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Cubs have some holes to fill before 2013 season

CHICAGO -- The Cubs preferred to call the 2012 season a "building" year, not "rebuilding." Expect more of the same in 2013.

The Cubs will be shopping this offseason to fill some of the holes, and they do have a significant amount of money coming off the books with Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster gone. They need more pitching, possibly a third baseman, and help on the bench.

"We will have financial flexibility," Cubs executive vice president and general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We've been diligent to make sure we do have flexibility and we're efficient going forward. We'll obviously be active in the free agent market."

Excluding their arbitration-eligible players, who may not receive an offer for arbitration, the Cubs have financial commitments in 2013 to four players -- Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro -- and two prospects -- Jorge Soler and Gerardo Concepcion -- who aren't projected to be part of the 25-man roster until 2014.

Expect the Cubs to be creative with contracts, which they can front-load with bonus money, something they did with the $60 million deal Castro signed in August.

As of now, Jeff Samardzija is the ace of the rotation. Matt Garza made 18 starts before he was shut down with a right elbow injury and has yet to throw since his last start July 21. Travis Wood showed improvement. That still leaves openings, especially when reliever James Russell finishes among the team leaders in wins.

"We certainly need to add a lot of depth over the course of the winter," Hoyer said.

There were hiccups, but there was improvement in the field. In 2011, the Cubs were the worst fielding team in the National League, and in 2012, they were closer to the middle of the pack. It's a step.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum set the tone during the first days of Spring Training, meeting with each player to discuss their goals. Sveum finished the season with wrap-up interviews. You can throw out his won-loss record. That's not how Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein will grade Sveum after the skipper's first season.

"We knew we'd be putting out a team that had too much developing talent to evaluate [Sveum] strictly on wins and losses," said Epstein. "We'll evaluate him on a number of other criteria that we shared with him, and I think he's done a fantastic job, to be honest with you."

There were more dress-up days this year than in the past, including a superhero costume trip. You don't need a psychoanalyst to tell you a team that plays together, stays together. We're not sure what to expect in 2013. But the Cubs players feel they have the right person in charge.

"He gets us to come play hard every day for him," Samardzija said of Sveum. "I'm really excited when this thing is going the way it's going, and he's a part of it, because he's going to be a big part of it, that's for sure."

The last Cubs team to lose 100 games before the 2012 club was the 1966 squad, which was Leo Durocher's first year as manager. Durocher and the Cubs posted winning records in the next five seasons. It can be done.

First base: This is a no-brainer. It's Anthony Rizzo's job, and that's it. The 23-year-old slugger made the adjustments needed following a .141 debut in the big leagues last year with the Padres. Project his numbers over a full season, and he could deliver 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. He's also humble -- on the road, Rizzo has been spotted having lunch at Quizno's -- and knows he still has a lot of work to do. The Cubs' backup is Bryan LaHair, who went from starter to All-Star to bench player after Rizzo's rise.

Second base: Darwin Barney is coming off a record-setting year which the Cubs hope will result in his first Gold Glove Award. The mighty mite infielder set a National League record for consecutive games without an error, topping the old mark of 123 set by his former Minor League manager and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Barney isn't flashy, but he is fearless, especially when it comes to chasing after pop-ups. The Cubs do need to find a backup for Barney's rare days off.

Third base: There are a lot of decisions to be made at third. The Cubs will have to rely on doctors' reports to determine whether to tender a contract to Ian Stewart, who was limited to 55 games before needing season-ending wrist surgery. Luis Valbuena, acquired off waivers April 4 from the Blue Jays, could be the Opening Day starter because of his defense. Offensively, Valbuena did hit better with runners on than with the bases empty, but neither of those numbers were very strong. The free-agent market is weak at third. The Cubs want Josh Vitters to play winter ball to work on his defense, and he and Valbuena could provide a platoon at third.

Shortstop: This is another area the Cubs don't have to worry about. On Aug. 28, they signed Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract extension. The two-time All-Star is the 28th player in Major League history to reach his 500th career hit before turning 23. Castro will celebrate that birthday next March. Castro did lead NL shortstops in errors, but there was improvement. He set personal highs in home runs, triples and RBIs. Whoever they find to backup Barney can hopefully fill in for Castro, who also hates to take a day off.

Catcher: Welington Castillo could be the Opening Day catcher. He got plenty of on-the-job training after the Cubs dealt Geovany Soto to the Rangers at the Trade Deadline. Castillo and Steve Clevenger shared the duties initially, but Castillo got more playing time in the final month. Both are converted catchers, both still need work on handling base stealers. Both are also young, and they've adapted well to pitching coach Chris Bosio's game plans.

Right field: Free agents always seem to do better in their second season in Chicago because they know what to expect as far as the grind of day games. DeJesus could be one of those guys. He did rank among the top five NL leadoff hitters in on-base percentage, and the Cubs want to see more of that. DeJesus played more center in the American League, but he has adjusted well to right, especially at Wrigley Field, which is one of the toughest places to play in the NL.

Center field: The hope is that Brett Jackson shows up in Spring Training and has an approach at the plate to match his stellar defensive play. The Cubs know Jackson can handle center field. There's still a question as to whether he can hit in the big leagues. What Jackson can take solace in is that Rizzo struggled in his first call-up to the big leagues, too. Sveum has a list of things for Jackson to work on this offseason.

Left field: The 2013 season will be Year 7 of Alfonso Soriano's eight-year, $136 million contract. The Cubs will be very, very happy to get a repeat performance from Soriano, who reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for the third time in his career, and first since 2005 with the Rangers. In a perfect world, Soriano would not wait until mid May to hit his first home run, which he did this year.

Starting pitching: Samardzija may be the Opening Day starter in 2013. The right-hander grew up in his first season in the rotation, although it ended early when he reached his innings limit in early September. Garza is coming off an elbow injury that limited him to 18 starts. There had been talk last spring about a long-term contract for Garza, who has one more arbitration year before becoming a free agent. That may be tough to justify because of the uncertainty about his arm. Travis Wood's record wasn't good, but he did show improvement, rebounding from a 7.36 ERA in July and a winless August. Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley, two left-handers who made their Major League debuts, will get a good look in Spring Training. Justin Germano and Jason Berken will be first-year arbitration players, and could be retained to give the Cubs some depth. Next year will be the second arbitration year for Chris Volstad, who has not been able to duplicate his 12-9 season with the Marlins in 2010.

Relief pitching: Marmol had a roller coaster season, but that's the life of a closer. He did convert 19 straight save opportunities, but he also lost his job to rookie Rafael Dolis in May. After back-to-back seasons with at least 34 saves, the 2012 season was a disappointment. The Cubs have to decide whether to keep Shawn Camp, who will be a free agent, and was the most reliable pitcher in the bullpen. Russell will be first-year arbitration eligible and worth keeping. The Cubs have auditioned several pitchers, including rookies Dolis, Jeff Beliveau, Alberto Cabrera, Jaye Chapman, and Blake Parker. They are all expected to compete for spots in the 'pen next year.

Chicago Cubs