The team’s probable opening-day starter is Ryan Dempster, who is in the final year of his contract with the Cubs. The second starter, and eventual ace of the staff, Matt Garza, may be on the trading block unless the team is in contention this year. The #3 starter is likely to be Paul Maholm, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in the offseason. Bullpen holdover Jeff Samardzija likely has a spot in the rotation this season, but the #5 starter seems a bit unclear. Randy Wells and Chris Volstad appear to be in the mix for this spot, and Travis Wood has all but pitched his way back to the minors.
The bullpen underwent a transition in the offseason, when set-up man Sean Marshall was traded to Cincinnati. Fan-favorite Kerry Wood is back, but all eyes will be on closer Carlos Marmol, who doesn’t have nerve damage in his hand but can’t expect to blow 10 saves again this year and still keep his job.
The corners will be completely new this season. Third baseman Ian Stewart was acquired from Colorado in the offseason, and first baseman Bryan LaHair will take over for the departed Carlos Pena. Prospects Anthony Rizzo, at first base, and Josh Vitters, at third base, are waiting in the wings if either of them can’t produce
The middle of the infield is seemingly the most stable component of this team, assuming that Starlin Castro can put some offseason allegations behind him. Darwin Barney emerged as the starting second baseman last year, and looks to return to that role again this year. Returning catcher Geovany Soto looks to again be the starter behind the plate this year.
The outfield is a bit crowded at the moment. Alfonso Soriano proved to be unmovable in the offseason, so he will be the starting left fielder. He is also the only established power threat that the Cubs have, which is not at all encouraging. The center fielder will be Marlon Byrd, but he is in the last year of his contract, and the Sean Marshall deal suggests the team will not let him walk without getting something in return. Look for top-prospect Brett Jackson to be promoted from the minors if Byrd should be sent somewhere else. And new acquisition David DeJesus appears to be the starting right fielder.
The bench includes returnees Jeff Baker in the infield and Reed Johnson in the outfield, along with prospect Welington Castillo behind the plate. Tony Campana is another backup in the outfield, but he has been pushed to the brink this preseason by the previously unknown Joe Mather.
Rizzo has been ranked the team’s #1 prospect, and it seems inevitable that he’ll have the opportunity to play as the season progresses. Jackson also seems poised for a big-league call-up at some point.
The team’s MVP will likely be Starlin Castro. His growth over the first two seasons should continue, and he seems to be the best option for the number-three hitter at this point. He’ll even make a run at being voted in as the National League’s starting shortstop in the All-Star game this year.
Prediction: As a fan, I want to see 87 wins and a run at a wild card berth this season, but finishing above .500 might be asking for a lot from this team.
Team’s 2012 finish in division: Third, behind division champion Milwaukee and second-place Cincinnati.
The old “win now” mentality that began back in 2004, and has intensified every year since, might be put on hold for this year. Theo Epstein has circulated a handbook for winning “the Cubs Way,” and as with planting a seed, there must be a waiting period before a sprout appears. A championship is still the expected result, but that won’t come right away. And Cubs fans seem to understand this, for once.