Rebuilding continues in Cubs' camp
At this point, mediocrity would be considered a major upgrade. The Theo Epstein era is heading into its third year, and the results from the first two are some of the most hideous in team history. The Cubs lost 197 games over this stretch, which represents the worst two-year period ever experienced by the North Side club. Epstein, the savior credited for Boston’s success, has a long-range plan, but Cubs fans seem to have short-term expectations. The fact that current management signed manager Dale Sveum to a three-year deal and then axed him after the second season caused some to wonder how well this plan is working. Most fans are willing to give Epstein and his staff time to get things turned around, but there is no denying that the product on the field has been uninspiring, and there don’t appear to be many reinforcements on the way in the very near future. There aren’t many players on the 2014 roster to get excited about other than befuddling shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose first full season in the majors produced decent-but-not-great numbers. Outfielder Junior Lake could command some buzz judging by a 64-game dress rehearsal last year. But most of the other players on the roster are cost-effective patchwork pieces who could end up elsewhere at any time in order to keep feeding the beast in the minors. When new manager Rick Renteria was hired in November, he had so much pain in his hips — following October surgery — that he couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to be introduced to the media. He may be in for some equally painful moments this season.
There was some speculation that Jeff Samardzija would be a guy the Cubs would build their pitching staff around, but now it appears he is on the trade market. They didn’t deal him during the winter meetings, but he could be on the block during the season. The former Notre Dame two-sport athlete leads a staff that had moments of brilliance last year but not enough to guide the Cubs to a winning mark. He threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 hitters but also had a 4.34 ERA to go with an 8–13 record. Travis Wood will battle Samardzija for the job as the No. 1 starter. Wood had a 3.11 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2013 but also had a losing record (9–12). He could be the subject of trade talks during the season if he continues to give up runs at a stingy pace — and if the Cubs, as expected, are out of contention early. The first year of Edwin Jackson’s surprising four-year deal resulted in 18 losses and a 4.98 ERA. Because there are three years left on the contract, it’s likely he’ll be sticking around this season since he would be difficult to move. Jake Arrieta entered spring training as a favorite for a spot in the rotation, but shoulder soreness has delayed his progress. James McDonald and Jason Hammel will likely complete the quintet, although lefthander Chris Rusin, a former fourth-round pick, gave up just 66 hits in 66.1 innings last season.
Up-and-down closer Carlos Marmol finally departed last year, and his successor Kevin Gregg (33 saves) is also gone. The Cubs signed well-traveled Jose Veras initially for the closer’s role, but there could be a couple of other candidates. The Cubs also inked a deal with lefthander Wesley Wright, who has 51 career holds. Righthander Hector Rondon concluded the 2013 season on a high note, allowing no runs and one hit over nine innings in his final nine appearances in September. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Pedro Strop will settle into roles in the bullpen as well. Strop, who struck out 42 in 35 innings after joining the Cubs last season, was considered a serious candidate for the closer’s job before Veras’ signing.
Castro went from a .307 hitter with 207 hits in 674 at-bats in his first full season in 2011 to a .245 hitter with 163 hits in 666 at-bats in 2013. He has frustrated his previous managers, but Cubs officials believe that Renteria might be able to get through to the enigmatic shortstop. Castro’s fielding remains inconsistent; he’s brilliant at times but is prone to concentration lapses. Second baseman Darwin Barney is one of the best defensive players the Cubs have had in years. He has committed only seven errors in two seasons and won a Gold Glove Award in 2012. But his .208 batting average in 2013 could find him scrambling to keep his starting job if any of the young infield prospects are ready to break into the majors.
Rizzo’s first full season in Chicago was slightly disappointing since expectations were so high. He hit 23 home runs with 80 RBIs but only hit .233 with a .419 slugging percentage. General manager Jed Hoyer is still high on the former sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, so look for Rizzo to get every opportunity to succeed in Chicago. Luis Valbuena, who hit only .218 in 331 at-bats last season, likely will be the Opening Day starter at third base, but he is simply a stopgap. If top shortstop prospect Javier Baez is ready to break into the majors anytime soon, the Cubs may toy with moving Castro to third. The Cubs also haven’t ruled out prospect Mike Olt at third this season. He struggled a Triple-A Iowa last summer after his trade from Texas, but this spring he appears completely rid of lingering concussion issues that plagued him in 2013.
The brightest spot on the team is the outfield. Lake, the left fielder, played well in his 64-game tryout last year. The 24-year-old Dominican hit .295 with 14 stolen bases in Class AAA before his call-up on July 19 and proceeded to hit .284 with the big club. Lake was known for having one of the strongest arms in the minor leagues. Center field will likely be divvied up between right-handed hitting Justin Ruggiano and left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney was the Cubs’ top hitter at .295 until a rib injury suffered in June sidelined him for two months. Ruggiano showed some pop last year for Miami, hitting 18 home runs in 424 at-bats, but he struck out 114 times with a .298 on-base percentage. Nate Schierholtz hit 21 homers in 137 games playing right field last year in his first season with the team. He will be expected to be a top run-producer in 2014.
Welington Castillo had a solid season at the plate, hitting .274, and he continues to show significant improvement defensively. He missed the final two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Castillo is one of the few current players likely in the team’s long-range plans.
Veteran infielder Donnie Murphy could challenge for time at third base, or maybe even second if Barney’s bat continues to go soft. Olt will likely stick on the major league roster, even if he isn’t the everyday third baseman. Renteria believes he can get him enough at-bats to warrant keeping him in the bigs. George Kottaras, who has never played more than 85 games in a major-league season, will be Castillo’s backup behind the plate. Non-roster invitee Emilo Bonifacio apparently has earned a roster spot. His blazing speed and ability to play all over the field make him a valuable reserve.
The brass signed Renteria, who has no major-league managing experience, for three years with two one-year club options, which indicates that the Cubs are not just looking at him to be a caretaker over a rebuilding club. Expectations will remain low this season — and probably in 2015 — but the team is confident that Renteria will be the right man to take them to high places after the team starts to resemble a contender. For the most part, just about everyone from the old regime is out of the front office — as well as off the field — and it is pretty much full speed ahead with Epstein’s people. The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, might be getting a little impatient about the losing, the lack of buzz and the declining attendance. Look for the team to market its MVP — Wrigley Field — heavily during the team’s 100th year at the park this season.
The Cubs’ roster has a lot of moveable — and removable — parts, and like in the past two seasons, there could be a lot of players coming and going as Epstein and his staff continue to strengthen the farm system. Renteria, a rookie manager, will have an opportunity to learn on the job in his inaugural season with the team. A run at .500 may still be an unrealistic goal for a team still working its way through a lengthy rebuild.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
He’s hit just about everywhere in the Cubs’ lineup, but leadoff might be his best option.
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
Light hitter can make himself valuable by bunting Castro to second when he reaches base.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Supplied decent power last year with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 462 at-bats. Was it a fluke?
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Led the team in homers (23) and RBIs (80) last year, but that wasn’t a spectacular accomplishment.
LF Junior Lake (R)
Had a 27.8 line-drive rate in his 64-game debut. Will be dangerous if he continues at that pace.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Hit .295 in day games last year, and the Cubs still play more day games than anyone else in the majors.
CF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Veteran was leading the team in hitting (.295) before crashing into a wall in late June.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Ace defender, but he needs to step up his offense or he could be riding the bench.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Hit 18 HRs in 128 games with Miami in 2013. Should get plenty of starts against left-handed pitching.
C George Kottaras (L)
Career backup is on his fifth team in six seasons. Has solid power but strikes out a ton.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Broke into the majors in 2004, but has played in only 290 games, including 46 with the Cubs last year.
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S)
The switch-hitter who turns 29 in April has started as many as 20 games at six different positions in his seven-year career.
3B Mike Olt (R)
Has shown decent power in the minors, but struggled to keep his average propped up.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Ace? Trade bait? Maybe a little of both on a team that isn’t picked to do much this season.
LH Travis Wood
Won only nine games in 32 starts, but his ERA was 3.11 with a 1.145 WHIP.
RH Edwin Jackson
Opponents hit .281 off of him last year, and he was 1–7 in his final 10 starts.
RH Jake Arrieta
Went 4–2 with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.123 WHIP in nine starts after trade from Baltimore on July 2.
RH Jason Hammel
Began 2012 8-2 over first 14 starts for Baltimore with a 2.61 ERA and 1.115 WHIP. But injuries cost him about a dozen starts.
RH James McDonald
Could make a few spot starts until Arrieta is completely healthy.
RH Jose Veras (Closer)
The biggest acquisition the Cubs made at the winter meetings, Veras is the favorite to win the closer’s spot.
RH Pedro Strop
Pegged as the main setup man but could be used as a closer if Veras falters.
LH Wesley Wright
Had a 3.69 ERA in 70 appearances with Houston and Tampa Bay in 2013; will serve as a setup man in ’14.
LH James Russell
After a 7–1 mark in 2012, fell to 1–6 last year but his WHIP dropped from 1.298 to 1.215.
RH Hector Rondon
Righty reliever who held left-handed batters to a .192 average but struggled against righties (.306).
RH Blake Parker
A sparkling 2.72 ERA in 49 games got the attention of the Cubs’ brass.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has started 44 games over last three seasons with the Blue Jays and Cubs.
LH Chris Rusin
Former Kentucky Wildcat had a 2–6 record in 13 starts but was able to keep his ERA under 4.00.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant is two degrees separated from Ted Williams. Bryant learned a lot about hitting from his father, Mike. Mike Bryant was a Boston Red Sox farmhand in the 1980s and was coached by Williams. That alone won’t get a lot of notice, but slamming 31 homers in 62 college games will, and that’s what Bryant did as a junior at the University of San Diego. The Cubs snapped up the 6'5" third baseman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Bryant hit well last summer — a combined .336 with nine home runs in stops in Rookie ball and Low-A and High-A — but was even more impressive in the fall. He hit .364 with six homers and 17 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League and was named the league MVP. He’ll probably start in Class AA this year, and if he does well, the Cubs could be tempted to bring him up in September.
OF Albert Almora (19)
Shelved with an injury after hitting .329 and slugging .466 in 61 games for Class A Kane County. Former No. 6 overall pick is a career .326 hitter in the minors.
SS Javier Baez (21)
Top prospect could be called up to the bigs this season. Hit a combined 37 home runs last year and slugged .638 in 54 games with Class AA Tennessee. Still considered a top shortstop, he’s expected to play some second base this season in the minors.
OF Jorge Soler (22)
A left tibia injury slowed his progress, but the Cuban star still has a high ceiling as a power hitter.
3B Mike Olt (25)
He struggled at Class AAA Iowa after the Cubs acquired him in a trade, but he was dealing with issues related to a concussion.
RHP Pierce Johnson (22)
Quickly moved up the Class A ladder and is ready for bigger challenges.
RHP C.J. Edwards (22)
Had a 1.96 ERA in six starts with Class A Daytona.
1B Dan Vogelbach (21)
Has slammed 37 HRs and driven in 144 runs in first 198 minor-league games.
2B-SS Arismendy Alcantara (22)
The switch-hitter may be blocked by both Baez and Castro, but he had 36 doubles and 31 steals at Double-A last summer, splitting time between second and short.
Beyond the Box Score
100 years at Wrigley In honor of the team’s 100th season at Wrigley Field, the Cubs began to unveil 100 Great Times at Wrigley Field at their convention in January. During spring training and every regular-season home game, the team will unveil another memorable moment. Fans will also be able to follow the tributes via social media.
Back where he started Eric Hinske, who recently retired after 12 years in the big leagues, has been named the Cubs’ new first base coach. Hinske played five seasons with Toronto and also played with Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, the Yankees, Atlanta and Arizona. He won World Series titles with Boston in 2007 and the Yankees in 2009. But few remember that Hinske was selected by the Cubs in the 17th round of the 1998 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He never played with the parent club and was traded to Oakland for Miguel Cairo in 2001.
Legal issues Shortstop Starlin Castro hit just .245 last year, and he may be blaming some of his struggles on a lawsuit filed in his native Dominican Republic. He is being sued by a baseball school for $3.6 million because of a contract his father signed when Castro was 16. Castro’s camp countersued, and his attorneys maintain that the original suit had a “direct impact on his duties as a professional ballplayer, leading to one of his worst-ever statistical performances.”
Walk this way First baseman Anthony Rizzo helped raise $100,000 in Parkland, Fla., in his second “Walk Off For Cancer” event in December. Rizzo, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2008, has been cancer free for five years. The money will go to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Does this add up? The Cubs ranked second in the National League in home runs (172) and first in extra-base hits (487) yet finished next-to-last in the league with only 602 runs scored. It was the fewest runs scored by the Cubs in a full season since the 1992 team only scored 593. The Cubs also ranked 27th in the majors in batting with a .238 team average.
Walk this way The Cubs’ pitchers issued 540 walks last season, the most in the NL and the third-most in the majors. Jeff Samardzija led the team and ranked seventh in MLB with 78 walks.