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2014 Cubs Team Preview: Baby Bears In Hibernation

Kenn Ruby

Kenn Ruby

Kenn has been writing and editing for RotoWire since 2003. Though he attended Northwestern with the co-founders of RotoWire, he is not considered a made member of the RotoWire Northwestern mafia, as he can't trace back all of his ancestors to Dan Okrent.

2014 Chicago Cubs Team Preview

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel.

With a 66-96 record in 2013, the Cubs topped 90 losses for the third year in a row, and the way 2014 is shaping up, they may make it four straight this year.

President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer continue to preach patience, and there are definitely some good prospects in the Cubs’ system, but the product on the field right now is not going to score a lot of runs, and the pitching staff isn’t much better. The Friendly Confines may not be so friendly this year.

Still, the Cubs added Kris Bryant to an impressive stable in the minors that includes Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora, and they traded ace Matt Garza for C.J. Edwards and Mike Olt last summer, so there are a lot of young players who could contribute for the Cubs in the future. Unfortunately that future is still a few years away.

The Cubs didn’t set the world on fire in the offseason, but their main moves occurred during the regular season last year, including dealing Garza, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Marmol (though his trade was more addition by subtraction). Perhaps burned by the four-year deal given to Edwin Jackson and two-year deal to Kyuji Fujikawa, the Cubs opted to avoid long-term deals this winter and limited themselves to a series of one-year contracts and the like.

Offseason Moves

Signed Jose Veras to a one-year contract.

Veras split his 2013 campaign between the Astros and Tigers, finishing 0-5 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 62.2 innings between his two stops. Prior to joining Detroit at the trade deadline, Veras was deployed primarily as the closer for the Astros. The 33-year-old reliever racked up a total of 19 saves in Houston and he was able to vulture another two saves as a member of the Tigers. Veras relied heavily on his two best pitches last season, hurling a sinking fastball that hovered in the mid-90s and a spotty curve. His strikeout rate (8.6 K/9) dipped below one whiff per inning for the first time since 2009, but Veras displayed much better control by walking hitters at a career-low clip (3.2 BB/9). The Tigers declined the option on Veras' contract, enabling him to sign with the Cubs in December. Right now he’s clearly the most likely candidate to close to begin the season, although that could change depending on the performance of Pedro Strop and the health of Fujikawa.

Signed Jason Hammel to a one-year contract.

Hammel went from Opening Day starter to being run out of town, as the Orioles let him test free agency after a horrid season. His 2013 numbers (6.2 K/9, 1.4 HR/9, 40.1 GB%) were not even close to his 2012 numbers (8.6 K/9, 0.7 HR/9, 53.2 GB%). He also has injury concerns, with arm issues in 2013 and knee issues in 2012. The Cubs will give him a shot to earn back his stripes as a starter, with the likelihood that he’d be flipped to a contender if he pitches well or cut loose by the Cubs if he doesn’t.

Traded Brian Bogusevic to the Marlins for Justin Ruggiano.

Though he slipped into a reserve role for spells of the 2013 season, thanks in part to a poor .224 batting average, Ruggiano continued to put up a tasty combination of power and speed, slugging 18 home runs with 15 steals over 424 at-bats. He finished second on the team in home runs, runs, RBI and steals, appearing in just 128 contests -- though that games played total was also, oddly, second-most on the team as well. Ruggiano's average dipped sharply (down 89 points from .321 in 2012) largely due to a 150-point drop in his BABIP (.401 in 2012 down to .260 in 2013). If the batted-ball luck lands somewhere in the middle and Ruggiano can fend off the young talent in the Cubs' system, he remains an intriguing player to monitor with a combination of skills to be an impact player. More likely, he'll work as a part-time player in a platoon, seeing the bulk of his at-bats against left-handed pitching.

Signed Wesley Wright to a one-year contract.

After spending the first six seasons of his career with the Astros, Wright headed to a winning ballclub in an August trade with the Rays. He worked in a setup role with the Astros, but the Rays had a talented bullpen and he did not work in as many high-leverage situations when he arrived in Tampa Bay. On the season between both teams, he pitched in 70 games and had a 3.69 ERA and averaged 9.2 K/9 over 53.2 innings. He is a dependable left-handed pitcher towards the back of the bullpen who will be 29 in 2014. He could see the opportunity for an occasional save with the Cubs, but he's more likely to work as a middle reliever or setup man.

Acquired George Kottaras from the Royals.

As the backup to a healthy Salvador Perez, Kottaras didn’t see much work during the 2013 season. He appeared in just 46 games, saw 126 plate appearances and contributed very little, batting just .180 with a 33.3 percent strikeout rate. He did show some decent power, hitting five home runs and posting a .190 ISO while also maintaining a .349 on-base percentage thanks to a 19 percent walk rate, but all in all, his skill set doesn't exactly give promise to much more than that. The Cubs signed him to a one-year deal to back up incumbent Welington Castillo. Given Castillo's lack of power, Kottaras stands the chance to see a bit more playing time, but not enough to use him as anything but a part-time replacement.

Signed Chris Coghlan, James McDonald, and Ryan Roberts to minor league contracts.

The Cubs actually signed a slew of players to minor league deals, but these are the only ones that have a decent shot at significant time this season. The 28-year-old Coghlan won NL Rookie of the Year in 2009, but hasn’t been able to do much for the Marlins since then, and injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to just 109 MLB games in the last two years. He doesn't provide much power or speed, but he can offer versatility for a big league bench and he will compete for a roster spot in spring training. A shoulder injury limited McDonald to just six major league starts last season and effectively ended his tenure in Pittsburgh. The 29-year-old southpaw has struggled with his command throughout his career (4.1 BB/9), and doesn't have overpowering stuff, so he'll likely have to bide his time at Triple-A to begin the year, but he could be called up if the Cubs suffer injuries or trade away any of their starters. The 33-year-old Roberts has 1,670 major league plate appearances to his name but hasn't had much success since 2011. He did slash .249/.341/.427 during that 2011 campaign, with 19 home runs and 18 stolen bases over 555 plate appearances. In all likelihood, the Cubs will be getting the 2013 version of Roberts who slashed just .247/.295/.377 in the majors, with even worse numbers at Triple-A. Still, a utility infielder with Roberts’ experience could hold a tiny bit of fantasy value in deep leagues if he makes the roster.

Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)

1. Starlin Castro, SS
2. Luis Valbuena, 3B/Donnie Murphy, 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Nate Schierholtz, RF/Justin Ruggiano, RF
5. Junior Lake, LF
6. Ryan Sweeney, CF
7. Welington Castillo, C
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

As bad as this lineup looked at this time last year, it looks even worse now, especially with the severe regression Castro showed and the loss of Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus. Lake and Schierholtz showed some signs of life in 2013, Rizzo looks like a keeper, and Castro and Barney can’t possibly be as bad as they were last year, but this lineup will struggle to score runs all year.

Projected Rotation

1. Jeff Samardzija
2. Edwin Jackson
3. Travis Wood
4. Jason Hammel
5. Jake Arrieta

Is this the worst rotation in the National League? It might be. Samardzija – he of the 4.34 ERA and 1.35 WHIP last year - might be the ace of the staff. Jackson was a disaster in the first year of his four-year contract, losing 18 games and posting a 4.98 ERA. You might be tempted to bet on a repeat of Wood’s strong season, but don’t bet on a repeat of his .257 BABIP or 75.8 percent strand rate. Hammel, who just got picked up at the end of January, could be interesting if he pitches more like the 2012 Hammel than the 2013 Hammel, and the less said about Arrieta, the better. Justin Grimm and Chris Rusin might see a few opportunities to start games this year as well, but considering that right now they wouldn’t crack that rotation, you can draw your own conclusions about their potential.

Closer: Jose Veras, Pedro Strop

The Cubs fare a little better here, as Veras saved 21 games last year in his first prolonged exposure as a closer, and he heads into 2014 as the frontrunner at that position. Strop is hot on his heels however, and after a strong couple of months after his trade from Baltimore, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he leads the Cubs in saves this year, especially if Veras reverts back to his pre-closer days when he was a mediocre reliever.

Key Bullpen Members: James Russell, Blake Parker, Wesley Wright, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, and Arodys Vizcaino

Russell was unhittable the first couple of months of the season, but it's clear he wore down from overuse as the season went on, only appearing in four games over the final four weeks. Parker pitched in relief for the Cubs during the last four months of the season and proved he belonged in the big leagues. A 55:15 K:BB ratio helped contribute to a 2.72 ERA and 1.165 WHIP in just 46.1 innings. Wright will likely be used in middle relief as he has for most of his career, but he could see an opportunity for saves if Veras and Strop falter. Villanueva usually splits his time between starting and relieving, but he is generally much better as a reliever (3.03 ERA, 1.138 WHIP, 38:10 K:BB ratio last year) than as a starter (4.50 ERA, 1.256 WHIP, and 65:30 K:BB ratio last year), so plan accordingly.

Two relievers coming back from injury might be among the more intriguing names on the roster. Fujikawa’s shot at closing lasted just 12 innings last year before he needed Tommy John surgery, but he could be back sometime in 2014 and certainly has the experience (albeit in Japan) to close. Vizcaino missed the last two seasons due to his 2012 Tommy John surgery and a (supposedly) unrelated setback with his surgically-repaired elbow. When we last saw him, Vizcaino was zooming through the Braves' system in 2011, striking out a batter per inning while advancing all the way to the big leagues despite starting the campaign at High-A Lynchburg. He could be that guy again, and he's only 23, but he will likely be a bit rusty. Be ready to pounce if it looks like he's back.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Is Jeff Samardzija an ace or not?

Samardzija placed in the top five in the NL in both innings pitched (213.2) and strikeouts (214), so he did carry some fantasy value. However, that's where the positives end, as his ERA (4.34), WHIP (1.35), and wins (8) were all disappointing for a player who was expected to be one of the better starting pitchers in the league, especially after he appeared to break out in 2012. Usually a player with his strikeout rate isn't quite so hittable, and his .314 BABIP likely contributed to his results, but it also doesn't help a pitcher's fantasy value to be throwing for the woeful Cubs. The Cubs have considered trading the 29-year-old right-hander, but he'll probably be atop the rotation again in 2014, at least for part of the year.

Will the Cubs trade anybody who might be pretty good?

Expect the trade winds to blow again in Chicago this year, especially as the Cubs gear up for a future that is a few years away. Last year the Cubs dealt Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Feldman, among others, and they probably wouldn’t hesitate to deal anyone over the age of 25 if they felt like they could get younger and cheaper. The aforementioned Samardzija would probably fetch the most in return – if the Cubs can get a haul for him like they got for Garza last year, they probably would do it – but useful fourth outfielder like Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz (who are starters on the Cubs of course) might be gone too. Keep that in mind if you throw a buck at one of the Cubs outfielders at the end of your auction. Additionally, Jason Hammel and his one-year contract smacks of a move that was made solely so he’ll be traded.

Is it 2016 yet?

Lest you think we have no hope whatsoever for the Cubs, consider that they have a quartet of fantastic hitting prospects (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora), as well as a couple of interesting pitchers in C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson. All of those hitters, as well as Arismendy Alcantara and possibly Mike Olt and Dan Vogelbach could be in Wrigley in a couple of years, joining Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to make a formidable lineup to say the least. The Cubs may have to move some players around to make things work (there seem to be too many corner infielders, for one), but it’s a better problem to have than trotting out their 2014 lineup. As for the pitching, Edwards and Johnson may not be top-of-the-rotation good, but they could be good complementary pieces when the Cubs start spending money on real starting pitchers. The growing pains will continue this year, but it could get interesting.

Strengths

The team is young, and there are a lot of youngsters on the way. The Cubs have money to spend when it’s time to spend the money. Castro and Rizzo could conceivably be offensive stars in this league, but they’ll need to make big leaps to make that happen in 2014. They combined to hit just .239 last year with 256 strikeouts and just a .381 slugging percentage, so there’s a lot of work to do.

Weaknesses

Pretty much everything else. The team is built to compete in a couple of years, but unless they can find some diamonds in the rough this year, there isn’t a whole lot to like.

Rising: Nate Schierholtz - After six seasons in the big leagues, mostly with San Francisco, Schierholtz came over to the Cubs last season and shocked the world with 21 home runs in 462 at-bats, both career-high marks. While his .251 batting average was a bit disappointing, Schierholtz did throw in six stolen bases for good measure. Schierholtz will be 30 by Opening Day, and although he isn't a player who is going to challenge for the league home run crown, given the lack of alternatives in Chicago, he could see another 400-500 at-bats and once again reach the 20-homer plateau.

Declining: Darwin Barney - No one can deny that Barney has a great glove, but the 2012 Gold Glove winner can't hit a lick. Seven home runs and four stolen bases might be acceptable for a $1 second baseman who hit .270 in 200 at-bats, but Barney received over 500 at-bats in 2013 and barely stayed above the Mendoza Line. His .569 OPS was ahead of only Adeiny Hechavarria among qualifiers in the National League. His defense may save a few runs for the Cubs, but it's his bat that keeps the Cubs' games low-scoring. You're better off finding a part-timer to fill your middle-infield spot, and if he doesn't start hitting a little better, the Cubs may start to look elsewhere as well.

Sleeper: Pedro Strop - Though Strop did not help move the needle in a pennant race, few pitchers took more advantage of a change in scenery last year. His 22.1 innings with the Orioles included a forgettable 7.25 ERA, among other atrocities, but three great post-trade months with the Cubs have Strop possibly in a position to close this year. In 35 innings with the Cubs, he had an outstanding 42:11 K:BB ratio and a low strand rate of 63.6%, suggesting that he might have actually been a bit unlucky. With Kevin Gregg now gone and only Jose Veras ahead of him on the depth chart, Strop could be the team’s top closing option. Don't forget him on draft day.

Supersleeper: Arismendy Alcantara - The 22-year-old Alcantara stole 31 bases for Double-A Tennessee last year, and his 36 doubles, 15 home runs, 62 walks, and .804 OPS show he's not just some empty speedster. He could play either second base or shortstop, so if he makes the team, he could be a sneaky-good $1 dart at the end of the draft, especially if Barney's and Castro's offensive struggles continue in 2014.

Top Prospects

Javier Baez, SS - Although there are a lot of good contenders for the honor, Baez is the brightest jewel in the Cubs' minor league system. After mastering High-A Daytona with 17 home runs in 299 at-bats, he was even better with Double-A Tennessee, finishing with 20 home runs and 54 RBI in just 218 at-bats. Oh, and he totaled 20 stolen bases at the two levels for good measure. The 2011 first-rounder is just 21, but he already appears to be ready for the majors – aside from that unpleasant 40:147 BB:K ratio last year – and with Starlin Castro struggling to hit at the big-league level, Baez could be pushing the incumbent shortstop as early as this season.

Kris Bryant, 3B - The second pick in the 2013 draft only has 128 professional at-bats under his belt, and his defense at the hot corner is underwhelming, but his power is through the roof and he's been known to draw a walk or two. And just in case anyone didn't notice, Bryant raked in the AFL as well. While he'll probably start the year at Double-A Tennessee, he should move up very quickly and could see action in Chicago sometime in 2014. Put a star next to his name so you don't forget him.

Albert Almora, OF - In the fantastic offensive quartet in the Cubs' system, Almora is the youngest, as he's still only entering his age-20 season. A couple of injuries limited him to only 61 games with Low-A Kane County last year, making it difficult to draw any conclusions about his progress, but he played well in the AFL, and if the doubles and triples start turning into home runs, look out. The 2012 first-rounder needs another couple of years of seasoning, but when he hits the majors, he'll be there for good.

Jorge Soler, OF - Soler missed the last three months of the season with a stress fracture in his leg, but he still remains one of the top prospects in a good system. Don't be fooled by his poor numbers in the AFL after the long layoff, as he was well on his way to a strong season with High-A Daytona before the injury. Still, he has just 344 at-bats in the minors, and none of them were at upper levels, so expect the soon-to-be-22-year-old outfielder to get a bit more seasoning this year. When he makes the majors, he could be a perennial 20-20 threat.

C.J. Edwards, RHP - A 49th-round pick in 2011, Edwards has more than exceeded expectations in the minors, and is probably the best piece (not Mike Olt) acquired in the Matt Garza trade. He's been unhittable in the minors, even when he was promoted to High-A Daytona after the deal. His strikeout rate has been above 11.0 K/9 at every stop so far (with respectable walk rates to boot). The 6-foot-2 right-hander might only need one more year in the minors before he's starting games at Wrigley Field. He looks like a gem.

Arismendy Alcantara, SS - See above.

Pierce Johnson, RHP - While the Cubs' hitting prospects get all the ink, they have a few good pitchers coming up through the ranks as well, and Johnson may be the best of them all. Between Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona, he had a stellar 9.4 K/9 and only gave up five home runs in 118.1 innings. While his K:BB ratio declined when he was promoted to Daytona, it was still respectable. Johnson is probably a year or two away, but when he comes up to the Cubs, he should be solid.

Dan Vogelbach, 1B - Vogelbach is not just some run-of-the-mill slugger. Last year's 73:89 BB:K ratio contributed to a .375 on-base percentage between Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona. While he only hit 19 home runs in 483 at-bats, he's done all that as a 20-year-old, and certainly projects as a power hitter in the majors. Anthony Rizzo is blocking him at first base, but in two years, who knows? Tuck him away, especially in deep OBP leagues.

Mike Olt, 3B - Once one of the jewels of the Texas minor league system, the Rangers traded Olt in the Matt Garza deal in July. And with good reason, as the slugging third baseman struck out 89 times and was hitting just .213 in 65 games for Triple-A Round Rock when he was dealt. Olt was even worse for Triple-A Iowa, posting just a .551 OPS in 131 at-bats. The Cubs have plenty of good options at third base in the minors, so unless Olt starts showing the bat that destroyed the Texas League in 2012, he's going to be passed on the organizational depth chart soon.