The Cubs are still very much in the rebuilding stage right now, but for the first time since team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer arrived, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. Many top prospects are starting to inch closer to the big league squad and big-name free agents will likely be targeted starting in 2015.
With excitement for the team building painfully slowly, here's a realistic look ahead to what the next three years of baseball on Chicago's north side figure to look like.
The 2014 Season:
Going into this season, the Cubs are still well-below average on paper. Their pitching staff is slowly improving with Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood looking like a solid combination. However, Samardzija and Wood should realistically be No. 2 and No. 3 starters respectively and in Chicago, they're slated as No. 1 and No. 2.
Edwin Jackson, who signed a four-year, $52 million contract last January, will have to be better than he was a season ago. Jackson went 8-18 in 2013 and posted a lackluster ERA of 4.98. In July of last season, Jackson did show that he had solid stuff as he strung together several strong starts in a row. The effectiveness of the Cubs' pitching staff very well could hinge on its highest-paid player.
Cubs' Projected Starting Rotation:
- No. 1 Jeff Samardzija
- No. 2 Travis Wood
- No. 3 Edwin Jackson
- No. 4 Chris Rusin
- No. 5 Jake Arrieta
The Cubs' bullpen received a boost last week when they signed free agent lefty Wesley Wright. Adding Wright gives the Cubs much-needed flexibility in the late innings by giving both Wright and James Russell a chance to pitch in the seventh or eighth inning depending on matchups.
Will the Cubs make the playoffs in the next three seasons?
While they figured it out towards the tail end of last season, the Cubs' bullpen was one of the worst in baseball for the majority of the season. Additions at the trade deadline and through free agency such as Pedro Strop and Wright respectively have bolstered a Cubs bullpen that should be much improved in 2014.
In 2014, it's the Cubs' lineup that will likely be the hardest to watch. Overachieving for the first couple of months last season, Cubs hitting fell off the table for the remainder of the season. Consistently poor hitting performances help explain oddities such as Travis Wood posting a 3.11 ERA and having a record of 9-12.
The only significant early change that could be seen in the Cubs' Opening Day lineup would be prospect Mike Olt starting at third base. Unless other prospects blow the coaching staff and front office away this spring, most of the team's top prospects will still be a level or two away from the majors in April.
Franchise cornerstones Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both faltered for prolonged periods of time in 2013, and both should be better this season with an added year of experience under their belts.
Castro, especially, should feel more comfortable with new manager Rick Renteria in the dugout. The Cubs front office brought Renteria in partly because of his background in Latin America, a quality that should help the large contingent of Latin American prospects that the Cubs possess.
When it's all said and done, the ultimate outcome of the 2014 season may be determined by the front office's strategy at the trade deadline.
Should management want to ship away all of their overachieving players at the deadline again, the Cubs could be in for another 90-100 loss season. If this team keeps most of its pieces in place all season long and some of their young talent develops, it could be a decent year all things considered.
2014 Season Prediction: 70-92, Fourth Place in the NL Central
The 2015 Season:
Starting in 2015 is when things will get interesting in Chicago. As all of the pieces start to fall into place, 2015 is a huge measuring stick year for the Cubs as a franchise. It's the first season that will have real expectations since Epstein and Hoyer took over after the 2011 season.
It is also in 2015 that many of the club's key prospects figure to be making their way to the big leagues. It could be a rough ride in the early going with so many youngsters developing at the same time, but if they can start to gel, the Cubs could have a very solid team in 2015.
A lot of what the Cubs do in 2015 also hinges on the signings they make in free agency in the offseason between 2014 and 2015. If the team feels like they can compete by then, a major arm and a major bat could be added. Regardless, the team figures to be making more of a splash next offseason given the arc of their rebuild.
It's hard to say what players will be acquired via free agency or trades, but in thinking that the team will add one quality arm and/or one quality bat, 2015 could be a good year on the north side.
Should all of the team's prospects continue to develop at their same pace, and the team adds one more bat to the lineup, here is what the 2015 starting lineup could look like:
- No. 1 CF Albert Almora
- No. 2 SS Starlin Castro
- No. 3 3B Kris Bryant
- No. 4 1B Anthony Rizzo
- No. 5 2B Javier Baez
- No. 6 RF Jorge Soler/Unforeseen Free Agent Acquisition
- No. 7 C Welington Castillo
- No. 8 LF Junior Lake
Should all of these prospects fall into place as shown above, the Cubs' 2015 lineup has the chance to be dangerous. In fact, top second base prospect Arismendy Alcantara isn't even mentioned because it's hard to see where he would fit in if all of the team's other top prospects pan out. However, as Cubs fans know through experience (think Corey Patterson and Felix Pie), can't-miss prospects can miss. Unlike years past though, the Cubs have a plethora of top prospects as opposed to just one.
That flexibility allows the team to be able to supplement "busts" with free agent signings. As their prospects develop together, there will be bumps in the road. A transitional season between rebuilding and contending figures to have the team hovering around .500 for most of the season.
Depending on how free agency and the development of prospects works out, 2015 will be a solid step in the right direction towards contending for a playoff spot in coming years.
2015 Season Prediction: 78-84, Fourth Place in the NL Central
The 2016 Season:
Obviously it's hard to look two years into the future of a major league franchise and predict how things will fall into place. It's especially hard for a fan base with a "Next Year is Here" mentality.
However, based on the prospects already in the team's system and the front office's stated free agent/trade philosophy, it's fair to say that the Cubs' 2016 season should see them competing for the playoffs.
The team's major prospects will likely have a year of baseball at the major league level under their belts and should be a solidified unit by 2016 if everyone remains healthy. Pitching help from the minor leagues from pitchers such as top prospects Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards should be on the way in 2016, if not sooner.
Even if only one player of the Johnson and Edwards pairing works out, pitching is much easier to replace in free agency than hitting. Mixing some homegrown talent with veterans has been a recipe for pitching success, and it seems like the Cubs could be headed for that model.
Especially if 2015 was as encouraging as it should be, the Cubs' front office could want to make an even bigger splash in free agency before the 2016 season. That would mean two solid free agent acquisitions to go along with the club's contingent of young talent.
While so much could go wrong between then and now and render this speculation moot, so much could also go right in the next two years. By being patient, the Cubs' front office has built a very solid minor league system that could see 2016 as its time to shine.
Should even two of the Cubs' top prospects work out and the team adds a couple of bats in free agency, the 2016 Cubs should be a formidable bunch. As they learn together in 2015, the road to success will be paved for the years ahead starting in the 2016 season.
2016 Season Prediction: 89-73, Second Place in the NL Central and NL Wild Card Berth