Pressing Questions: The Chicago Cubs

This week, we begin our usual series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report next month. Fantasy owners report immediately...

The year ahead will be the 105th consecutive season in which the Chicago Cubs fail to win the World Series, thus extending the most remarkable streak of non-achievement in the history of American sports anything. If you came to this preview looking for false hope, Cubs fan ... well, sorry. This team, on paper, looks pretty bad. Chicago was one of only three squads to post a sub-.400 winning percentage last year. Even if this group improves by 10 wins, they'll still be a 91-loss team. There's basically a zero percent chance that the Cubs will earn a place in the postseason in 2013 — and no, the second wild card spot doesn't really help them. Five extra wild card spots might not help.

True, there are a few interesting names on the North Side pitching staff, some of them new to the franchise. But this team's lineup was miserable last season — 28th in run scoring, 29th in on-base percentage, 27th in slugging — and it hasn't really improved in any significant way. Chicago is still very much in the rebuild phase, at all organizational levels. Former GM Jim Hendry left behind an overpaid, under-skilled mess.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of ownable pieces here for fantasy owners to consider. Let's get to work...

Q: Anthony Rizzo is one of those pieces, yes? What's the forecast for him?

A: Yeah, Rizzo was one of the great prospect success stories in baseball last year. You might recall that he was an ill-prepared wreck when the Pads promoted him to the bigs back in 2011, at age 21. But he rebuilt his swing last offseason, then dominated at Triple-A (.342/.405/.696). When the Cubs called him up in late-June, he was ready to succeed. Rizzo went 2-for-4 in his Wrigley debut, he homered in his fourth game as a Cub, and he then hit another 14 bombs over the final three months of the season. The kid finished strong, delivering a .292/.375/.491 line in September. He's legit.

Hopefully the fantasy community won't set ridiculous expectations for him in 2013, because he's still just 23. No one should be unhappy with a consolidation year. Rizzo is projected by ZiPS to be an absolute monster this season, we should note: 85 R, 31 HR, 109 RBIs, .279/.349/.503. He could fall short of forecast yet still be a useful fantasy asset. Over a full season, Rizzo is clearly a good bet to reach the seats 26-30 times. He can assist your fake team in the power categories without being a batting average disaster. At his current mock draft price (ADP 117.5 at MDC), he offers obvious profit potential.

Q: Starlin Castro didn't exactly make a major leap in 2012. What's on tap this season?

A: Castro's fantasy value dipped slightly last year, thanks to a 24-point drop in batting average (and a 29-point drop in BABIP), but he still finished at No. 85 in the overall ranks. Nobody lost their league because they spent an early pick on a 14-homer, 25-steal shortstop. Remember, Castro is actually seven months younger than Rizzo. There's growth potential here. And even if Castro never makes the jump to the top tier at short, he's already a respectable contributor across all five categories, relative to position averages.

I'd be surprised if Castro's batting average doesn't climb back to the .300-.310 neighborhood this season, with his power and speed numbers holding steady. His batted-ball rates didn't really change substantially from 2011 to 2012, so there's no obvious reason to fret about last year's .283 AVG. The guy can hit. He's never been an on-base machine (.336 career OBP), nor is he a defensive whiz, so it's fair to think of him as a player who's perhaps more valuable in fantasy than real-life. In our game, he remains an early-round commodity. The scarcity zealots will probably nudge him into Round 3 in mixed leagues of standard size.

Q: Carlos Marmol is still the closer, yes?

A: Yup. For now. The Cubs were close to flipping him to the Angels during the offseason, so let's not assume Marmol will finish the year in Chicago. However, he's owed $9.8 million this year and has a limited no-trade — his deal was a classic Hendry buy-high — so perhaps he won't be the easiest guy to move. If Marmol is going to re-emerge a trade chip, he'll need to open the season with the same effectiveness he displayed at the end of 2012. Carlos was terrific after the break (1.52 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 11.8 K/9), but brutal in the early months.

The Cubs signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year, $9.5 million deal in December, and he figures to be the next man up in the bullpen. The 32-year-old had a stellar closing career in Japan (stats here), with consistently high K-rates. He'll be a reliever of interest for those chasing saves this spring.

Q: Is this the year that Ian Stewart final--?

A: Shut up.

Q: No, for real. Don't you think that maybe Stew--?

A: No, I don't. SHUT. UP.

We're not having the Ian Stewart discussion. You can't make me do it. Even in gigantic N.L.-only leagues, I'll be looking to fill third base with almost anyone else. He's coming off a wrist injury, the ceiling here isn't all that tempting, and ... well, I'm done having these Stewart discussion. New subject, please.

Q: OK then. Changing gears ...

How bullish should we be on the new pitching additions?

A: Better question. Chicago inked Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to reasonable one-year deals, at a total cost of $11.5 million. Both starters escape the DH league, which should clearly help, plus Feldman leaves the launching pad in Arlington. Baker will be less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery on opening day, so it's possible that we won't see him until May or June. Assuming he recovers his stuff, Baker could emerge as a marketable commodity near the trade deadline (or, of course, the team could decide it wants him to stick around into the future. When he's right, he's good). Baker is a flyball pitcher who keeps the walks to a minimum and strikes out batters at a respectable rate. Feldman has groundball tendencies and a much lower career K-rate than Baker (5.36 K/9 vs. 7.23), but he's another serviceable arm who might spark trade interest. Will you draft either player in mixed leagues? No, probably not. The run support situation here isn't ideal, and these guys are something less than fantasy aces.

Edwin Jackson is the more interesting starter for fantasy purposes, in an end-of-draft sort of way. He's a hard-thrower who coaxes plenty of grounders, and he strikes out close to seven batters per nine innings (career 6.87 K/9). Jackson has no-hit stuff when he's going well and eight-walk stuff when he isn't. (And, on rare occasions, he breaks out both kinds of stuff). Perhaps the best thing about Jackson, and the main reason the Cubs gave him a four-year deal, is that he's started at least 31 games in six straight seasons. He'll give the team a decent number of quality innings, and he's good enough to be a mid-rotation contributor when Chicago is finally ready to make a playoff run.

Q: What the hell happened to Brett Jackson? Why isn't his name in the projected lineup over there —> on the right?

A: Jackson was useless after being called up last August, hitting .175 over 120 at-bats and piling up Ks (59). He homered four times in 44 games and went 0-for-3 on stolen base attempts, impressing no one. He'll likely open the 2013 season in Triple-A, where he'll unveil a new swing:

Brett Jackson spent time with [manager Dale] Sveum and the Cubs hitting coaches in Mesa. Jackson apparently made “huge, huge strides” and has completely overhauled his swing. Sveum said the young outfielder could be in the mix in 2013.

“I think he’s got a good base to work with going into the rest of the winter and going into Spring Training to understand the art of hitting, so to speak,” Sveum said.

So there's that. The 24-year-old Jackson didn't hit for average in the PCL last season (.256), and he struck out at a ridiculous rate (158 Ks), but he delivered modest power and speed totals (49 extra-base hits, 27 SB). He's not a lost cause ... yet.

Q: Any other prospects we need to know?

A: OK, this is where the Cubs get semi-interesting. The team is accumulating serious hitting talent at lower minor league levels. It's easy to see how and when the major league lineup should improve, just as Rizzo and Castro enter their primes. But fantasy managers need to recognize that the most interesting players in Chicago's system — in order, shortstop Javier Baez, outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, slugging first baseman Dan Vogelbach — are merely kids, none of them older than 20. The best names in this organization have star potential, but not in 2013 — and probably not in 2014. If you're a Cubs fan who wants a glimpse of the future, maybe consider heading out to Kane County for a game or three this summer or next.

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