Thursday, March 28, 2013

2013 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs with @BleacherNation

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2013. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is this Sunday and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to do a NL Central preview podcast with a blogger from each of the division rivals and while I couldn't do a podcast this year (I dropped the ball and didn't realize the season was so close) but I was able to get together with a blogger from each NL Central team to answer 15 questions about their teams and how they think they will do in 2013.

The series is going to go in the order that the teams finished in 2012 and we will go with one preview a day ending with a pretty extensive Pittsburgh Pirates preview that I am working on.

The fourth preview of the series is going to be the Chicago Cubs and today I will be talking with Brett from Bleacher Nation. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. They do great work and were nice to come amuse me and answer some questions.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2013 Chicago Cubs.

1) Last season was a pretty brutal one for the Cubs with 101 losses and a (very) negative run differential. Things have to get better for the Cubs this year, right?

BN: Hey, regression to the mean works in both directions, right? The roster is only modestly improved over last year's iteration (at least pre-Trade Deadline decimation plus Garza injury plus Samardzija shut-down), and another mid-season sell-off is very possible. So, necessarily better than 101 losses? No. But probably, even if just by playing the odds.

2) Jeff Samardzija had a pretty outstanding season for the Cubs and became the team staff ace for much of the season. As we all know he is a former football player that is just an amazing athlete. Is he going to be able to replicate, or even surpass, what he did in 2012?

BN: His excellent performance last year wasn't a fluke - he genuinely worked a four pitch mix and honed his devastating splitter. So, in that sense, it's very repeatable.

3) Outside of Samardzija the Cubs have a pretty nice rotation with Matt Garza and newly signed Edwin Jackson headline the top. Is that going to be enough for the Cubs among starting pitchers and who is going to fill the other two rotation spots?

BN: Garza's going to start the year on the DL (lat strain), as is newly-signed Scott Baker (Tommy John recovery). So the rotation is Samardzija-Jackson-Scott Feldman-Travis Wood-Carlos Villanueva. It isn't terrible, but it's far less imposing than it would look with a healthy Garza and Baker in it.

4) A guy that Cubs fans have been waiting to get out of town, Alfonso Soriano, he was quietly one of the better offensive players for the Cubs last season. He headlined the Cubs hitters with a 4.0 WAR with 32 bombs and a .262/.322/.499 triple slash. Can he be that good again this year and will he be with the Cubs all season?

BN: The defensive improvements will probably stick, and, if he stays healthy, he can probably approach those offensive numbers again. But, at 37, health is pretty much always the question.

5) I think if you ask most fans in total they would say that Starlin Castro is the best player on the team. Last season he was a three win player with a light OBP and a very low walk rate. Castro is obviously best player on this roster but how much does he still need to improve?

BN: If the walk rate improves, and the power comes along (both are expected this year), he's going to be a monster, relative to other shortstops. He's average defensively, at least, and if you can put up an .800 OPS at shortstop, you're doing great.

6) Anthony Rizzo had a really nice first season for the Cubs after he was part of a deal with the Padres last season. What are the expectations in 2013?

BN: I don't think anyone would be disappointed if he just duplicates, over the full season, what he did after being called up halfway through the season.

7) This is the second full year for the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer duo in Chicago and it seems like things have been going very well so far. Despite the fact that fans want a turnaround in one season are things on schedule as you thought it might be when the new management team started?

BN: For me, absolutely. Tearing things down in year one to turn over the roster was a given (and a necessity, given the state of the roster and system they inherited), which took 2012 and 2013 largely out of the realistic window for competitiveness. But 2014 has always been on the radar, and with a break or two this year and in the ensuing offseason, I could see a surprisingly competitive team next year.

8) Outside of the few guys I mentioned above the lineup looks to be a little thin for the Cubs. Obviously this is a concern but how big of a concern is it?

BN: Thin, yes. Big concern, yes. Maybe Welington Castillo hits a little bit. Maybe Ian Stewart gets healthy and surprises. Maybe Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston are a great platoon. That's a lot of maybes, few of which are likely to break the Cubs' way.

9) What is your biggest question mark for the team in 2013?

BN: You just nailed it in the preceding question.

10) Who is the diamond in the ruff that most non Cubs fans should keep their eye on during the season?

BN: It isn't sexy, but I suppose it's probably newly-signed reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who comes over from Japan. He was a dominant closer there for years, and he'll set up Carlos Marmol (assuming he's still with the Cubs) for the time being. But he has great stuff, and could put up some serious numbers.

11) In terms of the minor league system what is your quick overview of what the Cubs have right now? Keith Law had it going from the 20th best to the 5th best this year and with guys such as Jorge Soler and Javier Baez things must be exciting on that front, no?

BN: Sure. The positional side looks great, and too voluminous to go into. The pitching side, however, is as weak as the positional side is strong, particular in terms of experienced or elite talent.

12) Once and for all could you tell everyone that Darwin Barney is not a real person.

BN: Hey, kids! Let's talk about the origin of species ...

13) What are your predictions for the Cubs in 2013?

BN: A reasonable range for wins is probably 60 to 70. If that happens, they'll bring up the rear in the now Astro-less Central.

14) As an outsider what are your thoughts on our Pittsburgh Pirates?

BN: Pretty much what I've thought for the last couple years: so much high upside young talent, one of these years it's all going to pop. Maybe this is the year.

15) Any final parting thoughts for the Pirates faithful?

BN: Not all Cubs fans feel this way, but a great many do: if the Cubs are going to suck anyway, it would be nice to see the Pirates finally put together a winning season. Our fans feel for your fans.

Before we leave for the day I just wanted to give a big thanks to Brett. He always does good work and it was great to get his thoughts for a second straight season. Make sure that you give them a follow and read his blog. Top notch stuff.

Tomorrow we start to get looking into the Pittsburgh Pirates and what the hell we are all supposed to expect from a team that could be awful or awesome, but most likely something in between.

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