10/04/12 1:08 PM ET
Cubs build for future during season of change
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
In his first year as manager, Dale Sveum used a club-record 53 different players, including 20 rookies -- the club's most freshmen since 1974. Of those 20, 11 were pitchers.
The changes were widespread. Marlon Byrd was traded in April. Kerry Wood retired in May. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was dismissed in June. Two-fifths of the starting rotation -- Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm -- were among the five players moved at the Trade Deadline. Player development director Oneri Fleita was dismissed in mid-August. Even one of the Minor League affiliations was switched, as the Cubs announced in September that they were moving their Class A team from Peoria to Kane County.
There were changes made that were changed back. Carlos Marmol lost his job as closer in May, was replaced by rookie Rafael Dolis, who then couldn't throw strikes and was optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Marmol became the closer again on the condition he would not shake off the catcher's signs. He agreed, and proceeded to convert a career-high 19 straight save opportunities.
There were changes made for the future. Bryan LaHair was the first baseman at the beginning of the season, was named to his first National League All-Star team, and then found himself on the bench with the rise of Anthony Rizzo, who was promoted from Iowa June 26. With Rizzo, Sveum had a bona fide No. 3 hitter. The first baseman batted .330 in July to win NL Rookie of the Month honors, and delivered in the clutch, which had been missing.
There were changes out of necessity. Who could've predicted that Luis Valbuena, claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays on April 4, would finish with more starts at third base than Ian Stewart?
It was a roller-coaster ride. There was the dismal 12-game losing streak in May, the encouraging 15-10 July, followed by the depressing 8-21 August. The goal at season's end was to avoid losing 100 games -- something no Cubs team had done since 1966.
Sveum was hands on, spending time with players around the batting cages, in the video room and in his office. He left some games scratching his head after an unexplainable baserunning gaffe, but also saw much-needed improvement in the overall defensive play.
The 2012 season may not have resulted in a winning record, but it did serve a purpose in Theo Epstein's makeover. Epstein, who took charge as president of baseball operations one year ago, now has a much better grasp of what's in the Cubs system and what's not.
"Our goal from the beginning is we're going to do what we need to do to put ourselves in a position to be a contending team, year in and year out, and that means no shortcuts and taking the long approach," Epstein said. "When you acquire young players and trade for prospects, it's pretty obvious it's not a quick road. I think it'll be a rewarding journey."
Record: 61-101, fifth in NL Central
Defining moment: There were plenty of transactions, but the July 31 Trade Deadline showed the Cubs' front office was serious about starting over. Opening Day starter Dempster and his battery mate, Geovany Soto, were sent to the Rangers in exchange for three Minor League players. Maholm and Reed Johnson were dealt to the Braves for two Minor League pitchers. Five days later, Jeff Baker was shipped to the Tigers for two more Minor League players. Of all the pitchers acquired, only reliever Jaye Chapman made it to the big leagues in a September call-up. "They're doing it the right way," Baker said of the rebuilding project. "You've got to [tear] it down to build it back up. ... You hope the fans will be patient with them."
What went right: Starlin Castro finished as the NL leader in errors at shortstop, but he did show improvement on the field and was rewarded with a seven-year, $60 million contract extension on Aug. 28. Rizzo was much better prepared for the big leagues when called up this year vs. last season, when he hit just .141 for the Padres. Rizzo had more home runs and RBIs in his first 10 games with the Cubs than he did in nearly 50 with San Diego. Darwin Barney has had a Gold-Glove-worthy season as far as the Cubs are concerned, setting a single-season NL record for consecutive error-free games, which is impressive since this is his second full season at second base. Alfonso Soriano must have found the fountain of youth. The 36-year-old outfielder established a career-high in RBIs, posted his sixth 30-homer season and set an example in the clubhouse for the young players to follow.
What went wrong: The Cubs hoped a change of scenery would benefit Stewart, but he needed surgery in June to repair a left wrist injury. Matt Garza was shut down because of problems with his right elbow shortly after the Trade Deadline, which meant the team was suddenly minus three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation. Wood wanted to stay in Chicago, signed a $3 million deal with an option for 2013, and was to set up Marmol. Wood then surprised the Cubs by retiring after 10 games.
Biggest surprise: Jeff Samardzija made it clear he wanted to start, and he backed up his talk. Samardzija developed from someone who was trying to blow hitters away to a pitcher who could locate his stuff. He was shut down Sept. 8 because he'd reached his innings limit after 28 starts, but finished strong with a complete-game victory over the Pirates. He could be the Opening Day starter in 2013.
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.