SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- I'll have my usual season predictions for the standings of all 30 teams just before the season begins, but I wanted to say a few words today about this year's Cubs, after having seen them play in person for a few days.
We all know that the team and organization are in transition, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in place and trying to build a strong organization from the bottom up, one that will contend for the postseason every year, as Epstein's teams did in Boston.
So we're really entering 2012 with no expectations, or at least I don't really have any. It's not like the last three seasons, where Jim Hendry attempted to put bandaids on teams that failed for various reasons, starting with the ripping apart of a 97-win team in 2008. The purpose of this post is not to rehash those failures -- and I don't think it's necessary for anyone else to, either -- but to see what Theo & Jed have wrought so far.
There are times when this team looks pretty good, plays well fundamentally, runs aggressively and well on the basepaths, gets timely hitting and strong relief pitching... and other times when they just can't get anyone out and they look like weak recreations of the 2010 or 2011 models, not Cubs teams we'd want to remember at all. One thing I do know is that the field management staff is a significant improvement; Dale Sveum, though kind of bland-sounding in interviews, appears to know how to be a leader and I've heard raves from many about how good a coach Dave McKay is. It is, unlike last year's, a true major league coaching staff. That's not something that is automatically going to win games for you -- but, unlike last year's, it won't lose them, either.
After the jump, a few brief thoughts on what could go right or wrong for this team and where they're likely to end up.
BEST CASE SCENARIO: Bryan LaHair puts up numbers similar enough to his Triple-A MVP season to prove me wrong and prove that guys can make it at 29. Starlin Castro has another All-Star season. Geovany Soto continues his strong alternate-year pattern and posts an over .800 OPS -- and plays 125-130 games. Alfonso Soriano resembles the 2007-08 version of himself. Matt Garza has another solid season. Ryan Dempster pitches like he did in 2010; Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Randy Wells put together decent seasons for their rotation spot. Carlos Marmol throws strikes and misses bats again. Kerry Wood, Jeff Samardzija and Rafael Dolis become a solid setup trio. Ian Stewart recovers his 2009 level, David DeJesus hits like it's 2010.
If most or all of those things happen, that Cubs team could finish over .500 and flirt with contention. Of course, it likely won't work that way. Things never do that in baseball. Nothing ever works out exactly the way you want it to. Then, there's the...
WORST CASE SCENARIO: LaHair hits .207 for two months and is released; Anthony Rizzo is recalled and struggles again. Soto gets hurt again and Steve Clevenger (who appears to have the backup job locked up) hits like Koyie Hill. Soriano continues his decline; Garza is the only competent starter; Marmol can't find the strike zone; K. Wood spends time on the DL; Samardzija can't take over in the setup role. Stewart's wrist isn't fully healed and his power is totally gone. Darwin Barney hits like it's September 2011 (.244/.287/.317) for a full season. The Cubs, due to more starting pitching injuries, have to rotate several people through the No. 4 and No. 5 spots, except instead of Doug Davis, Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez (who also gets hurt), they're Travis Wood, Andy Sonnanstine and ... well, they get stuck, so they have to use Coleman again. They're just as bad.
That team would probably lose 100+ games.
The reality is obviously somewhere in the middle.
I'm an optimist by nature, so I'm going to say that while not all of the "best case" things are going to happen, more of them will happen than the "worst case" things. Someone I haven't even mentioned here -- maybe someone who starts the year in the minor leagues who isn't currently on the radar screen or someone acquired by trade -- will have an unexpected impact on the team.
78 wins, fourth place, NL Central. That's a small improvement and a step in the right direction.