Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Northsiders" have MUCH to look forward to in the NOT so distant Future ...

  The 2012 Chicago Cubs had very little to be excited about. After a disappointing (61-101) season and missing the Playoffs for a 5th straight year, fans are grasping at anything that can give them hope for better days on the North side. Cubs fans were extra excited about Theo Epstein coming over from the Red Sox to become President of Baseball Operations in 2011 and have continued to remain patient. Rome. subsequently, wasn't "built in a day" and in Major League Baseball neither are Playoff Contenders. I'll share with you why that patience may pay off sooner rather than later.
Talk to some baseball experts and analysts and they will tell you Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (pictured above) is on the verge of being a breakout star. Some predict the sweet swinging lefty will hit upward of 30 home runs and 100 plus RBI, if he plays a full season. Soon to be 24 (in August), Rizzo has demonstrated the kind of "pop" in his bat (15 HRs in 87 gms in 12') that has fans ready to scramble for souvenirs in the bleachers of the Friendly Confines. He also showed better patience at the plate and the ability to have respectable success against left handed pitching. Improvements in these areas will be the difference in Rizzo starting everyday as opposed to sharing time at first base in a platoon system. If Rizzo is indeed the future star most analysts and Epstein (who drafted Rizzo when he was in Boston) believe him to be, the Cubs wil have one corner of their infield anchored for years to come. The other player pictured with Rizzo above is 20 year old Cuban Outfield sensation Jorge Soler. The Cubs are very high on this young prospect developing into a 5 tool Right Fielder as they look to get him all the at-bats they can to prepare him for Major League pitching. Signing a 9 year/$30 million dollar contract with the Cubs gives the 6'4", 215 pound Soler financial stability for years to come and the Cubs are hoping to get just as big of a return on the investment they've made in the young outfielder. Cubs Manager Dale Sveum feels that Soler will be one heck of a player for years to come, once his offense catches up with his defense. The Cubs are hoping to have enough success this season to not have to rush their promising prospect up to the "Big Show" too early. The idea is to let this kid tear up the minor league system and not toy with his confidence by bringing him up too soon and possibly struggle against top flight pitching. Soler thru 17 games this Spring batted .222 with 1 home run and 3 RBIs and will look to work on his patience at the plate. The Cubs, in turn, will try to exhibit some patience of their own. 
Outfielder Jorge Soler isn't the only 20 year old prospect the Cubs are excited about. Puerto Rican Shortstop Javier Baez has been making noise of his own, this Spring. Baez hit .302 in 16 games, and as of Monday, led the team with four home runs and 10 RBIs. He hit two more homers in an exhibition game against Team Japan that didn't count in the Cactus League stats. Cubs Manager Dale Sveum described Baez's swing through the strike zone as "violent" and has compared his bat speed to another 20 year old phenom he saw with the Brewers coming up in Gary Sheffield. Here lies the dilemma, however. The team already has one of the young, up and coming Shortstops in baseball in Starlin Castro who hit .283 with 14 HRs , 78 RBI and 25 stolen bases in 162 games in 12'. This leaves Cubs brass with a decision to make. Does this star in waiting set up a possible trade of Castro for more prospects to stock the minor leagues with or do the Cubs move Baez, their No.1 pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, to third base ? I think both are possibilities that will be weighed heavily in determining what is best for the team's future. In the eyes of many, this is a pretty good "problem" to have.
The thought of Anthony Rizzo on one corner and Javier Baez at the other provides some "thump" in the middle of the Cubs batting order. If Starlin Castro can remain focused and continue improve (especially defensively) and develop into a star shortstop, the Cubs could be on the verge of something really special on the North side. That leads us to second baseman Darwin Barney who at 28 is looking to be a more reliable hitter than the .254 he batted in 156 games in 12'. If Barney is able to hit in the .280 - .300 range it could really open up some possibilities for this Cubs offense. The future development of Soler and Baez is something Cub fans will keep a close eye on all year, I'm sure. The starting pitching for this team is what their success NOW hinges on. The Cubs made a surprising commitment to Edwin Jackson (4 yrs/$52 million) when they brought him in to what many believed would be a youth movement, though only 29 himself (turns 30 in September).With the way they traded off veteran players last year, I was surprised they'd make any major moves in Free Agency. Jackson (10-11, 4.03 ERA and 168Ks/189.2 IP) could undoubtedly add front line pitching talent and experience to a primarily young starting pitching staff led by Jeff Samardzija (9-13, 3.81 ERA and 180Ks/174.2 IP) and oft-injured Matt Garza (5-7, 3.91 ERA and 96Ks/103.2 IP). I wouldn't be surprised if Jackson himself were used as trade bait later in the year, if the Cubs fall out of contention early. One thing we've come to learn about Theo Epstein is if teams are whistling he's listening. Ultimately, Cub fans are just hoping for flickers of hope that shed light on a future being so bright they have to wear shades (even during rain delays). With the pieces in place now and the potential pieces that can be moved for even MORE promising prospects, the Cubs barometer is pointed nowhere but UP ...

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