Cactus League countdown: Chicago Cubs

Trying once again to shed the “lovable losers” label that’s grown tired on the North Side, the Chicago Cubs made a momentous shift in direction this offseason.
After handing the reins over to former Red Sox boy wonder Theo Epstein, the Cubs begin a new chapter this spring, one they hope includes a culture of winning and little of the futility experienced over the past century.

Realistically, though, a turnaround in Chicago almost assuredly will take Epstein more than the one year he needed to end the Red Sox World Series drought. The new president of baseball operations has made it clear he’s focused on first building a foundation for sustained success.

Epstein’s first move was to surround himself with familiar faces from his Boston days, bringing Padres general manager Jed Hoyer to Chicago for the same job, along with Jason McLeod, the new head of scouting and player development. Hoyer was an assistant GM under Epstein in Boston for five years; McLeod was a key figure in Boston’s scouting department for seven.

The changes didn’t stop at the top. The new regime ousted manager Mike Quade after just a year on the bench in favor of Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum. Like Epstein, Sveum brings a statistical approach to the Windy City, complemented by an old school work ethic.

The product on the field also will look much different in 2012. Most notable was the free-agent departure of 2011 RBI leader Aramis Ramirez and the trade of recurring headache Carlos Zambrano, who was dealt to the Marlins. First baseman Carlos Pena also left as a free agent, leaving the Cubs with holes to fill in both corners of the infield.

Former hot prospect Ian Stewart, acquired from Colorado, will step in at the hot corner and try to rebound from a dismal 2011 season that saw him make multiple trips to Triple-A. Hoyer swung a deal for his prized prospect from San Diego, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, but Cubs brass has insisted that Rizzo is ticketed for more seasoning in the minors.

Though he might not get the big league job right away, the Cubs believe Rizzo can develop into one of baseball’s top first baseman. Hoyer thinks enough of Rizzo to have traded for him twice, making him part of the package that San Diego acquired from Epstein’s Red Sox in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez. The acquisition of a prospect like Rizzo as opposed to pursuing free agent Price Fielder is as strong an indication as can be that Epstein and Co. aren’t looking for a quick fix.

Other newcomers include right fielder David DeJesus and a trio of starting pitchers: Paul Maholm in free agency and Chris Volstad and Travis Wood through trades. The three pitchers will be among as many as seven candidates for Sveum to fill out his rotation behind Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster.

Sveum will also have a tall task on the other end of the pitching staff in figuring out closer Carlos Marmol. The hard throwing 29-year-old has stuff few can match but has struggled with inconsistency, primarily due to control issues. Marmol saved 34 games last year but led the National League with 10 blown saves.

With one of baseball’s most respected young minds now running the show, the future looks bright for the Cubs — just not necessarily the immediate future. Regardless, an ever-optimistic horde of Cubs fans are certain to fill the seats of HoHoKam Stadium as they do each spring, this time with renewed hope that their so-called “curse” will soon be lifted.

Who’s new: Dale Sveum, manager; David DeJesus, OF (free agent); Ian Stewart, 3B (trade, Colorado); Paul Maholm, SP (free agent); Anthony Rizzo, 1B (trade, San Diego); Chris Volstad, SP (trade, Miami); Travis Wood, SP (trade, Cincinnati); Casey Weathers, RP (trade, Colorado); Andy Sonnanstine, P (free agent); Adrian Cardenas, 2B (waivers, Oakland); Manny Corpas, RP (free agent).

Who’s gone: Aramis Ramirez, 3B (free agent, Milwaukee); Carlos Pena, 1B (free agent, Tampa Bay); Carlos Zambrano, SP (trade, Miami); Sean Marshall, RP (trade, Cincinnati); Andrew Cashner, RP (trade, San Diego); Tyler Colvin, OF (trade, Colorado); Blake DeWitt, IF (designated for assignment); John Grabow, RP (free agent, Los Angeles Dodgers); Koyie Hill, C (free agent, St. Louis); DJ LeMahieu, IF (trade, Colordao).

Battle grounds: Heading into spring training, it looks as if only Garza and Dempster have guaranteed spots in the rotation. Randy Wells started 23 games last season but was inconsistent and will be up against Volstad, Maholm, Wood and Casey Coleman for one of three rotation spots. The Cubs also plan to stretch out Jeff Samardzija, so he might also be in the mix for a starting job. … With Pena’s departure in free agency, the Cubs had a hole to fill at first base. They acquired highly touted prospect Rizzo, but said he won’t start the year in the majors. That leaves it to Bryan LaHair, who hit 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa last year, but it’s hard to imagine the Cubs wouldn’t change course with Rizzo if he impresses in spring camp.

Health watch: Recently re-signed reliever Kerry Wood, 34, missed the final week of last season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The veteran had arthroscopic surgery after the season and is expected to be healthy for the start of spring training.

Sneak preview: Top outfield prospect Brett Jackson arrived in Triple-A last season and impressed offensively with a .388 on-base percentage and 26 RBI in 48 games. The versatile outfielder has been discussed often as a big part of the Cubs’ future and could reach the majors this season … Third baseman and 2007 first-round draft pick Josh Vitters has been a bit slow in rising through the Cubs system thanks to injuries, but after a healthy 2011 might be ready to make the jump. The 22-year-old drove in 81 RBI in Double-A last year and could get a chance if Stewart struggles offensively as he did last season.

Spring training info: HoHoKam Park, 1235 N. Center St., Mesa. First workouts Feb. 19 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 24 (full squad). First game March 4. Tickets: cubs.com.