Identity Crisis — How the 2012 Cubs can send the right message

You won’t find too many of the Cubs faithful who’d disagree with the Theo Epstein hiring. It was an early Christmas present for all — a sliver of hope after we Wrigley Faithful had to endure another season of Big Z blowups, porous defense, a lack of speed on the base paths, and unfulfilled contracts. The Northsiders are now under the guidance of the Wunderkind, the man responsible for abolishing another slightly less damning curse.

As we stand today, several things are set in stone for our 2012 Cubbies: Theo is calling the shots with Jed Hoyer as his right-hand man. Unproven Dale Sveum gets a swing at doing what 48 other managers have failed to do since 1908: win a World Series. With another season on the horizon, five huge questions remain.

Was Dale Sveum the right hire for manager?

Sveum’s ties to Epstein (He was the third base coach for the Red Sox in 2004-05) made him an obvious candidate for the Cubs managerial vacancy. However, given Sveum’s lack of experience and the other potential selections (Ryne Sandberg, Mike Maddux, Bobby Valentine, to name a few) was Sveum the best choice?

With such a young, unproven roster and personnel questions across the board, you have to wonder why Epstein didn’t go with someone that had extensive experience. Were they trying to save money? Was their selection of candidates that underwhelming that the only person who truly wanted to sign up was essentially a rookie manager? It’ll be interesting to see how the players respond to Sveum. He seemed to have quite a bit of admiration from his Brewers players (Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, in particular), so we can only hope that translates to his new position.

Do the Cubs have any personnel answers in their farm system?

Epstein has made it clear one of his top priorities is to develop through the draft and the Cubs farm system, something that Jim Hendry seemed to neglect throughout his tenure. When the Cubs acquired Matt Garza for Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, among others, they depleted their minor league system of top tier talent. Other than Brett Jackson and Wellington Castillo, the Cubs are sorely lacking in major league-ready talent.

Personally, I would love to see both Jackson and Castillo get starting nods early in the 2012 season. Geovany Soto has been too inconsistent over the last few seasons both offensively and defensively, and you’d have to believe another club would be willing to give something up to acquire him. Saving money, acquiring some assets and giving a young player a chance to gain some experience sounds like a win to me.

With Jackson, the time just seems right. He’s 23, shown solid production at all levels of minors and with no real long-term answers at the major league level in your outfield, give your former first-round pick an opportunity to show us what he can do. He adds 30 steal potential to a lineup that was ranked 28th in the Majors in stolen bases, as well as plus-defense. I place Jackson in the building block category along with Starlin Castro and Matt Garza. If the Cubs are going to turn it around with young talent, then maximizing playing time is the best way to let these players develop.

Is this it for Carlos Zambrano?

Big Z has shown flashes of being a front-of-the-rotation starter in the past. From 2003 to 2008, Zambrano won 98 games and averaged 200+ innings a year, occasionally showing top-tier stuff. With the inning-eating nature of Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, the Cubs should have a fairly formidable 1-2-3 punch. It would be redundant, however, to spew out the laundry list of Zamrano blow-ups over the last few years, whether it be arguing with teammates, losing his cool after making a bad pitch, or giving up on his team altogether. Time and time again, you have to ask if his prima donna ways are worth the headache.

It’s the big question every five days : which Zambrano is going to show up? With over 18 million dollars owed in 2012, the Cubs could potentially eat some of his salary, try ship him off, and hope to get something in return. Or could we possibly have an in-house answer? Maybe give Casey Coleman or Andrew Cashner a shot to crack the rotation. The Cubs starters was among the worst in ERA, hits and home runs allowed, so giving Zambrano one last shot to contribute before he hits free agency seems like the most logical option. Fans can only hope that he can keep his head on straight and produce another 18-win season. Uh, minus the headaches.

How will our front office approach free agency?

It’s no secret that the Cubs are willing to hand out blank checks to free agents (see: Soriano, Alfonso). With nearly $55 million potentially coming off the books, the money is there to add a few pieces to the 2012 roster. The two obvious holes are the corner infield spots. The Cubs have offered arbitration to Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez, and with both of them likely signing elsewhere, their only power hitters and RBI producers are absent. Going after a left-handed slugger like Prince Fielder would help the team three-fold — it fills the void at first left by Pena, it tells the fans that we’re willing to stay competitive even during a rebuilding phase, and it gives the Cubs a left-handed threat for the first time since… jeez, Leon Durham?

That’s not to say that the Cubs pitching staff doesn’t need some tweaks. With Zambrano’s situation aside, many fans and commentators were calling for Carlos Marmol’s head towards the end of the season. After four solid seasons, Marmol’s ERA ballooned over 4 while blowing almost 25% of his save opportunities. Saves can generally be found on the cheap. Their bullpen was one of their strengths last year (aside from Marmol), so the Cubs could potentially look to add another starter who can get deep into games and keep the ball in the park. South sider Mark Buehrle, Javier Vasquez and Aaron Harang are all proven starters who can provide quality innings and some stability for Dale Sveum’s starting rotation, especially if they decide to deal Zambrano or if he has an untimely tantrum. The way the Cubs handle free agency may answer their biggest question ….

What identity will the 2012 Cubs have going forward?

I’m not going to a lie. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I’m anxious to shed this loveable loser vibe. I’m tired of saying, “Maybe next year.” I’m tired of scratching my head at free agent signings, tired of trading away our best prospects for players that aren’t good enough to put our team in a more viable position to win.
Everything starts at the top. Epstein was absolutely the right choice; I highly doubt you’ll find a Cubs fan who’ll say otherwise. During the interviews he’s given since his hiring, I’ve gotten the feeling that the way his tenure in Boston ended left a bad taste in his mouth, almost as if his two World Series titles were negated.

To me, this Cubs team isn’t as far off as many may believe. Building on their young nucleus of Castro, Barney, Jackson, and Garza while retooling their farm system is the most obvious choice. The draft picks they’ll likely obtain from Pena and Ramirez signing elsewhere will be a fantastic start. But what about 2012? Would the additions of Prince Fielder, Mark Buehrle, and Aarong Harang put the Cubs right back in the hunt in the NL Central? Could the Cubs feel a bit international and go after Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes or Japanese pitching phenom Yu Darvish?

Whatever the Cubs brass decide, it’s absolutely imperative to send the message to fans and the team that 2012 isn’t a lost year. It’s time to stop talking about a 103-year drought and look at it as being one year closer to a championship.

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