The Chicago Cubs have more or less dug out from the avalanche of bad contracts that they were buried in during the Jim Hendry/Lou Piniella era. The rebuild can and has commenced. Young players are on the way up, one-year fliers are on the way in and long-term contracts are unlikely for the majority of the veterans on the roster. This team has a lot of question marks, but we’re here to provide answers in this edition of Top Five Questions for 2014.
5. How mediocre is the Cubs outfield? Very mediocre. Nate Schierholtz is likely to receive the bulk of the playing time in right and he’s likely to pop 20ish homers with a gross batting average. Justin Ruggiano will probably get every opportunity to play in center. The sabrmetric darling hit 18 homers and stole 15 bases…while hitting .222 last year. He could go 20-20. He could also be replaced in June by any one of the Cubs farmhands. Left field will be occupied by some combination of Junior Lake and/or Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney is about as average as it gets and Lake posted competent numbers in 2013, but it came with a .377 BABIP in only 254 PAs. Regression is looming for Lake and his 26.8% K%.
The better question is “which of the Cubs prospects will find Wrigley Field in 2014?” Albert Almora is unlikely to advance all the way to Chicago and the same goes for Jorge Soler. Kris Bryant is a solid bet to be up in 2014, but it’s unclear if he can handle third base at the major league level and he will likely be moved to a corner outfield spot. It is clear that his bat is ML ready and he should be up to stay as soon as they find a spot that he looks comfortable at in the field.
4. Do they have a closer? Kevin Gregg surprised everyone (think about that sentence for a minute) by coming off the couch to notch 33 saves. If Gregg can come off the couch and succeed, then anyone can. Speaking of anyone, Jose Veras is the favorite to open the season as the closer and he’ll probably keep the job until he gets traded at the deadline. Veras managed to earn 21 saves splitting time between the DisAstros and the Tigers. He shouldn’t have any problem racking up another 20 save season before being dealt again.
3. How about the rotation? In two words? Don’t ask. Jeff Samardzija is the de facto ace. He was annoying inconsistent in 2013 and ended with a 4.34 ERA, but his 3.45 xFIP claims he was a victim of poor defense and statistical variance. He’s a solid rebound bet and one of the few names worth having in a standard mixed league.
Things are murky behind Samardzija. Travis Wood is slightly better than a replacement level innings eater. Edwin Jackson could provide some value if he’s able to bounce back from his 2013 disaster. The final two rotation slots will be filled by names like Jake Arrieta, James McDonald, Justin Grimm or Jason Hammel. They’re borderline deep NL-only league plays.
2. Will Starlin Castro continue to struggle or was 2013 a fluke? 2013 was not a fluke. Flukes last for a few weeks or a month. Castro was team-murderingly awful for all of 2014. He wasn’t just bad, he was bad that compiled 705 PAs.
The argument for a Castro rebound is “he wasn’t this bad before 2013!” True, but he was this bad for all of 2013. He’s never been good against breaking and off-speed pitches, but he morphed into Pedro Cerrano last year…minus the prodigious power. He hit .224 against curves, .213 against the changeup and only .205 against sliders in 2013. Why even think about throwing him a fastball in the zone? His walk rate was a career low 4.3% and his strikeout rate was a career high 18.0%. Castro looks like a stay away unless he shows a remarkable turnaround against real pitchers in Spring Training games.
1. Is Anthony Rizzo a bust? Not yet, but it’s not looking good. Rizzo was exposed as a guy who can’t hit lefties in his first full major league season. Rizzo posted a .189/.282/.342 slash line against lefties. He’ll be a batting average killer until he learns how to not be embarrassed by left-handed pitching. He looks like a guy who could be the good half of a first base platoon, but he doesn’t look like an elite level first baseman at this point in his career. He’s not a Brandon Wood level bust, but he looks closer to Wood than he does to guys like Brandon Belt or Eric Hosmer.