Can Starlin Castro do enough in September to erase the memory of a poor season?
Most of us had already suspected that this was going to be a rough season for the Cubs. In fact, it was widely considered a rebuilding year with an eye on 2014 and beyond. So, considering that they haven't been in the playoff race for the last few months, what makes September any different than June, July or August for the Cubs?
While the future of the team relies heavily on an impressive farm system with four elite position player prospects on the way, it was thought that two key players had already arrived. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro, both impressive young hitters in their early 20's, were signed to long-term contract extensions only a few years into their big league careers.
But the jury is still out on whether they are a duo that the team can build around after each player's production has declined in 2013. Their September performance could make a big impact on how the team approaches the offseason.
If they can bounce back and finish strong, then the need to find an impact bat in the offseason decreases. If not, the Cubs could look to spend big money on one of the top free-agent hitters that could replace Castro and Rizzo as the "face of the franchise."
I'm guessing that Cubs fans are half-hoping that they continue to struggle just so there is a sense of urgency to add another big bat this winter. For what it's worth, Castro is seven for his last 21 with three multi-hit games, and Rizzo is 11 for his last 37 with three homers.
Here are four more reasons to keep watching Cubs baseball in September.
Junior Lake sure does look the part of a big league regular. And despite the scouting reports that say he's a future utility man, his performance over his first month-and-a-half in the majors says otherwise.
Before his current 0-for-13 slide, the converted shortstop had an .804 OPS with four homers, 11 doubles and three stolen bases in 37 games while playing primarily in center field. How intensely the team pursues outfield help this winter probably depends on how the 23-year-old finishes out the season.
His seven walks and 44 strikeouts are an indication that his performance is not sustainable, although he'll have another month to prove that he can make the proper adjustments and not be overmatched consistently once teams fully understand his strengths and weaknesses as a hitter. Starling Marte is the rare example of a player with an extended amount of success despite a mediocre walk-strikeout rate.
At the least, Lake looks like a solid backup who'll play regularly against left-handed hitters. September might be his lone chance to show that he can be more.
The Cubs will go into the offseason with three of the five rotation spots set in stone. Who joins Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood is still up in the air, and it's yet to be determined whether any pitcher currently in the organization has a good shot to fill one of the last two.
Jake Arrieta and Chris Rusin (pictured) have already begun their auditions, and Triple-A pitchers Justin Grimm and Kyle Hendricks could also be in the mix for September starts. Three of the aforementioned pitchers were acquired in trades since last July (Hendricks from Texas in Ryan Dempster deal; Grimm from Texas in Matt Garza trade; Arrieta from Baltimore in Scott Feldman trade).
If the Cubs are aggressive this offseason, which wouldn't be a surprise as the team heads into year three of the Theo Epstein regime, then expect them to acquire at least one veteran starting pitcher with one job up for grabs.
Arrieta, as was the case with the O's, has shown flashes of brilliance but has been inconsistent in his four starts as a Cub. He should get at least another three or four starts to continue trying to figure things out without much pressure on him. That won't be the case in 2014, so September will be a very important month for him.
Grimm and Hendricks project as back-of-the-rotation candidates who have put up excellent numbers in the minors. Rusin is similar, except that he's the lone lefty in the group and is already showing an advanced feel for pitching in the majors. The 26-year-old has a 2.64 ERA in eight big league starts, although he could move to the bullpen to make room for one of other candidates.
After the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year contract prior to the season, the plan was for him to take over the closer's role if necessary in 2013 and, at the least, go into 2014 in that role. But the 33-year-old is out for at least half of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in June, leaving the Cubs on the lookout to find a solid in-house option to avoid adding it to their "things to do" offseason list.
The best candidate, as of now, appears to be Pedro Strop (pictured), the former Orioles setup man who came over with Arrieta in the Feldman trade last month. There is risk with relying on the 28-year-old, who fell out of favor in Texas before landing on his feet in Baltimore. After establishing himself as a very reliable reliever in 2012, he fell back in the doghouse and was sent packing.
Once again, he's rebounded with a 2.31 ERA with nine walks, 27 strikeouts and eight holds in 23.1 innings since the trade. At the least, a strong September from Strop could ensure that the team keeps late-inning relief help lower on the priority list with an inexpensive veteran, such as current Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, on the radar and young fireballer Arodys Vizcaino an option to take on the job later in the season should Strop falter.
The team's four elite prospects—center fielder Albert Almora, shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant and right fielder Jorge Soler—won't be in the big leagues this September. But here's why you should watch anyways and how a few of them factor into what happens over the last few weeks of the season.
Mike Olt, who came into the season as one of the top prospects in the game, will likely get his chance to prove that Baez and Bryant, both potential "third baseman of the future" candidates, should plan on reaching the big leagues at another position.
While the 25-year-old's value has declined greatly due to the rough season he's having (.687 OPS, 15 HR, 52 BB, 126 K in 103 games), there's no reason to continue playing journeyman Donnie Murphy or Luis Valbuena when he returns from the disabled list.
On a good Cubs team, either player might help off the bench. Olt could be much more, and it's important that he gets a long look before the Cubs make a decision on whether they'll need a one-year stop gap in 2014.
One intriguing name that could get a look, although it's far from a sure thing considering that he's not on the 40-man roster, is Double-A infielder Arismendy Alcantara, who could be emerging as a second base candidate to take over for the light-hitting Darwin Barney (.589 OPS).
The 21-year-old switch-hitter, who has split his time between shortstop and second base, has an .805 OPS with 15 homers, 35 doubles and 30 stolen bases in 129 games. He also has 59 walks, which indicates that he's making adjustments at the plate after he walked just 75 times in his first 308 minor league games.