Seven questions facing the Chicago Cubs in 2012

Chicago Cubs fans look forward to Anthony Rizzo-Brett Jackson celebrations at Wrigley Field. (Morry Gash/AP)

With Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer bringing in a new era on the North Side of Chicago, Cubs fans have high expectations … just not for this season. While it looks like it is going to be a long summer, we will hopefully get a chance to see some of the young talent show what they can do, as well as what new manager Dale Sveum can do. Here are seven questions facing the team as we head into the season:

1. Can the kids play?

The bulk of the talent, as far as prospects go, is at the lower levels of the organization. Guys like Dillon Maples, Daniel Vogelbach and Javier Baez are still a couple of years away from being major-league ready. There are, however, some guys who could give fans something to look forward to for the future. Particularly Brett Jackson, the team’s first-round pick in 2009. A true center fielder, Jackson plays gold-glove caliber defense and is a prototypical leadoff hitter. The 23-year-old is a left-handed hitter with speed and some pop in his bat. He hit .274 with 20 home runs, 21 stolen bases and an .869 OPS last season. He suffered a broken finger which caused his average to dip a little, but he is a .292 hitter over 296 minor league games. He also draws a lot of walks, as evidenced by his .393 OBP over that same span. While he doesn’t excel at any one area, he looks to be a 20 HR/20 SB type player with good averages. He also plays the game all-out, and should be a fan favorite the way he approaches the game everyday. With the team in remodel mode, he should be given every chance to show what he can do.

Rafael Dolis is another intriguing prospect who should get significant time out of the bullpen this season. The 24-year-old, 6’-4”, 220-pound  right-hander can dial his fastball up to 99 mph. He has closer-type stuff, but he still needs to work on his command.

Josh Vitters, the team’s first-round pick in 2007, could finally get a chance to show why the team made him the third-overall pick. He has progressed slowly, considering his talents, but the 22-year-old was impressive at double-A Tennessee last season. He hit .281 with 28 doubles, 14 home runs, 81 RBI and only 54 strikeouts over 488 plate appearances. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and hit .360 with four home runs, 17 RBI and a .923 OPS over 24 games. His move to the outfield puts him in a crowded group for 2012, but he could earn some time if he puts up big numbers at triple-A

Then there is 22-year-old Anthony Rizzo. The 6’-3”, 230-pound left-hander was acquired from the Padres in the Andrew Cashner trade over the winter. After tearing up triple-A last season, hitting .331 with 26 home runs, 101 RBI and a 1.056 OPS over 93 games, he struggled a bit in the majors, hitting just .141 with one home run, nine RBI and a .523 OPS over 49 games for the Padres. This is a guy who was drafted by Theo in 2007, acquired by Hoyer in 2010, then acquired by both this season. They are both obviously high on him, and he hasn’t disappointed in spring training, hitting .375 (12-for-32) with two home runs, five RBI and a .974 OPS over 12 games. Even if Brian LaHair earns the first base job out of spring training, it won’t be long until Rizzo is the everyday first baseman.

2. Will they lose 100?

On paper, this team looks like it won’t compete, even in the NL Central. But just how bad will they be? The last time the Cubs lost 100 games in a season was way back in 1966 when they went 59-103 under Leo Durocher. That team had Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, all Hall of Famers. This team has … Starlin Castro. If they do end up losing 100 games, it will be just the third time in team history, the other being 1962 when they went 59-103 under three different coaches, and if you have ever heard of El Tappe, Lou Klein and Charlie Metro, you are a better fan than I am, congrats.

For the record, I have them winning around 70-75 games.

3. Where will the power come from?

First and third base are considered power positions. They are usually middle-of-the-order run producers who can give you at least 20 HR/80 RBI a year. You have to at least have one of this type of player at either of these positions. The Cubs have Ian Stewart at third. A guy who could be one of those players, but is coming off a terrible season with the Rockies in which he hit .156 with no home runs and six RBI over 122 at-bats.

He slugged .221. Michael Jordan slugged .266 over 436 at-bats as a 31-year-old with double-A Birmingham in 1994.

His career .236 average, and .751 OPS, doesn’t give me hope that he can be that guy. Neither do  Rizzo or LaHair. While Rizzo looks like he also can be that guy, it probably won’t happen this season.

The outfield of Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and David DeJesus isn’t going to strike fear into anyone either. While Soriano can hit anywhere between 25-35 home runs, Byrd and DeJesus aren’t exactly power hitters. In fact, take a look at the projected starting lineup’s home run totals from 2011:

That is 76 total home runs. Of course, LeHair spent much of his time at triple-A Iowa, where he did hit 38 home runs, but that doesn’t always translate to the majors. And if his spring training numbers are any indication, 7-for-37 (.189), zero home runs, two RBI, zero walks, 14 strikeouts and a .400 OPS, the 29-year-old may lose his starting job to Rizzo when the season starts. As far as Stewart goes, he has 20-home-run potential, but expectations aren’t too high on him.

4. Will Starlin Castro join the elite this year?

At least offensively, that is. He is never going to be an elite defensive player, but he should get much better and be solid enough to stay at shortstop. Already with two .300 seasons under his belt at the age of 21, we all know he can hit for average. The question is, will he remain a leadoff-type hitter, or can he become a run producer who hits in the middle of the lineup? He didn’t fare well hitting in the three-spot last season as he hit just .225 with no home runs, 13 RBI and six walks to 26 strikeouts over 178 at-bats. He also had just a .572 OPS. He looked way more comfortable hitting in the first or second spot in the order, where he hit a combined .330 with 10 home runs, 49 RBI, 19 stolen bases and an .830 OPS over 488 at-bats. While he definitely looks like he can hit between 20-25 home runs a year, it seems best to let him stay at the top of the order where he shines. Again, he is just 21, no need to rush him into a player he isn’t ready to be yet. Let him develop at his own pace.

5. Can Theo possibly trade Alfonso Soriano?

This would be the miracle of all miracles, aside from a World Series title that is. With three years left on his contract, at $19MM per, you really can’t imagine any team desperate enough, or should I say foolish enough, to want a 36-year-old outfielder who is past his prime, a liability on defense, free-swinging and injury prone. With the contracts of Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena off the books for this season, Soriano’s is the only “bad” one left. This won’t happen unless the team eats a huge chunk of his contract. Most likely, he will be here until 2014.

6. How will Theo fare in his first draft with the team?

The Cubs have four picks among the first 65, including the sixth for finishing with the sixth-worst record last season, the 43rd for compensation losing Aramis Ramirez to free agency, the 54th for losing Carlos Pena to free agency and their second-round pick at 65. This draft is deep on pitching and that is something the team needs to start stockpiling as the cupboard is pretty bare in the farm system. With this being Theo’s first draft with the team, and his emphasis on building from within, he will need to hit on all four of these picks.

7. Will Wrigley Field collapse?

I am not sure if many of you are aware, but right now, as you read this, there are currently nets hanging underneath the upper decks of Wrigley Field. You know, just in case several tons of concrete come crashing down, you can rest easy knowing a fisherman’s net is there to save your life. The field is old. Insulin, bras, zippers and talking movies all came after it was built. My brother and I often joke about how the weight room probably consists of two medicine balls, a climbing rope, dumb bells and a jump rope. It’s a beautiful field, and there is nothing quite like a day game there, but it needs major repairs.

There are rumors the Cubs could play their home games at US Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, for the 2013 season so a major remodel can be done. Other rumors have them playing at Miller Park, home of the Brewers. And you just know, that if they end up playing at the Cell, 2013 is the year the Cubs will win the World Series, on the White Sox turf. It is just all too fitting.

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