It has been a long winter so far for Cubs fans in the Windy City. Two polar vortices and a failed attempt to land prized Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka have kept Cubs fans spirits in the proverbial icebox. There is hope, though, on the horizon, as pitchers and catchers officially report to Mesa in less than a month.
Let’s take a look at the pitchers and catchers that project to play key roles for the Cubs in 2014.
The Starting Rotation
The Cubs entered the offseason with hopes of improving a pitching staff that was close to the statistical bottom in most categories in the National League. The centerpiece of the offseason plan seemed to hinge on the signing of Tanaka. Theo Epstein and company made a strong pitch for Tanaka, but the 25-year-old ultimately chose to sign a seven-year, $155 million dollar deal, plus $20 million posting fee, with the New York Yankees.
Do you think the Cubs will be better off long-term without Tanaka?
With Tanaka no longer an option, the Cubs will have to rely on several incumbent starters to carry the pitching load as they continue to strive to become a viable contender.
The top of the Cubs rotation should be anchored once again by Jeff Samardzija. This will be the case unless one of the numerous trade rumors involving Samardzija comes to fruition. Epstein has said he expects Samardzija to take the ball on Opening Day.
If Samardzija remains a Cub, he will have to improve on the non-inspiring 8-13 record he posted last season. He has shown over his six-year career the ability to strike out batters (8.6 K/9 average) and compiled a career best 213.2 innings in 2013, but has failed to live up to expectations as a staff ace. It will be interesting to see whether or not Samardzija and the Cubs can work out a contract extension before the July 31 trade deadline.
One of the bright spots for the Cubs in 2013 was the pitching of Travis Wood. The 26-year-old southpaw posted a 9-12 record with a 3.11 ERA in 32 starts in 2013. Wood was the lone Cubs representative at the 2013 All-Star Game last summer at Citi Field in New York.
The future looks bright for Wood and the Cubs will need to decide whether or not to offer the lefty a long-term extension. The Cubs avoided arbitration with Wood, signing him to a $3.9 million deal for 2014.
The Cubs made a small move on Friday, signing free agent Jason Hammel who spent the last two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.
Sources: #Cubs in agreement with free-agent RHP Jason Hammel, pending a physical.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 31, 2014
The signing of Hammel gives the Cubs another experienced starter to be added to the mix. His best season as a starter came two seasons ago with the Orioles when he posted a 8-6 record, 3.43 ERA in 20 starts.
The outlook for the last two spots in the Cubs rotation is a bit less clear as there are four potential candidates.
The first candidate vying for a spot in the rotation is the much-maligned right-hander Edwin Jackson. The 11-year veteran has been a huge disappointment since signing a lucrative four-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs last offseason. He led the NL in losses in 2013 with 18 and pitched to a 4.98 ERA.
Carlos Villanueva didn’t pitch terrible in 2013 but didn’t impress either as he posted a 7-8 record with a 4.06 ERA. Both Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta could contribute to the rotation in 2014. Rusin went 2-6 with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts with the Cubs last season. Arrieta went 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts with the Cubs in 2013.
The Cubs will also undoubtedly continue to explore free agent pitching possibilities. However, it seems unlikely that the Cubs will take a flyer on Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, as they would have to give up a draft pick, per Bryan Rose of Fansided, Si.com.
The days of Carlos Marmol and his epic bullpen implosions are now firmly entrenched in the Cubs rearview. The 2014 squad will offer a combination of incumbents and new arrivals. The Cubs will depend heavily on Pedro Strop and Blake Parker to solidify the middle relief corps.
Strop was acquired last July via a trade with the Orioles. In 37 games with the Cubs, Strop posted a 2-2 record with a 2.83 ERA. He averaged 10.8 K/9 and showed the ability to get tough outs when needed. Parker also showed bullpen promise, posting a 2.72 ERA in 49 appearances, and striking out 55 in 46.1 innings pitched.
The Cubs will depend on lefty James Russell for late inning spots. Lefties batted .183 off of Russell in 2013. The North Siders also brought in lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Wesley Wright to vie for spots in the bullpen.
The closer role seems to be assigned to the newly acquired free agent Jose Veras. Signed by the Cubs earlier this month, Veras closed out 21 games last season in time split between the Houston Astros and the Detroit Tigers.
Other possible pitchers who could potentially see time in the Cubs bullpen in 2014 include Kyuji Fujikawa and Arodys Vizcaino, who both battled injuries last season.
Behind the Plate
|Eli Whiteside (2012)||34||.091||0||2||.396||-0.0|
Welington Castillo is the only holdover at the catching position from 2013 and projects to be the Opening Day starter. He spent last season splitting time with Dioner Navarro, who signed an offseason deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Castillo has yet to develop into a potent offensive threat but has shown his meddle behind the backstop.
Catching coach Mike Borzello told Tony Andracki of CSNChicago that there are high hopes for Castillo in 2014.
"Weli had a nice year," catching coach Mike Borzello said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can be. But he's a guy that when I showed up, he wowed you right away when you saw him as far as his abilities and what he can do, especially defensively."
The Cubs signed veteran backup George Kottaras and added John Baker and Eli Whiteside to minor league deals. The troika will be competing for a backup role on the 2014 club.
What do you feel about the Cubs moves or lack thereof this offseason? Which one of these players are you most excited to see in 2014?