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2012 Fantasy outlooks: Chicago Cubs

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After a second straight fifth-place finish in the NL Central, the Cubs are looking for a new identity. Lovable losers doesn't cut it anymore. These days, championships are in vogue.

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To that end, the Cubs made arguably the biggest splash of the offseason, luring Theo Epstein away from Boston. Joined by longtime sidekick Jed Hoyer, most recently with San Diego, the architect of the Red Sox's two most recent World Championship teams is sure to bring change to the North Side.

Unfortunately, change takes time, especially at the pace Epstein and Hoyer have set so far. Instead of completely overhauling the roster, the two began preparing a blank slate by ridding themselves of two massive contracts (Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena) and one massive head case (Carlos Zambrano). The players they did add are either reclamation projects, such as Ian Stewart and Travis Wood, or undervalued efficiency types, such as David DeJesus and Paul Maholm.

Consider them the Chicago versions of David Ortiz and Kevin Millar.

That's an absolute best-case scenario, of course, but you get the idea. In their rebuilding state, the Cubs can afford to give high-upside players the opportunity to break out and would prefer to do that rather than stick with the status quo. After all, even a presumed Quadruple-A player like Bryan LaHair has a chance to be something more. If the Cubs hit on one or two of them, as the Red Sox did with Ortiz, they'll be that much closer to contention by the time prospects like Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson arrive.

In the meantime, they'll continue to beef up their farm system whenever possible, plugging holes as necessary while waiting for Alfonso Soriano's, Ryan Dempster's and Marlon Byrd's contracts to expire. It's a methodical way to build a contender, no doubt, but it's also a breeding ground for Fantasy sleepers.

Because only shortstop Starlin Castro and ace Matt Garza have any real job security, the door is open for the unknown to emerge and the unheralded to thrive.

Bounce-back player ... Ryan Dempster, SP

How could a 34-year-old who produced an ERA near 5.00 last year be any sort of candidate for a bounce-back season? That's what most Fantasy owners will say when they stumble across Dempster on Draft Day. But before you fall into the same trap, take a second look at the numbers. Maybe that 4.80 ERA isn't the most accurate reflection of Dempster's abilities. Something went wrong for him last April -- something to the tune of a 9.58 ERA -- but he soon figured out whatever it was, posting a 3.94 mark the rest of the way. Meanwhile, his strikeout, walk and home run rates were almost identical to the ones he put up in 2010, when he went 15-12. Dempster didn't lose his stuff last year. He simply got buried early and stayed buried pitching for a bottom-of-the-division club. The latter remains an issue, but if he can avoid the former, his heavy workload and near strikeout-per-inning potential should make him a late-round bargain.

Bust ... Carlos Marmol, RP

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When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over this offseason, one of the first issues they had to address was what to do with Marmol. They established pretty early that, yes, the right-hander would again be the Cubs' first choice for saves entering 2012, but the media's need to ask shows just how short the leash has gotten. If blown saves were Marmol's only problem, it'd be one thing, but the bottom line is he's not the efficient out-getter that Epstein and Hoyer would like their closer to be. His walk rate is as bad as it gets, and as a result, he's always pitching out of jams. Sure, his high strikeout rate helps compensate for it, but if he produces anything short of a best-in-the-league-type hit rate, his WHIP is in the danger zone. Even if Marmol gets off to a hot start, chances are the Cubs will deal him while his value is high. Whether or not he's the closer for his new team is anyone's guess.

Sleeper ... Bryan LaHair, OF

It sounds like a joke, a player as lowly as LaHair getting handed the starting first base job prior to spring training, but if Theo Epstein is willing to endorse it, gosh darn it, so am I. Epstein's Red Sox teams may have ultimately resorted to the Yankees' model of big-name, big-money stars up and down the lineup, but they only got to that point because of his willingness early in his tenure to give long looks to under-the-radar players like this one. Usually, when a player in his late 20s puts up eye-popping numbers at Triple-A like a .331 batting average, 38 homers and 1.070 OPS, he's dismissed right away as a Quadruple-A player, but apparently the Cubs' front office thinks LaHair is different -- and not just because of his impressive 59 at-bat stint in the majors last year. The experiment could still be a failure of Kila Ka'aihue proportions, which is why you shouldn't bother with LaHair in mixed leagues, but late in NL-only formats, why not?

2012 Chicago Cubs Fantasy Outlook
Projected Lineup Pos. Projected Rotation
1 David DeJesus RF 1 Matt Garza RH
2 Starlin Castro SS 2 Ryan Dempster RH
3 Marlon Byrd CF 3 Paul Maholm LH
4 Bryan LaHair 1B 4 Randy Wells RH
5 Alfonso Soriano LF 5 Travis Wood LH
6 Ian Stewart 3B Alt Chris Volstad RH
7 Geovany Soto C
Bullpen Breakdown
8 Darwin Barney 2B CL Carlos Marmol RH
Top bench options SU Kerry Wood RH
R Reed Johnson OF RP Jeff Samardzija RH
R Tony Campana OF RP James Russell LH
R Welington Castillo C RP Marcos Mateo RH
Rookies/Prospects Age Pos. 2011 high Destination
1 Anthony Rizzo 22 1B Majors Triple-A
The Cubs will be more patient with Rizzo after the Padres rushed him last year, but he could get the call if LaHair falters. His outlook is much brighter at Wrigley than it was at PETCO.
2 Brett Jackson 23 OF Triple-A Triple-A
Like Rizzo, Jackson is destined to break through as a major-league regular at some point this season. He has five-category potential if his strikeout rate doesn't come back to bite him.
3 Javier Baez 19 SS Class A Class A
Baez has a higher ceiling than both Rizzo and Jackson, but at age 19, he's a ways away. If he's able to remain at shortstop, his power potential will make him the envy of every dynasty league owner.
4 Welington Castillo 24 C Majors Majors
Castillo will begin the year as the backup to Soto, but if the power he showed in the minors is legit, he could earn more and more at-bats over time. He's a definite sleeper for NL-only leagues.
5 Josh Vitters 22 3B Double-A Triple-A
The former third overall pick hasn't made any progress in the minors but isn't yet a lost cause at age 22. He'll need to take a step forward this year to remain a worthwhile keeper.
Best of the rest: Trey McNutt, SP; Matt Szczur, OF; Junior Lake, SS; Chris Carpenter, RP; Rafael Dolis, RP; Dave Sappelt, OF; Lendy Castillo, RP; Scott Maine, RP; Steve Clevenger, C; John Gaub, RP; Dae-Eun Rhee, SP; Ronald Torreyes, 3B; Jeff Beliveau, RP; and Jay Jackson, SP.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Blue Jays LHP Mark Buehrle said he'll make first start April 10
(6:35 pm ET) Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle said he will make his first start of the season April 10 in Baltimore, reports MLB.com.

The Blue Jays have not yet officially announced their rotation but it is expected they'll go in the order of: Drew Hutchison, R.A. Dickey, Daniel Norris, Buehrle and Aaron Sanchez.

"Doesn't matter to me," Buehrle said when asked if he had a preference. "I'm going to get 33 starts in by the end of the year, so it doesn't matter."

The left hander has started three games this spring, posing a 2.45 ERA in 9 2/3 innings.

Rangers' Jake Smolinski could be unexpected Opening Day left fielder
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(6:21 pm ET) Prior to spring training Jake Smolinski was not on anybody's radar, but a strong camp has put the outfielder in strong contention to be the Rangers' Opening Day left fielder, according to MLB.com.

Smolinski is hitting .333 this spring, with a home run, four doubles and a triple in 39 at-bats.

"I had some setbacks early in my career, some serious injuries," Smolinski said. "I battled back, struggled in the minors but just stuck with it and continued to get better."

Smolinski did get a Double-A call up last season, hitting .389 in 11 games, but broke a bone fouling a pitch off his left foot and missed two months.


Mets' Matt Reynolds could start at second if Daniel Murphy isn't ready
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:20 pm ET) Mets middle infielder Matt Reynolds may get the nod at second base if regular starter Daniel Murphy is not healthy enough to play on Opening Day, reports MLB.com.

Reynolds, who spent most of last season in Triple-A, is hitting .381 in 42 spring training at-bats, making the decision tough for manager Terry Collins.

"He's a baseball player -- everybody keeps saying that about him, but that's what he is," Collins said. "He handles the bat, he runs the bases, he does a lot of little things right. But Danny Muno's a dangerous bat -- I'll tell you what, he can get a hit. And the other kid, Ruben, he's played there. He's played there under the bright lights and been very successful. So we've got a lot of options."

Murphy is still recovering from a hamstring injury and is uncertain for Opening Day.


Braves third baseman Chris Johnson making adjustments at the plate
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:06 pm ET) Braves third baseman Chris Johnson needed to make some slight adjustments to his swing at the plate to get things on the right track, reports MLB.com. Johnson, who struggled early in camp with a 4 for 30 stretch, has now hit two home runs in the last four days.

"It was not easy during the first couple weeks of games," said Johnson. "I struggled, and it was hard for me mentally. I'm a results-oriented kind of guy. So, it was tough for me. Being able to stick with it and then see results is a lot of fun."

After he realized he needed to lower his hands at the plate, Johnson improved his reaction time and is able to pull the ball better.

"Pulling the ball is good for me because the book on me is to pitch me [inside] and not allow me to go to right field," Johnson said. "The new approach and [placement of my hands] is allowing me to get [opposing pitchers] out of there. Then when they go [outside], I'll be able to do what I want to do."


Astros pitcher Scott Feldman struggles with command Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:00 pm ET) Astros pitcher Scott Feldman surrendered three runs on seven hits with two walks in 4 1/3 innings pitched against the Yankees Sunday. Feldman needed 83 pitches to get through the outing and most concerned with his pitch location, reports the Houston Chronicle.

"I want to get my command better before the season starts," Feldman said. "It's just a progression, trying to just set the foundation here and take it into the season."

Feldman was taken to deep right field in the third for his first run by Chase Headley.

"Headley is a good hitter," said Feldman, who will start the second game of the season. "I kind of just got it into the happy zone for him, and he put a good swing on it."


Dodgers' Dustin McGowan pitches back-to-back days
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:56 pm ET) Dodgers pitcher Dustin McGowan threw 19 pitches in a minor-league game Sunday, and it was the first time this spring he has pitched on back-to-back days, MLB.com reports.

"Haven't felt this good since I was completely healthy -- a long time ago," McGowan said Sunday. "Knock on wood."

McGowan has dealt with shoulder issues throughout his career while also undergoing Tommy John surgery once. He's given up six runs in eight innings while competing for a bullpen role.

"I don't think he's comfortable yet," Mattingly said. "We've seen some good sliders, offspeed [pitches], but I don't think he feels as consistent, throwing the ball where he wants. It's spring training and a new organization factors with him. That makes the situation tougher to figure out."

McGowan will receive a $1 million bonus if he spends one day on the active roster this year, due to the terms of his contract. He is out of minor-league options and must clear waivers before being sent down.


Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo shows defensive prowess Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:56 pm ET) Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo continues to show manager John Farrell why he should be in consideration for a starting job this season. Castillo made two outstanding plays in right field Sunday, reaching foul territory to make a catch and catching a runner at home with a strike from the outfield, reports MLB.com.

"It turned out to be a good play," said Castillo. "I'm always kind of anticipating that kind of thing to happen. When you have a man on third in a big situation, you hope you can make a play like that and execute it. Fortunately it went our way."

Castillo provides Farrell exactly what he needs in the outfield: flexibility.

"I don't know that you can make a play better than the one he made -- diving play in foul territory, he gets up, sets his feet, and then he throws a 150-foot strike," said Farrell. "A dynamic player, when you consider the skill set that he has. If there was any question on whether he could play right field, he's certainly answering those for us in camp here."


Brewers' Roenicke, Aramis Ramirez to discuss plan to stay 'strong'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:51 pm ET) Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez plans to meet with manager Ron Roenicke Sunday to discuss different ways to keep the veteran "strong" through scheduled off-days and playing-time considerations, MLB.com reports.

"I think that's really important to try to get the most out of him and make sure we keep him on the field, strong and productive," Roenicke said. "How do we do it? We adjust to it as the season goes along. But how do we come up with some kind of a plan to give him his days [off]? Not when he needs it, but days to make sure that he stays strong."

Ramirez has hit .241/.353/.310 in 29 spring at-bats. He's likely to retire at the end of the season.


Twins outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A, clear roster spot
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:45 pm ET) The Twins have decided to outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A Rochester and cleared a spot on the 40-man roster, according to 1500 ESPN.

Pryor was optioned to Triple-A earlier in the week, but the team decided to outright him and open up a second roster spot on the 40-man squad. Pryor posted a 1.50 ERA in five spring training appearances.


Rangers 2B Rougned Odor day-to-day with bruised shin
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:40 pm ET) Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor is day-to-day due to a bruised left shin, the team announced.

Odor struck out in his only at-bat Sunday before coming out of the game. He has hit .394/.429/.606 in 33 spring at-bats.


 
 
 
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