PITTSBURGH -- The final two months or so leading up to the baseball season go something like this for Cubs fans: unbridled giddiness at the Cubs convention followed by cautious optimism at spring training to close-your-eyes-and-hope as the season starts.
It's OK to open your eyes, according to pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who makes his first opening-day start Monday as the Cubs begin the 2013 season against the Pirates at PNC Park.
Cubs opening-day lineupDavid DeJesus, CF
Starlin Castro, SS
Anthony Rizzzo, 1B
Alfonso Soriano, LF
Nate Schierholtz, RF
Welington Castillo, C
Luis Valbuena, 3B
Brent Lillibridge, 2B
Jeff Samardzija, P
"I like our depth; I like our versatility," Samardzija said Sunday after he strode off the PNC field after a light, informal workout. "I think we've got a lot of different guys who can play a lot of positions, hit in a lot of different spots in the lineup.
"I think we've got a good handful of guys who can take a game over themselves."
The Cubs enter Season 2 of their major rebuilding plan under team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
Before both seasons, Epstein and Hoyer said they were trying to contend immediately but that the main focus remains on "building a foundation for sustained success."
After a 101-loss season last year, the Cubs will test the patience of their fans this year if things go a similar way.
An improvement of 10 to 15 games would be astonishing, and Samardzija says the Cubs have the players to get at least that done. He cited leadoff man David DeJesus, slugger Alfonso Soriano and young players such as Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo.
"Those kind of things really allow you to come every day with a really good chance to win the ballgame," Samardzija said.
It seems obvious to say a team needs to get off to a good start. The Cubs opened 3-11 last year on the way to an 8-15 April. Getting out of the gate quickly could prevent a losing attitude from setting in early.
"I think it's really important," Samardzija said. "For every team it's important, but especially this team, with a lot of new guys, a lot of new camaraderie going on and everybody getting to know each other.
"There's no easier way to make a seamless transition than winning some ballgames. If we do that, if we get off on the right foot, get back home and open our home series and go from there."
Manager Dale Sveum returns for his second year at the top step of the dugout. Even though the Cubs lost in triple digits last year, Sveum gets a lot of credit for the attitude remaining upbeat and the clubhouse never coming close to an implosion.
"You look back a year ago when we broke camp and a month in, the depth and ability to throw strikes was a big fistfight," Sveum told reporters when talking about his bullpen late in spring training. "Knock on wood, that doesn't seem to be the case."
Closer Carlos Marmol finished on a shaky note, but Sveum was discounting that. He also knows the Cubs have increased their bullpen depth with the signing of Kyuji Fujikawa, who eventually could replace Marmol as closer.
There are few things more demoralizing to a team than the bullpen frittering away leads.
Soriano, who is back for his seventh year, told the media he sees improvement.
"This year, it's different," he 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.
"We've played with emotion. All those guys, they're young and they're passionate. That's the most important thing. I believe in this team. We're young, but at the same time we have so much talent."