Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

Since the Chicago Cubs last made the playoffs in 2008 they have been experiencing a steady decline that culminated with last season’s 5th place finish and 71-91 record. Enter new President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein.

Luring Epstein to the north side is the front office equivalent of the Angels signing Albert Pujols. Actually, it might be like landing Pujols and Prince Fielder all at the same time. Epstein is a certifiable front office mastermind that is going to take the Cubs apart piece by piece and build them into a perennial winner, because that’s what he does.

He will not only be the guy who was at the helm for the curse-breaking Red Sox championship but also for the Cubs. It’s just a matter of time.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

Epstein started by bringing in guys like Ian Stewart, David DeJesus, Anthony Rizzo, and Paul Maholm. Out are longtime standbys Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, as well as Carlos Pena, who apparently just isn’t compatible with Moneyball-influenced front offices.

2012 will be a transition year for the Cubs but one in which they should be able to climb out of the 5th spot in the NL Central and make a little noise through August.

3 Up                                                                     

Bryan LaHair

Best Case Scenario for 2012

If the Cubs stay healthy and get production from some of the unknown pieces like Bryan LaHair and Anthony Rizzo, it could be a fun summer in Wrigleyville. Ryan Demptser, Matt Garza, and Paul Maholm make for a nice 1-2-3 in the rotation and there is enough front-line talent in the batting order to score some runs. Dale Sveum has brought a nice vibe to camp and has put his stamp of approval on guys like Stewart and Alfonso Soriano. If the players rally together and the wins follow, the city will once again be going crazy for their beloved Cubbies. It will take a special turnaround for the Cubs to leapfrog the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals in the standings, but stranger things have happened.

Most Important Cubs

Offensively, Alfonso Soriano still holds the keys to this offense. He has been booed heavily by his hometown fans for an apparent lack of dedication and hustle. Perhaps the big contract has more to do with it than his actual play on the field. He has 3 years left on his megadeal but did manage 26 bombs and 88 RBI’s in just 475 at-bats a season ago. His on-base % dipped below .300 for the first time in his career and that will need to be corrected. 27 walks isn’t going to get it done. Sveum seems committed to getting Soriano 550 at-bats and the production should naturally follow. Having a well-respected (within the team at least) veteran leading the charge should do wonders for a younger, unproven roster. On the hill, Matt Garza is the horse that can carry this team through the dog days of summer. He is basically 200 guaranteed innings of pure bulldog. He went 10-10 in his 1st season as a Cub with a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP to go along with 197 K’s in 198 innings. Garza, still just 28, is in line for a big season.

Potential Breakout Players

Bryan LaHair is likely going to be handed the cleanup spot in spring training and it’s his job to lose. The big, 29-year old left-handed hitter has been grinding it out in the minors since 2003 with just 2 small tastes of the big league life. He put together an absolute monster year at AAA Iowa in 2011. In 129 games he pounded out 38 homers, 109 RBI’s, 38 doubles, and a slash line of .331/.405/.664. More of that please! He was able to carry over his minor league success in 59 brief at-bats at the end of the season. If LaHair puts up 25-30 homers with a high on-base %, this is a different lineup. The other guy to watch is the slowly developing Jeff Samardzija. The 27-year old finally had a big season out of the Cubs’ pen in 2011. He posted a 2.97 ERA and 87 K’s in 88 innings of work. He is being stretched out in camp in order to make a run at the 5th spot in the rotation. If the talented but historically under-performing Samardzija has finally figured it out, this pitching staff will be deeper than originally expected.

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario

Starlin Castro

The Cubs will walk a fine line in 2012. They have a solid starting lineup and 3 reliable starters and 2 guys in the pen (Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol) that can do good things. Beyond that, there is little depth. Should they get hit with injury or increasing ineffectiveness from guys like Soriano and Stewart, this team will be spinning its wheels almost immediately. Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro look solid up the middle and the addition of DeJesus should pay dividends but there is a void of talent behind these guys. If Travis Wood can’t do good work out of the #4 spot in the rotation and Marmol and Kerry Wood have trouble closing games, things could get out of hand and another 5th place finish ahead of the lowly Astros a potential result.

Areas of Concern

The biggest question marks are the back-end of the starting rotation and the ability to get substantial offensive contributions from questionable assets. Ian Stewart gets a clean slate in Chicago as the starting 3rd baseman but is coming off a train wreck of a season in 2011. Injuries zapped his power as he hit just .156 in 122 at-bats, spending most of the season in AAA. Can he regain his 25-home run form of 2009? Despite the power bat, Stewart is just a .236 lifetime hitter. Can the aging Marlon Byrd become productive again, and if not, is Tony Campana ready to replace him? Will LaHair’s power project at the Major League level and can Anthony Rizzo clear the cobwebs from his San Diego stint and regain his top prospect status? There are a lot of questions in Cubs camp. They don’t need it all to go right, but if it did, this team could do some things.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011

The whole team? Things got ugly in Chicago in 2011 and aside from Barney and Castro on offense, and Garza on the mound, almost nobody produced to their potential. For one, Geovany Soto is too talented to be a .228 hitter. His career has followed an every other year type of production pattern. Despite the 17 homers a season ago, his on-base skills were greatly diminished. The bottom line is that Soto, in even numbered years, averages .283 with 20 homers and 70 RBI’s. In odd numbered years, he hits .223 with 14 HR’s and 50 RBI’s. 2012 should be kind to the 29-year old catcher. Ryan Dempster, 191 K’s in 2011 aside, saw a big spike in his counting numbers. His ERA and WHIP climbed from 3.85 and 1.32 to 4.80 and 1.45 respectively. He had a losing record for the first time in a Cubs uniform as a starter. Nearing 35 years old, Dempster still has skills and the Cubs will need him back in 2011 form to have a shot at shaking up the NL Central.

Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe

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