COMMENTARY | The Chicago Cubs have a ton of question marks heading into the 2013 campaign. Such is life for a rebuilding franchise coming off a 101-loss season.
I've attempted to narrow the list to three of the bigger questions that will plague the Cubs in the coming months:
1. Can this team generate enough offense to win games?
2. What should be done at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?
3. Will this club avoid another 100 loss season?
The Cubs ranked 28/30 in runs scored last year (613) with only the Miami Marlins (609) and Houston Astros (583) plating fewer runs. The Cubs' on-base percentage (.302) was even worse, ranking 29/30, just ahead of the Seattle Mariners (.296).
Yet despite the anemic numbers from 2012, little was done to strengthen the Cubs' lineup this offseason. The signing of free-agent outfielders Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston will give the Cubs better flexibility to play the starting pitching matchups, but platoon options only go so far.
The true driving force in the lineup will again be Alfonso Soriano. He'll be heavily relied upon to perform as well as he did last season: .262, 32 HRs, 108 RBIs in 151 games played. Staying healthy, however, has long been a challenge for Soriano, and matching his production from a season ago will be no easy task for the 37-year-old.
Having Anthony Rizzo in the lineup for a full season should provide a boost for the entire lineup, including a true benefit to Soriano. Of course, that's assuming Rizzo doesn't fall victim to the sophomore jinx similar to the likes of Geovany Soto, who slumped badly following his Rookie of the Year Award season in 2008.
Rizzo's solid showing in the World Baseball Classic was an encouraging sign he can pick back up where he left off last year. The Cubs and Soriano will be desperate for him, as the lineup gets rather dicey near the bottom of the order.
Catcher Welington Castillo is a mystery having seen fewer than 200 at-bats last season. Darwin Barney posted a lower OBP (.299) than Tony Campana (.308) and Brett Jackson (.303), and the Cubs still don't know what they'll get at third base between Luis Valbuena and Ian Stewart. Even the usually steady Starlin Castro saw his average and OBP dip around 20 points last year.
One new wrinkle to help the lineup click is the addition of Rob Deer as assistant hitting coach. Deer, a former teammate of manager Dale Sveum, played 11 seasons in the majors and will serve under hitting coach James Rowson. All totaled, that gives the club three hitting instructors if you count Sveum, who was the hitting coach in Milwaukee when the Cubs hired him.
Are three hitting coaches better than two? Well, we'll see. But, currently, the Cubs have the worst OBP in the majors this spring (.312), leaving plenty of reasons to worry the offense won't be any better in 2013.
THE TRADE DEADLINE
Allow yourself to imagine the Cubs are in playoff contention come July. And I mean real playoff contention; let's say they're leading a wild-card spot, or three or fewer games back.
We know president of baseball operations Theo Epstein believes all postseason opportunities should be cherished. We also know such a scenario would likely call for the Cubs to add a player or two for the stretch run, essentially players who will push the Cubs into postseason baseball.
With the team surprisingly on the brink of becoming a postseason Cinderella, we can fairly assume the fan base would strongly press the organization to live up to its word and make any necessary trades to help the club reach October--even at the risk of setting back the rebuild.
Disrupting the rebuild could easily happen if the Cubs cave to popular demand and trade some of their best prospects. So this raises an interesting question: How much should the Cubs ante up via trade to take a crack at postseason baseball?
My initial reaction is the Cubs shouldn't give up much. Although this fantasy season would be a sweet ride through the first few months of the season, no deadline deal can guarantee the Cubs reach the postseason. Then again, I can't promise I wouldn't change my mind if this unbelievable dream was playing out in real life, however unlikely.
Odds are less than a handful of the Cubs' highest-rated prospects will blossom into star players anyway. So it's possible the Cubs wouldn't be haunted forever by dealing a couple of promising prospects for a chance to make the postseason. But it's no doubt taking a huge risk at setting the organization further back in the pursuit of assembling a championship-caliber team.
However tough a decision that would be for the Cubs, I'm sure they would favor it over the reality such matters won't need to be addressed during July. Barring a sports miracle on the North Side of Chicago, we can be quite certain the Cubs are sellers and not buyers by the trade deadline.
More realistically, critical questions such as whether or not three months is enough time to determine Matt Garza's future with the organization will need to be answered. Should the Cubs trade him, as they planned on doing last year, or do they sign him to a long-term extension? What if there are takers for Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson, do you deal them, too?
The Cubs will also need to reevaluate the market for Soriano, Carlos Marmol and David DeJesus. How much is too much to ask in return? Is salary relief better than a prospect in Soriano's case? And, most important, which trades are the Cubs better off not making?
AVOIDING 100 LOSSES
Epstein defines success and failure by whether or not the Cubs make the postseason. If so, there's a good chance the Cubs have already failed before opening day.
Even if that's the case, thankfully we know the Cubs are not failing behind the scenes when you look at the changes to front-office personnel, the retooling of the major-league roster, and the collection of talented young players being assembled in the minor leagues.
But there's one universal measuring stick by which the Cubs can show their fans the patience of rebuilding is paying off, and that's in the win column. It doesn't necessarily need to be pretty in year two, or even above .500. But the Cubs do need to avoid another 100-loss season. If that's not of concern to Epstein, it should be.
With the Astros moving to the American League West and the Cubs willing to strip the club of veteran players at the trade deadline, it's possible the team could sink to the worst record in the National League.
A triple-digit loss season is no way to sell product--not to sponsors, not to fans, not to free agents. Missing the postseason may be deemed a failed season in 2013. But the least the Cubs can do is show improvement from losing 101 games last season.
Brian Corbin is a Chicago-based sportswriter. He's covered the Cubs year-round at BullpenBrian.com since 2007. His posts have been published on the Chicago Sun-Times News Group web sites and numerous baseball blogs.
You can follow Brian on Twitter @bullpenbrian.
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