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The Strike Zone

Winter report card: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs would likely love to be rid of Alfonso Soriano but haven't found the right deal -- yet. (AP) The Cubs would likely love to be rid of Alfonso Soriano but haven't found the right deal -- yet. (AP)

With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.

Chicago Cubs

2012 Results: 61-101, 5th place in NL Central. (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: 1B-OF Bryan LaHair, RHP Chris Volstad

Key arrivals: RHP Scott Baker, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Nate Schierholtz, RHP Carlos Villanueva

After exercising restraint and paring roughly $25 million off the payroll in their first year with the Cubs, the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime has its first long-term addition in the form of Jackson, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal in December. The well-traveled 29-year-old — now on his eighth team, and his seventh since 2008 — is coming off a fairly typical season in which he put up a 4.03 ERA and struck out 8.0 per nine in 189 2/3 innings for the Nationals. Jackson is part of a wholesale makeover of a rotation that ranked 14th in the NL in ERA (4.52) and quality start rate (43 percent).

Any notion that the move means Epstein and Hoyer view the team as ahead of their previous timetable to contend is probably mistaken, however, given that both Feldman and Villanueva are rather makeshift  options, and that Baker is recovering from April 2012 Tommy John surgery, and may not be ready to start the season. Eventually, two of those three will likely round out the rotation behind Jackson, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija.

Feldman, who turns 30 in February, signed a one-year, $7 million deal coming off a season in which he was hit for a 5.09 ERA in 123 2/3 innings with the Rangers via 21 starts and eight relief appearances. He did set career bests with 7.0 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine, but he hasn't made more than 22 starts in a season since 2009, when he went 17-8 with a 4.08 ERA. Villanueva, 29, signed a two-year, $10 million deal coming off a 4.16 ERA and 8.8 strikeouts per nine in 125 1/3 innings split between 16 starts (a career high) and 22 relief appearances for the Blue Jays. Though he has shown an ability to miss bats, he has a hard time keeping the ball in the park, yielding 1.7 homers per nine in 2012, and 1.3 per nine over the course of his seven-year career. Baker, 31, signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal; he's the best of the bunch when healthy, but health is always the catch with him. He missed all of last season due to surgery, and averaged just 27 starts and 164 innings per year from 2007-2011 while reaching 30 starts just once. He did deliver a 3.98 ERA in that span while showing a consistent ability to miss bats (7.4 strikeouts per nine) with pinpoint control (2.1 walks per nine).

Fujikawa is a 32-year-old who spent 12 years pitching for the Japan Central League's Hanshin Tigers, the last six as a full-time closer; during that latter span, he posted a microscopic 1.36 ERA while striking out 12.4 per nine and averaging 34 saves and 62 innings per year. While he signed a two-year, $9.5 million deal with a vesting option for a third year based on games finished, the Cubs don't plan on him closing in 2013, as they still have Carlos Marmol under contract for $9.8 million. Even so, given how erratic the incumbent is — 7.3 walks per nine in 2012, and 6.7 per nine since 2009 — it's a reasonable bet that the newcomer will at least see some ninth-inning duty when manager Dale Sveum inevitably tires of Marmol's shtick yet again.

Schierholtz is a 29-year-old lefty swinging rightfielder who hit a thin .257/.321/.407 with six homers split between the Giants and Phillies in 2012. Nominally, he'll offset the departure of LaHair to Japan, but his .266/.319/.413 career line against righties means he'll be a drag on the offense even with a productive platoon partner. Given Hoyer's declaration that "He's certainly going to play a ton for us," one may not be forthcoming.

Unfinished business: So, Sori? One of the biggest challenges Epstein and Hoyer inherited was finding a way to make Alfonso Soriano disappear. The 37-year-old leftfielder still has two years and $38 million left on his deal, but even after putting up his best season since 2008 (.262/.322/.499 with 32 homers, for 2.4 WARP), he remains on the roster. One problem is that Soriano has a full no-trade clause; he's said to have rejected a trade to the Giants last summer because he was hoping to be dealt to the Dodgers. The other obstacle is that Cubs haven't been willing to eat enough salary to date. The most recent dollar figures attached to his name had them willing to pay $26 million, about two-thirds of the remaining — not a bad deal for the team acquiring him, assuming he can be worth at least one win a year. Teams who could still use some extra power in their outfield include the Astros, Phillies and Mariners, though they may not be easy sells to a player looking to escape a rebuilding situation.

Preliminary grade: B. The rotation additions are a mixed bag, and the outfield remains unsettled, but it's hard not to like the addition of Fujikawa.

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