Wrigley Field may not house a bottom five team in the league this season.
Exactly one month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training for the Chicago Cubs, it's time to look ahead to the 2014 season. As the rebuild continues, hope is finally on the horizon.
Especially leading into spring training—where hope springs eternal for all 30 major league teams—people will want to think of the year ahead for their favorite teams.
With that said, based on their activity this offseason and how the organization looks moving forward, here are five bold predictions for the Cubs' 2014 season.
Starlin Castro is primed to have a bounce-back season in the Windy City.
It's no secret that last year was a major struggle for Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. In fact, it was the first time in his baseball life that he didn't succeed. The fact is that he is just too talented to continue to perform at the same level that he did in 2013.
Before he finished with a .245 average last season, his lowest average in his professional career was .283. It's no coincidence that Castro has always hit for such a high average. While his lack of discipline at the plate will always be a problem, the fact that he has a "see ball-hit ball" mentality actually helps him.
With many coaches in his ear a season ago who were trying to change his approach at the plate, Castro floundered. Group that with the downward spiral that the team took from the All-Star break on, and it was the perfect storm for Castro to have a disappointing year.
People who say that the Cubs need to trade him need to rethink their logic. First of all, he is still just 23 years old. Second, he is at the lowest value that he can possibly be; he just had the worst season of his major league career.
Not to compare him to a Hall of Famer, but the last time the Cubs hastily traded a promising player who was struggling in his 20s, he went on to become a bona fide superstar for the rival St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs need to be patient because Castro has all of the tools to still be a perennial All-Star.
With the addition of Spanish-speaking manager Rick Renteria, Castro should feel more comfortable. The front office made that a point of emphasis when hiring a new coaching staff, and it should benefit him.
It's clear that he still needs to work on his maturity and his issues throwing the ball to first base from shortstop, but with less distractions and the motivation to rebound from a bad year, Castro has plenty of reasons to return to All-Star form in 2014.
Kris Bryant has been extremely impressive in his short time in the minor leagues.
Along with shortstop Javier Baez, 2013 No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant has been the most talked-about prospect in the Cubs organization. After he has dominated every level of baseball that he's encountered up to this point, there's a good reason for all of that talk.
All he did in his first few months of professional baseball was hit .336 across three levels of the minor leagues and then win Arizona Fall League MVP for his outstanding performance. Numbers like that open people's eyes.
Another thing that opens people's eyes is his 6'5", 215-lb frame.
The reason that Bryant has a chance to crack into the majors before he's spent a year in the minor leagues is that he played three years of college ball before being drafted. That puts him way ahead of the learning curve, as he has faced elite college competition.
Players need to dominate every level of minor league competition before moving up in the eyes of team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. Bryant has done exactly that thus far. Should he continue to play at such a high level in both Double-A and Triple-A as he moves through 2014, there is a very good chance that he could be playing at Wrigley Field at some point in 2014.
Of course, he will need to make adjustments as he moves through the upper levels of the minor leagues, but the talent and raw power that he has displayed so far have been enough to show that he can succeed at the highest level of competition.
Closer Jose Veras shores up an already drastically improved Cubs bullpen.
Seventeen blown saves may seem like a lot to begin with, but last season only the top 10 teams in the league had 17 or less blown saves. With the drastic improvements that the Cubs have made to their bullpen, that shouldn't be a lofty goal for the North Siders this season.
The two key additions that the Cubs made to their bullpen were lefty Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras.
Wright, who pitched for the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays a season ago, gives the Cubs much more flexibility because now James Russell isn't the only lefty in the pen. Instead of either Wright or Russell being a lefty specialist, each can now pitch situationally in the seventh and eighth innings depending on the number of lefties in the opposing lineup.
The likely setup man for the Cubs this season will be Pedro Strop, who was dealt to Chicago from Baltimore at the last trade deadline. After coming to the Cubs, he showed drastic improvement in his game, and until the Veras signing, he was likely to be the team's closer this season.
Another likely addition to the bullpen is young flamethrower Arodys Vizcaino. Acquired from the Atlanta Braves for Paul Maholm two seasons ago, he has been battling back from injury and looks to finally be healthy heading into 2014. He will have to work his way into the back end of the bullpen as he gets more major league experience, but the 96 mph velocity that he has on his fastball should speed up that process.
A season ago, the Cubs blew 26 saves, which was fourth worst in the major leagues. If you turn that number into only 17, the team's record would have been 75-87. With an improved bullpen, that looks like a realistic expectation for the Cubs this season.
With both sides wanting to find a solution to the current situation, the Cubs and Jeff Samardzija will find a way to get a deal done.
Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija has been the subject speculation for the entire offseason for obvious reasons. He's entering his prime, still has two years of team control and has yet to sign an extension.
There's a panic amongst Cubs faithful that the team will not only fail to sign him to an extension but will also fail to receive proper compensation on the trade market. That panic makes sense, given the fact that the team failed to receive much compensation for pitcher Ryan Dempster a couple of years ago.
However, right around the holidays, the tune on the Samardzija situation changed. According to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago, Samardzija wants to win, and he wants to do it in Chicago. In Mooney's discussion with Samardzija on December 24, the player also mentioned that it would be difficult for any team to sign him to an extension after a trade.
If teams know there is a small chance of signing him to an extension, his trade value will decrease. That should make the Cubs front office more desperate to finalize a long-term deal with their ace. Landing Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka would help the Cubs to convince Samardzija that they're dedicated to winning in the near future.
Even if they don't sign Tanaka, the Cubs won't be nearly as bad this season as they have been in years past. If the front office slightly ups the previous contract extension offer, it may be too good for Samardzija to pass up.
Anthony Rizzo looks to lead the Cubs to their first sub-90 loss season since 2010.
From 2011-2013, the Cubs have lost more than 90 games every season. This should come as no surprise, as most teams in the early stages of a rebuild are expected to lose that many games. However, 2014 presents a rebuilding transition year.
In that transition, the Cubs should avoid losing 90 games for the first time since 2010.
Just the improved bullpen alone should be enough to get the Cubs under the 90-loss threshold. In fact, without the bad bullpen performance a season ago, the Cubs would have likely been at this point in 2013. Given that players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are looking to have bounce-back years offensively, the bullpen shouldn't be the only improved aspect in 2014.
Even though a couple of top prospects will likely make their way to Chicago in 2014, the team still doesn't have the depth to compete for the playoffs yet. However, with a much-improved bullpen and key offensive players primed to bounce back, a loss total in the mid-80s is more realistic than 90-plus losses this season for the Cubs.