Cubs head to camp ready to make leap

Cubs head to camp ready to make leap

MESA, Ariz. -- Why would a free agent sign with a team coming off a 101-loss season and still in rebuilding mode? That didn't seem to matter to Edwin Jackson -- or others -- who joined the Cubs this offseason.

"I've been on a team that lost 100 games and went to a World Series the next year," Jackson said, referring to his time with the Rays. "You can't really focus on the past, the only thing you can do is look forward to the future. The guys we have here are a great group of guys -- it's exciting, and there's a lot of energy."

The forward-thinking Cubs take that next step when they open Spring Training camp at Fitch Park on Sunday. The first workout for pitchers and catchers is scheduled for Tuesday.

Jackson, who signed a four-year deal in January, isn't the only free agent who liked the direction the Cubs are headed. Free agents Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Nate Schierholtz, Dioner Navarro and Carlos Villanueva also signed on for year No. 2 of Theo Epstein's and Jed Hoyer's makeover.

Some might say Epstein, president of baseball operations, and Hoyer, general manager, began the rebuilding process when first baseman Anthony Rizzo was promoted to the big league team in late June. At the Trade Deadline, the Cubs dealt Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Geovany Soto for prospects. This offseason, they continued to add new players, and did so at minimal cost.

"They weren't messing around when they came in last year and said they were going to rebuild from the bottom up," Cubs pitcher Matt Garza said of Epstein and Hoyer.

The plan this offseason, Hoyer said, was to correct some of the shortcomings revealed in 2012.

"I feel really good about the depth of our rotation, the depth of our pitching staff," Hoyer said. "We need to get on base more, and we need to improve some things from last year, and we can spend seven weeks in Mesa doing that. If we can clean some of that stuff up, I don't think, given our pitching staff, that we can't be really competitive."

Clean-up duties are assigned to Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who drew rave reviews after his first season at the helm. Both Jackson and Schierholtz said their meetings with Sveum convinced them to sign. Fans want to know when the Cubs will contend. Neither Sveum nor Hoyer gave the new players a timetable.

"They just said, 'Soon,'" Jackson said. "It's hard to put an exact timetable on it. You have teams that go out and you don't expect them to win and they make it to the World Series. The game of baseball is hard to guess who's going to do what, it's hard to predict who's going to do what. A lot of teams look good on paper and you go out and there's no team camaraderie, and you don't win a lot of ballgames, and a lot of teams on paper, you think will lose a lot of games and they surprise everyone and win a lot of games. I think it depends on the guys you have and how they click together."

Spring Training is when that team vibe begins to develop. Let's get started.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 10.

Full squad reports

Feb. 16.

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Angels, Feb. 23, 2:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Away vs. Pirates, April 1, 12:35 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Is Ian Stewart healthy?
The Cubs were high on Stewart when they acquired him in December 2011 from the Rockies, but a wrist injury limited the third baseman to 55 games in '12. Can he provide some much-needed offense? Last year, Cubs third basemen combined for 12 home runs and 55 RBIs, and they need more production.

2. Can Carlos Marmol get the job done?
Marmol has struggled with his control, and last season he averaged a Major League-leading 7.3 walks per nine innings. That's not a category you want your closer to lead. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio seemed to get the right-hander back on track when he created a friendly wager. If Marmol shook off the catcher, he owed Bosio a case of wine. Marmol had a 5.61 ERA before the All-Star break, and a 1.52 ERA post. Does Bosio need to raise the ante?

3. Do the Cubs have an ace?
Jeff Samardzija could take on that role, which would be quite a feat for a pitcher who had a tough time convincing some that he had picked the right sport. Garza was the subject of trade rumors last season before he was injured, and will likely be followed closely by scouts as soon as he takes the mound. Can he handle being No. 1? Or, is Jackson ready to shoulder that burden? The cliche answer is that whoever pitches that day is the ace, but the Cubs need someone to step up and set the tone.

2012 record
61-101, fifth in National League Central

Projected batting order
1. CF David DeJesus:
  .263 BA, .350 OBP, .403 SLG, 9 HR, 50 RBI in 2012
2. SS Starlin Castro:
  .282 BA, .323 OBP, .430 SLG, 14 HR, 78 RBI in 2012
3. 1B Anthony Rizzo:
  .285 BA, .342 OBP, .463 SLG, 15 HR, 48 RBI in 2012
4. LF Alfonso Soriano:
  .262 BA, .322 OBP, .499 SLG, 32 HR, 108 RBI in 2012
5. 3B Ian Stewart:
  .201 BA, .292 OBP, .335 SLG, 5 HR, 17 RBI in 2012
6. C Welington Castillo:
  .265 BA, .337 OBP, .418 SLG, 5 HR, 22 RBI in 2012
7. RF Nate Schierholtz:
  .257 BA, .321 OBP, .407 SLG, 6 HR, 21 RBI in 2012
8. 2B Darwin Barney:
  .254 BA, .299 OBP, .354 SLG, 7 HR, 44 RBI in 2012


Projected rotation
1. Jeff Samardzija, 9-13, 3.81 ERA in 2012
2. Edwin Jackson, 10-11, 4.03 ERA in 2012
3. Matt Garza, 5-7, 3.91 ERA in 2012
4. Scott Baker, 8-6, 3.14 ERA in 2012
5. Scott Feldman, 6-11, 5.09 ERA in 2012

Projected bullpen
Closer: Carlos Marmol, 20/23 saves, 3.42 ERA in 2012
RH setup man: Shawn Camp, 3.59 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: James Russell, 3.25 ERA in 2012

The new guys
RHP Scott Baker: Baker may have signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs (which includes another $1.5 million in performance bonuses), but he could be in line for a long-term deal. He's the type of pitcher they're looking for because Baker doesn't walk batters. He has pitched all or part of seven seasons with the Twins, from 2005-11, and totaled 28 or more starts in three straight seasons, 2008-10. He is coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his offseason has gone well, and the team has enough depth that it can ease him into the rotation.

RHP Scott Feldman: One of the reasons Feldman wanted to sign with the Cubs was the chance to be a full-time starter. He has appeared in relief each of his seven-plus seasons with the Rangers. He also doesn't walk many batters. Maybe one of the reasons the Cubs liked him was that he threw eight shutout innings against the White Sox last season. The right-hander agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal that includes another $1 million in incentives. When he does start at home, it'll be his first game at Wrigley Field.

RHP Kyuji Fujikawa: The former closer for the Hanshin Tigers felt right at home at Wrigley Field when he visited Chicago. The ballpark is very similar to the old stadium he called home in Japan. The right-hander, who totaled 220 saves in 12 seasons with Hanshin, will be used to set up closer Carlos Marmol. After his visit in late November, he was sold on Chicago. Said Fujikawa: "From that day on, in my head, it was 'Cubs, Cubs, Cubs,' and that's how everything came through."

He signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract.

RHP Edwin Jackson: Jackson is looking forward to staying in one place. An Army brat, he has traveled most of his life, including his pro career. Jackson has pitched for seven teams, including six in the last five years. His deal with the Cubs is his first long-term contract (four years, $52 million) that was finalized days before his wedding in January. The Cubs like Jackson's durability -- he's averaged 198 innings in the last five seasons -- and feel he's a pitcher they can build around.

RHP Carlos Villanueva: Villanueva can be a swing man for the Cubs, a role he's handled for the Brewers and Blue Jays since 2006. He's coming off a season in which he totaled career highs in starts (16), innings pitched (125 1/3) and strikeouts (122). The right-hander, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal in January, is 16-22 with a 4.80 ERA in 56 starts, and 17-13 with six saves and a 3.76 ERA in 245 games in relief.

RHP Hector Rondon: Acquired in the Rule 5 Draft, Rondon was the Indians' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009. He has been limited the last three seasons following right elbow UCL reconstruction surgery on Aug. 25, 2010. He fractured the same joint during winter ball in Venezuela in 2011. He is well ahead, experience-wise, of Lendy Castillo, whom the Cubs selected in the 2011 Rule 5 Draft.

C Dioner Navarro: Navarro has played for the Yankees, Dodgers, Rays and Reds, batting .290 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in 24 games last season with Cincinnati. He gives the Cubs some experience at catcher behind Castillo, who got his most extensive playing time last season, batting .265 in 52 games. Castillo is projected as the Cubs' regular catcher in 2013 but Navarro may be matched up with Matt Garza, who was his teammate in Tampa. Navarro signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract that could pay him an additional $250,000 in performance bonuses.

OF Nate Schierholtz: The addition of Schierholtz gives the Cubs a much-needed left-handed bat and a good defensive outfielder. He was expected to get most of the playing time in right. Last season, Schierholtz batted .257 for the Giants and Phillies with six home runs in 114 games. His playing time was limited after he fractured his right big toe on Aug. 13. He signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Cubs.

Prospects to watch
SS Javier Baez: The Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft, Baez batted .333 in 57 games at Class A Peoria but wasn't able to continue that success when bumped up to Daytona, hitting .188 in 23 games. That didn't stop the team from having him play in the Arizona Fall League. His AFL season ended early because of a freak thumb injury but the team invited him to take part in a rookie development camp in January. Baez, ranked No. 16 in MLB.com's top 100 prospects, just turned 20, and the Cubs say their plan is to give him a full season at one level, although if he continues to make progress, he could be promoted again.

OF Jorge Soler: The Cuban outfielder spent most of last season simply getting in baseball shape after missing playing time while he tried to resolve his residency status. He batted .338 with five home runs in 20 games with Class A Peoria. A raw talent, the Cubs did have coaches check on Soler this offseason and they're eager to see him in Spring Training. He turns 21 on Feb. 25, and has a long future ahead of him.

RHP Robert Whitenack: The Cubs had considered promoting Whitenack in 2011 after he began the year 7-0 in 11 starts but he developed elbow problems and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. An eighth-round pick in 2009, he took part in the Cubs' rookie development camp in January, and will be a pitcher to watch this year as he continues his comeback.

On the rebound
3B Ian Stewart: Stewart was limited to 55 games last season because of a sore left wrist that required surgery in July. He has been feeling well enough this offseason to take part in a strenuous hitting program with Rod Carew. The Cubs are hoping Stewart can do this year what they projected last season, and that was 20-plus homers and solid defense.

RHP Matt Garza: Garza will be coming back from an elbow injury that sidelined him after 18 starts. He began his throwing program in November and was expected to be ready by Opening Day. He doesn't really need motivation to get pumped for his starts but the right-hander will be a free agent after this season.

RHP Arodys Vizcaino: Acquired from the Braves in the Paul Maholm deal, Vizcaino is coming back from Tommy John surgery. He did throw for the team during its last road trip in late September and at that time, appeared to be on schedule in his rehab. He could be used in the bullpen or start at Triple-A Iowa.

RHP Scott Baker: Baker is also coming back from Tommy John surgery, and is expected to be ready by Opening Day. Because of the extra arms on the roster, the Cubs can afford to give the right-hander more time. He has only pitched once at Wrigley Field in an Interleague game June 14, 2009, and did well, giving up two runs on five hits over seven innings.

Classic departures
1B Anthony Rizzo: Rizzo will be able to work on his Italian as a member of Team Italy. The first baseman was willing to participate in the Classic because the travel is fairly simple: They'll be playing first-round games in Scottsdale, Ariz. But Rizzo has his work cut out for him, as Italy is in the same bracket as Team USA, Canada and Mexico. He'll be joined on Italy's roster by former Cubs prospect Alex Maestri.

RHP Ryan Searle: Searle, 23, will play for Australia. The Brisbane native spent most of 2012 with Class A Daytona, and posted a 6-3 record and 4.22 ERA in 32 games (three starts). He also pitched briefly for Double-A Tennessee and appeared in two games with Triple-A Iowa. For the year, he was 8-5 with a 3.87 ERA in 42 games (five starts). In 2011, he pitched for the Australian Baseball League in the Baseball World Cup, and was 3-1 with a 3.66 ERA in five games.

RHP Yao-Lin Wang: Wang will join former Cubs prospect Hung-Wen Chen on the Chinese Taipei pitching staff. Wang appeared in 37 games for Class A Peoria, and was 3-2 with 12 saves in 14 opportunities and a 3.19 ERA in 28 games, and went 1-3 with a 4.57 ERA in nine starts. Combined, he struck out 82 over 78 innings and walked 27. He made one start on Nov. 15 for Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Classic qualifier against New Zealand, and threw 3 2/3 innings, giving up four hits and striking out three in a seven-inning, 10-0 win. Chinese Taipei will be in Pool B with Korea, Australia and The Netherlands.

Long gone
RHP Chris Volstad: Volstad signed a Minor League contract with the Rockies in January. The right-hander, whom the Cubs had acquired from the Marlins for Carlos Zambrano, did end his winless streak on Aug. 26 with his first "W" after 24 starts but finished with three wins in 21 games. It's never a good sign when a pitcher is averaging 11.1 hits per nine innings, which Volstad did last season.

OF Joe Mather: The Cubs lost key bench players Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker at the Trade Deadline. Mather was versatile, but he was not retained after batting .209 in 103 games. He signed a Minor League contract with the Phillies in late January.

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.