work on some of the shortcomings of the previous regime, sending Carlos Zambrano to Miami and bringing in potential first basemen-of-the-future Anthony Rizzo from San Diego. They also snagged beloved Dale Sveum from the Crew to become their new manager.

With Epstein and Hoyer in place, you can expect the Cubs’ farm system to improve dramatically, as both men place a strong emphasis on building from within. The days of the drastically overpaid veteran might be over as well. Sorry, Alfonso Soriano.

But enough about the promising future of the Cubs. This article is about what to expect on the field in 2012. And 2012 could get ugly down in Wrigleyville.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Bryan LaHair, 2B Darwin Barney, SS Starlin Castro, 3B Ian Stewart

Analysis – LaHair put up impressive numbers over the last two years in AAA. His 2011 line of .331/.405/.664, as well as his .443 wOBA, can give fans a reason for hope that the Cubs will finally have found their replacement for Derrek Lee. Still, Epstein and Hoyer trading for star prospect Anthony Rizzo should be proof enough that they don’t fully believe in the future potential LaHair. 2012 will be a season-long audition for LaHair, who might have to be looking over his shoulder the entire time…Barney seemed to win the favor of Cubs fans last season. His decent glove (5.8 UZR/150) and overall helpfulness to the club (2.2 WAR) surely led to that endearment with the fans. The problem is, while he doesn’t take much off the table, he doesn’t bring that much to it either. He’s really nothing more than pedestrian at second base…Castro is the unquestioned star of this team. While he has his struggles in the field (-8.8 UZR/150), he knows how to handle himself at the plate, as suggested by his .307 batting average. I’m sure the Cubs would like to see a little more power out of his bat, but he’s only had two full seasons with the big league club. He’s going to keep getting better in 2012…Stewart gets the unenviable task of replacing Aramis Ramirez, who now calls Miller Park home. Stewart never tore the cover off the ball during his tenure in Colorado, but last year was just abysmal. Between AAA and the big league club, Stewart played in less than 100 games. While with the Rockies, he posted a pathetic .156/.243/.221 line. He’s going to have to learn how to hit again, and soon, or Cubs fans will be calling for his replacement pretty quickly.

Outfield – LF Alfonso Soriano, CF Marlon Byrd, RF David DeJesus

Analysis – It seems like everyone knows about the issues with Soriano. He has three years remaining on his contract at $18 million annually. He doesn’t bring speed to the base paths like he used to (only 2 stolen bases last year). He strikes out too much (22.2% K Rate). He doesn’t get on base at a respectable clip anymore (.289 OBP). Problem is, the Cubs don’t have any better options in their system at this point…Byrd will start in center on opening day, but he most likely won’t be with the Cubs by the end of the year. Prospect Brett Jackson seems destined to finally get his shot with the Cubbies in 2012, which means Byrd may be spending the first few months of the season auditioning for his role as trade bait…DeJesus spent last season in Oakland, and if you are at all familiar with Oakland’s reputation on offense, you should know that he won’t be adding a lot of value at the plate (.240/.323/.376). However, he does seem to know his way around right field, as shown by his UZR/150 mark of 14.2.

Rotation – RHP Matt Garza, RHP Ryan Dempster, LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Randy Wells, RHP Chris Volstad

Carlos Zambrano will take his particular brand of crazy to Miami, which should sound wonderful to the Cubs.

Analysis –
Garza has had an interesting offseason. His name has been dangled as a potential trade piece in more than a few rumors. For the moment, he’s still with the Cubs, which gives them a pretty good arm at the top of the rotation. Garza’s 10-10 record in 2011 is deceiving; he pitched much better than his record indicates. He posted a 3.19 xFIP, and his BABIP of .306 was slightly above league average, meaning that a poor supporting cast and some bad luck were more to blame for his win-loss record than Garza’s actual pitching…Dempster, much like Garza, was a victim of the lack of talent around him more than his own pitching, as his 10-14 record doesn’t seem justified with a 3.70 xFIP. His BB/9 did continue to rise in 2011 and he was also rather unlucky with a .324 BABIP. Still, as a Brewers fan, I wouldn’t mind seeing this Brewer-killer’s bad luck continue in 2012…Maholm stays within the division, coming over from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t blow hitters away (5.38 K/9) but doesn’t give up free passes too much either (2.77 BB/9). The drop-off after the top two in the rotation is noticeable…Wells posted a below average xFIP of 4.45 and gave up the long-ball too much (1.53 HR/9), yet he finished with a winning record in 2011 (7-6). Wells reminds me of Dave Bush during his last few seasons with the Brewers; you don’t hate having him on the mound but don’t expect him to carry the load too often…Volstad comes to the Windy City from the Marlins in the Zambrano trade. In 29 starts last season, Volstad only pitched 165.2 innings, while posting a 3.64 xFIP. He was a little unlucky (.310 BABIP) but he also was below average when he had runners on base, with a 68.9 LOB%. Even if he has some struggles at Wrigley, I think Volstad will be an example of addition-by-subtraction, because the circus known as Carlos Zambrano won’t be distracting the team on a seemingly daily basis.

Catcher – Geovany Soto

Analysis – Soto has been a picture of consistency for the Cubs over the last few years. And by saying that, I mean he’s been consistently inconsistent. In the last four years, his batting average has gone from .285 to .218 to .280 to .228. So, the good news for Cubs fans is that Soto is due for another good season at the plate. His .987 fielding percentage last season was well below his typically impressive average, so he’s going to have to figure out what went wrong in 2011. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which Soto the Cubs get in 2012; he’s one of the few players on this team who doesn’t have to worry about someone taking his spot in the lineup.

Epstein and Hoyer already succeeded in acquiring first baseman-of-the-future Anthony Rizzo.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Carlos Marmol had 35 Saves last season, but he’s also responsible for raising the collective blood pressure of Cubs fans every time he steps onto the mound…Kerry Wood isn’t who he used to be; he’s simply a decent arm that will have his good days and his bad days. Basically, he’s your typical over-30 bullpen arm…Jeff Samardzija is another arm that simply isn’t consistent enough to count on every day. You don’t typically want to bring a guy in to a high-pressure situation when he posts a 5.11 BB/9…I mentioned Brett Jackson before. The centerfielder is ranked #89 on Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects List, and he’ll soon be patrolling out by the ivy…Anthony Rizzo is back with the guy who initially drafted him (Epstein in Boston) and the guy who first traded for him (Hoyer in San Diego). Rizzo shows up on Law’s list at #36, and while he struggled while with the Padres last year (.141/.281/.242 in 49 games), he absolutely crushed the ball in AAA (.331/.404/.652, 26 homeruns in 93 games). Oh, he can also play some defense too (10.2 UZR/150). And it’s also important to remember that this guy is still only 22 years old, and he pretty much missed all of 2008 when he battled with Hodgkin lymphoma. Acquiring guys like this is one of the reasons that, as a Brewer fan, I’m not thrilled that Epstein and Hoyer now call Chicago home.

Overall Analysis – As I stated at the beginning of this article, the future looks bright for Chicago, if only because Epstein and Hoyer are going to bring in a much-need culture change. Epstein’s success in Boston is well-noted, but Hoyer also left San Diego with the top-ranked farm system, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. There is no quick fix for the Cubbies, but bringing in the guys who know how to turn an entire system around is a damn good first step.

2012 will be filled with more than a few headaches, and there will be times when Cubs fans will find themselves just hoping to stay ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings. The Cubs just simply won’t contend for anything worthwhile this year, but with Epstein and Hoyer calling the shots, things could get interesting when the trade deadline approaches. Byrd, Garza, and Dempster are just a few guys who could find themselves in new locations by August, if the right trade package is presented.

My advice for Cubs fans is this: be patient. 2013 and beyond look bright. For now, you’ll all have to adopt an all-too-familiar slogan for this season.

2012: Maybe Next Year.

Prediction: 75-87, 4th Place in the NL Central

Next Up: 2012 Cincinnati Reds Preview