Over the past three seasons, the Cubs have been one of the worst teams in all of Major League Baseball, posting a combined record of 198-288 (.407), including a 66-96 mark in 2013. While there is promise on the horizon in the form of one of the top minor league systems in the game, 2014 will likely be another 90-loss season.
Throughout much of the season’s first half, Chicago hung around, entering the month of August just ten games under .500 at 48-58, which was good enough for fourth in the National League Central.
Prior to the July 31 Trade Deadline, the team dealt a bevy of players, including longtime outfielder Alfonso Soriano and starting pitchers Scott Feldman and Matt Garza, leaving major holes in both the pitching staff and the lineup.
Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both took a step backward, with the franchise cornerstones both struggling at the dish to some extent. 2012 National League Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line and the team struggled to produce runs in a consistent manner.
Following the deadline, as Cubs teams often do, the quality of play declined rather quickly. The team went into a tailspin over the final two months of the season, going 17-38 in August and September, eventually costing manager Dale Sveum the final year of his contract, leading to the hiring of Rick Renteria during the offseason.
Despite what casual Cubs fans may think, the front office trio of Jed Hoyer, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod have done a masterful job adding much-needed depth to the roster this winter. More than anything else, the club addressed a glaring weakness on last year’s club – an unreliable bullpen.
Among the relief pitchers signed are a plethora of once-touted arms, including former Giants southpaw Jonathan Sanchez, former Orioles pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada and Rays’ lefty Wesley Wright. Bounce back campaigns from any of these pitchers will be a major step toward solidifying the Cubs’ relief corps in 2014.
While you can easily classify Wada and Sanchez as projects, Wright will join Chicago reliever James Russell in the late-inning role, which was passed around like a hot potato last season. Pedro Strop, who was acquired in the deal that sent Feldman to Baltimore, was the Cubs’ closer late in the season, but will likely hold an eighth inning role given the team’s biggest pitching acquisition, former Astros’ closer Jose Veras.
Veras adds some much-needed leadership to the back of the bullpen this season. Between Houston and Detroit last season, the right-hander notched 21 saves, although his earned run average is a bit high for the stereotypical closer. That being said, between 2010-12, he averaged over 10 K/9 – a promising sign for someone looking to hold onto a closer’s job in the Windy City.
On the other side of the ball, the additions of Justin Ruggiano, George Kottaras and Emilio Bonifacio are all low-risk, high-upside moves for Chicago. Ruggiano has the ability to hit the ball for power, while Kottaras is a defensive specialist behind the plate. The recent signing of Bonifacio was a typical Epstein signing, and should create some much-needed competition at second base with Barney.
If Cubs fans need a bright spot, it’s that the club really didn’t lose any major pieces during the offseason. The biggest roster questions revolve around right-hander Jeff Samardzija and whether or not the front office will sign him to a long-term deal before he hits the open market after the 2015 season.
According to information from Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs currently have a payroll of $89.78 million heading into the 2014 campaign. Alfonso Soriano still accounts for some $14 million of that total, placing the payroll of the team you see on the field closer to the $75 million range, with the average contract accounting for approximately $3.77 million.
Something to keep in mind moving forward is the fact that Rizzo is making just $1.5 million in 2014, and that figure continues to increase over the next several seasons – $5 million annually in 2015-16, $7 million annually in 2017-18, $11 million in 2019 and $14.5 team options in both 2020 and 2021 that include $2 million buyouts. This front office has done a tremendous job locking up key pieces, including both Rizzo and Castro, for the foreseeable future at a team-friendly price.
With that in mind, the Cubs have only $31.16 million allotted to players in 2015 – a major drop from the upcoming season. If the roster shows improvement in 2014, then next season could be the year that Hoyer and Epstein become major players on the free agent market, in anticipation of the talent that is quickly making its way through the system.
Player to Watch
Arodys Vizcaino is arguably the most important pitcher on the Cubs’ roster in Spring Training this year. After working his way back from Tommy John surgery, he has shown great promise so far this spring, leaving many to ponder what a power arm like that could do in a Cubs’ bullpen this season.
According to a report from Mark Gonzales, the Cubs’ beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, the team is proceeding cautiously with the right-hander, who, despite two arm surgeries in the past three years, is still just 23. His mid-90s fastball and solid breaking ball would be a major asset for this team. The real question is whether or not he can avoid riding the pine for the third consecutive season due to injuries.
The ‘X’ Factor
It’s hard to label anyone apart from Castro and Rizzo as the Cubs’ ‘X’ factor. This team is as good as these two perform. Castro hit just .245 last year, although he did appear in 161 games for Chicago. Regardless, his lack of offensive production left a major hole in the lineup, and a bounce back campaign is crucial for the team’s shot at success in both the immediate and long-term future.
If Castro can return to his 200-hit self of just a few short seasons ago, he will be a spark plug at the top of Renteria’s lineup card. The first-year skipper stated recently that he was looking at utilizing the 23-year-old as the club’s leadoff man, although no decisions were final yet. If that turns out to be the case, it would give Chicago an unorthodox leadoff hitter, given the fact Castro’s career on-base percentage sits at .322. His speed (he’s averaged 18 stolen bases per season in his career) could also prove to be helpful at the top of the lineup.
Rizzo, by most accounts, struggled last season. That being said, he still hit 23 home runs and drove in 80 – a far cry from some of the sophomore slumps the sport has seen over the years. He has tremendous power – 40 homer power by many accounts – but lacks a consistent approach, leaving major holes in his swing.
He’s more than solid defensively, and there’s little doubt that the main focus this spring will be consistency and having a good approach – both mental and physical – at the dish in 2014.
Player Likely to Regress
Junior Lake stepped up in a big way, right from his big league debut against the Colorado Rockies in Denver. He hit .284 in 64 games for Chicago, with six home runs and 16 RBIs. He also added a handful of steals, as well. He began to fade down the stretch after hitting a robust .310 in July, falling to .287 in August before hitting just .254 in September.
He’s a solid outfielder, but with the addition of Ruggiano, early season struggles could be enough to put him in the role of fourth outfielder. Lake currently projects as a starter, along with Nate Schierholtz, who could also be considered for this category given the career year he had in 2013, and Ruggiano. Ryan Sweeney will also provide some outfield competition, but on any quality club, he likely wouldn’t be more than a fourth outfielder.
Major Question Heading into 2014?
It’s the same question Cubs fans have been asking themselves since Epstein took office at the Friendly Confines – how much longer till we see a contender? Well, it seems blunt, but it won’t be 2014. That’s not to say that this team couldn’t put some things together and surprise the pack in the NL Central with a .500 record, but that seems to be the ceiling for the Cubs this year.
For now, focus on the production of the team’s three big faces – Castro, Rizzo and Samardzija – as well as the talent working its way through the system in the form of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant. In the coming years, as these players make their way to the big league roster, this club could do very big things.