2014 Season Preview: Chicago Cubs
2013 Record and Finish: 66-96, fifth place in NL Central (26th overall)
2014 Projected Record: 62-100, fifth place in NL Central
The Case For
It's no secret that the Cubs are in a rebuilding mode, and right now, their minor league system ranks as one of the game's best; Baseball Prospectus placed it second behind only the Twins, and both Baseball America and ESPN ranked them fourth. Top prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant aren't likely to have an impact on this year's roster, but under new manager Rick Renteria, it's reasonable to hope that youngsters Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo can shake off disappointing 2013 seasons to help boost an offense that outscored only one other NL team last year.
The Case Against
The Cubs have lost 197 games over the past two seasons, and beyond Castro, Rizzo, Welington Castillo and maybe Junior Lake, most of the players here are placeholders who won't be part of the next Cubs team to contend. That's particularly true of a pitching staff whose top starter, Jeff Samardzija, has been the subject of endless trade rumors as extension talks have reached a stalemate, and whose most expensive starter, Edwin Jackson, is looking like a future salary dump. Improvement over last year isn't out of the question, but one of the surest bets in baseball is that the Cubs' championship drought will extend to a 107th year.
X-Factor: Mike Olt
After hitting .288/.398/.579 with 28 homers at Double-A Frisco in 2012 and then making his major league debut, Olt entered the 2013 season ranked 22nd on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, but endured a lost year. The infield logjam in Texas forced him to Triple-A, where blurred vision — perhaps related to a winter league beaning — cost him five weeks early in the season and limited him to a .201/.303/.381 showing with 15 homers in 432 plate appearances. Amid that stock-plummeting showing, he was traded to the Cubs as part of the Matt Garza deal, but he was even worse after the trade (.168/.276/.275) than before. Between Castro, shortstops Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, and third basemen Bryant and Christian Villanueva, the Cubs have left-side infield options coming out of their ears, but for the moment, the incumbent is Luis Valbuena, who hit just .218/.331/.378. If Olt can shake off early spring shoulder soreness, he could carve out a spot in the lineup for himself, providing another power bat and giving the Cubs all kind of options down the road.
Number To Know: .239/.303/.381
That's the combined 2013 batting line of Rizzo and Castro, two of the three position players to whom the team has committed money beyond 2015 (outfield prospect Jorge Soler is the third). The showing is a far cry from the .284/.330/.442 the pair combined for in 2012, when Rizzo joined the team in late June. Castro earned All-Star honors in both 2011 and 2012, but he slipped to .245/.284/.347 last year, a drop of 122 points of OPS; Rizzo fell to .233/.323/.419, a loss of 63 points. The duo is owed a minimum of $87.25 million through 2019 (including 2020 buyouts), but at the rate they're going, the Cubs might want to bury those contracts as badly as they did the Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano deals that were on the books when the franchise changed hands.
Most overrated: Edwin Jackson
"I'll go with Edwin Jackson for the amount of money he's making and the lack of production. He has been with eight teams. That speaks volumes right there. He's a good athlete. He just can't repeat his release."
Most underrated: Welington Castillo
"I think he’s improved the most. He still has a ways to go. Before, he struggled to retain the pitch plan. He'd always be looking over to the dugout for help. But he's gotten a lot better. He's been a pleasant surprise. I think he could be there for a while for them. Solid everyday catchers are hard to find."
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