Cubs Preview 2014

Well it’s about time for us to turn our attention towards the baseball season and the sweet smell of grass and the even sweeter sound of the crack of the bat. We’re about two and a half weeks from opening day – which according to Anheuser-Busch should be recognized as a national holiday – and with it the need to start coming to grips with the reality of the two Chicago 9’s prospects. Today we’ll start with the Northsiders and tomorrow the Southsiders.  As fair warning, one should expect harsh criticism because after both Chicago teams went belly up last May, they started fire sales.  And that means something different for this season, which in the show-me-what-you’ve-got-now tradition tends to raise an arched brow.

A little recap of last year. First of all, I attended two Cubs wins against the Giants in April and the Astros in June, and so the Cubs were undefeated in my experience.  I don’t expect that kind of good fortune this year.   The uninspiring 66-96 record included see-you-laters to Kevin Gregg, who solidified the back end of the bullpen as best he could after Carlos Marmol was shown the door in Queens. Gregg provided 33 saves while he was in Chicago and more than made himself serviceable for a return appearance. The Cubs were one of the most active teams at the trading deadline, dishing Scott Feldman to Baltimore for Pedro Strope and Jake Arrieta, and dealing Matt Garza to Texas for top-notch 3B prospect Mike Olt.  Olt, who at 25 years of age, could see himself on Addison this summer.

While the trades were productive, the play wasn’t.  Both the pitching staff and offense proved to be huge disappointments in 2013. Starlin Castro signed a seven-year deal in August 2012 and went out and completely bombed in 2013 by hitting an anemic .245/.284/.347 after having recorded 200+ in 2011. In addition to that awful offensive output, Castro made 22 errors at SS which gave him DWAR of -.2. Anthony Rizzo, who’s supposed to be the anchor, didn’t completely tank but he certainly isn’t on par with the other big time 1B bats in the division. Rizzo’s numbers were .233/.323/.419 with 23HR’s and 80 RBI’s. Compared to his divisional counterparts at the position he batted 72pts below Joey Votto and 51pts behind Matt Adams of the Cardinals. Rizzos’ WAR was 2.6 last year with the Cubs while Votto was 6.4 with the Reds.

Given the money that Castro’s making this is a make-or-break year for the young 23yr old SS with Baez set to make an impact in the summer. Castro’s WAR was -.3 which was one of the worst in all of baseball. The Cubs’ failure can’t be blamed on only two players, but they are vital lynch pins in the team’s performance and so they are a big part of having lost 96 games. For the Cubs to improve on last year and beat the current Las Vegas line of 69.5 wins, the team will have to see dramatic bounce-back years from their two young stars. With this year being so important for Castro, and a blue-chip prospect knocking on the door, it’ll be interesting to see how he responds to the criticism and expectations.  Rizzo, whose certainty is far more intact, must get that batting average up.  His power numbers are a direct result of hitting in Wrigley’s dimensions that bear resemblance to a little league field. Rizzo’s performance is far more focused on how he does on the road when the confines aren’t so friendly. If Rizzo could keep his power numbers where they are but match his 2012 average then he could definitely be the player the Cubs want and expect him to be. A .285 average with 25HR’s and 100RBI’s would be a dream season for Rizzo and would go a long way toward turning the Cubs into winners. However there’s always that little thing of getting guys on base in front of him.

The starting pitching is anchored by returning-ace Jeff Samardzija who may not even make it out of spring training with the amount of trade talk that’s surrounding him. Samardzija’s ERA was half a run higher than it was in 2012 while posting the same number of wins which isn’t good for someone who’s advancing age is a factor. At 29, Samardzija should be in the prime of his career and – despite having an awful team around him – his ERA has got to come down from the mid-4’s back to where it was the year prior, his first as a starter.

Travis Wood made it to the All-Star Game in Queens last year and finished with a respectable 3.11 ERA.  Edwin Jackson signed a 4yr/$52 Million deal that disappoints after posting a record of 8-18 and giving up more than 5.5 runs per 9 innings. After Samardzija, Wood and Jackson, it’s anyones guess as to who’ll fill out the back end of the rotation. The acquisition of Jake Arrieta from Baltimore seems to have him penciled in as the number four, but the fifth starter’s a crap shoot that’ll probably be decided at the end of camp.

With a new manager in Rick Renteria and a bevy of prospects set to make an impact this year at key positions, the team should be vastly improved over last year. The top four guys in the rotation all have the potential to win 15 games if the defense that made 100 errors last year improves. The Cubs have the bats to score some runs, having scored 600 last year. The problem is that they’re -87 in run differential on the year which needs to be brought down significantly if they have a shot to get to the 500% mark. The Cubs have plenty of things to be excited about for the future, but wouldn’t it be nice if these annual “bridge years” were infused with a wild-card race in September to get the fans even more excited for the future?