There is no doubt that a team which lost 101 games is going to have more than a few question marks, but Theo Epstein and company have done their best this off-season to limit the amount of uncertainty for the Cubs going into 2013. While the Cubs brass has done their best to improve the team this winter, there are still a few big questions that Cubs fans everywhere should be asking themselves as spring training approaches.
1) Who will play third base?
If there was one glaring need on the Cubs roster that was overlooked so far this off-season it would be the third base position. The Cubs re-signed Ian Stewart to a low-risk one year deal and it appears that the job will be his to lose come spring training. While the Cubs organization is claiming that Stewart’s mystery wrist injury which has been plaguing him during his time with the Cubs is finally resolved, fans should still not feel too comfortable with Stewart manning the hot corner. Stewart hit only .201 in 2012, appearing in only 55 games before his aforementioned wrist injury ended his campaign. Stewart often gets the benefit of the doubt because he is relatively young (27 years old) and has suffered through injuries, however he is only a career .232 hitter and has hit over 20 home runs only once in his career. Even for a team that is not expected to compete in the next couple of years it is hard to have that kind of hitter at a position which is supposed to house one of your most dangerous bats. The solution to this problem, like many of the other problems the Cubs have, is in the farm system. Cubs fans should be glued to their television during spring training paying attention to prospects like Junior Lake and Javier Baez. Both are highly touted prospects and although Baez is extremely unlikely to see the major leagues in 2013, Lake may have an opportunity to take the job in spring training and run with it.
2) Can Brett Jackson make an impact?
“The future is now” seemed to be the motto for the Cubs come August of last season when Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were both called up to the club just about a month after Anthony Rizzo was promoted. However, while Rizzo exceeded fans expectations Jackson and Vitters greatly disappointed. Jackson compiled a .175 batting average and managed to strikeout in 59 of his 120 at bats in the major leagues. This is extremely worrisome for the Cubs because they are essentially using stop-gaps in the outfield while they wait for their top-prospects, led by Jackson, to arrive. The Cubs will need another bat in their outfield that can do more than just get the job done if they hope to start competing in the NL Central. Jackson has all the potential to be that guy, and at only 24 years old there is still time for him. The good news for Cubs fans regarding Jackson is that his defense is definitely ready for the big leagues, as evidenced by his diving catch into a wall at PNC Park. Also, according to team sources Jackson has completely overhauled his swing this off-season in order to help cut down on his strikeouts. This story seems extremely similar to that of Anthony Rizzo when he was brought up by the San Diego Padres and hit extremely poorly, prompting him to switch to his current Babe Ruth-esque stance. The change worked for Rizzo, and now Cubs fans are hoping that they will be saying the same thing about Brett Jackson after this season.
3) Will Jeff Samardzija become the Cubs’ ace?
All signs point to Jeff Samardzija becoming the opening day starter on the north side for years to come. Samardzija had a breakout year last year, his first full season as a starter. Samardzija posted 9 wins, a 3.81 earned run average and 180 strikeouts, all of which led the team. These are certainly solid numbers for a 28-year-old who before the 2012 season was known more for his football career at Notre Dame than his pitching, but they don’t exactly stack up well with most other team’s top starters’. As the projected opening day starter for the Cubs in 2013, and a full year of experience under his belt, Samardzija will be expected to improve these numbers if he wants to become one of the elite pitchers in the National League. What Jeff Samardzija does not lack is physical ability. He features a plus fastball, but the problem that Samardzija has had in the past is that he was too dependent on his fastball and neglected his secondary pitches. This is an area that he vastly improved upon in 2012, which was a big reason he had such a successful campaign. Going into 2013 Samardzija will need to continue to expand his arsenal and learn more about the art of pitching. What I mean by art of pitching is that he must know when to throw what pitch and where he should throw it to each specific hitter that he faces. If Samardzija can continue to improve as a starter, the Cubs might have their ace for years to come.