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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Another last place finish, although at least this time they avoid losing 100 games. Since coming over from the Red Sox, GM Theo Epstein and his group have taken a very different approach to the Cubs; even in the large media market of Chicago, they have opted for a slow methodical rebuilding process. The result is a franchise with exceptional young talent in the minors but not much going on at the major league level, other than some roster turnover in July the past few years.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Jason Hammel
Going: Dioner Navarro
Perhaps gun shy about spending after signing the disappointing Edwin Jackson to a five-year-deal last winter, the Cubs don’t pursue anyone significant and instead continue their pattern of trying to find potential trade trips from the bottom of the free agent barrel. Over the past few years they’ve been able to resurrect the careers of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman, among others; they will try to do the same with Jason Hammel and Pirates castoff James McDonald. Trade discussions for Jeff Samardzija haven’t really gained much traction at all, although he’s a likely candidate to be dealt this July. The Cubs aren’t expected to contend this year but it is still strange to see them not pursue any outfielders.

Wild Card(s): 
Simon Castro was the Cubs’ lone young star going into last year, but they tried to change his approach last year and the results were disastrous; Castro hit a weak .247 with only 9 SB and a .284 OBP, and he saw a major jump in strikeouts (129 in 666 AB). Before that, he was a dynamic contact hitter, who led the league in hits in 2011. Considering he is only 25, Castro is a good bet to return to his former level of near-stardom, and could even improve, adding a few more home runs or competing for a batting title. If his defense remains solid, he is still a player the Cubs can build around. Sometimes players have off years. Even Robinson Cano hit .270 once.

Key Contract Years:
Jason Hammel was signed to a one-year deal. Nate Schierholtz is a solid platoon player but he’ll have to show he can repeat 2013’s power surge (career-high 21 HR).

Rookies:
Very quickly, Chicago might have an infield logjam; the first chance at third base may go to older rookie Mike Olt, who was primed for a big 2013 with Texas but contracted vision problems and wound up scuffling all year in AAA, eventually getting traded as part of the Matt Garza deal. He could be a power-hitting third basemen, but his window of opportunity is very short. That is because much better prospects are waiting for their chance, headlined by Javier Baez, currently a shortstop (but blocked by Castro). Baez has some of the best power in the minors, blasting 37 HR last year and 20 SB to boot. He’s an incredibly aggressive hitter (167 strikeouts last year) so Chicago may want him to learn how to be more patient in AA or AAA to avoid having him become another Pedro Alvarez, but if Baez is hitting and the Cubs are bad he may force their hand. Another third basemen, Christian Villanueva, has a good glove and potential 15-20 HR power, and he will start the year in AAA.

The most likely hitter to debut for the Cubs is infielder Arismendy Alcantara, a 20/20 threat who could immediately supplant Darwin Barney at second base. He has a solid approach at the plate as well (62 walks and a .352 OBP last year in AA).

Key Questions:
Who gets promoted and when?
Where do all the pieces fit? The above-mentioned players may all be ready but it will be tricky to place them all and give them playing time in Chicago. And how dose Chicago determine where each newcomer is best positioned?
Who plays in the outfield?  Right now their depth chart is quite thin, with also-rans like Ryan Sweeney and Justin Ruggiano projected for increased playing time.
Is Junior Lake their best outfielder? That’s a scary thought.
Who gets traded this year?
Are there any pitchers Chicago can call up later this season?
Can Anthony Rizzo develop into a stronger offensive threat?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite) 
An army of infielders are waiting to make a difference in Chicago. But in addition to those mentioned above, there are also quite a few outfielders who project as potential all-stars making their way through the system right now, topped by back-to-back first round picks Al Almora and Khris Bryant. Finally, Chicago also has some pitching to match their incredible array of minor league power bats. CJ Edwards was acquired in the Matt Garza deal and had a 1.86 ERA in 116 IP last year. Several other pitchers acquired in trades—Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez—also look like potential starters down the road.

2014 Prognosis: Rebuilding 
Although their situation was never as dire, the Cubs have taken a similar approach to the Astros over the past few years, cycling through some veterans and flipping them for prospects, while spending money in the draft on early picks (the result of their prior losing seasons). Progress at the major league level has been slow, but things could change in a hurry. But not in time for them to be a playoff threat this season.

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