Cubs from A-Z: What to watch for in 2013

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Cubs from A-Z: What to watch for in 2013

This. Is. The. Year.

Not even the most optimistic Cubs fan woke up on New Years Day thinking that way. Most have bought into team president Theo Epsteins rebuilding plan and accept that this will be another bridge year. Theyd probably settle for an interesting summer, and there appears to be enough pitching to make you think this team doesnt have to be out of it by Memorial Day.

But as Epstein has said, there will be a subtext. Looking at the big picture, here are the names, ideas and trends from A to Z that will shape the Cubs in 2013:

Albert Almora: The first draft pick of the Epstein administration should get a taste of what life is like in this market. The gifted outfielder will likely be making a stop at Kane County. He could be playing alongside his buddy Jorge Soler, giving this Class-A team a lot of buzz.

Brett Jackson: One ex-Cub once predicted (half-jokingly) that he will someday become the most popular guy in Wrigleyville since Mark DeRosa. All Jackson has to do is cut down on the strikeouts. The front office is building the Opening Day roster without him, ticketing him for Triple-A Iowa to start the season. But given the emphasis on speed, defense and athleticism, it wouldnt be surprising to see him running into brick walls this summer.

Crapshow: Thats how Matt Garza described his first half last season, and how he performs in April, May and June will say so much about the teams direction, whether they will be buyers or sellers or even consider signing him to a long-term contract (which is looking doubtful now). This is a walk year for Garza, who still has to prove hes healthy and once dismissed all the trade rumors (Texas Rangers?) by saying: Ill pitch on the freaking moon.

Distraction-free zone: At times, Dale Sveum was left with a Triple-A roster last season, but the front office did him a favor by getting rid of some divisive personalities. In Year 2, the manager will have to deal with increased expectations, while also maintaining that professional, no-nonsense clubhouse.

Edwin Jackson: Lance Berkman once told Sports Illustrated hes like the Kevin Bacon of BaseballSix Degrees of Edwin Jackson. Together they won World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. After pitching for seven teams across the past eight seasons, Jackson becomes a building block on the North Side and gets the security that comes with a four-year, 52 million contract.

Foundation for sustained success: Even Epstein is getting tired of using this phrase. But assuming theres no out-of-nowhere miracle run to the playoffs, this year will be judged on how many more core pieces emerge for 2015 and beyond, to build alongside Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija.

Gary Sheffield bat speed: That was Sveums scouting report on Javier Baez, whos about as close to being a core player as a 20-year-old can be. The ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft figures to reach Double-A Tennessee at some point this year, and his high-energy, maximum-effort approach should be fun to watch. Baez left the Arizona Fall League with what was described as a non-displaced fracture on the tip of his right thumb. General manager Jed Hoyer identified the cause as a celebratory high-fivehe didnt punch a wall or anything.

Hohokam Stadium: The Cubs hope this is their final Cactus League run on Center Street before moving into a new facility in Mesa, Ariz.

Ian Stewart: Nows the time to show hes at full strength after wrist surgery and fully committed to becoming an everyday third baseman. His deal is non-guaranteed only in the sense that its like a standard contract for an arbitration-eligible player. He should make the Opening Day roster and get his money. Just dont expect the Cubs to have nearly as much patience.

Jim Deshaies: From the start of the search to replace Bob Brenly, the longtime Houston Astros analyst was said to be one of Len Kaspers favorites. That projected chemistry with the play-by-play man should help out during their first year together in the broadcast booth.

Kyuji Fujikawa: Whats Japanese for closer controversy? Fujikawas said to be a good guy, low-maintenance and without a huge entourage. The ninth inning may not be his on Opening Day, but hes viewed as part of the solution here, a big piece for 2014 and 2015.

L flags: After 101 losses, the tension between a baseball operations department looking toward 2015 and the business side trying to get you to buy tickets and shirseys will be fascinating to watch.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel: How City Hall responds to the Ricketts familys plans to renovate Wrigley Field which were met with silence during a bitter presidential election will again be a big story.

No no-trade clauses: Epstein and Hoyer have refused to give those out as Cubs executives, and its difficult to see that club policy changing anytime soon. The Ryan Dempster drama and the Carlos Marmol leak during the Dan Haren negotiations only reinforced that belief. The next time you hear a rumor about Alfonso Soriano, remember that hes in total control and has very specific ideas about where he might approve a trade. As Dempster said, its better to be the hammer than the nail.

On-base percentage: Epstein has viewed this as an institutional failure. It got Rudy Jaramillo fired. It will be a point of emphasis for hitting coaches James Rowson and Rob Deer. It will influence the types of players they sign, draft and develop.

Platform years: Phil Hughes will be 27 and maybe the most interesting pitcher on the market after his walk season with the New York Yankees. Super-agent Scott Boras will no doubt want to get the Cubs in on Jacoby Ellsbury and the media will play up the Boston Red Sox connections this front office has with the dynamic (and often injured) outfielder. If they want big-ticket free agents, the Cubs will be in position to strike.

Quail hunting: Heres hoping Sveum doesnt get shot in the ear again and survives his next trip out with old buddy Robin Yount.

Rizzo Effect: Sveum looks at a half-season and projects a 30-homer, 100-RBI force in the middle of the lineup, knowing that the Cubs played their best ball for about a month after Rizzos promotion last summer just before the bottom fell out with a fire sale at the trade deadline.

Sean Manaea: The Cubs have to be right on the second overall pick in the June draft. A desperate need for pitching could lead them to the Indiana State left-hander, who dominated the Cape Cod League last summer, going 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA and notching 85 strikeouts in 51-plus innings. You will read about Mark Appel, but why would the Cubs take the Stanford right-hander at No. 2 if they passed on him last year with the sixth pick? Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek should be on the radar, or the Cubs could grab a high school outfielder with a high ceiling, like they did with Almora. The big question will be what the Astros do with the No. 1 pick.

Tommy John recovery: Scott Baker is supposed to be part of the Opening Day rotation, while Arodys Vizcaino will take it slow, likely starting out in Iowa and building up strength before getting promoted to the big leagues. Chang-Yong Lims two-year, minor-league deal was made with 2014 in mind. Epstein has talked about the predictable rehab from reconstructive elbow surgery, the 95-plus percent success rate, so look for the Cubs to keep taking chances on these types of pitchers.

Unchained: Thats how Samardzija views the 2013 season free from innings limits. There wont be another precautionary shutdown. The expectations are 200 innings, year after year after year, for a potential No. 1 starter.

Votto Watch: The Cincinnati Reds are going for it, adding Shin-Soo Choo to hit leadoff and play center and seeing how Aroldis Chapmans 100 mph heat will play as a starter. They won 97 games last year even with a down season from the 2010 National League MVP and that got manager Dusty Baker extended through 2014. If Joey Vottos surgically repaired left knee is 100 percent, this could be the runaway division winner.

Walkaway point: The Anibal Sanchez pursuit showed the industry and fan base that the Cubs are willing to get serious about big-time free agents and end it when the price no longer makes sense to them. That was 77.5 million for Sanchez, who got 80 million over five years from the Detroit Tigers. That wont be the last time the Cubs finish second in those kinds of negotiations.

X-factor: The infusion of television money has completely changed the landscape, lifting up smaller-market franchises and creating a new class of uber-rich teams. The Cubs can opt out of their WGN contract after the 2014 season, and you can be certain theyll be trying to lay the groundwork for a new monster deal. Stay tuned to find out if that means a new network will be in play.

Yadier Molina: The St. Louis Cardinals are loaded with young arms and their pitching-and-defense identity revolves around the best catcher on the planet. The last time the Cardinals lost 101 games was 1907. They havent hit 90 losses since 1976. This is a model franchise that wont go away when the Cubs get good again.

Z: Will anyone take a chance on Carlos Zambrano?

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

Aroldis Chapman is the ultimate baseball mercenary for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. The Cubs say they are going into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the superstar closer comes with off-the-field baggage and plans to cash in as a free agent this winter.

For all the talking points about being good neighbors and family friendly, the Cubs care about money and winning, which makes them just like any other professional sports franchise.

Chapman behaved in Yankee pinstripes, handled the New York market and performed with game-over efficiency, going 20-for-21 in save chances. The Cubs wanted a lefty with a 105-mph fastball and a 15.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched career rate, making a 4-for-1 trade by rationalizing that they would rather be with Chapman in the playoffs than against him.

So the Cubs – and not the first-place Nationals or even-year Giants – had to deal with the bad optics and the lost-in-translation moments before Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Chapman did not make a good first impression while getting questions about domestic violence and the 30-game suspension Major League Baseball imposed to start this season.

But if Chapman gets the last out in October, does it even matter if he’s a good guy?

“Ugh,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Was Ty Cobb wonderful? I mean, I don’t know. All these different people that I’ve read about – something happened with (the Sox) in, what was it, 1919?

“At the end of the day, I’m here to get to know him on our terms – me and him. (And) he’s been a great teammate from everybody I’ve read or discussed (it) with.

“That’s the lenses I’m looking at it through right now.”

[RELATED: Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take chance and close Chapman deal]

Chapman joined a team that began the day with a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This is all about what Chapman can do in October and how his presence can help the Cubs survive three postseason rounds.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted that the Cardinals haven’t scored a run off Chapman since September 2011, back when Tony La Russa managed a World Series team.

“Again, he did do his suspension,” Maddon said. “He has talked about it. He’s shown remorse. And then everybody else has their right to judge him as a good or bad person.

“That’s your right. But I know there are times where I’ve been less than perfect. I think we’ve all been less than perfect in particular moments that nobody’s ever known about. 

“I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he can be a very significant member. And he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you, I will embrace him.”

[MORE: Cubs make business decision to look beyond Chapman's domestic violence suspension]

Inside baseball’s conservative bubble, Maddon has to be the game’s most liberal manager, a hands-off, big-picture guy who lets his players run the clubhouse. The Cubs believe his positive vibes and presence will help Chapman’s transition.

“I’m probably the most non-judgmental person you’ve ever met,” Maddon said. “I don’t go in that direction. I do get upset sometimes when people jump to conclusions without knowing everything.

“(Gather) all the information for yourself and make your own opinion. Draw your own conclusion, as opposed to maybe hearing one thing and then all of a sudden jumping on a negative bandwagon.

“I want to get to know him, get to understand him, have good conversations with him. And then, maybe at that point, I could draw some conclusions. But never having been around him, it’s very hard for me to do that.”

Chapman’s Wrigley Field debut will be electric, the triple digits lighting up the huge video board. At that point, the focus should shift back onto baseball. But the equation doesn’t change in a bottom-line business. There is only one outcome that will truly make Cubs fans happy with this deal.

“They expect me to come here, do my job and try to guide us to the World Series,” Chapman said through coach/translator Henry Blanco. “Especially in this city, they haven’t won a World Series in a long time, so they want me to do everything I can to help us win.”

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

Joe Maddon's mere presence may have hurt the team he manages Tuesday night.

As the Cubs invaded U.S. Cellular Field for the final night on the South Side of this Crosstown series, Maddon's current team was tasked with facing one of his old friends.

James Shields pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay for seven years and the veteran right-hander took the hill for the White Sox Tuesday night, spinning a gem — 7.2 shutout innings allowing four singles and four walks.

After the game, Shields — nicknamed "Big Game James" by some — credited Maddon for his outing.

"I get amped up every game pretty much. But I always want to get amped up in front of my old manager," Shields said. "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He helped build me into who I am today. 

"I always want to go out there and show him, especially being 34 years old, that I’ve got this thing."

Maddon certainly noticed.

The Cubs manager admitted "that's what he looks like" when talking about Shields' outing.

The Cubs had pursued Shields in free agency prior to the 2015 season and came close to deal before the right-hander opted to sign with the San Diego Padres for four years and $75 million.

Part of the reason was Shields' competitiveness and desire to finish every game he starts.

"During the first part of the game, I went up to [John] Lackey and I said Shieldsy went to John Lackey Junior College at some point in his life," Maddon said. "I said I used to compare Shieldsy to you all the time back in Tampa Bay, whenever James would [refuse to come out of a game].

"So Johnny giggled about that. Very similar guys — highly competitive, believe they can beat anybody on any given day. You gotta love that about him. He's very good."

No late magic as Cubs shut out by White Sox on South Side

No late magic as Cubs shut out by White Sox on South Side

Aroldis Chapman was in uniform for the Cubs Tuesday night, but Joe Maddon never got a chance to employ his shiny new toy.

After posting late rallies the last two games, the Cubs offense was noticeably absent on Chicago's South Side, dropping a second straight game in this Crosstown matchup 3-0 in front of 39,553 fans at U.S. Cellular Field.

White Sox starter James Shields scattered four singles and four walks in 7.2 innings, using 117 pitches to shut down the Cubs lineup.

[RELATED - How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem vs. Cubs]

"The guy on the other side, he was pretty good today," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. "I was in here watching a lot of it, mixing speeds, hitting spots. It was kinda fun to watch.

"You never like it against you, but still, you gotta appreciate it."

The first White Sox hitter of the game scored as Adam Eaton drew a walk and was eventually plated on Jose Abreu's RBI single three batters later.

Hendricks settled down from there, allowing only a solo homer to Eaton in the fifth.

After the game, he said he really only felt like he made two bad pitches (both changeups) — the homer to Eaton and Abreu's first-inning single — plus the leadoff walk to Eaton in the first.

But the wheels came off for the Cubs in the sixth inning as Hendricks departed following two quick outs and a bloop hit from Todd Frazier that glanced off the glove of Anthony Rizzo in shallow right field.

Travis Wood came on to relieve Hendricks, but walked the first three hitters he faced to force in Frazier with the third run of the game.

"I've not seen that before," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Wood's control issues. "It's really awkward to watch him go through that moment. Here's a guy that really nails down inherited runners as good as anybody.

"Just one of those moments. I don't think it's a trend. I just think it happened tonight."

The Cubs' best opportunity to score came in the second when they loaded the bases with two outs, but Dexter Fowler fouled out behind home plate. After that, only one baserunner reached second base all game for the Cubs.

Over the last four games, each of the opposing starters against the Cubs — Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, Junior Guerra and Zach Davies — has tossed a quality start.

In that span, the Cubs have scored just three earned runs in 27 innings against the starters, totaling 19 hits and only one homer.

Tuesday night, Maddon likened all four starters to each other as sort of finesse guys.

"We're young offensively and when you see pitchers that really know what they're doing," Maddon said. "We've seen guys recently that have a good feel for what they're doing and I think they've taken advantage of our youth.

"Primarily, we have to not expand the strike zone. We've been expanding a little bit against these guys. We gotta keep them in the zone and obviously, when they make a mistake, it's gotta be hit hard and kept fair. We have not done that."

[RELATED - Cubs go into damage-control mode after introducing Aroldis Chapman to Chicago]

Kris Bryant said before the game he was itching at another chance to face Shields after the veteran pitcher welcomed Bryant to the big leagues with a couple of strikeouts in the latter's debut last April at Wrigley Field.

But Shields once again got the best of Bryant Tuesday night, striking out the MVP candidate three times in four trips to the plate.

Bryant is now just 1-for-10 against Shields with seven strikeouts.

"I got myself out a lot tonight," Bryant said. "I mean, when you got a good changeup, tip your cap. He made some really good pitches."

The Crosstown series moves to the North Side Wednesday night for the final two games.