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Work in progress, but Cubs aim to be competitive

Work in progress, but Cubs aim to be competitive

Work in progress, but Cubs aim to be competitive
CHICAGO -- Dale Sveum had a list of goals for his first season as the Cubs' manager in 2012, and felt the team achieved most of them. Heading into his second year, he knows the Cubs still have a lot of work to do.

"We knew going in [to 2012] we were changing the culture of an organization, changing the culture of the 25 guys who were on the baseball field every day, and I think we accomplished a lot of things like that," Sveum said.

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That means playing good fundamental baseball and being accountable. Sveum said he had no problem with the effort. The Cubs simply were overmatched in 2012, and the end result was 101 losses.

The offense ranked last in on-base percentage and 14th in slugging percentage, two areas that Sveum said need to get better. The third basemen combined for 12 homers and 55 RBIs -- they need more.

The Cubs are still in rebuilding mode, but Sveum feels they can be competitive in 2013.

"You look at the Oakland A's last season, the Orioles winning all those extra-inning games, the one-run ballgames, the walk-off home runs -- we talk about it all the time," Sveum said. "You have to have slugging percentage, you have to have guys with the ability to hit fastballs to win those close games. Those core guys, eight guys, who are going out there every day, they have to have career years.

"Most teams, while they might not be on paper like the Yankees or the good Red Sox teams, guys can come out of nowhere and have their career years and you win a lot more ballgames. Don't get me wrong, you still have to pitch. We have to compete, we have to put together a pitching staff and get these guys to understand you've got to stay away from the walks."

They'll get to work on Year 2 in February in Mesa, Ariz. Here are 10 questions Sveum and staff need to deal with:

1. Are Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Arodys Vizcaino healthy?

The Cubs didn't have much pitching depth in 2012, and unfortunately that hasn't changed. Plus, Garza is coming back from an elbow injury, while Baker and Vizcaino are both returning from Tommy John surgery. They should be ready by Opening Day, but the Cubs plan on being careful. They can't afford any relapses.

2. Can Anthony Rizzo carry the team?

Sveum inserted Rizzo into the No. 3 spot in the lineup when he was called up in late June, and he responded well, winning National League Rookie of the Month in July with a .330 average, seven homers and 17 RBIs. Rizzo got a little homer happy in August, Sveum said, before rebounding for a strong finish. Rizzo will be on the Opening Day roster for the first time, and pitchers will likely have a better feel for him. Can Rizzo make the adjustments?

3. Can Brett Jackson have a Rizzo moment?

Jackson spent time in Mesa in November with Sveum to rework his swing. The Cubs want Jackson to open at Triple-A Iowa with the hope that he can apply the changes. Jackson can handle center defensively but has to cut down on the strikeouts if he is to succeed in the big leagues.

4. Is Welington Castillo ready?

Castillo began the 2012 season at Triple-A Iowa but outdueled Steve Clevenger and heads into 2013 as the No. 1 catcher. Castillo, 25, does need to improve his numbers against right-handed pitchers (he batted .195 compared to .476 against lefties). What the Cubs did like was how Castillo took charge with the pitchers. The catchers have been given a lot of responsibility as far as the game plan. The team added veteran Dioner Navarro as a backup and won't hesitate to use him.

5. Will Starlin Castro benefit from new deal?

Castro batted .235 in July, then he hit .309 from Aug. 28, when he signed a seven-year, $60 million contract extension, to the end of the season. The Cubs would like to see Castro develop into a better situational hitter and not be what Sveum called a "hit seeker." In 2012, Castro did set career highs with 12 triples, 14 home runs, 78 RBIs, 36 walks and 25 stolen bases. With the new money, will he stay hungry?

6. Is Ian Stewart healthy?

When the Cubs acquired Stewart in December 2011, they hoped a change of scenery would benefit the third baseman. But a sore left wrist didn't help, and he eventually needed surgery in July. Stewart was limited to 55 games, batting .201. He agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract, which is a slight drop from the $2,237,500 million Stewart made in 2012. The money also is non-guaranteed, so if Stewart, 27, isn't healthy, the Cubs are not obligated.

7. Is Kyuji Fujikawa the new closer?

The Cubs say Carlos Marmol is their closer but still added an experienced late-inning pitcher in Fujikawa, 32, who signed a two-year contract. The Japanese right-hander totaled 220 saves and a 1.77 ERA in 12 seasons with Hanshin and twice led the league in saves. Fujikawa says his role doesn't matter. Marmol struggled at the start of the season, but pitching coach Chris Bosio got him back on track in the second half, and the right-hander posted a 1.52 ERA in 30 games after the All-Star break, converting 12 of 13 save opportunities. The 2013 season is the last year of Marmol's contract, which should motivate him.

8. Can Alfonso Soriano stay young?

Soriano turns 37 on Jan. 7, and has two years remaining on his eight-year deal. Last season, he led the team with 32 home runs and a career-high 108 RBIs. He won't challenge for a Gold Glove, but he was better in the field thanks to tutoring from first-base coach Dave McKay.

9. Who's in right field?

The Cubs have reportedly signed Nate Schierholtz to a one-year, $2.25 million contract but are believed to be in the market for another outfielder. Schierholtz, 28, batted .257 for the Giants and Phillies with six home runs in 114 games last season. He was dealt to Philadelphia on July 31 along with two Minor League players for Hunter Pence and made a good impression in his debut, hitting a home run against the Nationals. But he fractured his right big toe on Aug. 13. The Phillies decided to non-tender Schierholtz, who made $1.3 million last season. He would've received a raise, which wouldn't have made sense because he was projected as the Phillies' fifth outfielder.

10. Will they lose 100 games again?

The empty seats at Wrigley Field at the end of the 2012 season showed fans were losing patience with the process. The Cubs are waiting for projected impact players Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Javier Baez, but they could be at least one year away. Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer spent the first year assembling their staff and evaluating the talent in the organization. Both have said they won't stray from their plan. Sveum expects better results in 2013. "When you lose 100 games, you better go into [next season] with a little more optimism," he said.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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