The Cubs weren't expected to win in 2012, and true to form, they didn't, losing 100 games for the first time since 1966.
But at this stage of their rebuilding project, success isn't measured as much in wins and losses as in the accumulation of talent. And under the watchful eye of Theo Epstein, architect of the Red Sox's two most recent World Series winners, that's becoming the Cubs' specialty.
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Granted, most of that talent is still in the minor leagues, where Fantasy owners can only dream of it. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler should give them plenty of home runs to look forward to, though. And Daniel Vogelbach, bad body and all, might turn out to be an impact hitter as well.
Of course, not all of last year's developments happened on the farm. Jeff Samardzija's transition from the starting rotation to the bullpen couldn't have gone much better. His strikeout-per-inning potential gives the Cubs two legitimate front-liners at the top of their rotation, provided Matt Garza bounces back from a season-ending triceps injury and subsequent stress reaction in his elbow. Anthony Rizzo also made a smooth transition to the majors last summer after botching his debut with the Padres in 2012. His 15 homers in 337 at-bats are a pretty good indication he's here to stay, with room to grow at age 23.
Those early returns have the Cubs feeling so confident about their nucleus that they were actually willing to invest a little something in their present this offseason, signing Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva to multi-year deals. True, neither is a budding All-Star, but Jackson at least adds legitimacy to a starting rotation that's slowly molding into something halfway respectable.
Naturally, the Cubs have all the stopgaps and retreads you'd expect to find on a rebuilding club. Alfonso Soriano's unexpected resurgence at age 36 buys him another year as the cleanup hitter, reclamation project Ian Stewart gets a mulligan for his injury-plagued (and gloriously inept) 2012 and David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz somehow form two-thirds of a starting major-league outfield. Fantasy owners should know better than to count on any of them.
But among the rough, the Cubs have their share of diamonds, and those diamonds only figure to increase in number going forward.
Breakout ... Jeff Samardzija, starting pitcher
Be honest. You scoffed when you read that assessment of Samardzija just now. "Front-liner? He went 9-13. He had a 3.81 ERA. The only line he's fronting is the one to get the spelling fixed on the back of his jersey." Au contraire, mon frere. Sure, he had a few rough patches. What first-time starter doesn't? But the differentiator for him, other than his 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, is that he got better with the accumulation of innings. While most converted relievers discover too late that they haven't extended themselves properly, Samardzija somehow found a second gear, pitching seven-plus innings in nine of his final 13 starts and compiling a 2.58 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings during that stretch. The Cubs still shut him down early because, you know, that's what a team in their position is supposed to do with a talented young pitcher, but had they allowed Samardzija to finish the year on his own terms, chances are he would have priced himself out of this discussion.
Bust ... Edwin Jackson, starting pitcher
Jackson deserves consideration as a bust if for no other reason than because he's been one before. Oh so many times before. After a year in which he produced a career-low 1.22 WHIP and career-high 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings, you might be tempted to think he's turned the corner, targeting him alongside pitchers with similar numbers such as Ryan Vogelsong and Homer Bailey. But if he turned the corner, why did his ERA jump to 4.38 and his WHIP to 1.31 in the second half? It's all too reminiscent of his supposed "breakout" in 2009, when he made the All-Star team with a 2.52 ERA in the first half only to compile a 5.07 ERA in the second half. And if you thought he had bad luck with the Nationals last year, going 10-11, just wait until you see what pitching for the Cubs does to his record. The chances of Jackson's WHIP regressing to the 1.40 range are too high for you to make a significant investment in him.
Buyer beware ... Carlos Villanueva, starting pitcher/relief pitcher
Villanueva will go undrafted in a decent number of Fantasy leagues, and for that reason you could just as easily classify him as a sleeper. But particularly in Head-to-Head points leagues, where his eligibility at relief pitcher earns him a special distinction, his sleeper appeal might be a little overstated. Yeah, he averaged 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter last year, but he made only 16 starts. And the last five of those starts were nothing short of brutal, elevating his ERA from 3.10 to 4.16. Villanueva has never had sustained success as a starter, and considering he's taking the rotation spot of Travis Wood, who delivered a respectable 3.56 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over his final 13 starts last year, a two-year deal might not be enough to compel the Cubs to stick with him if things go south. So yeah, Villanueva has eligibility at relief pitcher, but if he delivers a 4.50 ERA and winds up back in the bullpen, what good does it do you?
Anthony Rizzo may have graduated to the majors last year, but the Cubs still have two of the game's best position prospects in shortstop Javier Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler. Baez is at least a year away, but his lightning-quick bat should generate monster power numbers at the weak shortstop position. Soler has enough playing experience from his days in Cuba that he could speed all the way to the majors this year, though only if he makes a mockery of minor-league pitching. Both are no-brainers in long-term keeper leagues ... Brett Jackson's disastrous debut last year only reinforced concerns that he strikes out too much to maximize his five-category potential, but at age 24, he's still the most likely of the Cubs prospects to contribute in 2013. Don't forget about him in NL-only leagues ... Arodys Vizcaino, the prize of the Paul Maholm deal, represents the best the system has to offer pitching-wise. The Cubs will handle him with kid gloves in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, but at least now you don't have to worry about him getting confined to the bullpen. Unlike the Braves, the Cubs won't let Vizcaino's injury history dictate his path to the majors.
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