SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- What kind of year are we going to see on the North Side of Chicago? Of course, no team goes into the season with management and players saying, "We're not going to be very good this year. Please be patient while the rebuild continues!" Everyone thinks they're going to at least be competitive.
Realistically, for the 2013 Cubs, that isn't going to be the case. This should, though, be a better year than 2012 (seriously, how could it be much worse?). We're not going to have to see the likes of Jason Berken and Justin Germano getting starts for the Cubs if they do decide to trade off pieces at the deadline; one thing Theo and Jed have done is get some starting pitching depth. The rotation at Iowa will be better than last year's.
On the other hand, management has said that IF they wind up in a competitive position in June or July, they are willing to add pieces and perhaps make a run at the second wild card. That doesn't seem likely -- but, on the other hand, one year ago, would you have guessed that the Orioles (93-game losers in 2011) or Athletics (88-game losers in 2011) would be headed for postseason play in 2012?
Me, either. I'm going to approach this in a different sort of way, looking at each player who has a shot at the 25-man roster and his "best case" or "worst case" season, then try to draw some sort of conclusion at the end.
BEST CASE: Castillo channels 2008-era Geovany Soto and posts a .800ish OPS with 15 or so home runs, and plays solid defense.
WORST CASE: He flops, with poor pitch-calling and framing making a disaster for the pitching staff, and Dioner Navarro takes over as the starter.
BEST CASE: Castillo is solid as the starter; Navarro gives the Cubs 40-50 games of good backup work both behind the plate and at bat, the best backup the Cubs have had since Henry Blanco.
WORST CASE: Hits like he did for the 2011 Dodgers (.193/.276/.324), leading to a revolving door for the backup role.
BEST CASE: Replicates his 2012 half-season over a full year, posts an .850 or better OPS with 30+ HR, 100+ RBI, makes the All-Star team, and hits lefties, too. Gets a longterm, below-market extension after the season.
WORST CASE: Can't hit lefties and hits the dreaded sophomore slump.
BEST CASE: Wins another Gold Glove, and improves his hitting -- really, anything at the .700 OPS level or better would be great, considering his defense.
WORST CASE: Continues to play good defense, but hitting declines to the .600 OPS level or lower, forcing Dale Sveum to bench him at times
BEST CASE: Focuses on every play, measures every throw, cuts his errors in half, and hits .320 with 15+ home runs, making his third straight All-Star team.
WORST CASE: Keeps making errors, and his hitting level stays stagnant, making Theo & Jed start hinting around that he's available by trade
BEST CASE: Stays healthy all year, hits .250/.350/.450 with 15-20 home runs and plays excellent defense at third base in about 130 games
WORST CASE: Can't come back from all the injuries and spends most or all of 2013 on the DL, or gets released
BEST CASE: Stewart stays healthy and Valbuena plays 80-100 games as a supersub in the infield, giving Castro, Barney and Stewart enough days off to stay fresh. Hits well as a pinch-hitter.
WORST CASE: Has to start 100+ games at 3B, hits .210 with no power
BEST CASE: Repeats 2012, gets traded midseason for a passel of prospects
WORST CASE: Repeats 2009, gets injured, Cubs stuck with the last year of his contract
BEST CASE: Is traded in July for a couple of projectable pitching prospects
WORST CASE: Repeats 2012, leaves as a FA after the season with no compensation
BEST CASE: Finally getting a full-time job, Schierholtz hits like he did in Triple-A (.916 OPS over 796 at-bats), giving the Cubs some mid-range left-handed pop, and plays excellent defense
WORST CASE: Posts a similar OPS to the .698 he gave the Phillies after his trade there. (At least it costs just $2.25 million to find that out.)
BEST CASE: Hits enough home runs early to get more playing time, rotates between all three OF positions, gives other OF rest, winds up with another career high of 20+ homers
WORST CASE: Posts another .299 or lower OBP without the home runs and starts getting booed.
BEST CASE: Turns into a younger version of Reed Johnson.
WORST CASE: Turns into a younger version of Joe Mather.
BEST CASE: Hits like he did in 2011 and proves to be the best supersub in the National League, playing every position but catcher and pitcher.
WORST CASE: Hits like he did in 2012 and winds up in Cleveland again.
BEST CASE: Proves that he can handle first base, and maybe even other IF positions; hits like he did in Triple-A and becomes a useful bench player
WORST CASE: Can't hit and spends his fourth summer in Des Moines.
BEST CASE: Continues progress from 2012, throws 200+ innings, posts a 3.50 or lower ERA and 15+ wins (not that individual pitcher wins mean that much). Turns into a solid No. 2=type.
WORST CASE: Regresses, ERA balloons to 4.50 or higher.
BEST CASE: Returns in May, pitches as he did in 2011, which results in either a trade for prospects or a contract extension.
WORST CASE: Returns in May. Gets hurt again. Returns in August, too late to be traded. Leaves as a free agent, not worth a qualifying offer, Cubs get nothing in return.
BEST CASE: Continues his progress from the second half of 2012, and becomes a rotation mainstay, similar to Ted Lilly's good years with the Cubs.
WORST CASE: Awful in his early-season starts; sent to Iowa to be converted into a Sean Marshall-type relief pitcher.
BEST CASE: Finally becomes the pitcher the Dodgers thought they had as a prospect 10 years ago, gets some Cy Young consideration. Throws his second career no-hitter.
WORST CASE: Regresses to his 2010 level, gives up tons of Wrigley home runs.
BEST CASE: Holds down the fort in the rotation until Scott Baker returns; after that, becomes a useful long reliever/swingman in the bullpen.
WORST CASE: Repeats his 2009 season. (Don't look. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
BEST CASE: As the Cubs' first Jewish pitcher since Jason Marquis, repeats Marquis' 2007 season as a solid fifth starter.
WORST CASE: Repeats Marquis' 2006 season (again, don't look).
BEST CASE: Comes back to the rotation in mid-April and pitches like he did in his best Minnesota seasons (mid-3 ERA, low walk and home-run totals).
WORST CASE: Has a setback in his comeback, can't pitch until June, then gets hurt again after making one or two starts, has no trade value. (At least it costs only $5.5 million to find this out.)
BEST CASE: Gets his command back, is the lights-out reliever he was in 2010, and gets traded to a contender at the July deadline for two good young pitching prospects.
WORST CASE: Can't throw strikes, blows six saves by mid-May, and is removed from the closing role. Leaves as a free agent with no qualifying offer made (because he'd likely accept it).
BEST CASE: Continues what he did in Japan, striking out more than one hitter per inning with almost no walks, becomes a lockdown eighth-inning pitcher, or possible closer if Marmol flops.
WORST CASE: Can't adjust his game to MLB and is demoted to mop-up duty.
BEST CASE: Continues his fine setup work in either the seventh or eighth inning.
WORST CASE: Someone gets the dumb idea again that he can start when other pitchers fail; he makes five starts and posts an 11.50 ERA before management learns its lesson.
BEST CASE: The last two months of 2012 aren't a mirage; he continues to pitch well with excellent command and becomes a solid middle-relief guy.
WORST CASE: That weird slingshot delivery takes its toll and a ligament snaps in the middle of a pitch, and he becomes the new version of Chad Fox.
BEST CASE: He's as good as he was through August 2012, only this time for an entire season because the rotation takes the pressure off the bullpen and he doesn't have to make 77 appearances again.
WORST CASE: Suddenly remembers he's 37 years old and it's time for him to lose his effectiveness.
BEST CASE: Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Rondon sticks in the Cubs bullpen and becomes a solid contributor and possible future closer.
WORST CASE: Awful, gets returned to Cleveland, postage due.
BEST CASE: Makes team as a middle guy/LOOGY, has effective relief appearances as he did for the 2011 Angels.
WORST CASE: Like Camp, remembers he's 37... wait, he's actually turning 38 in April. Can't get anyone out and gets released.
BEST CASE: Harnesses his fastball and makes the bullpen as a middle-relief guy who can bridge the gap between starter and setup man/closer.
WORST CASE: Fades into the obscurity so many Cubs pitching prospects have inhabited over the years. I probably don't have to name names here, do I?
We're getting toward the bottom of the pitching list; Chris Rusin has a chance to make the bullpen as a lefty specialist, but more likely, he's headed to the Iowa rotation. There are other pitchers in camp who could fill the final spot in the bullpen, but they are pretty much interchangeable parts.
If you got every single player on this list to play up to his "Best Case" scenario, you'd probably have a playoff-contending team. Of course, that's not going to happen. Many of these players won't come anywhere close to that level. I believe this team will be better than last year's -- that's a pretty low bar to hurdle, of course. Getting into the mid-70s in the wins column would, I think, be a great step in the right direction, and entirely doable.
We'll see, starting in two weeks.