The run-up to spring training begins in earnest this week for the Cubs.
Actually, it's been more of a stumble-up as the team took some social-media heat Monday for the rollout of a team mascot. While the mascot seems cute enough, fans are rumbling for something to get done on the field -- where the Cubs may challenge for 100 losses again -- as the 2014 season approaches.
This is caravan and convention week for the Cubs, whose management team may face its harshest questioning yet from the fan base. We'll get to all that here.
The week shapes up like this:
•The Cubs are holding their second rookie development program for minor-leaguers. Among the attendees are top prospects Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards, Northwestern University product Eric Jokisch and others. The future of the Cubs over the next decade rests heavily on these players, and it's possible Baez and/or Bryan could be in Chicago sometime in 2014.
•The annual winter caravan begins Thursday, with visits to Chicago-area schools, hospitals and the U.S. Marines base in Chicago, where Cubs players, coaches and front-office members will serve lunch to 250 servicemen, service women and veterans.
•The real fun begins Friday at the Cubs convention. For the second year, the convention will be at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.
Opening ceremonies are Friday evening, but the most anticipated sessions will be Saturday, when fans can grill members of the Ricketts family, who own the team, and the baseball management team, headed by Theo Epstein.
Although most fans still appear to be on board with Epstein's rebuilding plan, there are rumblings of discontent -- which appear to be growing louder -- after the Cubs posted 101 and 96 losses, respectively, in Epstein's first two years at the helm.
From this distance, 100 losses certainly seem a possibility in 2014. The biggest problem will be finding offense. The Cubs will need bounce-back years from first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Beyond that, the offensive picture looks bleak in the outfield, at second base and at third base. Catcher Welington Castillo also represents a question mark as he recovers from knee surgery.
For the good news, we refer you back to the young players mentioned above.
The national media are starting to pipe up, too. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports recently penned a critical article on the Cubs. The piece is notable because Passan is a young, bright up-and-comer who seems in tune with what Epstein is trying to accomplish here: sacrifice a few seasons at the major-league level to gain high draft picks who can help down the line. The Cubs also are the biggest market in the National League Central.
"Today the Cubs are the 97-pound weakling," Passan wrote. "They are enfeebled by owners whose purchase of the team more than five years ago brought far more chaos than some sort of a renaissance. Not even president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, two of the game's great architects, could have fathomed the budgetary restrictions. This is not handcuffs. It's a straitjacket.
"It's one thing to be bad. It's another to not spend money. The marriage of the two has led to poor attendance and angry fans, and it's entirely warranted, even though Epstein and Hoyer continue to deserve the trust of the skeptics."
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is sure to be grilled on the stalled state of the planned Wrigley Field renovations as well as the future of the Cubs on TV, a medium in which other teams are raking in hundreds of millions.
Epstein and Hoyer no doubt will be asked how serious the Cubs are about Japanese free-agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, and the future of current ace Jeff Samardzija.
There could be more than a few tense moments this weekend.
It's arbitration time:
Eight Cubs are eligible for salary arbitration. Players filed Tuesday, and they'll exchange figures with the team Friday.
The most notable arbitration-eligible Cubs are pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and James Russell, infielder Darwin Barney and outfielder Nate Schierholtz. Also eligible are reliever Pedro Strop, third baseman Luis Valbuena and newly acquired outfielder Justin Ruggiano.
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