This is the second in an ongoing series on the teams of the NL Central.
You can find part 1 on the Houston Astros [here].
1) Will Starlin Castro take the step forward to true stardom?
In May 2010, the young shortstop was busy posting a nearly 1.000 OPS at AA when he was called up by the Cubs in a desperate attempt to infuse some youth and upside into a rapidly aging major league roster. While he wasn’t good enough to save the Cubs from a 5th place finish, he still hit .300/.347/.408 in over 500 plate appearances and played rangy, if error-prone defense. All signs pointed to his being a likely franchise cornerstone for years to come. Instead of taking a big step forward in 2011, though, it was really more of the same with a little more power, a little less on-base and a few fewer mistakes on defense. Heading into his age 22 season, there is obviously still lots of time for Castro to develop into the sort of superstar that looked not only possible 2 years ago, but probable. The question remains, though, can and will he take that step? If he can, it gives the Cubs someone to build and market around as they work towards getting back into contention.
2) What can the remaining useful veterans on the roster bring back in trade?
Not only do the Cubs have the sort of potential superstar that the Astros so clearly lack, they also have a few more interesting pieces on the major league roster that can potentially be flipped for young, cost-controlled players over the coming months. If they can perform, both Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd figure to be the sorts of players that can bring back potential big leaguers on the open market if the right team comes calling for their services. The team could also look to deal erratic, but undeniably talented, closer Carlos Marmol if he’s throwing a few more strikes than in the past and some team is in desperate need of a Proven Closer. The biggest trade chip the Cubs have, though, and the one that could bring back possible future star players if the Cubs brass is patient and savvy in dealing him, is starter Matt Garza. With 2 years of control left and the stuff to be a good team’s #2 starter, trading Garza could easily add multiple players with major upside to the Cubs farm system, and possibly bring back another potential superstar if the right team comes calling in June and July.
3) Can the new management team lose long enough to restock the farm without losing the fan base?
In many ways new Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer face a less extreme version of the problems facing the Astros. They obviously need to rebuild, and though they have more useful talent and more money to work with, they also have to deal with even higher expectations from a fan base desperate to finally win a World Series. They are currently building the front office into the sort of machine that allowed the Red Sox to contend on an annual basis, despite playing in the toughest division in baseball, but that effort will take time. Also, as mentioned in the Astros’ piece, teams looking to build around amateur talent will no longer be allowed to simply throw tons of money at the problem, the way the Red Sox did for years under Epstein. So while there is renewed optimism on the north side among the fan base, the new regime will need to give fans something in the way of contention before too long if they want to keep the cash registers ringing. That might mean pressing ahead with bringing in a big money free agent or two before the rest of the roster is truly ready to justify the expense, and spending on top end free agents is one of the few areas where Theo and company haven’t been so great over the years. In other words, while they have advantages that few other franchises can lay claim to, the situation is still one that has to be managed very carefully if the team is going to reach its full potential in the coming years.