3/28/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Cubs see chemistry as key element to season
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- After losing 101 games, the Cubs didn't overhaul the lineup. They're still in rebuilding mode, and they hope the players added can bring them another step closer to their goal of sustained success.
It all gets started Monday at 12:35 p.m. CT, when the Cubs face the Pirates at PNC Park. Jeff Samardzija gets the Opening Day assignment, but there will also be new faces in the rotation in Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. There's a new right fielder in Nate Schierholtz and new relievers in Kyuji Fujikawa and Hector Rondon. The bench will have versatile Brent Lillibridge, veteran Scott Hairston and Dioner Navarro.
The additions didn't excite the preseason prognosticators. Nobody is picking the Cubs to win the National League Central.
"I don't think it matters where people pick us to finish," Feldman said. "It matters where we believe we're going to finish. The preseason stuff -- you can throw it out the window."
W: Samardzija L: Burnett S: Fujikawa
Look at the upstart Athletics and Orioles last year, the Cubs say.
"I'm a big believer in chemistry," said Feldman, who has pitched in the postseason the last three seasons with the Rangers, getting to the World Series in 2010 and '11. "I've been on teams that have had good chemistry and teams that haven't had good chemistry, but the good teams I've been on have always had good chemistry and a good clubhouse atmosphere."
That's something Cubs manager Dale Sveum is developing, beginning last season.
"The 101 losses is on [president of baseball operations] Theo [Epstein] and me," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We felt like Dale kept the clubhouse together. We had a 101-loss team with no brush fires last year at all. Guys really respect him. They play hard for him.
"Our goal is to make sure we have a really talented team that's playing hard for him," Hoyer said. "[Sveum] is a really good teacher, he's well respected and we're looking forward to Year 2 with him."
This spring, much of the attention has been on the Cubs' future stars, such as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. They aren't expected to reach the Majors until 2014 at the earliest. Sveum is focused on what he has, but he would like to head into his second season as manager with all the pieces in place. Matt Garza will miss at least the first month because of a strained lat. Scott Baker is sidelined indefinitely in his return from Tommy John surgery. Ian Stewart is sidelined with a strained left quad.
"The big injury, obviously, is Garza," Sveum said of the right-hander, who was shut down after 18 starts last season because of right elbow problems.
Sveum stressed better fundamentals in 2012, and he has more items on his checklist this year. He wants improved on-base percentage, better slugging percentage and fewer walks from his pitchers. This spring, right-handed hitters struggled against right-handed pitching, but the projected lineup may overcome that with its left-right balance from top to bottom.
The player to watch will be Anthony Rizzo, 23. Promoted in late June, the left-handed-hitting first baseman hit 15 home runs and drove in 48 in 87 games. Project that for a full season, and the Cubs' potential on offense definitely perks up.
"What he did in the second half, if he can do that for the whole year, that's it," teammate Alfonso Soriano said. "We need a guy like that."
Sveum isn't projecting MVP numbers for his young No. 3 hitter.
"I don't know if we expect a big breakout year as much as just do what he did last year for us," Sveum said of Rizzo, who helped Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. "He doesn't have to do any more or any less. To get 600-plus plate appearances, he'll put up numbers.
"You want those guys to grow into big RBIs guys," Sveum said. "Everyone talks about home runs, and I think the one thing he did last year really well was one, hit with two strikes, and two, hit with men in scoring position."
The Cubs hope Soriano, 37, can continue to tap into the fountain of youth that produced 32 home runs and 108 RBIs last year. They projected another 20 home runs and 70 RBIs from Stewart, but instead, Luis Valbuena, who batted .306 in Venezuelan Winter League play, takes over at third.
It's not a high-powered, big-bopper, sexy offense.
"I think that doesn't matter -- I think it's the way we play together," said leadoff man David DeJesus. "I think if we have that chemistry, especially offensively, taking every at-bat for that at-bat, things are going to happen.
"We have to keep staying positive and stay behind each other," he said. "That's the way championship teams are made. Guys pick each other up. You know you're not going to hit 1.000. Do your job, do what you can do, all you can focus on is seeing a good pitch, hitting a good pitch. That's what we're going to focus on, and we'll see what happens."
The Cubs' biggest improvement can be seen on the mound. Jackson liked the sales pitch personally delivered from Sveum and Hoyer, and signed a four-year, $52 million deal. Samardzija earned his first Opening Day start after going from what Sveum called "gorilla pitching" to being a bona fide ace.
"We have three aces," said Soriano, including Garza with Samardzija and Jackson. "If you have three aces and they're healthy, we're OK, and we'll match with the other team."
The bullpen is stronger with the acquisition of right-hander Fujikawa, who was a closer in Japan for 12 seasons. Carlos Marmol is still the Cubs' closer, and he'll likely give pitching coach Chris Bosio more gray hair. The two have a deal: Marmol can't shake off the catcher on any pitch or else he owes Bosio a case of wine. Last year, Marmol had to buy only one case.
"You look back a year ago when we broke camp and a month in, the depth and ability to throw strikes was a big fist fight," Sveum said of his bullpen. "Knock on wood, that doesn't seem to be the case."
This will be the 138th season for the Cubs, who still have the longest championship drought in pro sports, having last won the World Series in 1908. The players don't want to talk about that or last year's losses. It's cliche, but they're taking it one day at a time.
"This year, it's different," Soriano said. "If the [pitchers] are healthy and the starting lineup is healthy, we'll do better. The message the manager gave to us is we have to just play hard, every pitch, every at-bat and on defense. I think we'll be OK. We're hungry to win, we have a very nice group. We want to surprise people."
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.