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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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