Year 2 of the Cubs' massive rebuilding program begins Monday in Pittsburgh.
Not much is expected from the North Siders this year, but there is considerable pressure for the team to
show progress under president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The two execs are sticking to
their guns in saying that the Cubs want to compete this season, but all the time keeping the focus on
building for the future.
If there's any skepticism in Chicago, it's because Epstein and Hoyer said the same things last year, but
the Cubs weren't even close to being competitive, reeling to a 61-101 record. There's no doubt the record
would have been better had the front office not traded away several veteran players in July when the club
was well out of the race.
But there is optimism, however guarded, around the team after a fairly uneventful spring training, save
for some injuries to key players.
The Cubs played relatively clean ball in Arizona. The pitching looked OK. But the Cubs do need to show
they can get on base more and score more runs on offense.
The task of starting on Opening Day fell to right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who got the nod because ace
Matt Garza opens the season on the DL with a left-lat muscle injury. Samardzija, who has taken over a
leadership role, says he feels things are different this year.
"I like our depth; I like our versatility," Samardzija said. "I think we've got a lot of different guys
who can play a lot of positions, hit in a lot of different spots in the lineup.
"I think we've got a good handful of guys who can take a game over themselves."
Samardzija was referring specifically to slugging outfielder Alfonso Soriano and up-and-coming first
baseman Anthony Rizzo, who figure to be the main power threats.
Manager Dale Sveum kept the team together last year throughout the losing. At no time was their
dissension or a clubhouse distraction.
Soriano also says he notices a difference.
"This year, it's different," he said near the end of spring training. "If the (pitchers) are healthy and
the starting lineup is healthy, we'll do better. The message the manager gave to us is we have to just play
hard, every pitch, every at-bat and on defense. I think we'll be OK. We're hungry to win; we have a very
nice group. We want to surprise people.
"We've played with emotion. All those guys, they're young and they're passionate. That's the most
important thing. I believe in this team. We're young, but at the same time we have so much talent."