Wait 'Til Next Year: Cubs' youth movement promises better tomorrow
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 66-84 (.440, fifth in the NL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 12
What went right in 2014: Despite being a last-place team that may not win 70 games this year, the Cubs had a lot go right in 2014. Chicago got a positive answer to its biggest question going into the season, as 24-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro rebounded from his dismal 2013 to make his third All-Star team and post career highs in slugging (.438), OPS (.777), and OPS+ (113). He also tied his previous high in home runs (14) before suffering a season-ending ankle sprain in early September. First baseman and fellow 24-year-old Anthony Rizzo had a breakout season, hitting .280/.376/.520 (145 OPS+) with 31 home runs and making his first All-Star team. He ranked in the top five in the league in slugging, OPS, and OPS+, and second in home runs. The Cubs also got a surprising season from 28-year-old righthander and former Orioles prospect Jake Arrieta, who posted a 2.82 ERA (136 ERA+), 1.07 WHIP, and 3.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio with more than a strikeout per inning in 23 starts.
On top of that, several of the Cubs' top prospects made their major league debuts, including Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Jorge Soler, the last of whom has raked in his first 13 games. Down on the farm, top 2013 draftee and third baseman Kris Bryant had a monster year in the minors, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs, 110 RBI, 118 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in a season split evenly between Double-A and Triple-A. Bryant posted an OPS over 1.000 at both levels, all but guaranteeing that he will spend most of 2015 in the majors alongside the other three. The organization also enjoyed the impressive professional debut of its top pick from June, catcher Kyle Schwarber, who hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 home runs in 72 games, most of which came in High A.
To that bounty of young hitting talent, the Cubs added elite shortstop prospect Addison Russell via a July trade that sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics. Bryant and Russell, the latter of whom hit .294/.332/.536 in Double-A after the trade, ranked second and fifth, respectively, on Baseball America's midseason prospects list in early July, with Baez seventh. Baseball Prospectus had all three in the top six of their corresponding list.
The current Cubs administration has made a habit of getting a lot for veteran starters. In addition to landing Russell, the team has reaped rewards this year from trades of Matt Garza and Scott Feldman in 2013 and Ryan Dempster in 2012. Arrieta was one of two players received from the Orioles for Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger last July. The other, righty reliever Pedro Strop, has posted a 2.25 ERA and struck out more than ten men per nine innings in 60 relief appearances this season. Kyle Hendricks, one of two players received from the Rangers for Dempster at the 2012 deadline, has thus far posted a 2.38 ERA in his first 11 major league starts, and Neil Ramirez, part of the package acquired for Garza last year, has been the team's best reliever this year, posting a 1.35 ERA and striking out 11.5 men per nine innings. By Wins Above Replacement, Arrieta, Hendricks, Ramirez, and Strop have been four of the team's six most valuable pitchers this season.
Those are encouraging developments for a team in need of a pitching staff to complement its fast-arriving hitting talent, and they weren't the only reasons for optimism in that direction this year. Hector Rondon, who made the team as a Rule 5 pick from Cleveland last year, emerged as an effective cost-controlled closer. Tsuyoshi Wada, the veteran Japanese lefty whose Orioles career was wiped out by Tommy John surgery, made his major league debut in July and has been an above-average starter since. And Felix Doubront — a 26-year-old Venezuelan lefty signed by the Red Sox during Cubs president Theo Eptstein's tenure in Boston and acquired by Chicago at this year's deadline — has pitched well since joining the team.
What went wrong in 2014: Despite all of those things going right, the Cubs are on pace to improve by just four games over last year. Brutal seasons from starters Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood are among the primary reasons for that lack of overall improvement. Wood, an All-Star last year, has seen his ERA inflate by nearly two runs. Jackson, who led the majors with 18 losses last year, was even worse in the second year of his four-year, $52 million contract, posting a 6.09 ERA in 26 starts, dead last in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 starts this season.
Less detrimental to the team's overall performance was Jose Veras. He was signed to be the team's closer/trade bait over the winter, then promptly blew his first two save chances and lost the closer job in the season's second week. He subsequently got hurt and, after returning, was released, having posted a 8.10 ERA without a single save for Chicago. He has since posted a 2.25 ERA in 30 games for the Astros with the best peripherals of his career.
For all of the good news about the progress of their hitting prospects, Soler is the only one of this year's crop to have carried his success over to the majors thus far, and that's in just 13 games. Baez has nine home runs in 40 games, but has also struck out 72 times and is hitting .173/.230/.337 overall. Alcantara also has nine home runs (in 61 games) to go with too many strikeouts (75) and a dismal batting average (.212) and on-base percentage (.261). Ditto sophomore outfielder Junior Lake (9 HR, 107 K, .210/.241/.353 in 316 PA). Mike Olt, part of the Garza trade, has posted similar numbers in his Cubs debut, hitting 12 home runs in 245 plate appearances but with 94 strikeouts and a .154/.245/.355 season line. Lake and Olt both opened the season in the majors only to play their way off the team.
Meanwhile, the team's top pitching prospect, scrawny righty C.J. Edwards — yet another piece of that Garza trade — spent three months on the disabled list due to a shoulder injury, feeding speculation that he will ultimately be moved to the bullpen. The team's second-best pitching prospect, 23-year-old Pierce Johnson, also spent a month on the DL and walked 5.3 men per nine innings in Double-A when healthy.
Overall outlook: The Cubs are in the late stages of their rebuild and clearly on the verge of a big step forward at the major league level. Next year's lineup could include Rizzo (25), Castro (25), Baez (22), Soler (23), Alcantara (23), and Bryant (23) — with the possibility of adding Russell (21) in the second half — if Chicago can figure out where to play its various infielders. The potential there is explosive in both directions. If those prospects play to their ability, the Cubs could be one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball, but it could take years for all of them to reach and sustain their potential, and some may never do so. In the meantime, half of those players could find themselves back in Triple-A, as Lake and Olt did this year, if they don't make the necessary adjustments at the plate.
The potential swing on the pitching side isn't quite as large, but is nonetheless similar. One could see the Cubs being competitive if the lineup clicks and Arrieta, Hendricks, Wada and Doubront combine with a rebound from Wood or Jackson to form a solid rotation. The Cubs are also expected to go hard after pitching this winter and will likely try to sell one of this offseason's top free agent starters on the short-term potential of their ballclub in an attempt to land an ace to head up their rotation. Don't be surprised to see Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer pursue former Red Sox ace Jon Lester, in particular. Lester has said that he will prioritize his comfort level over getting top dollar this winter. That would seem to favor a return to the Red Sox, but Lester reached the majors and won a World Series in Boston under Epstein and Hoyer, and a reunion isn't out of the question. However, any or all of those 2014 success stories could turn sour in 2015, and there's no guarantee that the Cubs will be able to land an ace this winter.
Still, the Cubs' rebuild has always been targeted toward fielding a contender in 2016, the final year of Epstein's contract, so it is certainly encouraging and impressive that, as the 2014 season draws to a close, they appear to be on track for exactly that.