|Chris Volstad is part of deep pitching staff that should be the foundation of the new-look Cubs. (US Presswire)|
MESA, Ariz. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Cubs:
• While the Cubs may lack a true staff ace, they do have five starting pitchers who threw 150 or more innings last season and a sixth who has done it in two of the past three seasons. Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad, Ryan Wells and Travis Wood give new manager Dale Sveum the depth to at least have a chance to win more often than not. Garza, Dempster, Maholm, Volstad and Wood each checked in with 150 or more innings last summer (Wood had 106 in Cincinnati and 52 1/3 at Triple-A Louisville) and Wells fell to 135 1/3 last summer because of an early injury after throwing 194 1/3 and 165 1/3 in the preceding two seasons.
• That depth will help prevent a repeat of last year, when the Cubs had the wind knocked out of them via back-to-back injuries to starters Wells (who left an April 5 start with a strained right forearm) and Andrew Cashner (who left an April 6 start with a strained right rotator cuff). "That really submarined them," new GM Hoyer says. The rotation pitched from behind the rest of the year. "It was a big point of emphasis to bring in a lot of starting pitchers," Hoyer says. "And guys we can control beyond this year." Newcomers Maholm, Volstad and Wood each fit into that category.
• Starlin Castro another year older. The Sports Illustrated cover boy enters his third season and he's still only 21. Though he became the youngest player ever to lead the NL in hits last year, what he needs to do now is outgrow his mental lapses. You can bet Sveum will not tolerate them. He also must show he can adjust to a different slot in the batting order. He'll probably hit third after leading off a year ago. It will involve a change in approach, all part of the evolution of a big leaguer (and especially one with star power).
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• Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson are a pretty good place to start for the future, though both likely will open at Triple-A Iowa this season. Rizzo was going to be the heir apparent in San Diego to Adrian Gonzalez and he absolutely tore up Pacific Coast League pitching last April and May. But he struggled in his debut with the Padres, they wound up acquiring Yonder Alonso from Cincinnati this winter and Hoyer traded for Rizzo for the second time in 13 months. Jackson is a five-tool outfielder whom you would figure will be in the majors by mid-season.
• They're the Cubs. What's not to like if you can hold your breath during a rebuilding process? Wrigley Field, Lake Michigan off in the distance, ivy, hot summer afternoons. Plus, longtime reliever Kerry Wood's ongoing loyalty to the Cubs is very cool. "We were probably ready to push [last year] out on June 1," Wood says. "It definitely was a rough year. We all expect things to be better."
• Both the Cubs' on-base and defense were lacking last year and it has to get better in 2012 if they are to avoid another embarrassment. The club is hoping the addition of veteran outfielder David DeJesus aids in both categories. They think Ian Stewart will help shore things up at third base. Stewart hasn't hit much recently. And DeJesus, 32, either he'll help, or last year's career-low .323 OBP was the beginning of his final decline. The Cubs need to figure that one out sooner rather than later.
• At 36 and in the sixth year of that awful eight-year, $136 million deal, Soriano is a short-time anchor. Good a guy as he is, he's outlived his usefulness to the Cubs. And, really, he never did live up to what they hoped. The Cubs tried to deal him all winter, willing to pay 80 or 90 cents on the dollar, but nobody wants him. Their best hope is for him to get off to a hot start to pique midseason trade interest from a contender.
• The farm system isn't offering any ready-made prospects after Rizzo and Jackson. Rated 14th in the game by Baseball America, there is some depth here but no shooting stars. The Cubs spent $12 million on last year's draft class, and new president Theo Epstein and Co. will be pouring more money in where that came from as they work toward an overall talent upgrade. The good news: In Boston, Epstein and his staff were sharp enough in the draft to acquire Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon, among others.