Fantasy baseball 2014 team previews: Chicago Cubs
It has been an interesting, much-discussed offseason for the Cubs. Of course, little of it has anything to do with the 2014 on-field product. There has been plenty of talk about a stalled project to upgrade Wrigley Field, and an acrimonious, public battle with the rooftop owners across the street. There has been parsing of language in a contract signed with the rooftop owners by the old regime that makes "expansion" the buzzword at the corner of Clark and Addison.
Then there was a managerial search that was forced to move on quickly from the Joe Girardi pipe dream, and eventually include seemingly every single candidate this side of Dusty Baker. The team ultimately landed on Rick Renteria, a bilingual coach known as a great communicator who it hopes can be the guy who finally gets through to Starlin Castro.
Even when the talk is centered on players, rarely does it concern anyone who will be on the team's Opening Day roster. Rather, the focus is on the bumper crop of prospects who will, hopefully, restore the Cubs to glory and make them legitimate contenders by 2016.
It will be another ugly year for the Cubs with little to offer the fantasy community. Even if Castro and Anthony Rizzo rebound from disappointing 2013 seasons, the Cubs may only have five players drafted in your mixed league. That won't be the case much longer, but until then Cubs fans will have to entertain themselves with minor league stats and the ongoing renovation drama.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Luis Valbuena, 3B
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Nate Schierholtz, RF
5. Welington Castillo, C
6. Junior Lake, LF
7. Justin Ruggiano/Ryan Sweeney, CF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B
1. Jeff Samardzija
2. Travis Wood
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Jake Arrieta
5. Jason Hammel/Chris Rusin/Carlos Villanueva
Bullpen: Jose Veras (closer), Pedro Strop, James Russell, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Villanueva, Arodys Vizcaino, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon
What happened to Starlin Castro last year? This was covered in our Burning Questions series in January, so I won't rehash the arguments here. Instead, I'll provide you with the two-sentence version. Castro continued to struggle with pitch selection, but actually got himself in plus counts with regularity. All things considered, expect a bounce-back campaign in 2014.
Will Anthony Rizzo develop into a middle-of-the-order masher? The Cubs traded for Rizzo before the 2012 season, thinking he could be the anchor of their lineup well into the next decade. He looked every bit that kind of guy in his first season with the North Siders, hitting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers in 368 plate appearances after dominating the Pacific Coast League with Triple-A Iowa. He regressed last season, however, falling off in most of the areas where you want to see growth from a young power hitter. His slugging percentage dipped 44 points, his HR/FB ratio fell nearly six full percentage points and his strikeout rate jumped to 18.4 percent from 16.8 percent. While it wasn't as poor a season as many would have you believe, it similarly could not be considered a step in the right direction.
Rizzo's BABIP declined all the way to .258 last year from .310. While that suggests some bad luck, Rizzo definitely had a hand in his low BABIP. His line-drive rate last year was just 19.6 percent after it was 24.4 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, his fly-ball rate spiked to 37.9 percent from 30.2 percent, and those fly balls traveled a shorter distance. Rizzo's average fly-ball length was 287.36 feet last year, according to the website baseballheatmaps.com. The previous season, it was 295.38 feet. That helps to explain his poor HR/FB ratio.
Remember, ex-manager Dale Sveum tweaked Rizzo's swing last year, forcing him to hold his hands lower than he did previously. New manager Rick Renteria and hitting coach Bill Mueller do not appear apt to compel him to do anything with which he is uncomfortable. Despite his struggles last year, his isolated slugging increased a tick to .186 from .178 and his walk rate moved to 11 percent from 7.3 percent. The skill set is still there for Rizzo to be a 30-homer guy. In a weaker-than-usual first base group, Rizzo should be considered a starter in 12-team mixed leagues.
Has Jeff Samardzija reached his ceiling? It's not hard to see why team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer weren't falling all over themselves to extend Samardzija this offseason. In many respects, 2013 was a step back from 2012 for the now 29-year old. Samardzija set a career high in innings pitched and strikeouts, but he also had a worse K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 than the previous season, all while posting an ERA higher than 4.00 for the first time in his career. Heading into 2013, there was some hope that Samardzija could become a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. After the season, he looked more like a perpetual No. 3 whose proclivity to issue free passes and surrender home runs would undermine his strong strikeout ability.
The splitter-sinker combo that had previously been so effective for Samardzija just wasn't there last year. The power righty has had his most success relying on a two-seam fastball/sinker that bears down and in on righties. The pitch simply wasn't a strength at any time last year, as hitters posted an ISO of at least .189 against it in three different months. In July and August, the height of his 2013 issues, he allowed a .212 and .237 ISO, respectively, on his sinker.
Samardzija is likely to be the subject of trade speculation most of the season, and he figures to be one of the most sought-after pitchers at the trade deadline, assuming he and the Cubs don't work out an extension during the season. That would be a boon to his fantasy value, as it's likely any team trading for him would put him in a better environment to pick up wins than he'll have with the Cubs. For now, fantasy owners should be able to count on more than a strikeout per inning, but he's unlikely to help much in the rate categories.
Will the youth movement begin this season? It's no secret that 2014 will be another lost year for the Cubs. The fan base is willing to deal with that assuming that greener pastures truly are ahead, and that idea hinges on the team's wealth of hitting prospects delivering on their potential. The Cubs placed six position players in MLB.com's Top-100 Prospects, including two in the top 10.
The group is headed by shortstop Javier Baez and third baseman Kris Bryant. Baez split his time between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last year, hitting .282/.341/.578 with 37 homers and 34 doubles. After leading the NCAA in homers last year, Bryant, a product of the University of San Diego, put up a .336/.390/.688 slash with nine homers and 14 doubles in 128 plate appearances across the three lowest levels of the minors. He followed that up by being named to the Arizona Fall League All-Star team. Baez will start the year at Triple-A Iowa, while Bryant is expected to begin at Tennessee. Both could make their major league debuts this season.
Albert Almora is MLB.com's No. 18 prospect at the ripe old age of 19 years old (he'll turn 20 in April). He spent all of 2013 with Single-A Kane County of the Midwest League, hitting .329/.376/.466, then hit .307/.342/.480 in the Arizona Fall League. Cuban refugee Jorge Soler rounds out the group at No. 49. The 21-year old hit .281/.343/.467 with eight homers and 21 doubles at High-A Daytona last season, despite suffering though a bevy of injuries. Both he and Almora will likely start the season with Bryant at Tennessee.
While Almora and Soler should be on the radar in dynasty leagues, Baez and Bryant can be drafted in many mixed leagues, especially keeper leagues. Both could be major factors in 2015, and Baez has an outside shot to make an impact for the Cubs this season, depending on how things go at Iowa. Management will be unlikely to start his service clock before it has to, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. No matter what, though, this foursome could one day make the Cubs relevant again.
Welington Castillo, C -- It's tempting to give this one to Baez, but it's hard to be sure how much time he'll spend in the majors this year. Castillo hit .274/.349/.397 with eight homers in 428 plate appearances last year. Dioner Navarro is out of town, replaced as Castillo's backup by George Kottaras. The latter isn't much of an offensive weapon, suggesting the Cubs will give Castillo even more starts than he got last season. He brings solid batting average as a catcher, and should get into the double-digits in homers with additional at-bats this season.
Travis Wood, SP -- Wood is a reliable innings eat who doesn't walk too many batters or give up many home runs, making him a solid mid-rotation guy in real life. However, he has a career 6.8 K/9 in 567.2 innings and his 3.11 ERA last year belied a 3.89 FIP. Projecting pitcher wins is folly, but it's unlikely that any pitcher will rack up gaudy win totals on the Cubs this year. Wood does not contribute in a meaningful way to any typical fantasy categories.
Justin Ruggiano, OF -- Ruggiano will likely be the Cubs regular center fielder, moving Ryan Sweeney into a backup role. He struggled last year, but hit .313/.374/.535 with 13 homers and 14 steals in 320 plate appearances with the Marlins in 2012. You can also look past his problems last year and see a guy who hit 18 homers and swiped 15 bags. Wrigley Field is a whole lot more friendly to hitters than Marlins Park, as well. Even if he doesn't improve at all, it's reasonable to think about a 20-20 season with decent rates. That makes him worthy of a late-round flier in mixed leagues.
NL-only guys to know
Junior Lake, OF -- Lake hit .284/.332/.428 with six homers and four steals in 254 plate appearances last year. He should get at least double that number of PAs in 2014, making a 15-10 season well within his reach.
Jake Arrieta, SP -- Arrieta pitched quite well after a midseason trade sent him to the Cubs from the Orioles. In nine starts with the big league club, he went 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in 51.2 innings. He never caught on in Baltimore, but the National League sure seemed to agree with him last season. He probably won't be a factor in mixed leagues, but should be universally owned in NL-only leagues.