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2013 Team Previews: Chicago Cubs

What to expect from the 2013 Cubs.

Brian Kersey

If someone were to describe to you the current state of the Chicago Cubs franchise, you would be nearly certain you were listening to the retelling of a large-budget family-friendly summer blockbuster:

The down-trodden owner of one of game's most storied and beloved franchises, historically wrought with strange elements of fantasy and the paranormal, maligned after more than a century of failure, commits to one of the grandest organizational reboots the industry has ever seen.

Together the two assemble a team of young, scrappy die-hards (read Tony Campana, Darwin Barney), veteran has-beens (Kerry Wood, Reed Johnson) and outsiders who never thought they'd have a chance (Bryan LaHair), all to keep the ship afloat while the young superstars-to-be get their lumps in. When the time is right-- they'll strike, using an enormous war chest of cash and resources to bring home the first World Series since 1908.

As scripted and as trite as the current narrative of the franchise may seem, it's difficult to ignore the sense that something big is about to happen to the Chicago Cubs in the near future.

Notable Numbers

5: Where the Cubs Farm System currently ranks according to ESPN's prospect guru Keith Law.

Compare this to the #20 ranking the organization received just last year and it becomes easy to see why northsiders are so optimistic about the Theo revolution. More than any other figure, the one that represents the strength of the farm system best exemplifies the immediate goals of Epstein's agenda.

John Sickels agrees that the Cubs system has "improved quickly," especially from position players at the top of the team's prospect heap. Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Cuban import Jorge Soler and even 19 year old Dan Vogelbach all come highly touted in the prospect community.

23: The ages of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo

The Castro and Rizzo tandem are the core of the club for the near future. If the Cubs are going to be hunting for playoff hopes in 2015 and 2016, it is likely that these two young ballplayers will be leading the way. If the Cubs are going to hunting for 81 wins in 2013, it is likely one of these players is having himself an MVP season.

Castro has now rewarded the team with consecutive +3 fWAR seasons, and his game appears to be improving on multiple fronts. His defense appears to have improved according to several metrics, suspending the rumors of a positional relocation for the time being. A substantial drop in BABIP fortune stymied his production at the plate in 2012, but the good money is on a healthy amount of positive regression for the 2013 campaign.

Anthony Rizzo experienced his first real taste of big league success last year, after stumbling in his debut effort with a disappointing .248 wOBA for the San Diego Padres in 2011. For the Cubs in 2012 he rallied to a 116 wRC+ over 368 plate appearances.

7.8: Jeff Samardzija's walk rate in 2012.

In his first four seasons as a major league pitcher, Samardzija had allowed a free pass to 13 percent of the batters he had faced. In 2012 he dropped his walk rate to a respectable 7.8 percent, just a notch below league average. That four-year-to-one-year drop of over five percent ranks as the seventh largest drop in walk rate in the live ball era. Both Roy Halladay (2002) and Johan Santana (2004) experienced similar dramatic control improvements during or immediately before their Cy Young seasons:

Greatest BB% drops since 2002
# Name Year BB% Previous Years Previous BB% BB% delta
1 Todd Wellemeyer 2008 7.7 2004-2007 13.7 6.02
2 Jeff Samardzija 2012 7.7 2008-2011 13.1 5.33
3 Clayton Richard 2012 4.6 2008-2011 9.2 4.62
4 Jaret Wright 2004 9.0 2000-2003 13.5 4.51
5 Brandon Morrow 2011 8.9 2007-2010 13.0 4.09
6 Ian Kennedy 2011 6.1 2007-2010 9.8 3.73
7 Johan Santana 2004 6.1 2000-2003 9.8 3.70
8 Roy Halladay 2002 6.2 1998-2001 9.9 3.61
9 Bronson Arroyo 2004 6.2 2000-2003 9.7 3.55
10 Josh Johnson 2009 6.8 2005-2008 10.1 3.29

It's difficult to say whether Samardzija's sudden success in 2012 is destined to be just a blip of excellence over the course of an otherwise forgettable career, or the precursor to the rewards of a genuinely transformed skill set. But all the indicators are there, certainly, and there is no doubt his future inspires exponentially more optimism now than it it had a year ago.

2012 Season in Review

101 losses is never easy for an organization and a fanbase to endure, but it somehow goes down much smoother when every rational citizen of the Cubs nation knew to expect it. Like patriotic civilians on the brink of a war, Cubs fans had fortified their emotional bunkers for the 2012 season, preparing for the worst from their lovable losers yet again.

Despite reaching this milestone of ineptitude, there were plenty of feel-good stories along the way to soften the blow. In particular, Bryan LaHair's scorched earth campaign to start the season was one of the few rays of light to shine through a painful first half of 2012. LaHair peaked with a 1.289 OPS on May 3rd and had rapidly worked all of the northside into his favor. For his outstanding performance-- as brief as it was-- the 29 year old with no more than 250 career PA prior to the 2012 season was graciously awarded a trip to the all-star game.

LaHair's star burned quickly however, and by season's end his production had all but evaporated, culminating in a "nice to know you" letter from the front office during the offseason.

Key offseason Moves

Epstein and Hoyer are clearly just spinning their wheels at this point, holding onto the greatest profit in baseball, waiting for the opportune time in the future to make a strike on the free agent market. They did commit to a few minor contracts, however:

For more information on the Cubs current commitments and contracts visit Cots Contracts now at Baseball Prospectus.

Depth Chart

Nate Shierholtz will take over most of the playing time in right field, while Wellington Castilllo will take over full time catching duties for 2013. Luis Valbuena will cover the hot corner until Ian Stewart returns, and other than that the lineup should resemble the one featured last season.

Here is the link to the Chicago Cubs 2013 depth chart, also at Baseball Prospectus.

2013 Outlook

For the most part 2013 should prove to be more of the same for the rebuilding northsiders. The roster undoubtedly will demonstrate improvement both of offense and pitching fronts, but saying a .500 record is a lock is still wishful thinking. Any hope of 81 wins should be postponed until at least 2014.

Bold Prediction

The core emerges: Anthony Rizzo breaks out with +.550 slugging average, Castro posts five WAR, Samardzija affirms he's been reborn with an all-star appearance and an ERA- below 85.