1. Rizzo real deal: Anthony Rizzo has arrived, and while it has only been 12 games for the lefty slugger, it has been everything anybody could have hoped. He already has four home runs with a .688 slugging percentage and has essentially given everything the Cubs lacked before he arrived. Now if only the Cubs could completely admit that the reason he wasn’t here sooner was to delay his free agency by a year.
2. Dempster in demand: Ryan Dempster still has plenty left in the tank, the only problem is that his impressive first half only will end up getting him traded in the final year of his contract. Dempster has posted a 1.99 ERA despite two stints on the disabled list and looks like he should be able to give a rotation boost to a contender that has a prospect or two (preferably pitching) to give back in return.
3. Showing progress: The improved play in the final two weeks of the second half showed that the rebuilding process won’t take forever as the team’s previous play suggested. There is finally some clutch hitting (in large part due to Rizzo), the starting pitching has been solid and even the bullpen has contributed. As long as younger players such as Rizzo, Travis Wood, James Russell, Steve Clevenger and Darwin Barney are contributing, the future looks bright.
4. System being re-stocked: Sure there were some pretty ugly contracts on the books when new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox, but he continues to show that he knows how to build from within. Impact position guys such as Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are now in the fold. Not all of the pitchers taken in the draft will hit the mark, but a few each year would serve the Cubs well.
5. Uncertainty at closer: Carlos Marmol remains unpredictable and watching his outings requires two hands over your face while peeking through your fingers. He was horrible early and started to contribute later by doing what the coaching staff has suggested all along and using his fastball more to set up the slider. And while the bullpen has had some recent success by having established roles once again, the next Marmol “slump” always seems to be right around the corner.
6. Sold on Castro: Starlin Castro is as gifted as any shortstop in baseball, and it still seems as if he hasn’t tapped his true potential. Sure, that’s probably unfair criticism of a back-to-back All-Star, but with more patience at the plate and fewer lapses in focus, the sky really is the limit for him. If new management wasn’t completely sold on Castro, especially on the defensive side, they are now.
7. Samardzija developing: Jeff Samardzija has shown that just because you have arrived, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have made it. He probably could have forged out a fine career as a reliever, even reaching the status of closer one day. The right-hander had different plans, though, worked hard in successive offseasons and has shown that he can not only be a serviceable starter in the major leagues, he can be a very good one.
8. LaHair capitalized on chance: Journeyman minor leaguer Bryan LaHair has been the feel-good story of the year, turning his first opportunity to be an Opening Day first baseman into an All-Star spot. The oddity is that he doesn’t even play first base on his own team anymore, but will do it in the All-Star Game as a backup. Sure there are holes in LaHair’s swing that can be exposed, but it doesn’t mean they are permanent. The learning process still exists, even if you’re 29.
9. Wood could be building block: Lefty starter Wood went from worst guys on the 40-man roster to one of the best and it’s only July. After a horrible spring, Wood then posted so-so numbers at Triple-A. He’s rolling now, though, and no longer are there the cries to get reliever Sean Marshall back from the Reds, despite the left-hander’s success in Cincinnati. The athletic Wood has come so far in such a short amount of time that he could be added to the group of guys to build around for the future.
10. It’s not all bad: It has been one of the worst first halves in club history and for a franchise that has known its share of struggles, that’s saying something. If spring training was a tryout for the Opening Day roster then the first half was a tryout to keep wearing a Cubs uniform well into the future. There might have been a lot of negatives while compiling a record that is 19 games under .500, but some bright spots have emerged.