COMMENTARY | Every spring, before the outfield ivy changes colors and the boys of summer return to the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs' roster must first undergo a facelift. The latest iteration the Northsiders will be running out there may be full of names the casual fan is unfamiliar with, but the only question that really matters is whether or not the Cubs will be better than their 101-loss campaign of 2012.
For the answer to this question, we have to grade the Cubs' new group of free agent signees. Are these players just stopgaps until the future finally arrives from the minors, or will they actually have something to say about the Cubs taking that next step toward somewhat-average?
Kyuji Fujikawa - The biggest splash the Cubs made this winter was locking up the Japanese-born right-hander to a two-year, $9.5 million contract. Fuijkawa, 32, recorded 223 career saves and posted a 1.77 ERA through 12 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. How do you say "Mariano Rivera" in Japanese?
All right, so maybe we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves, but after enduring a Cubs bullpen that notched the fewest saves in all of baseball last season, "How do you say 'John Axford' in Japanese?" would also be a welcomed improvement.
Grade: あ (A)
Nate Schierholtz - Who saw "Moneyball?" Nate Schierholtz could have easily starred in that film, as he is exactly the type of solid, buy-low player around whom Billy Beane's philosophy was built. The Cubs signed the son of former Atlanta Braves GM John Schierholtz to a one-year $2.25 million deal with expectations he will be the everyday right fielder.
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said, "We feel he's a guy who has been undervalued and a guy who, with more at-bats, can thrive."
In six seasons, Schierholtz carries a batting average of .270 with a healthy .319 on-base percentage. He also brings over some nice hardware as a member of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Since the Cubs are currently mired in a 104-year World Series drought, Schierholtz might be wise to leave his jewelry at home -- drool stains are hard to buff out of diamonds and gold.
Edwin Jackson - The Cubs signed the veteran right-hander to a four-year, $52 million contract with the hopes he can help a pitching staff that recorded the second fewest number of wins in the National League last season (61).
The 29-year-old was 10-11 in 31 starts for the Washington Nationals in 2012, and recorded a 4.03 ERA. Jackson has a career record of 70-71 after 10 major-league seasons.
Ian Stewart - The Cubs desperately needed a third baseman. Last season's quartet of Luis Valbuena, Jeff Baker, Josh Vitters, and Ian Stewart hit just .211 combined at the hot corner. Yet, after a wrist injury cost Stewart the majority of the 2012 season, the Cubs re-signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract.
The Cubs really would have loved for Josh Vitters to come up and grab the third base job, but the 23-year-old rookie hit just .121 and had 33 strikeouts in only 99 plate appearances. Stewart, who does have a 25-home run season on his resume, will likely be the Cubs' seat-filler until either Javier Baez or Junior Lake are ready.
Scott Feldman - Continuing their complete overhaul of the starting rotation, the Cubs signed Scott Feldman to a one-year, $6 million contract.
Feldman, 29, is a piece the Cubs hope can duplicate his 2009 season when he had a record of 17-8 for the Texas Rangers. Unfortunately, Feldman's other seven seasons have produced a sub-par record of 22-36 with a 5.63 ERA.
"I know he has bounced around a little bit with the Rangers, but in large part that was due to the amount of starting pitchers they had," Hoyer said. "We clearly see him as a starter, and we are excited to add him to the rotation."
Scott Baker - The Cubs signed Scott Baker to a one-year, $5.5 million contract after Tommy John surgery cost him the 2012 season. Baker has been a productive pitcher throughout his career, including a 46-28 record over his last four seasons. As a measured gamble for Theo Epstein, the Cubs will look for Baker to rebound from the surgery, but can also move away from him in a heartbeat should his recovery prove unsuccessful.
"You don't set out looking for Tommy John guys," Epstein said. "The reality is it's not exactly a buyer's market for pitching, so you have to take your risks. Do you want to take a risk on a guy with bad makeup? Do you want to take a risk on a guy with bad command? Or do you want to take the risk on a guy you really believe in who is coming off Tommy John surgery and has appropriate value points? I think we're very comfortable placing our bet on Scott Baker."
Dioner Navarro - The Cubs signed Navarro to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. Navaro was an All-Star in 2008 when he batted .295 with 7 home runs and 54 RBIs for the Tampa Bay Rays. He has bounced around to five different teams in his nine-year career. He hit .290 with 2 home runs and 12 RBIs in just 24 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2012.
What should become apparent after looking at the Cubs' haul of free-agent acquisitions is that there are not many long-term contracts being given. The Cubs used shorter deals on a lot of journeymen-type players with hopes they can have breakout seasons but who offer little risk for the future if they fail to produce.
It is clear the Cubs are rebuilding through their farm system. In the meantime, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have built a team with the potential to be more competitive. They have also positioned the Cubs to have the cap space available to go out and sign a big name should this group become a surprise, like the Baltimore Orioles of a year ago. We will just have to wait and see whether this concoction of ingredients produces anything remotely resembling a major league team.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
3B Ian Stewart
Lee Anthony is a freelance writer who covers sports and entertainment. He has a self-proclaimed "encyclopedia-like knowledge" of all things Chicago Cubs' baseball. Lee's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Yardbarker and Boston Metro. In 2012, Lee was honored with an award in sports writing for his work with Football Nation.
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