Sparkling new spring-training facility. Same old Cubs.
That's the beautiful and the ugly of it as the Cubs open spring training this week at their new Cubs Park facility in Mesa, Ariz.
The team will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, with pitchers and catchers reporting Thursday.
This is the third year of the baseball regime led by team president Theo Epstein, and by the looks of it, these Cubs stand a good chance of being the worst edition Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will trot out.
Of course, Epstein is selling his rebuilding process, as he has done since he got here in the fall of 2011. And for part of the next six weeks, tangible evidence of the future will be on display. Top prospects Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant will be in big-league camp as nonroster invitees. It's highly unlikely any of the three would break camp for Pittsburgh at the end of March, but Baez and/or Bryant could be playing in Wrigley Field before summer turns to fall.
Now back to winter and cold reality.
Epstein and Hoyer had always touted the sacred nature of each regular season, even as the Cubs were losing 101 and 96 games, respectively, the previous two seasons. There was less of that talk this off-season, and perhaps with good reason.
The Cubs have a new manager in Rick Renteria. They also have some new coaches. But by and large, this is the same team that went 66-96 last year and got manager Dale Sveum fired after two seasons.
Here is why 2014 is looking like another lost season:
No offense, but …: The Cubs' offense was near the bottom of the National League in several key categories, including batting average, runs, on-base percentage and walks.
The most significant transaction the Cubs made relating to offense this winter was trading backup outfielder Brian Bogusevic for outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who will platoon in center field with Ryan Sweeney.
Junior Lake, who came up for the second half, is the left fielder. Nate Schierholtz, who fell off in the second half after a good first half, starts in right.
There is an escape hatch here with the offense, which leads to our next category.
Bouncebacks needed: The two key players on the Cubs' offense are first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Both were said to have "regressed" greatly last year. So some "progression" would be most welcome.
Rizzo hit .233 last year with a .323 on-base percentage and a .419 slugging percentage. He had 23 home runs and drove in 80 runs. The Cubs want a better batting average and OBP.
Castro was at .245/.284/.347 with 10 homers and 44 RBI. The Cubs want just about everything better from Castro, and that includes offense, defense and concentration.
Catcher Welington Castillo needs to bounce back from season-ending knee surgery. Second baseman Darwin Barney must show that he's more than just a perennial Gold Glove candidate. His batting line sank to .208/.266/.303.
The Cubs will need bounce-back years from all of these players to give themselves a fighting chance.
Who's on third: For once, the Cubs' system seems deep in third basemen, with Bryant, Christian Villanueva and Mike Olt in the minor leagues.
A big year by Bryant in the minors could solve the problem at the major-league level quickly, setting the stage for years of production.
Until then, the Cubs hope Olt can grab the job and begin fulfilling the early potential he showed as a first-round pick of the Rangers in 2010. The Cubs obtained Olt last season in a trade for pitcher Matt Garza, but vision problems kept Olt in the minor leagues all year (.201 combined batting average with 15 homers) after he made his big-league debut with the Rangers in 2012.
Journeymen Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy are back but each is best suited for utility work. The Cubs believe Villanueva is the best-fielding third baseman in the system, and he could make a push in the spring.
Sloppy penmanship: The Cubs got saves last year from Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Pedro Strop and Blake Parker.
They also trotted out the likes of Kameron Loe, Alex Burnett, Hisanori Takahashi, Shawn Camp, Matt Guerrier, Eduardo Sanchez and Chang-Yong Lim.
Yeah, it was that kind of year. Gregg took over from Fujikawa who took over from Marmol as the closer. Marmol was his usual inconsistent self before being traded. Fujikawa blew out his elbow after the Cubs made him a questionable free-agent signing to begin with. And Gregg led the pack with 33 saves before blasting the Cubs and then apologizing during a bizarre postgame at Wrigley Field late last year.
This year, the Cubs have signed Jose Veras to close and perhaps mentor Strop, who got a brief look-see as the closer late in 2013.
Lefty James Russell, who has been a dependable Cub the last several years, had his arm nearly pitched off, throwing 74 games following his 77 appearances in 2012. The Cubs went out and signed Wesley Wright to take some of the load off Russell.
The starting rotation, led by Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, looks respectable. But if those guys leave with the lead after 6 or 7 innings, somebody's going to have to hold it, and that looks to be a dicey proposition again this year.