Greetings! Things are looking up for Chicago... just not for 2013.
Projected Starters - Wellington Castillo (C), Anthony Rizzo (1B), Darwin Barney (2B), Starlin Castro (SS), Ian Stewart (3B), Alfonso Soriano (LF), David DeJesus/Brett Jackson (CF), Nate Schierholtz (RF)
There is a "plan" in place in Chicago for the first time in forever, so that's a positive start. The "star" of the club is Starlin Castro. He doesn't walk (at all), but he is one of the best offensive shortstops in the league, having hit 14 homers (.430 slugging) and stole 25 bases last season. Castro hasn't had a huge "breakout" campaign just yet, but at 22 years old (23 when the season begins), he's entering the time where that should take place. Remember Alfonso Soriano? Well, he's back, and he actually put up a 4 WAR season last year, when he hit 32 homers and slugged .499 for that wretched Cubs team. He's a virtual lock for 25 homers, and while the OBP could be better (.322 last year), you at least know what you're getting. Anthony Rizzo is the prize young player on this team, and he arrived in a big way during the second-half of last season. Rizzo hit the ball extremely well in his 368 major league PA's (.805 OPS, 15 homers), and is a solid fielder at first base. He's a former highly-rated prospect, and there's reason to expect a 30-homer type season from Rizzo in his first full year. After the top three guys in the lineup, the drop-off is severe. Barney and Schierholtz have "done it" as this level, but neither guy can be expected to much more than average production (if that). The DeJesus/Jackson combination is about as hit/miss as possible, as DeJesus is a sure bet to get on-base (career OBP of .355) while doing nothing else, and Jackson is the complete opposite as a power/speed guy that strikes out a ton. Ian Stewart is a career .232 hitter who hasn't even cracked .201 (!!!!) in the past two seasons. Yikes. The future is the focus.
Projected - Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Feldman, Scott Baker/Travis Wood
I've always been a Matt Garza fan. He has the stuff to get strikeouts (8+ Ks per 9 for the last two seasons), has a sub-3.00 walk rate, and if he can keep the ball in the ballpark, he's a real asset. The concern with him is injury, as he threw just 103 innings last year and he's battling a lat injury early in Spring. Edwin Jackson is tantalizing because he has great stuff, but he also has a career ERA of 4.40. He'll eat semi-quality innings, and that's all you can really ask for. Samardzija is probably the key to the staff's success, as a high-upside strikeout pitcher with some risk. He's only done it for one year (and a 174-inning year), but he struck out 9.2 guys per 9 while posting a respectable 3.81 ERA (3.55 FIP) last year. You may remember him for playing wide receiver at Notre Dame, but he's a real thing. The back-end gets ugly in a hurry with the never-exciting Scott Feldman, but the 5th spot could be really, really good if Scott Baker gets healthy. Stay tuned for that.
Projected - Carlos Marmol (closer), Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell, Carlos Villanueva, Shawn Camp, Hector Rondon
Carlos Marmol walked 7.32 batters per 9 innings last year. That is impossibly bad. The only reason that he's even a major-league pitcher is that he can strike out 11.71 batters in that same frame (which he did last year), but having him as the default closer is wildly risky. He could save 35 games or he could be out of the role by May. Fujikawa is a recent import from Japan, and while he's 32 years old, he profiles as a high-end reliever who could take over for Marmol if needed. Russell and Camp both posted ERA's under 3.50 last year and could be assets in late-inning situations. The X-factor? Former starter Carlos Villanueva who was fantastic as a reliever in 2010 when he struck out over 10 per 9.
On the bright side for Chicago, they've shed their massive payroll (except Soriano) and they are building for the future around Theo Epstein and company. The bad thing? Houston has moved on, and Chicago is firmly planted in the NL Central cellar this year because the MLB team isn't quite ready. There is real talent (Castro, Rizzo, Garza) and some solid vets (Soriano, Jackson) but the depth isn't quite there yet, and they are a year or two away.
71-91, 5th in NL Central