The Cubs enter the 2013-14 offseason in a similar position to where they were following the 2011 season. They are looking for a new manager and have a new crop of prospects who are closing in on the big-league level.
Names like Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters have been replaced by Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant. The Cubs have unloaded veterans like Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza for pitching prospects who will hopefully fill out the rotation in the near future.
One of those prospects, Kyle Hendricks, was minor league pitcher of the year this past season. Double-A ace C.J. Edwards, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, posted a 1.86 ERA in the minors this year.
But all the success among our young prospects has not spread to young Cubs like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who both regressed this season.
The Cubs have several positions they will look to fill or at least solidify in time for spring training 2014. Will they explore more internal options and bide their time while prospects develop, or will they reach out into the free-agent market and make a big move?
Let's explore the state of the team and where it may go from here.
The Cubs rotation is about as set as it's been the past few years. What it lacks is true depth and serious internal options ready to compete out of the gate in 2014. It's possible one of the Cubs' young pitching prospects can emerge, but there is no surefire candidate.
For now, the Cubs have Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, and Jake Arrieta. Chris Rusin could be an option if the Cubs don't come across anything better, but they have the money to make even a modest move if they so choose. If they do add an external option, Arrieta and Rusin will likely compete for the fifth spot.
Another option is impending free agent Scott Baker, who rehabbed all season long and may be willing to come back on a team-friendly deal.
Keep your eye on pitching prospects like Hendricks and Edwards. They could rise quickly and the Cubs will certainly look to develop their young talent and challenge them at higher levels.
The Cubs will also have to deal with the looming contract talks with Jeff Samardzija. He won't be a free agent for a few more seasons, but working out a deal sooner than later is best for both sides. There have been little to no whispers regarding a Samardzija trade, a strong indication the Cubs plan to keep him.
The Cubs bullpen was a mess from the onset of the season, starting with closer Carlos Marmol and his inability to get people out. The Cubs were also hit by injuries and ineffective pitchers, forcing them to rely on already taxed arms.
Shawn Camp, a bright spot last year, was ineffective after being overworked in 2012. It didn't help that Kyuji Fujikawa, the team's closer insurance, was lost to a season-ending injury in the first month of the season.
The Cubs have plenty of arms that will get a look come spring training. Hector Rondon is a candidate for an increased role in 2014, as is Pedro Strop, who appears poised to take over the closer role left behind by Kevin Gregg.
Gregg, who was picked up midseason, was one of the few positive notes from the Cubs' 2013 season. While the end of the season had a few bumps, the Cubs bullpen would have been in even more disarray if Gregg did not join the team. The Cubs found two solid arms in James Russell and Blake Parker, and hopefully their effectiveness can improve in 2014.
The Cubs would be wise to explore the free-agent market for a pair of bona-fide relievers. The team has done it in the past as a short-term move and it was fairly effective, most notably with Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry, who, regardless of how they finished with the team, were two pitchers the Cubs leaned on extensively and were successful.
Matt Guerrier, who was acquired for Carlos Marmol, pitched well enough before getting hurt to be in contention for a spot in the bullpen.
On the market, there are some intriguing names who would really help the Cubs over the short- and long-term.
Boone Logan, 29, has been the reliable lefty in Joe Girardi's bullpen the past four seasons. He's averaged 67 appearances a year, but as he is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur in his throwing elbow, there is some concern about his durability. Nevertheless, he and James Russell would make for a great duo, even if he only logs 45-50 appearances.
Chad Gaudin, 30, pitched well for the Giants this year and, as a former Cub, understands the challenge at stake. He would likely seek a two- or three-year deal, but as a spot starter his value to the Cubs is undeniable.
Joey Devine would make a great option for the Cubs bullpen. He is going to take a nice payday, but he is certainly someone who could compete for the closer job if Strop falters, something entirely possible after all.
As for internal options, we can expect to see Rafael Dolis back in action in 2014, as well as Daniel Bard, Alberto Cabrera, Justin Grimm, and Zac Rosscup, among others.
The Cubs catching situation was not as dreadful as its been in years past, this time featuring a promising prospect in Welington Castillo and a veteran backstop in Dioner Navarro. Navarro actually outplayed Castillo, but that's not to say that Castillo had a bad year.
Navarro finished the year with a .300 average and 13 home runs, appearing in just 89 games. He is expected to seek a full-time job elsewhere this offseason. However, the Cubs have not ruled him out.
Castillo, 26, is one of the top defensive catchers in the game. He improved at the plate over the course of 2013, finishing with .288 average and six home runs in 44 games after the All-Star Break.
CSN Chicago is reporting that the Cubs will explore external options at catcher this offseason as a part of their plan to find veterans, impact bats and lefties to fill out the lineup.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the logical choice, considering Theo Epstein once acquired him and regarded him as one of the top prospects in the game.
Brian McCann is also available, but, like Saltalamacchia, will draw interest from around the league. If a big name doesn't pan out or the money is spent elsewhere, expect the team to take a chance on another Navarro or explore internal options, where there really aren't any options to begin with.
I think it's safe to say the Cubs are covered at first base, but following a disappointing season it's important to note some of the organizational options the Cubs have.
The team recently acquired Mat Gamel via waivers and he will likely get a chance to compete for a spot next year. Mike Olt, the promising prospect acquired from the Rangers, also has limited experience beyond first and third base, so expect him to get some work there as well.
Rizzo, who signed a seven-year deal this year, is expected to be a fixture for the Cubs for the foreseeable future. There were some growing pains this year, but there is little concern that he won't emerge and post numbers like he did in 2012 and throughout his minor league career.
If Rizzo can succeed, the Cubs will find themselves in a situation similar to the Reds a few years ago. With Joey Votto finding success and Yonder Alonso right behind him, the Reds shipped Alonso for Mat Latos.
Daniel Vogelbach, 20, finished 2013 with 19 home runs and a .284 batting average. He is expected to begin next season in Single-A Daytona, but will likely join Double-A before midseason. His combination of power and eye for the strike zone bodes well for him in the future.
It just may not be a future in Chicago.
Darwin Barney is considered one of the top defensive second basemen in the league. Coming off a Gold Glove season, he seemed to be in a good position to hold second baseman for the foreseeable future.
Barney finished the 2013 campaign with a .208 average, seeing his average fall from .276 in 2011 and .254 in 2012. Most of his stats—strikeouts, walks, doubles—are all in line with his career numbers. This year, however, we saw Barney's hit totals fall dramatically. In 141 games he managed 104 hits, which explains why his OBP and SLG are also down.
He won't burn anyone on the basepaths, which leads many to speculate whether Barney will be the Cubs' starting second baseman in 2014. Cubs prospects like Javier Baez are on the cusp of being in the major leagues, but that could come as early as mid-2014 or the start of the 2015 season. Do the Cubs want to roll the dice on a player who has regressed ever since reaching the majors? Or give the job to a veteran and hold off the prospects for another year?
A veteran like Nick Punto could get the job done, but the Cubs may be inclined to spend their money elsewhere and reevaluate Barney when something better comes up the pipeline.
Keep an eye on this situation though, as he is a non-tender candidate.
For years, the Cubs have tried to look ahead at third base while letting veteran options play at the major league level. Many people believed Josh Vitters was the heir apparent to Aramis Ramirez, and would be major league ready by 2011 or 2012. His development has taken longer than anticipated, but that doesn't mean he isn't a true talent.
He was drafted out of high school and he has found success at each level he has played at. Now a left fielder, there is renewed hope he can one day take over and live up to the first-round hype that has followed him all the way to Chicago.
The Cubs' most recent draft pick, Kris Bryant, has been lighting up minor league pitching and is already regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball.
The Cubs are not likely going to bid too aggressively on a third baseman as the infield is already crowded in the organization. But a veteran bat with the potential to be traded midseason would work pretty well, or someone with the versatility to play other positions if needed. Jeff Baker comes to mind, and he was great for the Cubs during his stint.
Another name, former Cub prospect Casey McGehee, is looking to work his way back to the majors after a successful stint in Japan. He hit 24 home runs in 120 games and posted a .306 average. It's a different league in Japan, but he would come at a reduced price and those numbers are hard to come by on the cheap.
Mike Olt, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, could also fill in at third base if necessary, but he needs to be swinging a hot bat this year to stay on prospect lists. The 25-year-old should break out this year as many scouts anticipate.
The Cubs appear content in holding pattern with some of their blue chip prospects nearing big league debuts.
There is very little I can say about Starlin Castro's 2013 campaign that would be good. That being said, Castro is one of the team's most prized possessions going forward and should be a mainstay in the lineup for years to come.
Despite hitting .245 this season, the lowest of his career, Castro is the Cubs' starting shortstop. He was asked to make a lot of adjustments and that may have contributed to his slow season.
Expect him to get back to himself in 2014. The good thing is the 23-year-old has plenty of experience and still plenty of time to develop. Especially right now, in Chicago, when the organization is in full developmental mode.
Give it a few years when the lineup is more rounded and see what kind of player he is. The Cubs brass think he can play a huge role or the Cubs. He is in the perfect position to do so.
The Cubs will have an Opening Day left fielder not named Alfonso Soriano for the first time since 2006. Regardless of your thoughts on Alfonso Soriano, that's a pretty massive opening to fill.
Brian Bogusevic actually filled in admirably as a fourth outfielder for the Cubs. He played 29 errorless games in left field and hit .273 over 47 games with six home runs and a .323 OBP. He is versatile, having played the other 18 games in center and right field, and is a left-handed bat the Cubs are seeking.
Don't count on him being the opening starter though.
The Cubs may be in the market for a long-term outfielder. They have been linked to Shin-Soo Choo and there's an obvious connection to Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, but will they spend big this offseason or wait for some of their young commodities to marinate?
There are several buy-low options for the Cubs, which they will likely pursue. The Cubs held their own with outfielders they called up from Triple-A Iowa in 2012, so they have plenty of options to consider.
If you asked me at the beginning of 2013 who would be holding down the Cubs outfield going into 2014, Junior Lake would not have been in my top three.
Primarily an infielder, Lake was moved to the outfield because his bat warranted a call-up but the spot did not allow it. There is still a big learning curve for the young outfielder, but Lake hit .284 in 64 games with six home runs and a .332 OBP and now looks like the starting center fielder in 2014.
He was aggressive at the plate, which could haunt him if he does not get it under control. He struck out over a quarter of the time he was at the plate, and it's entirely possible he spends some time in the minors next year working on his plate discipline.
A new manager may see him as needing more seasoning and see the time in the minors as a benefit to the team's long-term goals while there is no sense of urgency in Chicago.
Time will tell if he is a legitimate prospect or a flame in need of more work.
The Cubs quickly re-signed outfielder Ryan Sweeney to a two-year deal, which suggests they were pleased with his 2013 numbers. He was looking great before he was lost to injury, only to return in September.
He finished with a .266 average through 66 games and hit six home runs with 19 RBIs.
The same can be said for right field as for left. Sweeney was brought in after not being tendered a contract by the Red Sox and was hitting .295 before fracturing a rib on a play in the outfield.
It's possible the Cubs bring back Nate Schierholtz to be their everyday right fielder, or at least platoon in some way with Sweeney, who can play all three positions anyway.
Unless the Cubs spend big on the outfield, Sweeney will have an opportunity to play for a starting job, something he wouldn't have been able to do in a lot of other cities.