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2014 Preview: Chicago Cubs

Mar 11, 2014, 12:03 AM EDT

theo epstein getty Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is the wait almost over?

It has been 105 long years since the north side of Chicago last celebrated a World Series title and in seven months that number will be pushed to 106.

Let’s get it out of the way: this 2014 edition of the Cubs is hopeless. There’s not enough firepower in the lineup, not enough shutdown stuff on the pitching staff, and they’ll play in a five-team division that features four much better squads. Bovada pegs the Cubs’ over-under win total for the 2014 season at 69.5 — same as the Marlins and well below the Brewers (79.5), Pirates (83.5), Reds (84.5), and Cardinals (90.5).

And it doesn’t take a casino odds-maker to figure out what’s wrong with the Northsiders’ roster.

The four-year, $52 million commitment made last winter to right-handed starter Edwin Jackson already looks like a bust. Travis Wood is very good but far from a typical ace, and Jeff Samardzija took a step back in 2013 after flashing front-line numbers in 2012. Some combination of Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Chris Rusin, and James McDonald will fill out the final two spots of a thoroughly-unintimidating starting rotation.

The lineup isn’t any more formidable. Anthony Rizzo has promising upside at first base, but his park-adjusted batting numbers were nearly league-average for that premium offensive position during the 2013 season. Fifth-year shortstop Starlin Castro was a complete disaster last summer, hitting .245/.284/.347 for an OPS+ of just 72. Luis Valbuena (3B), Nate Schierholtz (RF), Junior Lake (LF), Ryan Sweeney (CF), Welington Castillo (C), and Darwin Barney (2B) make up the rest of the Cubs’ starting position player group.

So, is the wait almost over? It depends on whether you have a gracious definition of “almost.”

What else is going on?

  • A total of seven Cubs prospects appeared in last month’s Baseball America Top 100, tied for the second-most of any organization. Javier Baez looks like a star in the making and will likely work his way into the major league infield mix by the end of this summer. He batted .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, could also become a starter — at third base — by the end of 2014. He tallied nine homers and 32 RBI in just 36 minor league games last season. Right-handed starter C.J. Edwards and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler were among the other Cubs prospects named to Baseball America‘s list. Team president Theo Epstein is building a legitimate nucleus.
  • Something to keep an eye on with this rising class of elite-level prospects: Javier Baez was drafted as a shortstop in 2011 (ninth overall) and has played nothing but shortstop in the Cubs’ minor league system. Starlin Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million contract extension with the Cubs in August 2012, but he might not finish out that deal in Chicago. Castro is young enough and has enough raw talent that he will presumably attract interest from other clubs even if he doesn’t bounce back right away in 2014.
  • Darwin Barney won a Gold Glove for his outstanding defensive play at second base in 2012 and probably should have won it again in 2013, but he owns a hideous .246/.293/.336 career slash line in 1,799 plate appearances at the major league level and the situation only worsened last season. Emilio Bonifacio can probably steal that starting second base job away from Barney by early-to-mid summer.
  • The Cubs fired Dale Sveum last September after just two years in the managerial post and officially selected Rick Renteria in early November to be his replacement. Renteria was the Padres’ bench coach when current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer worked in the San Diego front office and is well-respected around the baseball world. Renteria is the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.

Predicton: A rough start but slightly-brighter finish yields 72 wins. Last place, NL Central.

  1. bostonboresme - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:34 AM

    Oh the Cubs, pushing a century of umm…yeah.

  2. stumpytown - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:42 AM

    I am a third generation cubs fan, but I have zero star players to cheer for. Do they sell Epstein jerseys? Where is the face of the franchise Theo?

  3. slaugin - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:56 AM

    Rizzo? I don’t follow the team close enough but he seems like a star in the making. Reminds me of Freddie Freeman with higher upside.

  4. pisano - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:56 AM

    Looks like boy blunder (Theo) isn’t doing the Cubs much good, maybe it’s time for him to get his walking papers again.

    • NYTolstoy - Mar 11, 2014 at 1:57 AM

      Yes because after a century of no titles a years of problems and mediocrity (no offense Cubs fans) The should of turned it around in what a year? Maybe two? Many have stated it would take maybe 5-6 years and The Cubs are projected to be nearly contenders in the next two years. So maybe you should cut them a break hm?

      • karlkolchak - Mar 11, 2014 at 7:29 AM

        The Jackson contract alone should make anyone question Theo’s “genius” vs. previously having been in the right place at the right time with a big money club. Four years for a mediocre pitcher at an AAV at which the Nats’ were unwilling to risk making a qualifyimg offer?

        Then there was the really dumb extension to Castro at a time when there were still major questions about his dedication to the game and there was no reason to act so quickly to get a deal done. Contenders in two years? I’ll take that bet.

    • dan1111 - Mar 11, 2014 at 8:37 AM

      As the article notes, the Cubs have a number of highly rated prospects, so he is doing exactly what is needed at this point.

      • lukedunphysscienceproject - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:02 AM

        If quantity of good prospects is the measure of a GM, I guess the Houston Astros have the best in the business, since their farm system is ranked #1 by most services. Or maybe drafting in the Top 5 every single year has something to do with that. I seem to remember a breathless article in SI 3 years ago or so raving about how the Kansas City Royals were ticketed to take over the American League by now because of their unbelievably deep farm system.

        Apparently, there’s a little more to building a team than being able to make good picks when you are drafting ahead of everyone else.

      • dan1111 - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:28 AM

        @luke, the current ownership/management of the Astros has been in place for all of two seasons. Bashing them makes no sense either. I would say that the health of their farm system is a great sign for their future, as well.

        2013 was the Cubs’ first draft in the top 5 in the last six years, so your claim about them getting high picks hardly holds. Their picks during that time have included 16th, 19th, and 31st.

        It is true that there is more to building a team than good drafting. But after only two years of running a rebuilding team, a good farm system is all you can reasonably expect of a GM. If they still haven’t built a competitor in two or three more seasons, then you will have a point.

      • karlkolchak - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:30 AM

        @lukedunphysscienceproject – precisely. And giving out bad contracts to crappy veterans like Jackson when you are trying to rebuild makes it that much more difficult.

      • lukedunphysscienceproject - Mar 11, 2014 at 1:19 PM

        @dan- way to selectively pick the years they weren’t in the top 10. They’ve picked in the Top 10 the last 3 years, and if you’re going to give credit to the current GM for building the farm system, what difference does it make that they picked 31st five years ago? My point is valid- Theo has drafted in the Top 5 since he got there.

        If we are going to grade Theo on his farm system, we need to see how much of it he is actually responsible for. A quick check on Prospect Watch shows that he is responsible for acquiring 4 of their top 10 prospects. 2 of the 4 are his top 5 draft picks. Still nothing to invalidate my point.

        Look, I don’t know how things will work out for Theo. But I think it’s a little early to say he’s done “exactly what’s needed”.

      • lukedunphysscienceproject - Mar 11, 2014 at 1:21 PM

        *Top 10. Correction. In 2012, they picked 6th.

    • evansox - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:57 PM

      There’s not a single person that could have turned the Cubs into contenders within a 2 year span.

      • karlkolchak - Mar 11, 2014 at 2:11 PM

        You fet off the zero after the 2.

  5. yourcubreporter - Mar 11, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    Wish the writer would stop sugar-coating things and tell us how he REALLY feels… yikes!

    @yourcubreporter

  6. Joe Vecchio - Mar 11, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    Technically, the North Side has never won a championship, as the Cubs were not playing in Wrigley when they won their last Series.

    Can’t disagree with the assessment this year, however. The Central is a good division: even if they don’t finish last, they’ll never get into the playoffs…Still, with Epstein, I think the Cubs can become a contender fairly soon, and if anyone knows how to break a curse, it’s Epstein

  7. proudlycanadian - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    I am reminded of a story I heard in the 1980’s. An old sports writer was praying and asked God if the Red Sox would ever win the World Series again. “Yes” a heavenly voice replied, “but not in your lifetime”. The old sports writer then asked if the Cubs would ever win the World Series again. “Yes” the heavenly voice replied, “but not in my lifetime”.

  8. El Bravo - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    This is a very sad true story. I’m so tired of crappy baseball on my side of town. At least they play good teams on occasion so that I can watch actual baseball.

  9. Old Gator - Mar 11, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    I always enjoyed the time I spent in the friendly constrictions of Wrigley Failed. In grad school, I used to go up there to watch Dave Kingman (and really enjoyed getting stoned and reading his ostensibly ghostwritten Chicago Tribune sports column out loud to the general hilarity of my roommates, who would even turn down their Talking Heads albums to hear it). Every so often Kingman would get ahold of one and it was like standing in the parking lot of the seedy bar on the intercoastal waterway in Cocoa Beach and watching a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral. That year – 1979 – was, I think, Kong’s best season as a ballplayer; it surely wasn’t a memorable period in belles lettres. We could trace the arc of destiny in the Gravity’s Rainbows of his dingers – a championship didn’t seem another century away then, as it does now.

    Was it as much fun as taking acid, going out for a stuffed pizza and then staring into the Thorne miniature rooms at the Art Institute? Well, no – at least, not in January. But then, the Art Institute didn’t proffer the frisson of sitting in an accursed building, either.

    • vivabear - Mar 11, 2014 at 2:11 PM

      Getting stoned, taking acid….Old Felcher has more in common with the trailer trash he despises, than we will ever know.

      • Old Gator - Mar 11, 2014 at 4:12 PM

        Vomiting vulgarity, watching pornography. Tsk.

        I enjoyed my youth quite a bit more than you seem to be doing. You’re adorable enough that you can still turn your apparently wretched life around and have some fun before your next failed attempt to obtain your GED.

      • vivabear - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:38 PM

        Poor Old Felcher, can’t stop himself from making hateful assumptions.

  10. musketmaniac - Mar 11, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    The Pirates and the Nuttings are the newest author’s of Baseball’s graveyard resurrection manual.

  11. the8man - Mar 11, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    proudlycanadian – Mar 11, 2014 at 10:21 AM
    I am reminded of a story I heard in the 1980′s. An old sports writer was praying and asked God if the Red Sox would ever win the World Series again. “Yes” a heavenly voice replied, “but not in your lifetime”. The old sports writer then asked if the Cubs would ever win the World Series again. “Yes” the heavenly voice replied, “but not in my lifetime”.
    —————————————————————————————————————————————————
    I wandered into my forties after the Sox and Cubs both blew their shots at the World Series in 2003 wondering the same thing. I’m a Red Sox fan, but I got to the point where I didn’t care if it was the Cubs or the Sox, I just wanted to live long enough to see one of them do it.

    The baseball Gods have been immensely kind to Red Sox Nation. May they someday bestow such love upon the Cubs.

    • Old Gator - Mar 11, 2014 at 4:13 PM

      I wouldn’t hold my ectoplasm waiting for that.

    • 18thstreet - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:40 PM

      The Red Sox stopped being racist and stupid and, thus, started winning thanks to the advantages of playing in a large market that likes baseball. The Cubs have stopped being stupid (racism was never their problem, but they were even stupider than the Red Sox were, and thus more handicapped by it), and the wins will come soon.

      It was fun, blaming the Sox’ losing on a mystical curse. It absolves the actual people — the stupid racists — who ran the club for seventy years.

  12. bostonboresme - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:08 PM

    Even I’m thoroughly disappointed in Starlin Castro. I hope he comes back to his old self.

  13. antaresrex - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:58 PM

    I keep reminding myself that the Cubs won three division championships in six years not too long ago. Sometimes it even helps.

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