Complete Chicago Cubs 2014 Spring Training Preview

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

Complete Chicago Cubs 2014 Spring Training Preview

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    The Chicago Cubs are set to kick off year three of their rebuilding efforts under Theo Epstein and Co., and while it could be another long season on the North Side, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    The team has stockpiled one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, and 2015 has been pointed to as a potential turning point for the franchise for several years now. That will all hinge on the continued development of prized prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and others, however.

    In the meantime, the team will continue to evaluate their big league talent and look for bounce-back seasons from core pieces like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija after all three fell well short of expectations in 2013.

    It's been a quiet offseason for the most part, with the team falling short in its run at Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Still, an improvement over last season's 66-96 finish is doable, even in a tough NL Central.

    Spring training is just around the corner, with pitchers and catcher set to report on Feb. 13 and the first full squad workout scheduled for Feb. 19. What follows is your complete spring training preview to the 2014 Chicago Cubs.

Offseason Recap

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    Key Additions

    Player2013 Stats
    SP Jason Hammel26 G, 23 GS, 7-8, 4.97 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 96 K, 139.1 IP
    RP Jose Veras67 G, 0-5, 21 SV, 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 60 K, 62.2 IP
    RP Wesley Wright70 G, 0-4, 0 SV, 3.69 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 55 K, 53.2 IP
    RP Brett Marshall3 G, 0-0, 0 SV, 4.50 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 7 K, 12 IP
    C George Kottaras46 G, .180/.349/.370, 4 2B, 5 HR, 12 RBI, 13 R
    CF Justin Ruggiano128 G, .222/.298/.386, 18 2B, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 49 R

     

    Minor League Free-Agent Signings With Spring Training Invites

    C Eli Whiteside, C John Baker, IF Ryan Roberts, IF Chris Valaika, IF Jeudy Valdez, OF Chris Coghlan, OF Ryan Kalish, OF Mitch Maier, OF Aaron Cunningham, OF Casper Wells, SP James McDonald, SP Tsuyoshi Wada, RP Jonathan Sanchez, RP Tommy Hottovy, RP Carlos Pimentel

     

    Analysis

    It's been another quiet offseason for the Cubs as they continue to rebuild, but the team has not been completely silent. Jason Hammel was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal to fill out the rotation, and he could give the team a similar value as Scott Feldman did on a one-year deal last year.

    Jose Veras and Wesley Wright should help improve a bullpen that ranked 25th in the MLB with a 4.04 ERA, while George Kottaras replaces Dioner Navarro as the backup catcher.

    The team also flipped outfielder Brian Bogusevic to the Miami Marlins for Justin Ruggiano, and with his ability to hit left-handed pitching, he should make a good platoon partner for Nate Schierholtz in right field.

     

    Key Losses

    Player2013 Stats
    SP Scott Baker3 GS, 0-0, 3.60 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 6 K, 15 IP
    RP Kevin Gregg62 G, 2-6, 33 SV, 3.48 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 56 K, 62 IP
    RP Matt Guerrier49 G, 4-4, 0 SV, 4.01 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 30 K, 42.2 IP
    C Dioner Navarro89 G, .300/.365/.492, 7 2B, 13 HR, 34 RBI, 31 R

     

    Analysis

    The Cubs didn't lose much this offseason, as they traded the likes of Matt Garza, Scott Feldman and David DeJesus at the deadline last year.

    Backup catcher Dioner Navarro cashed in on his terrific season with a two-year, $8 million deal from the Toronto Blue Jays to be their primary catcher. Scott Baker made just three starts in his return from Tommy John surgery, while Kevin Gregg was a terrific scrapheap find and should be able to find a big league deal from someone before the offseason is over.

Injury Updates Entering Camp

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    RP Arodys Vizcaino

    The Cubs acquired right-hander Arodys Vizcaino from the Atlanta Braves in the 2012 deadline deal that sent left-hander Paul Maholm and outfielder Reed Johnson to Atlanta.

    Ranked in the Baseball America top 100 each year from 2019-12, Vizcaino underwent Tommy John surgery on March 20 of 2012, and he's missed the past two seasons as a result.

    It remains to be seen if his future is as a starter or reliever, but he is expected to be healthy for the start of spring training. According to a tweet from CSN Chicago, he was "electric" in outings this fall and is viewed as a bullpen candidate for 2014.

     

    RP Kyuji Fujikawa

    Signed to a two-year, $9.5 million deal last offseason after 12 seasons and 220 saves with the Hanshin Tigers, right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa was expected to be a key setup man and potential closer candidate for the Cubs last season.

    He made just 12 appearances, though, going 1-1 with a 5.25 ERA and converting 2-of-3 save chances, as two DL stints preceded Tommy John surgery in early June.

    He threw for the first time following the surgery on October 8, but he'll likely be sidelined until at least midseason as he continues to recover.

Coaching Staff Analysis

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    PAUL BEATY/Associated Press

    Coaching Staff

    PositionCoachYrs With Team
    ManagerRick Renteria0
    Hitting CoachBill Mueller0
    Asst. Hitting CoachMike Brumley0
    Pitching CoachChris Bosio2
    First Base CoachEric Hinske0
    Third Base CoachGary Jones0
    Bench CoachBrandon Hyde0
    Bullpen CoachLester Strode7
    Quality Assurance CoachJose Castro0
    Bullpen CoachChad Noble0
    Catching CoachMike Borzello3

     

    Analysis

    Outside of pitching coach Chris Bosio, bullpen coach Lester Strode and catching coach Mike Borzello, the Cubs cleaned house this offseason when they hired new manger Rick Renteria.

    Renteria had been the San Diego Padres' bench coach since 2011, but he has previous managerial experience in the Padres' system. He also managed Team Mexico in last year's World Baseball Classic. The 52-year-old is expected to be the man who ushers in the next era of competitive Cubs teams.

    Former Cubs third baseman and 2003 AL batting title winner Bill Mueller replaces James Rowson as the team's hitting coach, while Mike Brumley was hired on as the assistant hitting coach after spending last season as the Seattle Mariners' first-base coach.

    It's a relatively young coaching staff top to bottom, including new bullpen coach Chad Noble, who is just 26 and was playing for the team's Triple-A affiliate last season. That should play well given the wave of prospects expected to arrive on the scene in the next couple years. There is a question of experience here, but a change was needed, and Renteria is a well-respected baseball man league-wide.

Lineup Preview

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    Projected Starting Lineup

    Player2013 Stats
    1. SS Starlin Castro161 G, .245/.284/.347, 34 2B, 10 HR, 44 RBI, 59 R
    2. LF Junior Lake64 G, .284/.332/.428, 16 2B, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 26 R
    3. 1B Anthony Rizzo160 G, .233/.323/.419, 40 2B, 23 HR, 80 RBI, 71 R
    4. RF Nate Schierholtz137 G, .251/.301/.470, 32 2B, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 56 R
    5. 3B Mike Olt*107 G, .201/.303/.381, 20 2B, 15 HR, 42 RBI, 49 R
    6. CF Ryan Sweeney70 G, .266/.324/.448, 13 2B, 6 HR, 19 RBI, 19 R
    7. C Welington Castillo113 G, .274/.349/.397, 23 2B, 8 HR, 32 RBI, 41 R
    8. 2B Darwin Barney141 G, .208/.266/.303, 25 2B, 7 HR, 41 RBI, 49 R

    *Minor League Stats (Double-A and Triple-A)

     

    Projected Bench

    Player2013 Stats
    C George Kottaras46 G, .180/.349/.370, 4 2B, 5 HR, 12 RBI, 13 R
    IF Luis Valbuena108 G, .218/.331/.378, 15 2B, 12 HR, 37 RBI, 34 R
    IF Donnie Murphy46 G, .255/.319/.530, 8 2B, 11 HR, 23 RBI, 23 R
    IF/OF Ryan Roberts60 G, .247/.295/.377, 6 2B, 5 HR, 17 RBI, 15 R
    OF Justin Ruggiano128 G, .222/.298/.396, 18 2B, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 49 R

     

    Analysis

    As the Cubs wait for their talented crop of hitting prospects to arrive in the majors, they will be running out a less-than-impressive offensive attack in 2014. The team ranked 28th in the MLB with 602 runs scored last season while hitting just .238/.300/.392 as a group.

    Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro both fell well short of expectations and will be looking to get things back on track as key pieces of the future core. This will be a key season for Castro in particular, with top prospect Javier Baez making noise in the minors behind him. Motivating him will be a big test for new manager Rick Renteria, as he noted to Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago:

    I have to get to know (Castro) as a person and I have to figure what it is that moves him. Sometimes we (as people) don’t have conversations, thinking we don’t want to have a confrontation or maybe we don’t like the answer we’re going to get. But the reality is we have to have dialogue and the only way you can improve things is to converse and try to put a plan or an idea on how they can move forward. That’s one of the things we have to do as teachers.

    Catcher Welington Castillo was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2013, and another step forward would cement his place as the long-term answer behind the plate.

    Veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Sweeney are just short-term answers in the outfield but have the potential to be useful hitters and decent trade chips. Junior Lake was a pleasant surprise as a rookie in 2013, and while he could be in for some regression, his hold on the left field job is relatively safe.

    Darwin Barney remains one of the premier defensive second basemen in the game, but his complete lack of offense likely means his days as an everyday player are numbered. At third base, a platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy will have to hold off prospect Mike Olt this spring, though they're all just keeping the position warm for Kris Bryant at this point.

Rotation Preview

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Projected Rotation

    Player2013 Stats
    RHP Jeff Samardzija33 GS, 8-13, 4.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 214 K, 213.2 IP
    LHP Travis Wood32 GS, 9-12, 3.11 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 144 K, 200 IP
    RHP Edwin Jackson31 GS, 8-18, 4.98 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 135 K, 175.1 IP
    RHP Jason Hammel26 G, 23 GS, 7-8, 4.97 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 96 K, 139.1 IP
    RHP Jake Arrieta14 GS, 5-4, 4.78 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 60 K, 75.1 IP

     

    Other Rotation Options

    Player2013 Stats
    LHP Chris Rusin13 GS, 2-6, 3.93 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 36 K, 66.1 IP
    RHP James McDonald6 GS, 2-2, 5.76 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 25 K, 29.2 IP
    RHP Justin Grimm27 G, 17 GS, 7-9, 5.97 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 76 K, 98 IP
    LHP Brooks Raley*27 G, 25 GS, 8-10, 4.46 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 95 K, 141.1 IP
    LHP Tsuyoshi Wada*19 GS, 5-6, 4.03 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 80 K, 102.2 IP

    *Minor League Stats (Triple-A)

     

    Analysis

    Amid an offseason of trade rumors, Jeff Samardzija remains on the Cubs roster, and he looks like the favorite to be the Opening Day starter once again entering camp. The big right-hander is a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, and his name will likely come up in trade talks once again this July if an extension is not reached.

    Travis Wood was the team's best pitcher last season and its lone All-Star representative. Entering his age-27 season, there's no reason to think he can't post similar numbers this coming season as the No. 2 starter once again.

    The team shelled out a four-year, $52 million contract to sign Edwin Jackson last offseason, and he promptly turned in the worst season of his career. A 3.79 FIP suggests he pitched better than his numbers showed, and a bounce-back year is certainly not out of the question.

    Deadline acquisition Jake Arrieta (more on him later) and free agent-signing Jason Hammel look like the front-runners for the final two rotation spots, though Chris Rusin will get a long look as well after a strong showing down the stretch last year. James McDonald is also an interesting flier, as he was lights-out in the first half of the 2012 season, but he's struggled since.

Bullpen Preview

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Projected Bullpen

    Player2013 Stats
    RHP Carlos Villanueva47 G, 15 GS, 7-8, 4.06 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 103 K, 128.2 IP
    RHP Hector Rondon45 G, 2-1, 0 SV, 4.77 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 44 K, 54.2 IP
    LHP Wesley Wright70 G, 0-4, 0 SV, 3.69 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 55 K, 53.2 IP
    RHP Blake Parker49 G, 1-2, 1 SV, 2.72 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 55 K, 46.1 IP
    LHP James Russell74 G, 1-6, 0 SV, 3.59 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 37 K, 52.2 IP
    RHP Pedro Strop66 G, 2-5, 1 SV, 4.55 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 66 K, 57.1 IP
    RHP Jose Veras67 G, 0-5, 21 SV, 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 60 K, 62.2 IP

     

    Other Bullpen Options

    Player2013 Stats
    RHP Alberto Cabrera*33 G, 18 GS, 10-6, 3.79 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 126 K, 133 IP
    LHP Zach Rosscup*46 G, 2-2, 3 SV, 2.12 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 83 K, 51 IP

    *Minor League Stats

     

    Analysis

    As stated earlier, the Cubs ranked 25th in the MLB in bullpen ERA last season with a 4.04 mark, but they look to be an improved group heading into 2014.

    Jose Veras showed he has the stuff to close during his time with the Houston Astros before serving as one of the Detroit Tigers' primary setup men in the postseason. James Russell has been solid since moving to the bullpen full-time, while Blake Parker quietly enjoyed a breakout season of sorts in 2013. Hector Rondon showed flashes as a Rule 5 pick last season, and he should be in a good position to land a bullpen spot once again.

    Pedro Strop could be the X-factor here, as he has the stuff to close. The 28-year-old struggled with the Baltimore Orioles last season but posted a 2.83 ERA and 10.8 K/9 in 37 appearances with the Cubs after being acquired at the deadline.

    The only two relievers on the 40-man roster that are not part of the projected bullpen are Alberto Cabrera and Zac Rosscup, and both could make a run at a job this spring. Cabrera has made 32 appearances in Chicago over the past two seasons, while Rosscup was nothing short of dominant between Double-A and Triple-A before posting a 1.35 ERA in 10 appearances with the Cubs.

Prospects to Watch

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    Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports

    3B Kris Bryant (ETA: 2015)

    Taken with the No. 2 pick in last year's draft, Bryant has done nothing but hit since he signed. He hit .336/.390/.688 with 25 extra-base hits in 128 at-bats while reaching High-A, then followed that up by winning Arizona Fall League MVP honors.

    His ceiling may be slightly lower than Javier Baez's, but his floor is also higher. He could be the Opening Day third baseman in 2015, and Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com thinks we could see him in Chicago even sooner:

    He's gonna move quickly. It wouldn't shock me if he were in Chicago before the year is over in 2014. Whether that means second half, whether that means September, I'm not sure. ... You have to assume that he'll start the year in Double-A, and I think the Cubs won't get in his way. If he hits his way up he'll keep moving up.

     

    SS Javier Baez (ETA: Late 2014)

    Baez captured Cubs Minor League Player of the Year honors last season, hitting .282/.341/.578 with 34 doubles, 37 home runs, 111 RBI and 20 steals while reaching Double-A. There is still some swing-and-miss to his game (147 K in 517 AB), but he has the raw power to be a perennial 30-home run, 100-RBI threat with 40-home run potential.

     

    CF Albert Almora (ETA: 2016)

    As polished and experienced as any high school prospect in recent memory, Almora spent significant time playing for Team USA and has been hailed for his leadership abilities since day one. He dealt with some injuries last season, but he still managed to hit .329/.376/.466 with 24 extra-base hits in 249 at-bats. He should reach Double-A at some point this season, and a 2015 debut is not out of the question.

     

    RF Jorge Soler (ETA: 2015)

    Soler has a similar ceiling to the aforementioned trio, but he is also the biggest wild card of the group at this point. Signed to a nine-year, $30 million deal after defecting from Cuba, Soler played just 55 games last season before a stress fracture in his left tibia ended his season. He flashed plenty of power prior to the injury, though, and still profiles as a middle-of-the-order slugger in right field.

     

    SP Kyle Hendricks (ETA: Late 2014)

    Hendricks has never been a top prospect, entering last season ranked outside of the team's top 30, according to Baseball America. That didn't stop him from winning the team's Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors, though, as he went 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and just 34 walks in 166.1 innings of work. He's not going to be an ace at the big league level, but he's done nothing but succeed to this point and could be a key rotation piece long-term.

     

    Other Notable Prospects in Camp

    2B Arismendy Alcantara, SP Eric Jokisch, SP Neil Ramirez, OF Matt Szczur, 3B Christian Villanueva, RP Arodys Vizcaino

Breakout Candidates

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    SP Jake Arrieta

    A former top prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' system and ranked among the top 100 prospects in the league, according to Baseball America in 2009 and 2010, Jake Arrieta is still looking to tap into his vast potential.

    The 27-year-old struggled to a 7.23 ERA through five starts with the Orioles last season, but he was 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts after joining the Cubs in July.

    He'll get every chance to win a rotation spot this spring, and the Cubs are hoping he can not only win a spot for the upcoming season, but emerge as a piece of the future puzzle in the process. 

     

    C Welington Castillo

    After hitting .265/.337/.418 over 170 at-bats as a backup in 2012, Welington Castillo stepped into the everyday catcher spot this past season.

    The 26-year-old posted a 4.4 WAR this past season, per Baseball-Reference.com (subscription required), good for the fifth-best mark among all catchers. That was largely on the strength of his plus defense, but he showed some offensive potential as well, and he could take a big step forward at the plate in his age-27 season.

    The Cubs have no real catching prospects that profile as everyday options down the road, so they're counting on Castillo to lock down the position as they continue to rebuild. A breakout season from him would be just one more step towards a return to contention.

     

    2B Arismendy Alcantara

    Darwin Barney broke into the league with a solid .276/.313/.353 line to finish sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting back in 2011. While he has developed into one of the game's elite defensive second basemen, his offensive game has fallen off significantly.

    He hit just .208/.266/.303 this past season, and his .569 OPS was the third-lowest among players with 500 or more at-bats. His glove won't be enough for him to keep hold of the everyday job, and Alcantara could unseat him by midseason.

    The 22-year-old enjoyed a breakout season last year, hitting .271/.352/.451 with 36 doubles, 15 home runs and 31 steals at the Double-A level. He moved from shortstop to second base to get out from behind Javier Baez in the team's long-term plans and a big debut in 2014 could be in order.

Position Battle Predictions

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Third Base: Luis Valbuena vs. Donnie Murphy vs. Mike Olt vs. Kris Bryant

    Third base has been an issue for the Cubs throughout the history of their organization. Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez have really been the only stable options dating back to the 1960s.

    The team's third basemen combined to hit just .221/.314/.434 last season, but they did manage 30 home runs and 70 RBI, thanks in large part to the surprise contributions of Donnie Murphy (11 HR in 149 AB).

    The platoon of Luis Valbuena and Murphy may very well man the position again, but if prospect Mike Olt can bounce back he could steal the job this spring.

    Big picture, though, they're all just holding down the fort for last year's top selection, Kris Bryant. He won Arizona Fall League MVP and earned an invite to spring training, though his odds of winning the job are slim.

    Prediction: Olt

     

    No. 4 and 5 Starter: Jason Hammel vs. Jake Arrieta vs. Chris Rusin vs. Justin Grimm vs. James McDonald

    The trio of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson are locks to be part of the Cubs rotation this coming season, but the final two rotation spots are still up for grabs.

    Jason Hammel is likely a lock after signing a one-year deal in free agency, though he does have experience relieving as well. He has the potential to surprise, much like Scott Feldman did last year, and the team will be looking to build some value and use him as a potential trade chip.

    Jake Arrieta and Chris Rusin will duke it out for the final spot after both finished the season strong last year. Justin Grimm is also in the running after being acquired from the Texas Rangers, though he could use some time in Triple-A.

    The wild card is James McDonald, who went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in the first half of the 2012 season. He's just 5-7 with a 6.95 ERA in the season and a half, since though, and the 29-year-old will have to have a big spring to earn a roster spot, let alone a rotation spot.

    Prediction: Hammel at No. 4 and Arrieta at No. 5

     

    Last Bench Spot: Ryan Roberts vs. Logan Watkins vs. Chris Coghlan vs. Ryan Kalish vs. Darnell McDonald

    The Cubs will likely break camp with five bench players, and four of those spots look to be locked up. Catcher George Kottaras, infielders Donnie Murphy and Luis Valbuena (if Mike Olt starts) and outfielder Justin Ruggiano all look like safe bets.

    Ryan Roberts looks to have a good chance of securing that job as a non-roster invitee. While he had a down season last year, he brings a good mix of power and speed and can play second, third and corner outfield.

    Prospect Logan Watkins is certainly in the mix after making his debut last year, though the team could also opt to go with a fifth outfielder. Former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, Ryan Kalish and Darnell McDonald have a shot, while prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur could get a look as well.

    Prediction: Roberts