Even though the results aren't showing up at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs are heading in the right direction. It's hard to see when a team is coming off a last-place finish in the National League Central and 96 losses in 2013, but there is a plan in place that will start to bear fruit soon.
General manager Jed Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, both entering their third season guiding the Cubs' front office in 2014, took over a disastrous situation with expensive contracts for aging players and no depth or star power in the farm system.
The duo, who also played such an integral role in building Boston's 2007 championship team, have focused on building through the farm system and draft. Those two areas were neglected far too long by the previous regime led by Jim Hendry.
All has not gone as planned with the Hoyer/Epstein regime, though they have taken steps to try and rectify the situation.
Dale Sveum was fired as manager after the 2013 season, with Rick Renteria being brought in to help develop the young talent currently on the roster (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, specifically) and coming through the pipeline.
It's been a quiet offseason for the Cubs thus far, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to talk about. Now that we have had time to see where the team is going, it is time to break down what to expect heading into the new year.
Rick Renteria was hired by the Cubs on Nov. 7.
Biggest Move/Acquisition: Fired Dale Sveum as manager; hired Rick Renteria on Nov. 7
The manager for a rebuilding team is in a no-win situation, literally and figuratively. Dale Sveum was never going to win with the roster the Cubs trotted out in 2012 or 2013, but that wasn't the reason he was let go.
If you want to know why Sveum didn't return for 2014, there are five words that tell the story: Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.
The Cubs have invested a total of 15 years and $101.5 million over the last two years on long-term contracts for Rizzo, 24, and Castro, 23. They clearly view those two as huge parts of the future for the franchise, yet their lackluster performance in 2013 was disturbing.
Rizzo hit just .233/.323/.419 in 160 games, while Castro's slump from the second half of 2012 carried over to last season with the worst slash line of his young career (.245/.284/.347).
Some of the blame does fall on the players, but with young talent, the manager also has to take responsibility. Part of Sveum's job was to finish the development for Rizzo and Castro, which clearly wasn't happening for whatever reason.
Rick Renteria had a built-in relationship with Jed Hoyer after their time together in San Diego. He brings six years of MLB coaching experience and eight seasons managing minor league teams for the Florida Marlins (1998-2001) and San Diego Padres (2004-07).
Getting Rizzo and Castro playing up to their full potential, as well as possible 2014 minor league graduations for Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, will be Renteria's biggest task right out of the gate. Further down the pipeline are players like Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom come with a ton of hype and potential.
No one expects Renteria or the Cubs to win in 2014, just as they didn't expect anything from Sveum the previous two seasons, but as long as the core group of young talent performs at or near expectations, the first-year skipper will have done a good job.
One reason that I am skittish on the Cubs being contenders sooner rather than later, despite having arguably the best crop of high-end position-player talent in baseball, is a lack of starting pitching depth.
This lack of depth, both in the big leagues and minors, is why the Cubs could be a major player for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka if/when he gets posted for MLB teams to bid on.
Tanaka isn't a franchise-changing pitcher, but his ceiling is higher than any other pitcher currently in the team's system or on the free-agent market. He could also start in Chicago on Opening Day, while some of the best arms in the system won't graduate to the big leagues until midseason.
Patrick Mooney of Comcast SportsNet Chicago reports that the Cubs do plan on taking a shot at Tanaka, though he does acknowledge that it would be a "long shot" because the team isn't yet in a position where it should be spending big money on free agents.
The Cubs do have one of the most intriguing arms in the minors, C.J. Edwards, who was acquired from Texas last year in the Matt Garza trade. Edwards is a lanky 6'2" right-hander with a plus fastball-curveball combination.
In 183.1 minor league innings, Edwards has allowed just one home run with a 240-66 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 22-year-old has a tremendous ceiling, but his 155-pound frame raises a lot of questions about his durability and if he can handle throwing 180-200 innings per season.
After Edwards, the cupboard is pretty bare for high-end starting pitching prospects. Pierce Johnson has some deception in his delivery and could be a No. 3-4 starter, but long and violent arm action makes him look more like a reliever.
Arodys Vizcaino was a nice gamble for the Cubs to take from Atlanta at the trade deadline in 2012. He was out for the season after having Tommy John surgery, but he had the stuff to be a front-line starter.
But Vizcaino didn't throw a pitch in a game last season either, making it all but certain that when he does return, it will be as a reliever.
At the MLB level, Jeff Samardzija has proven himself to be a quality starter and one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game with 394 punchouts in 388.1 innings the last two years.
The consistently inconsistent Edwin Jackson had a year to forget in 2013, posting a 4.98 ERA and 197 hits allowed in 175.1 innings. Travis Wood gave the Cubs 200 solid innings, but he is a strong candidate for regression in 2014 because his fastball rarely breaks 90 mph.
There are individual positions the Cubs could stand to fill (second base, corner outfield), but there is so much good, young, high-upside talent making its way through the system that there's no reason to get in bidding wars for free agents.
If the Cubs were approaching contention in 2014 and needed someone to play the field for one year, then I would argue for spending money. But with a team that everyone knows isn't going to be very good, keeping finances down is the best tactic.
Starting with Anthony Rizzo (first base) and Starlin Castro (shortstop), the Cubs have two promising young stars on the infield. The next two years will see the graduations of Javier Baez (third base), Kris Bryant (third base/corner outfield), Jorge Soler (corner outfield), Albert Almora (center field) and Arismendy Alcantara (second base).
If you put that team on the field, the only spot left to fill is catcher. That list also doesn't include Mike Olt, another player acquired from Texas in the Matt Garza deal. He endured a brutal 2013 after having eye issues, but he is reportedly on the upswing and gives the team another power bat at a corner infield spot.
Even though the Cubs have more pitchers who I believe will wind up in the bullpen instead of the starting rotation, relievers are such a volatile group that building a deep bench to choose from can never hurt. (Just look what Billy Beane has done with Oakland this offseason.)
Plus, if the Cubs are able to get Arodys Vizcaino throwing well and insert him into the closer's role/high-leverage situations, they can take other, less cost-efficient arms and trade them for prospects in July.
The Cubs have made a couple bullpen moves already, agreeing with right-hander Wesley Wright to a one-year contract on Dec. 4. He's been a decent 'pen guy for six years, striking out 253 in 251.1 innings with a 4.37 ERA.
The team also claimed Liam Hendriks off waivers from Minnesota on Dec. 13. He's been a disaster in parts of three seasons with the Twins, owning a career 6.06 ERA with 202 hits allowed in 156 innings.
Hendriks is just 24 years old and won't cost the team anything if he makes the 25-man roster out of spring training, so it's not a bad gamble.
They also agreed to terms with free agent Jose Veras on a one-year deal, according to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes and confirmed by CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.
The Veras move would seem to give him the inside track on the closer's role to start the season, though these things are always fluid and could change depending on his performance.
It's strange to think the Cubs would consider trading Jeff Samardzija at this juncture given their need for starting pitching, but that is the reality of the market we are in. Anyone with value who stands to get a big raise in arbitration is going to be trade bait.
Samardzija has two years of team control remaining before becoming a free agent, which means his value will only decrease the later he gets traded because less service time gives teams less games for him to make an impact.
David Kaplan of Comcast SportsNet Chicago wrote in late November that there was a "99 percent chance" Samardzija gets dealt this offseason.
There were rumblings that Samardzija was drawing interest from teams at the winter meetings, most notably from Atlanta (via David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and earlier in the offseason, Arizona was engaged in trade discussions, via ESPN's Buster Olney.
There is an expectation that the Jeff Samardzija/Arizona trade talks will continue. Cubs reaching point where they need a decision on him.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 4, 2013
The Blue Jays were also reportedly in on Samardzija, according to Bruce Levine of WSCR Radio, but again we are looking at talks from the end of November that have largely fallen off the radar.
Teams have inquired about StarterJeff Samardzija. Source: Toronto putting together package of young players.— Bruce Levine (@MLBBruceLevine) November 23, 2013
The Braves don't seem like a good fit because they are reluctant to part with young players, already have a solid, deep rotation in place and reportedly signed Gavin Floyd, who will likely take a rotation spot later in the year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Toronto is an intriguing fit, because the Blue Jays are built to compete now and need starting pitching. They also have talented young pitching at the top of their system with Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, but the Jays mortgaged a lot of their future in trades last year and don't seem likely to trade one or both of them in any deal.
While you can never say trade talks are dead, it has been nearly a full week since we've heard anything of note on Samardzija being dealt. That would seem to suggest the Cubs are more than happy to keep their best pitcher heading into 2014, then evaluate things at midseason or next offseason.
It's been a quiet offseason on the north side of Chicago, especially when compared to the moves made by that other team in town, but that's all by design.
When you have a plan in place, it does no good to deviate from it when the MLB squad isn't ready to compete for anything. That doesn't mean there is nothing to watch from the Cubs in 2014.
In fact, I would argue, the next two years will be the most important for determining the future direction of the franchise.
The upcoming season will give us another chance to buy or sell the futures for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. It will also, in all likelihood, give fans who don't follow the minors that closely their first exposure to names they have been hearing about for months/years, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Mike Olt.
If the Cubs can get Rizzo and Castro on track, see signs of the superstardom that awaits Baez and Bryant and find starting pitching somewhere along the way (possibly a pop-up prospect, or via the draft/trades), they will look a lot more interesting heading into 2015.
Don't expect any major moves from the Cubs heading into spring training. Jeff Samardzija seems like a strong candidate for the team to pursue a new contract with, though the market will dictate any move they try to make.
Cubs fans have gotten accustomed to practicing patience. They will have to do it again in 2014, but the darkness is rising. Soon we will be talking about this franchise like we did the Pirates in 2013.
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