Welcome to part 2 of 2 of our annual baseball previews for both major league franchises in Chicago.  Today we turn our attentions to the Northsiders

The Cubs just wrapped up their time in Arizona for the spring with a victory over a bunch of Milwaukee Brewer minor leaguers to bring their record to 17-16-2.  That’s right America, the Cubs finished above .500!  Bask in the glow… because it won’t last long.

2012 is a rebuilding year in Wrigleyville no matter how the team tries to package it.  The cynic in me has a great, what year isn’t? joke just sitting there on the vine waiting to be plucked, but I’m going to show some restraint.  I do so not out of blind homerism (for which I am guilty as charged) but rather because bottoming out is part of a greater plan for the organization going forward.

When you talk to educated media-types and folks associated directly with any professional sporting club, they will always tell you that the season ticket holders are the priority focus group the team cares about.  That is why you rarely hear about an organization using the word “rebuilding” officially at any point because in the world of economics if a supplier admits they are producing an inferior product then the demand will be directly affected.  While I understand this logic and there certainly have been countless examples of teams that mail in a given season and the fans respond in kind by not showing up, I would argue that this a rule and not a law of sport.  The factor that gets over looked in the underestimation of a fan base’s capacity is that of understanding reality and their overwhelming desire for there to be a greater “plan” in place and their inclusion in it.

My favorite sports teams are those that we as fans get to participate in the growth of much like the Blackhawks of the past five years.  It wasn’t ten years ago that one could show up at the United Center – before anyone knew what a Madhouse on Madison was – fifteen minutes before game time and purchase an $8 ticket with an expired student ID to gain access to the nosebleed sections, and you could work your way down to the 100 level before the hot girl took her ill-fated shot at the goal between periods.  Those teams had young promising defensemen with unknown names like Keith and Seabrook on the back of their jerseys.  Before you knew it the team used the third overall pick on a kid with a goofy spelling of “toes” for a last name and the following year drafted a little pipsqueak that went by Kane.  A few trades and transactions later and the team is off and running chasing Stanley Cups each spring.  Any fan will tell you that if you were in the stands in 2004 and watched the team grow through June of 2010, the experience transcends that of anything a team of purchased players (i.e. the ’08 Celtics or the 2011 Heat) could ever enjoy. 

I say all of this because five years from now Cubs fans are going to look back at 2012 as the year that something special began and being able to say that you were on board since the inception is worth its weight in cracker jacks.  Of the team that takes the field on Thursday afternoon, Starlin Castro is legitimately the only starter on the roster that will be trotting out on Opening Day 2015.  Now is the time for pieces to be swapped, assets acquired, and an organizational identity to be formed. 

2012 is the year to be marked as the year that the organization begins to look for new faces to step forward while they wait for the old ones contracts to expire.  In this year’s crop at the major league level if an Ian Stewart can hold down third base and live up to his uber-prospect hype from a few years back, or perhaps if Chris Volstad can prove to be a legitimate addition to a playoff worthy rotation, then it has been a success.  While any player proving their worth and increasing their value in the Bigs will be a plus the real attention will be focused on the farm. 

Now is the time for names of tomorrow such as Brett Jackson, Anthony Rizzo, Dillon Maples, Javier Baez, Matt Szczur, Jeimer Candelario, and frankly anyone else who wishes to step forward to announce their presence and let the rest of baseball know that the Cubs are a team on the come.   If the rumors are true and the Cubs end up signing young Cuban outfield sensation Jorge Soler, I would go as far as to purchase my first Cubs jersey since Jody Davis was on the team and Soler is easily at least two years away from breaking camp with the big club (assuming they sign him at all).    

If it sounds like I’m ready to give this 2012 version of the team a free pass then it means you’re reading this properly.  The reason I’m ok with this is because without a doubt I have faith in the new regime calling the shots, I know that there’s a plan in place, and because I feel like I’m in the loop as far as where they want to take the organization I’m on board for the long haul.  I mean, how could you not get in line behind guys who give these kind of interviews?   

I’ve made it just shy of a thousand words here and have yet to type the letters T-H-E-O in succession.  I didn’t think I could do it personally but here we are.  I’ve already invested multiple posts singing his praises so I’ll save the additional rhetoric at this point.  All I do want to say is that the powers that be acknowledge the current situation and the desired end goal described above.  For this fan, they could not be doing a better job preaching to the choir.  I’ve been on record that the team has needed to go through this cleansing since the second of back-to-back playoff sweeps in 2008 but instead Jim Hendry and Co. continued to try to apply band-aids to an ever growing wound. 

In 2012 my plan is to still be tuning in each afternoon and evening to support my team however I’ll be looking more for individual improvement and youngsters looking to prove their metal, while also watching for Dale Sveum’s aggressive base running philosophies taking hold.  Equally if not more importantly will be to monitor the progress of teams and players in Boise, Daytona, West Tennessee, and Des Moines because the success of this year will be measured in the tangible potential of major league talent for tomorrow.

Additional Bits

  • For the record I think Chris Volstad is the better bet to pan out over Ian Stewart in the example given above.
  • I believe Bryan LaHair made the unfortunate mistake of having his career year a season too soon.  I think he’ll be about league average this year with a little bit of pop but I don’t think he sniffs the 38 homeruns he hit in 2011 again.  Best of luck saving Castro’s throws from short that are ticketed for the 4th row as well.
  • Ryan Dempster – the best thing you can do to help the Cubs, which you swear is your top priority, would be to ok a trade to a contender three months from now.  Deal?
  • I wrote it last year and I’ll do it again, Marlon Byrd, it’s been a slice but I’d suggest looking into a month to month lease on your apartment in the city this year if possible.
  • Brett Jackson and I are going to have a pretty unhealthy male relationship over the next few years.  I just want to put that out there.
  • Much like the Cubs front office I’m still on the fence about Matt Garza.  I like him as a player, I think you can make the playoffs with him as your #2, and I think you can play in October if he’s your #3.  With that said, I’d still be willing to play let’s make a deal for the right package in return for his services.
  • Darwin Barney is going to be a fantastic utility middle infielder someday.
  • Count me in the camp that thinks Jeff Samardzija’s peak value is when he starts each game sitting half way down the left field wall.
  • To date I am pleasantly surprised with the Dale Sveum experience.  It seems like he’s the kind of hardworking straight shooter that this organization has lacked for some time.  This one may stick around for a while as the players across the board have all noted that they respect him (where as last year they all liked Mike Quade).  At the end of the day it’s more important for your players to respect rather than like the manager of your baseball team.    
  • The guy who will be most under the microscope in the Cubs organization is going to be one with the littlest fanfare – Jason McLeod.  The teams new senior VP and scouting director is going to be on the clock this June with the 6th overall pick and based on this year’s projections will have another top ten pick to use next year.  This is uncharted territory for Theo and Co. as historically the teams they’ve been with have won and have picked later in the draft because of it.  Given the rule changes that have made signing player over slot or internationally more difficult, finding success in the draft is becoming more and more of a priority.  The Cubs need three future stars from their first and second round picks in the next two years if they want to become the team that plays in October as an annual event.

Final Prediction: 75-87