For Cubs fans, the last few years have been rough. Well, let's be honest, the past century has been pretty tough for the Cubby faithful. 2013 was another season that saw the team lose more than 90 games, but hope is on the horizon.
While 2014 doesn't seem like it will be anything special for the North Siders, it does present more excitement and likely more wins than 2013 for a couple of reasons.
Drastically improving the bullpen will help get more checks in the win column in 2014. As is well-known, the Cubs' bullpen was abysmal in the first few months of last season, which made an overachieving team incapable of competing in the early going. While it's unlikely that the Cubs would've stuck around all season long, they could've been in the race early on if it wasn't for their bullpen.
At the trade deadline last season and over this offseason, the Cubs have taken great strides in improving the bullpen. The first move that management made was trading for reliever Pedro Strop, who came over with starter Jake Arrieta in exchange for Scott Feldman last July.
Strop struggled with the Orioles a year ago but completely turned things around upon being dealt to the Cubs. Management in Chicago told Strop that he was tipping his slider, and once he corrected that, he was a lockdown reliever for the Cubs. He pitched well enough that he even claimed the closer job at the end of the season.
Earlier this offseason, the Cubs signed left-handed reliever Wesley Wright. His addition made the bullpen much more flexible because, with two lefties in the pen, reliever James Russell doesn't have to just be a lefty specialist anymore. Adding a quality reliever like Wright, especially since he's a lefty, can't be understated.
Another big addition the Cubs made to the bullpen came just a few days ago when they surprisingly signed veteran Jose Veras. With his experience in the back end of the bullpen, the closer job seems like it's Veras' to lose this spring.
While he wasn't an addition via trade or free agency, reliever Blake Parker burst onto the scene last season. He posted a 2.72 ERA a season ago and had a K/BB ratio of nearly 4-1. Those numbers say that Parker has the ability to be a solid back-end bullpen arm if he continues to improve. For now, Parker will likely be seen in the sixth or seventh inning depending on the bullpen situation at any given point in the season.
The current Cubs bullpen is a far cry from what it was a year ago. While Cubs fans wait for the hitting lineup to improve slowly through the farm system, President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer have improved the big league team in the bullpen over the past six months.
Castro and Rizzo Will Have Bounce-Back Seasons
The two cornerstones of the Cubs' talented nucleus are Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Unfortunately, both players underperformed a season ago. There is reason to believe that both young players will bounce back this season, though.
What Cubs prospect are you most looking forward to seeing in 2014?
Castro was the most notable disappointment of the Cubs' 2013 campaign, hitting .245 and striking out 129 times. Surprisingly low was Castro's batting average. Previously, .283 was the lowest that Castro had hit in his major league career, so 2013 presented a major dip in production.
Being young and having several different people in his ear tweaking his swing definitely didn't help Castro's performance in 2013. Cubs' management realizes that and has taken steps to ensure that 2014 is another solid year for the two-time All-Star shortstop.
First of all, the hiring of Rick Renteria should make Castro feel more comfortable. The Cubs' front office made it a point to hire more Latin American coaches for their coaching staff since most of their young budding stars are Latin American and speak Spanish. Without the language barrier, it's likely that Renteria can get through to Castro easier.
Secondly, after realizing that Castro didn't handle tweaking of his swing well, management just wants Castro to go out there and hit. Nobody is going to be trying to tweak his swing anymore. While his mechanics may not be perfect, the "see ball, hit ball" mentality has worked for Castro in the past, and the Cubs hope that mentality will continue to work in 2014 and beyond.
The bottom line is that a player of Castro's talent level just can't underperform as much as he did last season. It seems more and more like Castro may not grow into his power, but he's still young. Having one down year may benefit him in the long run.
Rizzo's power numbers were far from a disappointment in 2013 looking at them as a whole, hitting 23 home runs to go along with 80 runs batted in. However, based on how he started the season and his .233 average, Rizzo did leave more to be desired.
Luckily, the young lefty appears to have only scratched the surface of his potential. Never in his professional career has Rizzo hit for such a low average, and a couple of lengthy slumps are likely to blame. As a player who hits to all fields, the low batting average could simply have been due to bad luck.
At just 24 years old, Rizzo has an insane amount of potential. Like Castro, he got started in the big leagues early, and naturally, there was going to be a learning curve. With his first full season now under his belt, Rizzo seems ready to take off in 2014.
Top Prospects Will Be Up During Season
While they won't make the Cubs contenders this season, some of the Cubs' top prospects figure to be making their way to Wrigley Field this season. There are some prospects who will still require another entire year in the minors before making the leap to the major leagues, but there are also a couple of top prospects that are very close to getting the call.
Mike Olt, who was part of the package the Cubs received from the Texas Rangers in exchange for starter Matt Garza last season, will try to win the starting third base job this spring. Dealing with vision problems a season ago, Olt struggled, but the Cubs are confident in his ability.
Whether he becomes a bust or not, Olt is the most major-league-ready prospect the Cubs have, and they have to find out what they have in him before other prospects start getting called up.
There is a major log jam in the infield given the fact that Castro and Rizzo are already entrenched with the big league club and prospects such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara waiting in the wings.
Olt is the first prospect who may determine where the other prospects end up. If he produces at a high level, then Bryant will likely be forced to move to the outfield. In addition, Baez will likely be moved to second base, and nobody knows where that would leave Alcantara. It's a good problem to have.
Bryant, Baez and Alcantara are all likely to be called up at some point in 2014 as well. Slugging his way through the minors and the Arizona Fall League, if Bryant continues to dominate at Double-A and Triple-A early on in 2014, he could be on the Cubs by early summer.
Baez is a bit more of a question mark. The power upside (37 home runs and 111 runs batted in between High-A and Double-A) he provides from a middle infield position is off the charts. Much like Bryant, Baez could be up sooner rather than later if he continues to blow away minor league competition.
The only reason that Cubs' brass may be more tentative to bring up Baez is that he's younger and didn't have seasoning in college like Bryant.
He's not the same caliber prospect as Bryant and Baez, but Alcantara is just as major league-ready. Especially if the club decides to trade current second baseman Darwin Barney, Alcantara could be up with the big league squad by the summer of 2014. This year is a big year for the Cubs in determining who will play where in 2015 and beyond.
It's not guaranteed that the Cubs' top prospects will directly affect the Cubs' win total in 2014, and it's not even guaranteed that they will have a big impact this season. What seems guaranteed is that at least a few top prospects will be up with the Cubs this season, and they should at least show a glimpse of the Cubs' promising future to fans of the North Siders.