It almost seems inevitable at this point. Despite coming off their fourth consecutive losing season and staring ahead at a fifth consecutive last-place finish, the Chicago Cubs have help on the way. Their farm system is bursting at the seams with talented position players who should revitalize an offense that has scored just 3.75 runs per game over the past two seasons. Consensus top-50 prospects Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and the windshield-shattering Javier Baez are all projected to make their big league debuts within the next couple seasons. Unfortunately, the cavalry will not be arriving soon enough for the Cubs this year, who have a long way to go to reach the upper echelon of the National League Central.
Manager: Rick Renteria (1st year)
2013 record: 66-96, 5th in NL Central
SB Nation blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue
Given the reins as the starting catcher in 2013, the 26-year-old Welington Castillo did not disappoint. He improved upon 2012's .327 wOBA and 101 wRC+, posting a .331 wOBA and 106 wRC+ in 428 plate appearances. He was particularly impressive in the second half when he hit .288/.388/.475 with six home runs. He also made big strides defensively, throwing out 29% of baserunners and amassing 2.8 defensive WAR. Look for him to continue establishing himself as an above-average catcher in 2014. George Kottaras will provide a veteran presence as Castillo's backup, much like Dioner Navarro did in 2013. Kottaras only hit .180 last year but posted a .349 on-base percentage thanks to a 19.0% walk rate. Unlike Navarro, however, Kottaras' defense leaves much to be desired.
After inking Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to seven-year contracts less than eight months apart, both took major steps backward in 2013. Rizzo, who was absolutely raking when he signed his deal on May 12th, hit just .218/.315/.382 after putting pen to paper. This came on the heels of a 2012 season where he posted a 116 OPS+ with 15 home runs in 368 plate appearances. Castro, on the other hand, was just bad all season long. He looked poised to break out when he hit .292/.339/.442 in July, but followed that up with a .556 OPS in August. His defense at shortstop ranks about league-average, but the occasional mental lapses make for good television.
As bad as Castro was in 2013, second baseman Darwin Barney was even worse offensively. His .252 wOBA ranked third-worst in all of baseball among qualified hitters, while his 51 wRC+ was the worst in the National League. He was still above-average defensively, and will make a nice utility infielder once Arismendy Alcantara takes over the starting job. Former Texas Rangers prospect Mike Olt should be expected to shoulder the load at third base in 2014, but the job will likely be Kris Bryant's to lose in the not-too-distant future. Olt struggled with post-concussion symptoms in 2013, dealing with blurred vision for most of the year. He hit just .168/.276/.275 in 152 plate appearances for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. If Olt falters, Luis Valbuena or Ryan Roberts are capable (if below-average) options in the short-term.
The Cubs' outfield will look very different in 2015, but for now it is loaded with Quad-A type players. Only 23-year-old converted shortstop Junior Lake looks to be in the club's future plans, especially after hitting .284/.332/.428 in 254 plate appearances last season. With Lake in left, lefty Nate Schierholtz will spend most of his time in right. Schierholtz is coming off a breakout 2013 season in which his .770 OPS led all Cubs starters and his 21 homers were second to Rizzo. Ryan Sweeney spent most of June as the club's primary center fielder, but spent all of July and August on the disabled list after crashing into an outfield wall. Former Marlin Justin Ruggiano will also see playing time, while former top-100 prospect Josh Vitters hopes to successfully transition to the outfield.
As loaded as the Cubs' system is offensively, it leaves a lot to be desired on the other side of the ball. Fortunately, the Cubs already have some nice pieces in place. Jeff Samardzija wasn't quite as effective as he was in 2012, but he topped the 200-inning and 200-strikeout marks for the first time. His 3.77 FIP and 3.45 xFIP suggest that better days are ahead in 2014. Samardzija had no room to complain next to Edwin Jackson, however. Jackson's peripherals were solid, but his ERA was over a full run higher than his FIP, the second highest ERA-FIP difference in baseball in 2013. It will be interesting if he can maintain his career high 51.3% ground ball rate, though it is worth noting that he has been at or above 47% in three of the past four seasons.
Life was not all doom and gloom in the Cubs' rotation in 2013, however. Travis Wood broke out with a 3.11 ERA in exactly 200 innings thanks to a 6.9% home-run-per-fly-ball (HR/FB) ratio. The crafty lefty made his first All-Star appearance, posted a respectable 2.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and hit .222/.258/.381 with three home runs. A pair of former Baltimore Orioles will likely round out the rotation. Jason Hammel was not as effective in an injury-riddled 2013 season as he was in his injury-riddled 2012 season, costing him millions in his first trek through free agency. The only reasonable prediction is that he hits the disabled list again in 2014. Jake Arrieta put up a 3.66 ERA in 51 2/3 innings, but walked 4.2 batters per nine innings and once again struggled to keep the ball in the park. Chris Rusin, James McDonald, Carlos Villanueva, and Kyle Hendricks are all in varying levels of contention for Arrieta's spot.
A familiar name headlines the back end of the Cubs' bullpen. Jose Veras signed a one-year deal with a team option for 2015 after the Tigers declined his option and will be the team's Opening Day closer. The Cubs failed to move Kevin Gregg for a prospect at the trade deadline last year, but might be able to redeem themselves with Veras in 2014. Pedro Strop found his command after being traded to the Cubs in 2013. He allowed a 2.83 ERA in 35 innings down the stretch, most of which came in the eighth inning. Left-hander Wesley Wright boosted his value when the Tampa Bay Rays used him correctly -- i.e. as a true LOOGY -- down the stretch, and should be relied upon for the same in 2014. He and James Russell could be two of the better lefties in the division. Former Rule 5 selection Hector Rondon impressed in August and September, allowing just six runs in his final 21 2/3 innings of the season.
Raze the roof
The time-honored tradition of watching Cubs games from outside Wrigley Field will soon be coming to an end. Well, maybe not that soon. The owners of the buildings on Waveland and Sheffield avenues -- who have turned a tailgating-esque atmosphere into a profitable business -- have collectively filed a lawsuit against the Cubs in an attempt to prevent the club from erecting a scoreboard and signs behind the outfield walls. The Cubs and rooftop owners have a contract (in which the Cubs receive a portion of sales) that runs through the end of 2023. The two sides are currently locked in a stalemate that essentially has no winners. The rooftop owners will lose their businesses when the contract runs out (if not sooner), and the Cubs are unable to complete renovations that will bring big business to the area. The impasse is getting tedious for Cubs fans, and I imagine that most are on the club's side in order to keep the team in Lakeview.
Player to watch: Starlin Castro
The 2013 season was a disaster for Castro, and that might be putting it nicely. After three consecutive seasons of a .750 OPS and 100 OPS+ or better, he hit just .245/.284/.347 in 666 plate appearances. Despite attempts by the Cubs' brass to improve his patience at the plate, Castro posted a career-low 4.3% walk rate. His contact percentage, which has trended downward every year, hit a career low at 81.7%. It was his drop-off in production and a related lapse in communication that ultimately resulted in manager Dale Sveum being shown the door in September. With a new manager in the fold and Javier Baez nipping at his heels, Castro needs to produce in 2014. It will be interesting to see how this saga plays out during the summer.
There are some interesting pieces in place at the big league level, and the progress of Castro and Rizzo will be an intriguing storyline throughout the season. However, "interesting" only takes you so far in baseball. The Cubs currently lack the talent to get out of the cellar of their division, and it may be another season or two before we start to see them climb up the standings. Given the holes on their roster and the talent atop the Central, a 70-win season would be a huge step in the right direction for Epstein and company.