Feb 19, 2014; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) waits for a pitch during a workout at Cubs Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Team Previews: Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs

2013 Record: 66-96, 31 games back and in Dead Last Place

Key Additions

Manager Rick Renteria, OF Emilio Bonifacio, 3B Mike Olt, OF Justin Ruggiano, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Jose Veras, LHP Wesley Wright

Key Subtractions

Manager Dale Sveum, C Dioner Navarro, IF Ian Stewart, OF David DeJesus, OF Scott Hairston, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Carlos Marmol, RHP Daniel Bard, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Matt Guerrier

Offense

There is no sugar coating the Cubs offense in 2013; they were dreadful. They finished 28th in baseball in runs scored, 28th in on base percentage, 27th in batting average, and 25th in stolen bases. They were the not-so-lovable losers who tested even the most ardent, long-time Cubs fans.

Both Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro took huge steps backwards last season. Starting second baseman Darwin Barney managed just a .569 OPS in 501 AB, with a paltry .266 OBP. Clearly things snowballed for the Cubs in 2013.

In 2014, the Cubs are pinning their hopes on rebound seasons from Castro and Rizzo. Darwin Barney needs to improve on offense or make way for a rookie, perhaps top prospect Arismendy Alcantara, who can’t do any worse than Barney did at the dish.

Rookie OF Junior Lake had a solid debut in 2013, with a .760 OPS in 236 AB. If he can build on that, the Cubs will have some difficult decisions about who to keep and who to trade for 2015.

Defense

Rizzo and Barney’s defense was stellar as both were finalists for a Gold Glove Award at their respective positions. Castro, on the other hand, was benched in August for a mental gaffe in the field against the Cardinals. After a catching a pop-up, he put his head down and allowed runners to advance, including one who scored. Castro continues to make too many errors and seems to not have his head in the game. If he continues to struggle, it’s possible the Cubs will look to deal him to make way for phenom Javier Baez. Alternately, they may decide to move him to second base where his offense will shine.

Starting Pitching

Rumor has it the Cubs were a contender for the services of Masahiro Tanaka. They sure could have used him. Instead, they will go with Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson at the top. Each started over 30 games for the Cubs in 2013 and the Cubs would be thrilled to have the same durability from their top three in 2014.

Jeff Samardzjia has yet to live up to expectations that he can be an ace. He’s will be the subject of many trade rumors unless and until the Cubs sign him to an extension. At this point in the Cubs rebuilding phase, there’s really no reason to extend him. Instead, expect the Cubs to find value for him in a trade at the deadline.

Travis Wood had a tremendous season. He was an All-Star and managed a 1.145 WHIP in 200 innings. That’s excellent, and even if he suffers a bit of a regression in 2014 he should still be a solid starter.

Despite his durability, Edwin Jackson had a down season. He allowed opponents to hit a combined .281 against him while OPSing .775, leading to an unsightly WAR of -1.3.

Newcomer Jason Hammel has a good arm but didn’t have the best season last year with the Orioles. Moving to the NL Central from the AL East should help.

Jake Arrietta. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The bottom of the rotation would have benefited from Jake Arrieta, but he’s been shut down for now with shoulder tightness. If Arrieta is indeed on the shelf at the start of the 2014 season, expect Chris Rusin, Carlos Villanueva and also newly signed James McDonald as the candidates to win a job. Prospect Kyle Hendricks may also be in the mix.

Bullpen

Right now, the bullpen appears to be better on paper than the group who blew 26 saves in 2013. In fact it may even become the team’s greatest strength, although that’s a bit like saying in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Jose Veras notched 21 saves last season for the Astros and Tigers and should help Cubs fans forget Carlos Marmol. Pedro Strop looks to be the set-up man and back-up closer, while Alberto Cabrera, Carlos Villanueva, Wesley Wright, James Russell round out the group.

The final spot will be a battle between Arodys Vizcaino, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon, and Justin Grimm. If Villanueva earns the #5 starter’s job while Arrieta recovers, figure Parker and Vizcaino to make the pen.

Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario for the Cubbies is that they continue to develop their rookies and manage not to finish in last place. They’ll need bounce-back years from Castro and Rizzo, the prospects light up the minor leagues and push their way into the lineup.

Worst Case Scenario

Worst case for the Cubs would be suffering setbacks and injuries to their youngest players. Where the Cubs finish in 2014 means very little if the system can’t continue to develop prospects into stars. Still, another last place finish will test even the stoutest of fan bases.

Prediction

I think the Cubs will finish in 4th place, just out of the basement. The more I look at the numbers, the worse I feel about picking the Cubs to finish ahead of the Brewers, but if you peel back the layers, there’s a lot of reason for optimism going forward.

For one, I expect a big rebound season from Starlin Castro. With his talent, he should be able to hit .300 in his sleep and could contend for the league lead in hits. With Castro on base ahead of him, Anthony Rizzo should be able to improve on his pedestrian numbers as well.

No matter how good his defense is, Darwin Barney will have to ride the pines if he can’t bring any offense to the table. The Cubs can’t possibly get less from their second basemen in 2014. Mike Olt may regain his top prospect status — or, he may not be over his vision problems enough to win the third base job. Fortunately for the Cubs, they have several options on the farm to fill those holes.

A lot happens during the course of a 162 game season, and the Cubs have a lot of talent pushing to make the big club. They boast six position players in MLB.com’s Top-100 Prospects, including two in the top 10. SS Javier Baez and 3B/OF Kris Bryant may well make their debuts this season. Bryant, the reigning Golden Spikes award winner for the best amateur player in the country, also won the MVP of the Arizona Fall League. He’ll start the season in the minors but could easily play his way onto the Cubs as soon as this summer. He’s a beast.

Nov 2, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant against the West during the Fall Stars Game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

OF Albert Almora, who turns 20 in April, is listed as MLB.com’s 18th best prospect; OF Jorge Soler was listed as the 49th best prospect. Not all of them will pan out but even three of them do, the Cubs could improve by leaps and bounds.

Valued at about one billion dollars, the Cubs aren’t a small market team by any stretch. Still, they resisted making a big splash in free agency while they continue to rebuild. Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are committed to the youth movement and despite the impatience of their fans, things appear to be on track for contention in 2015 and beyond. It’s because of this optimism that I could see the Cubs overtaking the Brewers as soon as this season, who have very little depth, a weak farm and a small market budget.

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