For a Chicago Cubs team that will be continuing their rebuild in 2014, the starting lineup presents a major question mark at several different positions. While prospects will be coming up sporadically through the minor leagues this season and next, the Opening Day lineup figures to be full of fill-in players or players looking to bounce back from last season.
Based on Roto Champ's projected Opening Day lineup for the Cubs, here are some realistic expectations for the players that figure to be in the starting lineup come April. There are sure to be some disappointments and some surprises during the upcoming season, but based on past performance and career arcs of various players, here's what to expect from the Cubs on offense in 2014.
1. Shortstop Starlin Castro
Perhaps the most disappointing Cub last season was former phenom Starlin Castro. Following a stellar rookie season and a sophomore campaign that saw him bat .307, Castro's stats have steadily dropped over the past two seasons. In 2011, Castro hit .307 with 22 steals. In 2012, he hit .283 with 25 steals. Last season, he hit a paltry .245 with nine steals.
While the steady decline in production from Castro is cause for concern, the drop in numbers can partially be explained by playing for a team in relative disarray. With the hiring of Rick Renteria as manager as well as other Spanish-speaking coaches, Castro figures to feel more comfortable this season.
Even though the fifth-year shortstop figures to be more comfortable in Chicago this upcoming season, it may be time for the Cubs to lower their expectations a bit. Coming up, Castro seemed like a perennial All-Star, but his inability to adapt and adjust to pitching in the majors may mean that he will never reach his full potential. That being said, Castro even realizing most of his potential makes him an above-average shortstop, but delineating him as an average or above-average player starts this season.
Knowing how much he has on the line, Castro will improve in a new environment this season. Building on a solid end to the season last year, Castro should have a bounce-back year, although he may never return to the form that gave Cubs fans so much hope. With all of the natural talent that Castro posses, that will still be good enough for a very solid 2014 campaign.
The projection: .271 with 14 HRs, 64 RBIs and 23 steals.
2. Third Baseman Luis Valbuena
Luis Valbuena was a pleasant surprise in the early-going for the Cubs last season, but his numbers steadily declined as the season went on. This year, while Valbuena may start, it seems likely that he could be splitting playing time with Mike Olt.
Olt was acquired in the trade deadline deal that sent pitcher Matt Garza to the Rangers in July. Since Olt is a right-handed hitter and Valbuena is a left-handed hitter, it would make sense for manager Rick Renteria to platoon the duo to start the season. One of the players will have to win the job to break the platoon.
Platooning Valbuena and Cody Ransom, the Cubs had some of the best production in the league from the third base position in the first couple months of the season, but slow finishes by both diminished the team's third base production numbers.
Last season, Valbuena had solid power numbers for having 331 at-bats, but like most other Cubs, he hit for a very low average. Hitting .218 with 12 home runs and 37 runs batted in, it's clear that Valbuena doesn't have a future as the starting third baseman for the Cubs, but he is a solid role player.
It's versatility that is Valbuena's greatest asset. He can play third base and second base, giving him the opportunity to give more players days off and thus racking up more at-bats. For that reason, even if he doesn't stick as the team's everyday third baseman, Valbuena can still be a serviceable member of the infield.
The projection: .225 with eight HRs and 29 RBIs.
3. First Baseman Anthony Rizzo
One of the better power-hitting lefties that Wrigley Field has seen in a long time, Anthony Rizzo had an extremely promising start to his 2013 campaign before major league pitching caught up to him. Even with his lull in the middle of the season, Rizzo managed to put up solid power numbers, hitting 23 home runs while driving in 80 runs.
A positive that came out of last year for Rizzo was that he showed he could get over slumps. Even though he had several points in the season where he struggled, Rizzo managed to remain focused and didn't completely tank. That's a sign of good adjustments on Rizzo's part, and if he can continue making those adjustments in 2014, he could be a breakout star.
Even with his huge power upside, Rizzo naturally will never hit for a very high average. He strikes out far too much to hit for a stellar average, but because of how many balls he can put out of the ballpark, that's not a huge negative.
Based on the fact that he gets on base often (in 2013 he had an on-base percentage of .323, 90 points higher than his batting average) and his high strikeout rate, Rizzo figures to slide into the cleanup spot at some point.
For now, Rizzo will remain the Cubs' No. 3 hitter and is ready to have a very productive season. While the average won't be great, it should be a shade above his .233 average from a year ago. If the guys behind him provide him with some protection, Rizzo could be in for a very big year in 2014.
The projection: .252 with 32 HRs and 96 RBIs.
4. Right Fielder Nate Schierholtz
The most productive all-around hitter for the Cubs last season, Nate Schierholtz was a classic Theo Epstein signing. Not given sufficient playing time to make an impact for the Giants from 2007-2012 or the Phillies in the latter part of 2012, the Cubs saw a player with potential if he could start everyday.
Who will be the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season?
Logging 432 at-bats in 2013, that's exactly what Schierholtz did. In those at-bats, the lefty hit .251 with 21 HRs and 68 RBIs. That production caused other teams from around the league to draw interest in the former role-player at the trade deadline. While the Cubs didn't make a deal last season, they very well could this year.
For Schierholtz, this season is about showing that 2013 wasn't a fluke. By no means should last season be looked at as a fluke; he was the team's most consistent hitter throughout the season. He also provides veteran leadership on a relatively young team. Given that his contract expires after the season, it's much more likely that Schierholtz will be moved this July.
Whether it be in Chicago all year in 2014 or split between Chicago and somewhere else, Schierholtz can be a very productive hitter. Being in a weaker lineup in Chicago doesn't do him any favors, but the fact that he is hitting his stride and is only 30 years old points to another productive season from Schierholtz.
The projection: .247 with 23 HRs and 70 RBIs.
5. Catcher Welington Castillo
Young catcher Welington Castillo is developing into a very nice little backstop for the Cubs. In his first full season, playing in 113 games, Castillo hit .274 and more impressively got on base at a .349 clip. Preparing to be the everyday catcher once again in 2014, Castillo will continue to make strides.
The 26-year old slugged 23 doubles a season ago and moving up to the No. 5 spot in the lineup will help his production. Depending on how the lineup is doing, pitchers may pitch around either Rizzo or Schierholtz to get to the less well-known Castillo, and he is capable of exposing them.
As long as Castillo continues to progress from a defensive standpoint, his focus can remain on offense, and he can continue to develop into an above-average catcher. While there are plenty of cheap options for average backup catchers, the pressure is on Castillo as the Cubs have few catchers coming up through the minor leagues.
Possibly the most underrated player on the Cubs, Castillo will take a big step in 2014. While he doesn't have overwhelming home run power, his ability to hit the gaps should help him drive in more runs than he has in the past. All of those factors make for a pleasantly surprising year for the young catcher.
The projection: .283 with 11 HRs and 59 RBIs.
6. Center Fielder Junior Lake
While he's much better suited for left field, a lack of capable center fielders at the major league level for the Cubs has forced Junior Lake into that role for now. The former shortstop prospect displayed dazzling speed and flashes of power in his time with the Cubs last season. His performance was good enough to make Cubs brass believe that he can be in the 2014 Opening Day outfield.
In just 236 at-bats in 2013, Lake batted .284 with six home runs, 16 runs batted in and four steals. It seems evident that if Lake can get on base, he can score runs. Not only can he steal bases, but he raked 16 doubles last season. Getting those doubles puts him in scoring position instantly and helped contribute to the 26 runs that he scored last year.
If he develops like the Cubs would like him to, Lake fills in very nicely to the leadoff spot or batting second, but while he develops in his first full season, Lake seems likely to hit in the six and seven spots in the lineup.
Along with Rizzo, Castro and Castillo, Lake represents the future of the Cubs lineup that is already in the major leagues. Since the rebuilding process has been slow to show major league results (as all rebuilding processes are), it's encouraging to see players who figure into the team's future plans.
In his first full season in the major leagues, Lake is sure to take his lumps, but his ability to put the bat on the ball makes him a potentially dangerous hitter. At this point in his career, Lake is an average hitter with a whole lot of upside. How much of that upside is on display at Wrigley Field this year remains to be seen.
The projection: .267 with 13 HRs, 41 RBIs and 15 steals.
7. Left Fielder Ryan Sweeney
Before suffering an injury, Ryan Sweeney was a surprising player for the Cubs a season ago. The veteran left-hander hit six home runs and 13 doubles in just 192 at-bats. Given expanded playing time, Sweeney could see those numbers jump in 2014.
For every Cubs outfielder, nobody is going to start every game. There are just too many outfielders in the Cubs system to have any one outfielder start every game, and for that reason, no single outfielder is going to put up crazy numbers.
Sweeney is no different, but if he stays healthy, he should see 300 at-bats next season. As a rare veteran presence, Sweeney's value comes off the field as well. In a season that figures to be another long one, Sweeney's ability to influence young hitters is just as important as his ability to drive runners in.
While it seems like he's been around forever, Sweeney will only be 29 next season. For that reason, it's possible the Cubs could keep him around past 2014 if he produces. To compliment outfield prospects the Cubs have such as Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, Sweeney would be a solid fourth outfielder for a growing team. A healthy Sweeney points to a productive year that leads to that opportunity for the outfielder.
The projection: .258 with nine HRs and 37 RBIs.
8. Second Baseman Darwin Barney
It's no secret that while Darwin Barney is a stellar fielder, he's been rather offensively challenged, especially last season. Hitting just .208 in 2013, Barney could be playing this season to convince the Cubs to keep him around.
While Barney barely hit above the Mendoza Line last season, one encouraging sign is that he hit 25 doubles. If he can continue to hit the ball to the gaps, he will be able to drive runs in regularly. However, Barney needs to "hit 'em where they 'aint" a little more often in 2014 to be a productive member of the offense.
His 2013 average was well below his normal average over the course of his career, which could mean one of two things for Barney. One would be that 2013 was somewhat of a fluke year offensively. Another explanation could be that opposing pitching has completely figured him out. It could be a little bit of both.
Barney will never be an extremely productive offensive player, but grouped with his defense, average offensive output is enough to make him worth keeping on a roster. Starting most of the season in the bottom of the lineup, Barney figures to see a lot of fastballs, which bodes well for something of a rebound season for the 2012 Gold Glove winner.
The projection: .231 with eight HRs and 52 RBIs.