Transition year reveals promising talent
Barney, Rizzo emerge in Cubs' first season under Epstein, Hoyer
CHICAGO -- Dale Sveum knew the first season of the Cubs' rebuilding project would be rough, but the manager most likely didn't envision 101 losses, only the third time in franchise history the team reached the century mark in defeats.
It was a season of change. Kerry Wood retired in May, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was dismissed in June, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Geovany Soto were dealt at the Trade Deadline. Anthony Rizzo arrived and provided an instant lift.
But the first season under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer involved more evaluation and adjustments than wins as they settled into their new environs.
Sveum was pleased with the players' effort and improved defensive play. He definitely made a good impression.
"Dale is making a name for himself as a manager," Epstein said. "Players recognize we had a good clubhouse last year despite a difficult season. Free agents believe in the positive direction we're going.
"Elite baseball players are really competitive and I think they like the thought of being part of the solution here and being a member of the team that finally wins a World Series with the Cubs," he said. "I've had a number of players tell that to me directly. We have not had to sell our situation much at all. Players, when we express interest, we're hearing back, 'Oh, that's a place we've had our eye on.' You don't hear that often after a 101-loss season."
Before turning the calendar, let's look back at five moments from 2012.
1. Darwin Barney's golden season
Nearly everything Barney touched in 2012 turned to gold. He surpassed Ryne Sandberg's National League record for errorless games by a second baseman, and tied the Major League mark of 141 games set by the Tigers' Placido Polanco in 2007. Barney's extended error-free stretch featured more total chances per nine innings than any other second baseman in baseball. He was rewarded with his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award. Sandberg was Barney's Minor League manager at Triple-A Iowa, and helped the infielder make the switch from shortstop to second. The Hall of Famer contacted Barney after the errorless streak ended, sending a text message. Said Barney: "He told me how proud he was and that he wouldn't have anyone but me do that."
2. Arrival of Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo, 23, was promoted from Triple-A Iowa on June 26, and provided instant impact. He recorded three game-winning RBIs in his first five games. The first baseman won NL Rookie of the Month honors in July, batting .330 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. He drove in 48 runs in 87 games, tops among all NL rookies. Rizzo notched his first career walk-off home run July 29 against the Cardinals. Not only could he hit, but Rizzo handled first base with ease. He combined for 38 home runs and 110 RBIs in 157 games for Iowa and the Cubs. Imagine having that for a full season with the big league team. The Cubs now have a No. 3 hitter.
3. Jeff Samardzija's successful conversion
Samardzija's last game of 2012 erased any doubts that he was serious about baseball. The Cubs had decided to limit the right-hander's innings total in his first season as a starter. On Sept. 8 at PNC Park, he held the Pirates to two earned runs on four hits in his first complete game and picked up the win. With the loss of Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster at the Trade Deadline and absence Matt Garza to injury, Samardzija, 27, stepped up and showed he can be a pitcher, and not just a converted wide receiver. He could be the 2013 Opening Day starter.
4. Bryan LaHair's roller-coaster ride
It was a crazy ride for LaHair. He'd spent nine seasons in the Minor Leagues, and finally won a spot on a big league team's Opening Day roster after hitting 38 home runs and batting .331 for Triple-A Iowa in 2011. He batted .390 in the first month, but hit .253 in May and was eventually replaced by Rizzo. Still, LaHair was rewarded by his peers, who voted him to the NL All-Star team. He almost disappeared in the second half, totaling 109 at-bats, and signed in November with a Japanese team for 2013.
5. Kerry Wood's exit
Wood began his career with the Cubs in 1998, and in 2012, was expected to provide a veteran presence in the bullpen. But his arm, weary after 14 seasons, didn't recover well after outings. Wood, 35, wanted to make one more appearance, and did so in the eighth inning on May 18 when he struck out the White Sox's Dayan Viciedo, and then walked off the field. His son, Justin, was there to greet him, running out of the dugout. It was a special moment.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.