COMMENTARY | Teams with triple-digit loss totals from the year before are likely to have more than three pressing concerns entering the subsequent season, and the 2013 version of the Chicago Cubs is no exception after succeeding at keeping the Houston Astros company in 2012.
But a hole at third base, a patchwork outfield and a bullpen full of faces that might be in need of name tags for the average fan to identify are three issues that can't be ignored.
WILL A THIRD BASEMAN PLEASE STAND UP?
The Cubs are living the single life at the hot corner this spring. They're in non-exclusive relationships with a trio of suitors undeserving of commitment.
Ian Stewart's 2012 ended in June with a .201 average and .627 OPS.
Josh Vitters, the team's 2007 first-round pick, was called up at the end of the year and was baffled by major-league pitching.
The rest of the National League Central is happy to know they're both taking hacks in Cubs camp trying to figure it out while also trying to figure out their injured left quads.
After last season, these are not inspiring names, leaving Luis Valbuena as possibly the best of the bunch by process of elimination rather than assertion. He's the only one who has taken an at-bat this spring, and he's batting .318 (7-for-22). That doesn't mean he'll get the at-bats in anything more than a timeshare with Stewart but they're both left-handed bats, so it wouldn't be a true platoon.
The silver lining to this is taking on more of a golden shine as the spring goes on with Javier Baez continuing to impress. The Cubs' top prospect is batting .290 with two home runs in 13 games in big-league camp after pushing his way to the top of the organization's farm system last year as a 19-year-old.
Yes, he's a shortstop, but with all other infield jobs secured by current shortstop Starlin Castro, Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the weakness at third leaves room for the Cubs to give Baez a shot as soon as he's ready. It's still uncertain how the 4-5-6 infield positions will shake out when Baez joins this infield, but at least the answer to this question has a clear-cut upside within view.
The same cannot necessarily be said about the outfield.
THE OUTFIELD: AN OUTCAST, A FILL-IN AND A PLATOON
No one is going to mistake this outfield for the Atlanta-based firm of Upton-Upton-Heyward, but this isn't the time to debate the merit of Alfonzo Soriano as the Cubs' starting left fielder. With or without him, the Cubs' outfield is nontraditional.
Despite a bounce-back 2012, Soriano's departure from Chicago is overdue in most eyes. He was much healthier in 2012 than previous years with the Cubs, appearing in 151 games, but the constant trade rumors make him even less of a certainty as the meat continues to be ripped from the $136 million contract weighing him down.
That said, if you remove him from this lineup, fans in the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field might be starved for home-run balls because there isn't much more right-handed power on this team.
I'm by no means trying to rip on David DeJesus by calling him a fill-in. He's the only guy at spring training who could beat a video assistant in a bunting tournament. He led the team in on-base percentage in 2012. He's just not a center fielder. After spending most of his time in right last year, he'll play center to start 2013 because no one in the organization is proving himself ready to win the job. But he doesn't have the range to give the Cubs the kind of defense up middle that every club strives for.
The job opening is certainly there for Brett Jackson to win. He's a defensive improvement, but he showed his bat isn't ready last year by striking out 59 times in 120 at-bats. If he doesn't emerge, it might be a little while before anyone else promising surfaces because 2012 first-rounder Albert Almora is still a ways from the big-league discussion.
Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz are the likely right-field platoon. They aren't in the organization's long-term plans, but they also don't have $19 million contracts due to them this year like their left-field counterpart that restrict those long-term plans.
Right field isn't a sexy facet of this club for fans to keep an eye on this season, but being unattached there going into next season could be a good thing if the pace of Jorge Soler's development continues to increase.
Also, having both Hairston and Schierholtz gives the Cubs the option to move Hairston to left in the event of a Soriano deal.
This is an outfield in transition that isn't expected to be kept together. And while it is together, not much is expected of it.
A BULLPEN WITH THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE WRONG GUY
Carlos Marmol is the disheveled lead singer holding this band back from becoming an understated, if not passable, unit. If the Cubs had finalized the Marmol for Dan Haren trade this offseason, Cubs fans would have lined up to drive Marmol to the airport.
They didn't, and though they still might elect to ship him away before opening day, his presence in the bullpen holds manager Dale Sveum back from seeing if other guys can thrive in more defined roles.
If Marmol is still a member of the Cubs on April 1, it's hard to envision him not starting the season as the closer. The Cubs' front office is going to peek through gaps between fingers on the hands covering their eyes as he pitches, hoping for him to impress visiting scouts rather than open the ninth inning with four straight balls.
If he's gone, the remaining names get repositioned on the late-inning chessboard. This is certainly the preferred method given the current direction of the club with other less-recognizable arms showing themselves as at least capable early this spring.
Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa is delivering what the Cubs hoped he would through his first five spring appearances. He'll join some combination of righties involving Shawn Camp, Michael Bowden, Rafael Dolis and Hector Rondon in the bullpen. James Russell could be the only lefty.
These are names plenty of Cubs fans aren't going to be familiar with, but not because they're all particularly fresh faces. It's just that any significant news involving the Cubs' bullpen in 2012 was focused almost entirely on Marmol walking 7.3 batters per nine innings two years after striking out batters at a record-setting rate.
If left-handed starters Travis Wood and Chris Rusin continue posting solid spring numbers, it's entirely possible Rusin could push either Scott Feldman or Carlos Villanueva into the bullpen's long-man role, adding another righty to the list of those requiring regular innings and furthering the incentive for the Cubs to move Marmol. And once Matt Garza and Scott Baker enter the rotation, the dispersal of innings gets even trickier.
Moving Marmol doesn't necessarily make this bullpen better. He's still the most unhittable pitcher in the organization. And moving him doesn't necessarily transform this group of relievers into an effective one.
The reality is the Cubs were in the bottom half of team ERA from the seventh inning on last year (3.95), but that's a stat that doesn't take some huge overhaul to improve. A decent first step toward doing that might be establishing some semblance of order rather than relying on a provisional hierarchy dependent on a former king.
The bullpen isn't a major question mark for the Cubs because it is entirely barren. It's a question mark because of who they allow to define it.