I do not think for a minute that the Cubs are done dealing or that the roster will look the same on Opening Day as it does today. The Cubs have already made several moves, though, and it is not too early to compare the new Cubs to the old Cubs.
The new front office has said repeatedly that every season is important and, while the clear priority is building for the long term, that they are not ignoring the short term. The goal is to put together a competitive team in 2012 while assembling a young core that will allow the Cubs to establish a dynasty in the NL Central. While the long term future seems to grow brighter by the day, the upcoming season is much murkier. Will the 2012 team actually be any better than 2011?
To answer that question, let’s break the team in to six segments and evaluate them individually. Let’s take a look at the offense, the defense, the starting pitching, the relief pitching, the bench, and the coaching. Each section will be compared to the 2011 team.
Offense: Much Worse
The Cubs have lost their two biggest bats, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, and their replacements are Ian Stewart and Bryan LaHair respectively. Anthony Rizzo could take over first by the end of the season, but he will be very young to be considered a key bat in the lineup. David DeJesus is an upgrade over Fukudome and Colvin in right, I think, but that is the only spot in the lineup where I see an obvious upgrade. If Soriano is traded, the offense becomes even more anemic.
On the other hand, the Cubs were abnormally bad with runners in scoring position last season. I sincerely doubt that any team can be that bad two years in a row, so we may see some improvement in that department. Brett Jackson, when he arrives mid-season, should help slightly. If the Cubs can sign Cespedes, he would also help. Even if all of those things come to pass, though, I still don’t see the 2012 Cubs outscoring the 2011 Cubs.
DeJesus will be solid addition to the defense in right, but he is probably a side-grade compared to Fukudome. The 2011 Cubs only had half a season of Fukudome, so that is still an improvement for the 2012 edition. I doubt Soriano sees as many innings in left field, so we should see a slight overall improvement there as well.
The biggest improvement will be on the left side of the infield. Whereas Ramirez was one of the worst defensive third basemen in the league, Stewart should be better than average. We can also expect to see improvement from Castro as he continues to develop as a shortstop. Between the two of them, the left side of the infield should significantly better than the 2011 edition.
The largest negative on defense will be at first base, where Pena is no longer the man. I don’t think his loss will be enough to wipe out the gains in other areas. Overall, the 2012 Cubs should be a much better defensive team.
Starting Pitching: Better
The 2012 rotation as it appears today is not better than the Cubs 2011 rotation as it was at the end of spring training, but that rotation did not even last a week. The real 2011 Cubs rotation did not feature full seasons of Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, or Carlos Zambrano, but instead featured a significant number of starts from a long list of fill-in starters. As a result, the 2011 rotation on the field was just bad.
It will not be hard for the 2012 Cubs to be better on the mound than the mis-matched collection of spare parts that was the 2011 rotation. With Travis Wood, the Cubs once again have a left handed starter. Chris Volstead is a ground ball pitcher who should put up better numbers on the grass of Wrigley. And if someone gets injured this season, there will be plenty of starters in Iowa waiting for an opportunity. Unlike 2011 when no Triple A pitcher was available in April, the 2012 Cubs will have Chris Rusin, Ryan Searle, Trey McNutt and probably Andy Sonnanstine joining Casey Coleman and Jay Jackson on the depth chart.
Thanks largely to the improved depth, I think the 2012 rotation will be better than the 2011 edition even if Matt Garza is traded. Depth is key to a good rotation, the 2012 Cubs have it.
Despite that loss, there is plenty of upside for the 2012 bullpen. The depth in the starting rotation should ensure a higher level of overall quality in the bullpen just from the sheer number of players competing for jobs. Greater rotation depth should also result in far fewer starts being made by fill-ins, which should result in fewer innings for the bullpen. The Cubs should not have too much difficulty replacing Marshall, either. Both Scott Maine and Jeff Belliveau could step up and fill his slot as a late inning lefty. Add it all up, and I think the 2012 bullpen should continue to be a strength for the team.
Bench: Somewhat Better
The Cubs could have new faces at backup catcher, backup infielder, and fourth outfielder. In all three cases I think the Cubs will see some level of improvement at the plate. I am not so sure that the defense provided by the bench will be better than in 2011, particularly behind the plate, but on average the bench should be more reliable than it was last season. This is not a significant upgrade, but every little bit helps.
Coaching: Much Better
Mike Quade was a disaster as manager. Replacing him might be the single largest improvement on this team. Even if new manager Dale Sveum is simply average at his job, he will be a marked improvement over Quade. I expect to see a similar improvement at pitching coach. While fans may still look fondly on the Rothschild Era, the new regime should at least be better than what we saw in 2011.
When we put all the pieces together, I actually believe that the 2012 Cubs will be a better overall team than the 2011 edition. The loss in offense could be a problem, but the deeper pitching and improved defense should cut into that. At worst, I think the we can expect to see the Cubs lose a lot of close games. Eighty wins is probably a realistic goal for this team. If the Cubs manage to add another bat, we could still see a .500 ball club on the North side.