2014 Team Previews: Chicago Cubs

Hug it out, guys. Better days are ahead. - David Banks

Things are looking up for the Cubs, but this won't be their year.

It's been five years since the Chicago Cubs last won 83 games, and four since their last winning season. Since Chicago's last trip to the post-season front office staff have been altered, managers have continued to come and go, and the talent level, with mostly exciting prospects failing to pan out, has perhaps swayed some of the fan base to the southern part of the city. Ultimately, the Cubs have had a rough go since 2008, and approach a new campaign with hopes of progressing toward the likes of a .500 ball-club

Chicago won’t be a complete disaster, though its safe to assume that fans will not be watching a club contend for contention into the second wild card spot. Simply, the Cubs lack star-quality position players and have had great difficulty in building a useful group of pitchers around Jeff Samardizja, a likely trade-candidate throughout the year and certainly one of the game’s better right-handers. Theo Epstein has performed formidably since moving west of the New England and remains confident in the club’s young players, but also understands that it remains unlikely that the Cubs best years have arrived.

2013 Season in Review

Only the White Sox, the Astros, and the Marlins had a worse record than Chicago’s Northsiders, a 66-96 record, good for an envied spot in an exciting and upcoming draft class. The Cubs were valuable behind the plate and on the mound, but not really anywhere else. Dioner Navarro (+2.0 fWAR) and David DeJesus (+3.7 fWAR, both playing elsewhere in 2014, combined for a higher wins above replacement clip than the club’s top player in that category, Wellington Castillo (+3.7 fWAR). A roughed up bullpen and lack of offense seated the Cubs in the NL Central’s bottom spot by mid-July, resulting in a tear up of the 25-man roster. After dealing Matt Garza and David DeJesus, the Cubs were able to continue revamping a deprived farm system, so the future in Chicago is looking much brighter.

Key Offseason Moves

This past offseason featured a number of signings for Chicago. Some of the major league variety and others of the marginally-significant minor league class, Epstein has employed a more dependable group of players than in years past. For just $7 million, James McDonald and Jason Hammel join Jeff Samardizja, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood to round out what appears to be a rotation of reliable arms with the possibility of garnering a generous number of swings-and-misses. Of course, McDonald didn't lock up the rotation’s fifth spot and will still swap roles with Carlos Villanueva, a decent, dependable swingman. Justin Grimm and Jake Arrietta are on the outside looking in, as Grimm has options and could use a few months of minor league refreshment while the latter’s performance hasn’t exactly excited the world. Either way, ZiPS suggests that the Cubs have four pitchers that project +2 wins above replacement, with Samardizja easily eclipsing that number. Chicago’s bullpen will be intriguing because of its many unpredictable faces and no clear bullpen ace, but needs strong season’s from Kyuji Fujikawa (coming of TJS) and Jose Veras to be taken seriously in that regard

One to Watch

Starlin Castro’s 2013 was dreadful. He is also a potential top-tier shortstop coming off a miserable season, both offensively and defensively. Because he couldn’t be any worse than he was in 2013, and most projection systems predict he’ll be a +2 win player. Chicago has value at a very premium position in things go well and can match that with Wellington Castillo at catcher who figures to be one of the Cubs’ best hitters and fielders. But the pressure is really on Anthony Rizzo, who was acquired for Andrew Cashner just shortly after Jed Hoyer obtained his services from current Cubs General Manager, Theo Epstein (Boy, that's confusing!). Rizzo hasn’t shown all of his projected power while at the major league level and, even though ZiPS, Oliver, and Steamer think he’ll improve, the Cubs may possess a mediocre first-baseman that hasn’t become a franchise cornerstone as some thought would. That is, of course, unless Rizzo somehow out-hits and out-fields the expectation. This may be a telling year.. If Javier Baez is promoted mid-season deservingly, it would also be a big plus for Chicago.

Cubs by the Numbers

Chicago has what most teams lack: a slew of players who project to be better than replacement and currently boast a pretty healthy track record. That is why 2014 will be very telling for Rizzo, Castro, and mostly Mike Olt, as none of whom has performed close to their upside. Suppose Rizzo, Castro, Olt, and a couple months of Javier Baez, the team’s top prospect, distribute breakout seasons worth +8 wins all together; that could send the Cubs’ win total north of 78, which, while still not close to a World Series contender, would seemingly prevent a fifth straight 90-loss campaign. That kind of jump a la Kansas City is known as a good seasonal set up for contention. It would be helpful if Chicago employed more payroll in the coming years, but in the meantime Chicago will enter the season with a young squad that projects for just over 72 wins.

2014 Team Outlook

For Chicago to reach 75+ wins they will have to stay healthy, and avoid what looks to be a group of replacement players on hand. Guys like Justin Ruggiano, Luis Valbuena and Darwin Barney might not have big roles on most teams, so any combo that allows Chicago not have to keep the bus from Iowa to Chicago trekking and gives Javier Baez, Albert Almora and an ongoing slew of prospects the ability to develop is ideal. Jeff Samardijza will be dealt mid-summer, I assume, so expect a few more exciting players to roll in. Otherwise its another tough year for Cubs fans, but there’s a likely chance that the years ahead will be much, much better.

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All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

Dave Gershman is a contributor to Beyond The Box Score.

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