Pressing Questions: The Chicago Cubs

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  • Starlin Castro
    Starlin Castro
  • Carlos Zambrano
    Carlos Zambrano
    Venezuelan baseball pitcher

Back in August, when the Cubs finally announced that Jim Hendry had been relieved of his duties as general manager, the ballclub had a $125 million payroll, yet was on its way to a 91-loss season. Chicago's farm system was bereft of talent. The everyday lineup featured four hitters who ranked near the bottom of the league in walk-rate — Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano. The team's most expensive starting pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, had just been placed on the disqualified list. The club's use of advanced stats had changed very little since it last won the World Series ... in 1908.

Into this theater of despair stepped new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, new manager Dale Sveum, and new GM Jed Hoyer.

At Epstein's introductory press conference — and at most of his subsequent appearances — he's discussed the need to "build a solid foundation for sustained success." Only rarely does he mention the need to destroy the preexisting foundation for sustained failure, but he clearly recognizes that's part of his job, too. Under Hendry, the Cubs threw extraordinary money (and no-trade clauses) at ordinary players. The organization placed remarkably high value on unimportant skills, and they ignored traits that contribute to winning.

When Theo was asked recently about his early off-season moves, he offered this uncommonly candid assessment of the team:

"We'll be scratching and clawing, trying to acquire as many assets as we can," Epstein said. "Very bluntly, we don't have enough of them. We don't have enough good players. We don't have enough young players. We don't have enough players whose contributions on the field exceed or match their salary."

There, in a nutshell, is a perfect encapsulation of the 2011 Cubs: Not good, not young, not cheap.

So the rebuilding job now underway at Clark & Addison is no small endeavor. Epstein and Hoyer need to untangle an expensive mess, while simultaneously changing the team's culture, reshaping its priorities and replenishing its minor league system. The major league roster is not exactly talent-rich, but there are nonetheless a few interesting fantasy commodities on the north side, plus a few end-of-draft options. Let's review...

First of all: 1908. Wow. That's a long [expletive] time.

You ain't kiddin'. It really is a long time, beyond the memory of almost every living human. Ford made the first Model T in 1908. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed that year. The last emperor of the Qing Dynasty ascended the throne in China in '08, and Bulgaria declared itself independent from the Ottoman Empire.

So, um ... yeah. The Ottoman Empire. Long time.

The final game of the '08 World Series at Detroit's Bennett Park actually drew the smallest crowd in the history of the event, just 6,210 fans. The winning pitcher that day was a man named Orval (pictured right). The Cubs' staff also featured men named Chick, Rube and Mordecai.

Hey, awesome segue. I was just about to ask for the names of this year's starters.

Well, as of this writing, the team appears to have a six-man rotation. Two of the six will likely be drafted in standard mixed leagues — Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza — but one of 'em could be dealt before opening day. Garza has been linked to Detroit in trade rumors, and other teams should be interested as well. If you're drafting him, understand that he may not finish the season in the N.L.

Dempster is a clear bounce-back candidate, although he turns 35 in May, so his peak is in the past. He had poor luck on balls-in-play last season (.324 BABIP), yet his velocity was just fine and he still managed to whiff 8.5 batters per nine innings. Dempster's fantasy ratios were ruined by a disastrous April, but he actually posted a 3.59 ERA over his final 27 starts. There's no obvious need to avoid him at the draft table.

I can't make a convincing case for Randy Wells in mixed leagues, nor am I willing to endorse new additions Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad or Travis Wood. Stream at your own risk. If you absolutely insist on pursuing one of the lesser Cubs starters, Wood seems like the play. He's just 24 years old, and only a year removed from a useful season in Cincinnati (7.54 K/9, 1.08 WHIP). Wood took a big step backward last season, however, in all meaningful categories. Spring performance matters a great deal for Travis.

Dempster, Maholm, Volstad, Wood ... that's a terrible 2011 N.L.-only staff right there. Yikes.

Oh, I know. And the Cubs' front office knows it, too. But 2012 is obviously a transition year, and the team is taking a bunch low-risk, low-cost fliers. No harm.

Perhaps we should run through all the new arrivals, then.

OK, let's do it. Pencils and scorecards ready, please.

In: 1B Anthony Rizzo, 3B Ian Stewart, OF David DeJesus, SP Travis Wood, SP Chris Volstad, SP Paul Maholm.

Out: 1B Carlos Pena (free agent), 3B Aramis Ramirez, OF Tyler Colvin, SP Carlos Zambrano, RP Andrew Cashner, RP Sean Marshall.

There are a few other names entering and exiting, but those are the biggest. I won't say the team has made out like bandits, exactly, but they're now younger and cheaper — and, without Zambrano, they're 87 percent less crazy.

Rizzo ranks among the best power-hitting first base prospects in the game, though you shouldn't expect to see his name in the opening day lineup. Hoyer has already acknowledged that last year's call-up did Rizzo no favors. Bryan LaHair is expected to be Chicago's starting first baseman, at least through April and May. He's coming off an MVP season in the Pacific Coast League (38 HR, .331/.405/.664), though he did it at age 28. LaHair carries the Quad-A label at the moment, but it seems he'll have a chance to shed it. He's worth a look as a CI/Util option in deeper formats.

(Note: If I had any real enthusiasm left for Ian Stewart, this is where I'd express it. Maybe the change of scenery will help, but the man is leaving the best hitting environment in the league. If he wasn't eligible at a talent-scarce spot, I wouldn't even mention him).

Any updates on Starlin Castro's off-the-field issues?

I'm really not the guy you want to consult on legal matters, so I'll just link to this CSN Chicago piece by Gail Fischer, which discusses the situation. Castro was recently questioned by Chicago police regarding September allegations of sexual assault. According to Fischer's report, "a source close to the investigation says charges are unlikely to be filed."

Castro has hit over .300 in back-to-back seasons, at ages 20 and 21, and he's coming off a 10-homer, 22-steal campaign. He's a work in progress defensively and he's a tough man to walk (see above), but this is clearly a player with elite skills. Castro is the fourth shortstop off the board in early fantasy mocks, with an ADP of 45.4 at MDC. If he reaches his ceiling, he'll be a 15/25 player who challenges for batting titles.

Any chance we'll see Brett Jackson on opening day?

Doubtful, since Chicago's outfield is so crowded with vets (Soriano, Byrd, DeJesus), but a trade could soon clear a path for him. Before the Rizzo acquisition, Jackson was really the only player of interest in the upper levels of the Cubs' minor league system. He's a 23-year-old center-fielder coming off a 20-homer, 21-steal season across two levels (Double-A and Triple-A). Jackson has reached base at a .393 clip in the minors, but he strikes out at a high rate. When he arrives in the big leagues, let's just hope for a .270-ish average with respectable power and speed totals. We'll certainly see him in Wrigley this season, and he'll be a recommended add.