Ten things to watch for this Cubs season


Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epsteins reserved parking spot is clearly marked by the entrance to the main building at Fitch Park.

Even if the compensation issue with the Boston Red Sox still isnt resolved word from commissioner Bud Selig is expected soon theres obviously no turning back now.

The baseball operations staff is here in Arizona for organizational meetings, where they will try to define and explain The Cubs Way. Several groups of players were working out on Thursday at the teams complex in Mesa, including Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, Bryan LaHair and Tony Campana.

That morning, the front page of USA Todays sports section featured a photo collage of 10 players Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes among them. But Epstein was at the center of the spring training preview, standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee.

The new president of baseball operations doesnt really want to be the face of the franchise, so here are 10 other story lines to consider before pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday:

1. Camp Sveum

Dale Sveum doesnt want his players to take the easy way out and slide. He believes catchers should fear you when youre coming into home plate. He doesnt want to see any dogs or hear about any excuses. Win or lose, he figures, at least make it a fistfight.

Sveum met with Red Sox ownership last November in Milwaukee, sensing hed be getting an offer to manage a win-now team that never came. Instead of answering questions about fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, hell be on the ground floor of Epsteins rebuilding project. The first-year manager will be given every opportunity to develop into the next Terry Francona. This is Sveums time to put his stamp on the team.

2. The next big thing

The Cubs were shocked by the changes to the collective bargaining agreement, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international market. Jorge Soler wouldnt count against that cap if hes signed before July 2, one reason why the 19-year-old Cuban defector could spark a bidding war.

The Cubs own the sixth overall choice in the June draft, plus supplemental picks for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Now,their talking point is that its going to become a scouting contest. New executive Jason McLeod who once ran drafts for the Red Sox that produced impact players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard becomes one of the most influential people in the organization.

3. Strength up the middle?

At the age of 21, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits, but the gifted shortstop still has much to prove. The Cubs expressed support while his lawyers had to deny sexual assault allegations last month. But even without the negative publicity, hed still have to show that hes learned what it takes at this level. This will be his third season in the big leagues, time to cut down on the careless errors and improve his focus. Because of his personality and big smile, there will be many people rooting for him to become a franchise player.

4. Whos on first?

It is LaHairs job heading into spring training. Last years Pacific Coast League MVP will get a chance to show that he belongs in the majors, where he has only 195 at-bats on his resume. The Cubs insist that Anthony Rizzo will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where the top prospect will try to erase last years audition with the San Diego Padres (18-for-128 with 46 strikeouts). At 22, Rizzo is seven years younger than LaHair, and projected as someone who will be a force in the lineup and the clubhouse when the Cubs see their next window to contend.

5. Coach em up

Sveum knew exactly who he wanted to be his pitching coach, and this might be the most important relationship in the dugout for a first-year manager. Chris Bosio pitched more than 1,700 innings in the majors, and that should give him some instant credibility. It will be on Bosio to unlock the potential in former first-round picks Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and help push Matt Garza and Randy Wells to their next levels. The Cubs have talked a lot about the depth theyve added to their pitching staff. Bosio will have to sort it all out.

6. Endgame

Twelve months ago, Carlos Marmol was rewarded with a three-year, 20 million deal. It was a nice story about the 16-year-old kid the Cubs once signed out of the Dominican Republic, who eventually had to be talked into pitching and emerged as a dominating closer. Marmol didnt live up to the contract in 2011. No one in the majors finished with more than his 10 blown saves. Between the return of Kerry Wood and the progress shown by Samardzija and James Russell, the bullpen could be a real strength. But it starts with the closer regaining the feel for his slider, and then his confidence.

7. Follow the money

Local television deals helped juice the baseball economy this winter and shift the balance of power to the American League. Fox Sports regional networks helped bankroll the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who combined spent more than 425 million to sign Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish. The Cubs have multiyear broadcasting commitments to both WGN and CSN, and their business executives are no doubt wondering: Wheres ours?

8. Your ad here

The newsiest item out of last months Cubs Convention was the plan to steal business away from the surrounding rooftops by building a patio deck in the right-field bleachers and installing a big LED board to show game information and advertisements. Skeptics will wonder where this is all heading (Jumbotron?) and how it could change the look and feel of Wrigley Field. Either way, this should be a pivotal year for finding a way to finance those stadium renovation plans, which hopefully wont include any yellow noodles outside the building.
9. Ready for prime time?

The crosstown series against the White Sox wont be nearly as explosive without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano, who took their talents to South Beach, but there are still dates to circle on the calendar, like April 17-19 in Little Havana. The Cubs will be there at Busch Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals unveil their World Series banner and hand out championship rings (April 13-15).

Fielder will swing away at Clark and Addison, but only in a Detroit Tigers uniform (June 12-14). The bars around Wrigleyville will be jam-packed when Red Sox Nation invades (June 15-17). By then, it could be time to count down the days until the trade deadline, to see how the market develops for Garza, if a contender needs Byrd and if anyones desperate enough to take on a fraction of Alfonso Sorianos contract.
10. Are we there yet?

Epstein joked that the Cubs led the league in press conferences. The narrative now will be how they stick to their plan, and if everyone will really have the patience to see it through.

What we want to do is create a sustainable team that every single year has a chance to make the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said last month. Its like taking a shot on goal. The teams that win World Series are teams that make the playoffs year after year.

The Florida Marlins' model of making the playoffs and winning the World Series every time they do itthats not really one to follow. We need to get to the point where we make the playoffs every single year and once we do that, a championship should follow. How long its going to take to build that sustainable team? I cant tell you. But I can tell you thats what were working on and, hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

Cubs hoping Kyle Schwarber can make World Series comeback

Cubs hoping Kyle Schwarber can make World Series comeback

As if the possibility of clinching their first National League pennant in 71 years didn't create enough drama and excitement in Wrigleyville, the Cubs have sent Kyle Schwarber to the Arizona Fall League, hoping he can add another chapter to his October legend.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Schwarber earned this chance after beating every expectation in his recovery from major knee surgery in April. The Cubs haven't ruled anything in or out - and still need to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers one more time - but they want to see how he responds on Saturday with the Mesa Solar Sox and then decide if he would be a viable designated-hitter option for the World Series.

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