Cubs endure growing pains amid plenty of change
Several veterans dealt for prospects as club rebuilds; Castro, bullpen struggle
CHICAGO -- The 2013 season was another step in the Cubs' rebuilding process.
For the second straight year, the Cubs dealt 40 percent of their starting rotation, trading Matt Garza and Scott Feldman. But they weren't the only ones to change uniforms. The Cubs seemed to set a record for most deals in July, as Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol and Scott Hairston also were traded. In August, David DeJesus was sent to the Nationals.
In return, the Cubs felt they strengthened the organization with players such as third baseman Mike Olt and pitchers Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Jake Arrieta, Ivan Pineyro, C.J. Edwards and Corey Black. It's all part of the constant effort to make the organization healthier, which has been Theo Epstein's goal since taking over as Cubs president of baseball operations.
All the transactions didn't solve the 2013 team's problems, and the Cubs finished last in the tough National League Central at 66-96, the fourth straight year they've posted a sub-.500 season.
Dale Sveum was dismissed at the end of the regular season, although Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer said the record was more their responsibility than that of the manager. The Cubs set a franchise record by using 56 players in 2013, surpassing the previous mark of 53, which occurred in Sveum's first season. They needed 24 pitchers before the All-Star break.
Of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster, less than half -- 12 -- remained on the active roster at season's end. The 13 gone were either traded, outrighted off the 40-man roster or released. James Russell and Hector Rondon, a Rule 5 Draft pick, were the only relievers who were in the bullpen on Opening Day and at season's end.
The Cubs had hoped to do some rebuilding at Wrigley Field as well after getting approval from the city of Chicago for a five-year, $300 million renovation project. But the work was stalled as the Cubs and rooftop owners continued to debate whether proposed advertising signage will interfere with the view from outside the ballpark.
Here are five storylines from the Cubs' 2013 season:
5. Hot prospects
Every time Javier Baez hit a home run, or first-round Draft pick Kris Bryant won another award, there were questions about where the Cubs' top prospects would fit in the big league lineup. Baez, a first-round pick in 2011, and Bryant, who was the second overall selection this past June, stole some of the headlines from the big league team. The Cubs front office's mantra is that the kids need time to develop, but fans are eager for someone to cheer for. Baez, who belted 37 homers and drove in 111 runs combined at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, and Bryant, the college player of the year who was named the Arizona Fall League MVP, aren't the only super kids. The list of potential impact players in the Cubs' system also includes Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Edwards.
Now, the question is when.
"I have an internal feeling for 'when,'" Epstein said. "We lack certainty with respect to the currency of young players, because development is not set in stone. We'll see how long it takes certain players to get to the point where they can make an impact on the big leagues. I think I have a feel based on experience and collective experience ... but you can't pinpoint it."
4. Marmol, Fujikawa and Gregg
Marmol lost the closer's job one week into the regular season to Kyuji Fujikawa, but he was limited because of elbow problems. The Japanese pitcher eventually needed Tommy John surgery, and the Cubs had to scramble. They signed Kevin Gregg, who was released by the Dodgers on April 3, and he proceeded to reclaim the job, finishing with 33 saves. Marmol was eventually traded to the Dodgers for Matt Guerrier, and didn't get another save opportunity the rest of the season. The Cubs' bullpen was a problem most of the season, ranking at the bottom of the NL in ERA, walks and home runs allowed.
3. Soriano is traded to Yankees
For the second straight year, the Cubs were busy at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but none of the moves affected the players the way the departure of Soriano did. The veteran outfielder was dealt to the Yankees, where he began his U.S. pro career in 1999. He has one year remaining on the eight-year, $136 million contract he signed with the Cubs in November 2006. While fans were critical of Soriano's defensive ability, he was revered in the Cubs' clubhouse.
Soriano addressed the players at Chase Field in Arizona before catching a red-eye flight to New York.
"Everybody knows the kind of influence he has on the young guys here and the kind of influence he's always had," Darwin Barney said. "He's always been a leader, even though he never tells anybody what to do. He never says much in that kind of regard, where a leader would, but he definitely was the leader of this ballclub."
Soriano topped the Cubs in home runs and RBIs at the All-Star break, and they struggled to fill his spot in the lineup after he left. The Cubs may have been the only team to use a backup catcher, Dioner Navarro, in the No. 4 spot.
2. Sveum is dismissed
Sveum was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He held players accountable. He believed in face-to-face communication. In Spring Training, the manager organized a bunting tournament, and he included himself in the bracket. When Sveum was hired in November 2011, Epstein trusted the manager and his coaching staff to compile "The Cubs Way" handbook, to be used throughout the organization.
The Cubs lost 197 games in two seasons under Sveum, but Epstein and Hoyer said the record wasn't the reason the manager was dismissed. There were issues regarding the development of some of the Cubs, and Sveum got his signals crossed with a few players and the front office.
"There has to be a clear, unified message, and [players] can't be getting different signals from different directions and collectively -- myself included -- we failed to provide that," Epstein said.
Sveum wasn't out of work for long. Royals manager Ned Yost waited one hour after Sveum was dismissed before calling to offer him a job on Kansas City's coaching staff.
1. Starlin Castro takes a step backward
Castro was disappointed when he didn't bat .300 for a third straight season in 2012, finishing at .283. But no one expected the shortstop to struggle as much as he did in 2013, batting .245 -- including a .167 June. What happened? The shortstop lost his aggressive approach, struck out a career-high 129 times, and often looked lost at the plate. He was dropped to eighth in the order in August.
"This year, it's too many things to think about, [and] I'm not supposed to think [up there]," Castro said. "Sometimes you have a tough season, and you want to please everybody. But it's not right. You have to listen to the things that can help you -- not everything. When you come to home plate, you don't have any idea, because you listen to too many things."
Toward the end of the season, Castro announced he was just going to "be me." The shortstop may be the Cubs' new leadoff man in 2014 -- he batted .263 there this past season -- and the team can only hope he regains his approach, especially since this is Year 2 of his seven-year, $60 million contract.
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.