This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
Patience is a Virtue
The Cubs went 73-89 last year and finished in last place, where they have resided ever since the Astros moved to the American League. That said, they improved from a 66-96 record in 2013 and have slowly been acquiring asset after asset in an attempt to contend by 2016. A blockbuster trade with Oakland last season added Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to their incredible stable of prospects, and they are starting to spend their money on veterans to help their young core, most notably by signing Jon Lester.
President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have continued to preach patience, and though it hasn't paid off yet, the Cubs called up Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Kyle Hendricks last year, and you have to assume Kris Bryant will be up this year, with Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards, Kyle Schwarber, Russell, and McKinney not far behind. With that embarrassment of riches, you figure the Cubs will have some flexibility when it comes to trading for veterans who can help now. Epstein and Hoyer aren't done yet.
Oh, and the Cubs also made one significant move on the management side, hiring Joe Maddon, who only took the Tampa Bay Rays - Tampa Bay - to the World Series, to manage the Northsiders. Goodbye Rick Renteria, we hardly knew ye.
To Cubs fans tired of losing and lackluster Hot Stove action, there's not much to complain about this year, as the Cubs made possibly the biggest splash of the offseason by signing an ace and also made a number of trades to pick up valuable offensive pieces. It may not be enough to contend in 2015, but it's as close as the Cubs have been in a long time.
Signed Jon Lester to six-year deal.
The Cubs may have overpaid ($155 million) to acquire Lester, but it'll be worth it if he takes them to the World Series. Hopefully they'll get the recent Lester and not the 2012 version, who had a 4.83 ERA. Lester has dropped his ERA by more than a full run in consecutive seasons, putting up a 2.46 ERA in 2014. He got his strikeout rate back up to 9.0 K/9 after it had slipped into the 7.0 range in back-to-back seasons, and his durability continues to increase his value, as he's made at least 30 starts in every season since 2008. Lester will be the ace of the staff in 2015 and will take the mound on Opening Day.
Straily came over in last summer's blockbuster with Oakland, but didn't really do much in his Cubs tenure. Valbuena did a nice job of holding down the fort at various infield positions with the Cubs, but he's a small price to pay for Fowler, a legitimate leadoff hitter, and his trade helps clear the way for Kris Bryant's debut in Chicago. Acquired by the Astros in the trade that sent Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes to Colorado, Fowler's first season away from his previous home of Coors Field went much better than many expected. A nasty early-season illness and a sore back limited the switch-hitting outfielder to 116 games with his new club, but he was one of the Astros' best offensive players when healthy. Fowler hit .276/.375/.399 with eight home runs, 35 RBI, 11 steals and a 13.1-percent walk rate. His .375 OBP ranked a close second on the team behind MLB hits leader Jose Altuve. Fowler projects as the team's starting center fielder and new leadoff hitter after the lineup lacked high-OBP options to set the table a year ago. He quickly signed a one-year deal to avoid arbitration with his new team.
Montero was showing some encouraging signs early on, striking out at just a 8.4-percent clip and drawing 14 walks in March and April. Regression was expected and indeed occurred, but it took longer than many expected for the production to tail off. Montero went into the All-Star break with 11 homers and 52 RBI, matching his 2013 output in the former and exceeding his output in the latter, while hitting at a .262 clip, but he hit just .212 with two homers and eight runs scored in 208 second-half plate appearances. On the plus side, he did cut down his strikeouts significantly last season and his BABIP was more than 40 points below his career mark of .306. While the final numbers don't look awful, with Montero finishing fifth among catchers in RBI, the per-game production was disappointing and he may see fewer RBI opportunities in 2015 while perhaps batting lower in the batting order with the Cubs. He may not be as good as his reputation, but Montero for two low-level prospects is a deal the Cubs have to make, even with Montero's exorbitant salary.
Signed Jason Hammel to a two-year deal.
Hammel was excellent with the Cubs prior to his trade to Oakland last summer, with a 2.98 ERA over his first 17 starts, but he was much less successful after his move to the American League, going 2-6 in 12 starts with a 4.26 ERA. However, most of those struggles came in his first four starts with the A's, when he allowed 18 earned runs over 17 innings. In the final two months of the season, Hammel made eight starts (and one three-inning relief appearance) and compiled a 2.49 ERA over those 50.2 innings. After re-signing with the Cubs in December, Hammel will look to get back on track in Chicago and return to his level of production from the first half of 2014.
Dan Uggla's demise put La Stella on the radar heading into 2014, and it was less than two months before he officially took over the starting second base job in Atlanta. His keen eye at the plate was apparent from the get-go, as La Stella hit .292/.371/.357 with 20 strikeouts against 19 walks prior to the All-Star break, but he failed to make the necessary adjustments as pitchers learned his tendencies and he floundered to a .565 OPS in the second half, ultimately losing his starting job to Phil Gosselin late in the season. The Cubs, liking his contact and on-base skills, acquired him from the Braves in November. He could work himself into a regular role at second base or third base to begin the year, but La Stella won't be much of a factor outside of OBP leagues, given his utter lack of power and speed, even at a premium middle-infield position.
Signed Jason Motte to one-year deal.
One of the more popular sleeper picks last offseason, Motte failed to return to his form from 2012, when he was one of the best ninth-inning options in the National League. Motte made his return in late May and was serviceable for most of the season outside of a few multi-run blowups. He missed most of August with a back injury before pitching sparingly in September and not at all in October. Perhaps the most telling was his 17 strikeouts in 25 innings, easily the worst strikeout rate of his career. Motte signed with the Cubs in December, and he could quickly become an option to replace Hector Rondon if he can find his pre-surgery form.
Signed Chris Denorfia to one-year deal.
Denorfia joined the Mariners at the trade deadline last season but did next to nothing after leaving San Diego. He hit .195 with a .573 OPS with the Mariners and lost playing time down the stretch. He did even worse against left-handers, which was the point of acquiring the right-handed platoon bat. Denorfia will have a reserve role after signing with the Cubs and could work his way into a platoon role if he bounces back against lefties.
Signed David Ross to two-year deal.
Ross served as Boston's backup catcher for a second straight season, initially working behind free-agent signee A.J. Pierzynski and then guiding rookie catcher Christian Vazquez over the final few months of the season. His stat line mattered little to Boston, though he has hit 11 homers in 254 at-bats the past two seasons. A foot injury cost him time in the second half of 2014, but he avoided surgery and managed to return in late August. Ross is a clubhouse guy who has industry knowledge and can handle a pitching staff. He'll likely serve in a similar capacity with the Cubs and figures to reprise his role as Jon Lester's personal catcher.
The Cubs traded an extra outfielder for a nice 25-year-old arm in Brazis, who had an 84:18 K:BB ratio in 72.1 innings in the minors last year. He's not a serious prospect, but he should be able to make the big leagues and help out in the bullpen in the coming years.
Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. CF Dexter Fowler
2. SS Starlin Castro
3. 1B Anthony Rizzo
4. RF Jorge Soler
5. C Miguel Montero
6. 2B Arismendy Alcantara/Javier Baez
7. LF Chris Coghlan/Chris Denorfia
8. 3B Tommy La Stella/Mike Olt
Fowler is a nice improvement leading off over whatever the Cubs trotted out there last year (mostly Emilio Bonifacio and Coghlan), and moving Castro to second in the order certainly beats putting him fourth, where he resided during most of 2014. As for second and third base, that's all completely up in the air right now. Baez might need a good spring to avoid getting sent to the minors, La Stella hasn't played at the hot corner in the majors yet, and Mike Olt flat out stinks. Still, Kris Bryant is on the way and may be the cleanup hitter and third baseman from the day he arrives. Baez still has a bright future and could win second base, forcing Alcantara back to the outfield. Alcantara could find himself at any number of positions, either as a starter or a supersub.
Last year in this place we asked if this was the worst rotation in the National League, but now it looks like a real strength. Aside from Lester and getting Hammel back, Arrieta is a real bright spot that no one saw coming. When the Cubs picked him up from the Orioles after a miserable four-season run in Baltimore, the right-hander was merely decent in a nine-start stint with his new team. However, in 25 starts with the Cubs in 2014, Arrieta was practically a Cy Young candidate (and one that easily cost less than other candidates like Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright in fantasy auctions). The extreme groundballer showed elite skills across the board, finishing with a 2.33 FIP and 4.07 K/BB ratio. Rather than a pitcher the Cubs hoped would pitch well enough that they could flip for a prospect, Arrieta became the de facto ace of the staff. Hendricks was nearly as good. He put a lot of innings on his young arm, but if you're going to pitch as well as he has, 180 innings seems appropriate. He blew threw the minors in less than four years, dominating at every stop, before he got the call from the Cubs last year, when he finished 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 13 starts. Hendricks' excellent control (15 walks in 80.1 innings) contributed to his strong results, but his strikeout rate was poor. He had good strikeout rates in the minors, so there is hope that he can improve in that area. If he does, Hendricks will become much more useful to fantasy owners. At the fifth spot, the Cubs have a number of candidates, none very inspiring. Wood appears to have the inside track due to a strong 2013 (though he fell back to earth last year when his lucky 2013 results normalized). The 34-year-old Wada is intriguing and pitched well in 13 starts in 2014. Turner is a high-ceiling guy that hasn't come close to his potential yet, and the less said about Jackson, the better. Expect Wada or Wood (if he's not traded first) to win the fifth spot in spring training.
Rondon was a mediocre reliever as a Rule 5 draftee in 2013, but a variety of circumstances led to him closing games for the Cubs last year and … he wasn't bad. He showed the outstanding control he had earlier in his minor league career, using a 63:15 K:BB ratio to earn his way to 29 saves. Also, with only two home runs given up in 63.1 innings, Rondon limited the damage that can often come when the wind is blowing out in Wrigley. Rondon looks like he'll deservedly head into the 2015 season as the closer, though he could face competition from Jason Motte and Pedro Strop.
Going into last season, Strop was a sleeper to earn some saves for the Cubs, as no one believed Jose Veras would last the whole year as the closer. Though Strop got an early save and Veras was out of a job by mid-April, the job ultimately went to Rondon. That said, Strop was still an important part of the bullpen, earning 21 holds to go with a 2.21 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 61 innings. Add in the 35 innings he pitched after coming over from the Orioles in 2013 and Strop now has nearly a 100-inning sample of strong pitching in the National League. Expect him to continue his success as a setup man for the Cubs this year.
Ramirez may have been the best pitcher in the Cubs' bullpen last year. The 1.44 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 43.2 innings were nice, but they come with some warning signs, namely the 17 walks, .278 BABIP, and 89 percent strand rate. This is a player who has posted some gaudy strikeout numbers but who has otherwise struggled in the minors. If you're counting on a repeat season from Ramirez in 2015, don't say we didn't warn you.
Doubront has pitched in parts of the last five seasons for the Red Sox and Cubs, but he's never showed any sustained success at the MLB level, with his 11-6 record and 4.32 ERA in 2013 being the high point of his career. If he sticks with the Cubs this year, he's likely to appear as a long man or garbage-time reliever, especially if the Cubs pick up another lefty in the pen. After struggling with the Rangers, Grimm has found new life as a reliever for the Cubs. He gave up 15 home runs in 89 innings for the Rangers in 2013, but he kept the ball in the park for the Cubs last year. That he only had 11 holds in 73 appearances might indicate that the Cubs don't trust him yet in key situations, but it's also an indication that the Cubs didn't have a lot of key situations in 2014. He could be entrusted with more high-leverage spots by the Cubs if he can trim his walk rate (3.5 BB/9).
Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise
Is the rotation for real?
While the core of Lester, Arrieta, Hammel, and Hendricks all pitched well last year, they don't exactly have the greatest track records. Even comparing 2014 to 2013 indicates that we shouldn't be too optimistic. If this quartet pitches like they did in 2013, it could be a long year:
Hendricks was outstanding in the minors in 2013, but most MLB pitchers pitch well in their last full season in the minors, and some set the league on fire as rookies before the rest of the league catches up with them. Hammel and Arrieta were both just bad in 2013 (though Arrieta pitched a little better once he was acquired by the Cubs), and while Lester pitched well in 2013, those aren't ace numbers. When you also consider that the fifth spot in the rotation will be handled by the likes of Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada or (shudder) Edwin Jackson, the rotation might still have some work to do.
Can the hitters stop striking out?
For a team that was expected to show some Moneyball tendencies, the walk-to-strikeout ratio was downright atrocious. With 442 walks and 1477 strikeouts, the Cubs were last in the majors. Fortunately they've upgraded from Junior Lake (14 walks, 110 strikeouts) and Welington Castillo (26 walks 102 strikeouts), but they have an alarming lack of contact in the players projected to get the most plate appearances this year:
* minor league numbers only
The Cubs are expected to trade Castillo, and they'd probably give away Lake for a low-level minor leaguer if they can get one, but those are some embarrassing numbers. The recent acquisitions of Fowler, Montero, and La Stella seem to indicate that team management recognizes this problem, but there will still be problems scoring runs if the Cubs can't get the bat on the ball.
How excited should we be about Kris Bryant?
We knew this guy was good, but Bryant's power as a 23-year-old third baseman makes him the top prospect in all of baseball. Bryant destroyed the Southern League (22 home runs, 58 RBI, 1.160 OPS in 248 at-bats) with Double-A Tennessee, and he didn't slow down when he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa (21 home runs 52 RBI, 1.037 OPS in 244 at-bats). While he struck out a lot - a combined 162 times in 2014 - he also drew 43 walks apiece in his two stops. He doesn't have much left to prove in the minors, so expect him to win a spot at the hot corner for the Cubs this year. It may not happen on Opening Day, however, as the Cubs stand to benefit from having him spend a few weeks at Triple-A Iowa to prevent him from accruing a full year of service time in 2015. The Cubs have been looking for a third baseman for as long as we can remember, and it appears they've finally found one.
Youth, youth and more youth. While the team management is slowly picking up veterans, the team is still full of players who can't even rent a car. Fortunately, if the Jon Lester deal is any indication, management is not afraid to spend money, so when the team is ready to contend, they can pick up the piece to put them over the top, and they certainly have the prospect depth to make any potential deal interesting.
We mentioned above two concerns: short track records of the starting rotation and the inability to get the bat on the ball as an offense. The rotation members can decline a tad and still be effective in 2015, but if the offense continues to struggle making contact, it could be another long season in the Friendly Confines.
Rising:Anthony Rizzo. The 25-year-old first baseman finally arrived last year.Though the Cubs have a lot of young offensive talent, many of them with prodigious power, most struggle to get on base. Not so with Rizzo, who drew 73 walks last year and finished with a team-high .386 on-base percentage. Oh, and he also led the team in home runs, RBI, runs, slugging percentage, and OPS. Despite all of the young players coming up the ranks at seemingly every position, the Cubs don't have a can't-miss prospect at first base (the closest thing to it is Dan Vogelbach), meaning Rizzo's job is safe. Once those other young hitters start getting on base, expect the 25-year-old Rizzo to start racking up 100-RBI seasons.
Declining:Welington Castillo. With just John Baker and Rafael Lopez behind him on the depth chart, Castillo didn't have to do much to earn the majority of innings at catcher in 2014. However, once his high BABIP came down to earth last year, his shortcomings came into focus. A 26:102 BB:K ratio was the worst of his short career, though he also had a career-best 13 home runs. If he remains with the Cubs, he'll fall into a backup role following the additions of Miguel Montero and David Ross. If he gets a chance to start elsewhere, Castillo needs to develop a more patient eye at the plate and avoid the injuries that have dogged him to this point in his career.
Sleeper:Jorge Soler. Of all the big-time prospects the Cubs called up in 2014, Soler took to the majors the best. He was called up on a Wednesday in August and hit three home runs and drove in seven before the weekend was out. He slowed down a bit down the stretch, but still finished with a .903 OPS in 97 plate appearances with the Cubs. His 6:24 BB:K ratio and .350 BABIP suggest he was a little lucky, but he'll be just 23 on Opening Day and has a lot of room to grow. He looks like a solid bet to be the starter in right for the Cubs in 2015 and beyond.
Supersleeper:Billy McKinney. Though Addison Russell was the big prize in the July trade with Oakland, savvy dynasty leaguers noted the change of scenery for McKinney, a first-round draft pick in 2013. Still just 20, McKinney already has almost 800 plate appearances in the minors and has a good power/speed combination. Coupled with a decent batting eye (61:100 BB:K ratio in High-A last year), he has the potential to be a star for the Cubs if they can find room for him.
Kris Bryant - see above.
Addison Russell- Given that the A's didn't make the World Series after acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in July, they may curse the day the traded away Russell, who immediately moved near the top of a very good Cubs prospect list after the deal. While Starlin Castro is blocking Russell at the big league level, expect the Cubs to still find a way to get Russell into the lineup as soon as he's ready (which could be very soon). The 21-year-old infielder hit 13 home runs in 242 Double-A at-bats last year and topped .300 in the process. NL-only ultra-leaguers take note: he may be the best minor league prospect not already kept by someone in your league.
Albert Almora - After a strong (but injury-filled) run with Low-A Kane County in 2013, Almora struggled a bit when he was promoted to higher levels last year. Neither the power nor the speed was much to write home about, and Almora struggled with Double-A Tennessee in particular, finishing with a 2:23 K:BB ratio and a .605 OPS in 144 at-bats. Still, he'll turn 21 in April, and he might become the top prospect in the Cubs' system once Kris Bryant is called up to Chicago. Almora is a year or two away, but he's big part of the organization's future, albeit one that still has a long way to go in order to complete his development and reach the projection that made him the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft.
Jorge Soler - See above.
Kyle Schwarber - The Cubs drafted Schwarber with the fourth pick in the 2014 draft and he made an immediate impression in his three-level stint, hitting a combined 18 home runs in 262 at-bats with an on-base percentage north of .400. Though he played a lot of outfield in his first year as a pro, he's expected to be a full-time catcher in 2015, either at High-A Myrtle Beach or Double-A Tennessee. If he can prove himself there, he'll be on the fast track to Chicago.
C.J. Edwards - Edwards appears to have the 6-foot-3, 170-pound frame that he's credited with. He's very skinny, and most of that frame comes from his long legs. If he were graded purely off stuff and production to this point in his career, Edwards would likely be much higher on prospect lists. Walks have been an occasional issue for Edwards, as he's issued 73 free passes in 182 innings, but he's offset that with 220 strikeouts and just two home runs allowed as a professional. Durability is the primary concern with Edwards, especially after a right shoulder strain cost him nearly four months to begin the 2014 season. He'll likely return to Double-A to start 2015, with the hope of pushing his way to the big leagues before season's end, but a strict innings cap seems likely.
Billy McKinney- See above.
Pierce Johnson - Everyone talks about all of the good hitting prospects in the Cubs' organization, but for some reason the pitchers get short shrift. With Edwards hurt most of the year and Kyle Hendricks promoted, Johnson may now be the best pitching prospect in the Cubs' minor league system. He struck out 91 in 91.2 innings with Double-A Tennessee, so there obviously is something there, but he also walked 54. The 23-year-old righty still has a little bit of work to do. Expect him to start the year with Tennessee, with a quick promotion to Triple-A Iowa if he keeps his walks down. This could be his last year in the minors.
Dan Vogelbach - Vogelbach is the Cubs' top first baseman in the minors, but it would be a shock to see him overtake Anthony Rizzo as the starter at the big league level at any point. There are some appealing items in his skill set, as he can draw a walk and hit for some power, but he doesn't seem to have anything that truly stands out, and his defensive limitations might make him a future DH. He should spend most of the 2015 season with Double-A Tennessee as a 22-year-old, but unless Rizzo suffers a serious injury, Vogelbach could be trade bait, especially to an AL-team that values on-base percentage more than defense.
Gleyber Torres - Torres was one of the top international prospects when the Cubs signed him in 2013. He's also barely 18. While he's shown the ability to take a walk during his brief appearances at the lowest levels in the organization, it's a bit too early to project him for greatness. He has the potential to be a five-tool player, but he's years away from the majors and there are a number of young shortstops blocking his path at the big league level.