Complete Chicago Cubs 2014 Season Preview

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Complete Chicago Cubs 2014 Season Preview

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The 2014 MLB season could be another long one for Chicago Cubs fans, but there is also plenty of reason for optimism on the North Side with a fantastic farm system and an influx of high-end young talent making its way ever closer to Wrigley Field.

    As for the 2014 season, though, it could be another long one, as the offense looks subpar at best and the pitching staff is still a work in progress. A return to form for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro would at least give the team a pair of stars to build around, but new manager Rick Renteria has his work cut out for him.

    Still, they should be better than the clubs that have lost 90-plus games the past three seasons. While contention is a long shot, if everything breaks right, they could make a run at a winning record, with an eye on bigger things in 2015.

    In any event, here is a complete look at everything you need to know about the 2014 Chicago Cubs.

Spring Training Recap

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Most Impressive Hitter: 3B Luis Valbuena (10-for-34, 4 2B, 6 HR, 12 RBI, 10 R)

    With Mike Olt pushing for the starting third base job, last year's platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy had their work cut out for them this spring if they hoped to keep hold of the hot corner job. Valbuena has done his part, turning in a terrific spring at the plate and flashing impressive power.

     

    Most Disappointing Hitter: CF Ryan Sweeney (5-for-42, 2 RBI, 2 R, 10 K)

    Sweeney showed enough in limited action last year, hitting .266/.324/.448 with 21 extra-base hits in 192 at-bats, that the Cubs seemed content to use him as the primary center fielder heading into the season. He has struggled this spring, though, and he could be pushed by Justin Ruggiano if those struggles carry over to the regular season.

     

    Most Impressive Pitcher: RP Arodys Vizcaino (5 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 3 K)

    None of the Cubs projected starters have an ERA under 4.00, and the team's top relievers have been far from lights-out as well, so we'll give the most impressive nod to Vizcaino. His stuff has been praised all camp as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery, and while he will begin the season in extended spring training, he could make a huge impact in 2014.

     

    Most Disappointing Pitcher: SP James McDonald (5.2 IP, 8 ER, 6 H, 9 BB, 0 K)

    A legitimate All-Star candidate in the first half of the 2012 season, when he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA over 17 starts, McDonald has struggled ever since. The Cubs took a chance on him with a one-year, $1 million deal this offseason in hopes that he'd seize the No. 5 starter job, but he has struggled mightily.

     

    Top Prospect: SS Javier Baez (14-for-47, 3 2B, 5 HR, 5 RBI, 7 R)

    The team's top prospect entering the season, Baez got a long look this spring and flashed the raw power that has fans hopeful he'll be a future superstar. He has already been optioned to the minors and will look to cut down on his strikeouts with more seasoning at Triple-A Iowa, but his bat will likely carry him to Chicago at some point in 2014.

     

    Surprise Roster Spot Winner: *OF Ryan Kalish (11-for-40, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 10 R, 6 SB)

    Kalish, who will turn 26 before Opening Day, missed all of last season recovering from labrum surgery, the second such operation he has had in his career, and he's played in just 36 games over the past three years.

    A former top prospect in the Boston Red Sox system back when Theo Epstein and company were at the helm, Kalish is healthy now and has showed enough this spring to win an Opening Day spot as a non-roster invitee.

     

    Surprise Roster Cut: RP Blake Parker (8 IP, 7 ER, 8 H, 7 BB, 5 K)

    A 16th-round pick back in 2006, Parker worked his way slowly up through the Cubs' farm system and finally made his way to the big league bullpen last year.

    Over 49 appearances, he had a 2.72 ERA, 1.165 WHIP and 55 strikeouts in 46.1 innings of work. Struggles this spring landed him in Iowa to open the year, though, and he will need to work some things out before returning to Chicago.

     

    *Projected to make roster, not official yet.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    SS Starlin Castro (hamstring)

    Castro suffered a hamstring injury on March 2 while running the bases, and he has played in just two Cactus League games so far this spring. He spent Sunday playing in minor league camp, getting seven at-bats as he looks to make up for lost time.

    Barring any setbacks, he is expected to be ready to go for Opening Day, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago.

     

    SP Jake Arrieta (shoulder)

    After dealing with some shoulder soreness in the winter, Arrieta got behind in his throwing program, and he has been playing catch-up since. He threw live batting practice for the first time on March 16, and he will open the season on the disabled list, according to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago.

    Chris Rusin or Carlos Villanueva will fill the No. 5 starter spot to open the year, but Arrieta remains a key piece of the 2014 puzzle and a potential breakout candidate if he can duplicate his performance down the stretch in 2013.

     

    RP Kyuji Fujikawa (recovery from Tommy John)

    The Cubs signed Fujikawa to a two-year, $9.5 million deal in hopes that he would be either their primary setup man or closer last season. He wound up making just 12 appearances, though, and he underwent Tommy John surgery on June 11.

    He threw 45 pitches on the side on Sunday and is close to throwing live batting practice, according to manager Rick Renteria via MLB.com. "He's slowly graduating to finally getting out there to live BP," Renteria said. "He's moving along." He'll open the year on the DL, and there is no clear timetable for his return at this point.

Lineup Preview

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup

    Player2013 Stats
    1. SS Starlin Castro161 G, .245/.284/.347, 34 2B, 10 HR, 44 RBI, 59 R
    2. 3B Luis Valbuena108 G, .218/.331/.378, 15 2B, 12 HR, 37 RBI, 34 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. LF Junior Lake64 G, .284/.332/.428, 16 2B, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 26 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 Emilio Bonifacio136 G, .243/.295/.331, 22 2B, 3 HR, 31 RBI, 54 R

     

    Outlook

    Last season, the Chicago Cubs ranked 28th in the MLB with just 602 runs scored while hitting .238/.300/.392 as a team. Things may not be much better this time around.

    The duo of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo remain in the spotlight, as they are both coming off of disappointing seasons and will be looking to get things back on track. They remain key pieces of the rebuilding process, and the Cubs need them to play to their potential.

    Left fielder Junior Lake and catcher Welington Castillo both have a chance to be core pieces moving forward, and they will be looking to build off of solid 2013 seasons.

    The rest of the lineup is made up of veteran placeholders at this point, as they have a number of stopgap options while they wait for the team's deep-pool prospects to make their way to Chicago.

    Nate Schierholtz may be the team's best trade chip from a position player standpoint, and there's a good chance he'll be on the move at the deadline, if not sooner.

     

    Projected Bench

    Player2013 Stats
    C John Baker16 G, .150/.267/.150, 0 2B, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 R
    IF Darwin Barney141 G, .208/.266/.303, 25 2B, 7 HR, 41 RBI, 49 R
    3B Mike Olt*104 G, .201/.303/.381, 20 2B, 15 HR, 42 RBI, 49 R
    OF Ryan KalishInjured, did not play
    OF Justin Ruggiano128 G, .222/.298/.396, 18 2B, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 49 R

    *Minor League Stats

     

    Outlook

    The Cubs' bench has some newcomers heading into 2014, with John Baker brought in to replace Dioner Navarro as the backup catcher and Justin Ruggiano acquired from the Miami Marlins for Brian Bogusevic.

    Third base prospect Mike Olt did enough this spring to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, and while Luis Valbuena will still see time to open the year, it may not be long before Olt is the everyday guy at the hot corner and cleanup hitter.

    The surprise guy here would be Ryan Kalish, who has showed enough this spring to win a spot as a non-roster invitee. A former top prospect in the Red Sox organization, he is finally healthy after missing most of the past two seasons recovering from surgery on both labrums.

    Donnie Murphy was waived to open up playing time for Mike Olt, while the slick-fielding Darwin Barney should still see plenty of starts at second base. Don't be surprised to see Barney shopped in the early going, though, if Bonifacio impresses.

Rotation Preview

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Projected Rotation

    Player2013 Stats
    1. RHP Jeff Samardzija33 GS, 8-13, 4.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 214 K, 213.2 IP
    2. RHP Edwin Jackson31 GS, 8-18, 4.98 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 135 K, 175.1 IP
    3. RHP Jason Hammel26 G, 23 GS, 7-8, 4.97 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 96 K, 139.1 IP
    4. LHP Travis Wood32 GS, 9-12, 3.11 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 144 K, 200 IP
    5. RHP Carlos Villanueva47 G, 15 GS, 7-8, 4.06 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 103 K, 128.2 IP

     

    Outlook

    After a breakout season in 2012, Jeff Samardzija looked like a potential extension candidate heading into last season. Instead, he took a step backwards and saw his name pop up in trade rumors at the deadline and in the offseason. The 29-year-old will take the ball on Opening Day once again, but his days in Chicago may be numbered.

    The best pitchers in the rotation last year was left-hander Travis Wood, who turned in quality starts in 24 of his 32 outings. He was the team's lone All-Star representative and will be looking to build off of his 2013 season, but a 4.50 xFIP via FanGraphs also suggests he could be in for some regression.

    Edwin Jackson turned in a terribly disappointing first season with the Cubs in leading the NL in losses, while Carlos Villanueva looks to have edged out Chris Rusin for the No. 5 starter job this spring.

    The newcomer here is Jason Hammel, who was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal after spending the past two seasons in Baltimore. The right-hander was 8-5 with a 3.47 ERA in the first half of the 2012 season, but he has dealt with some injuries since. If he can turn in a big first half, he could be moved at the deadline much like the team did with Scott Feldman last July.

    Rusin will be waiting in Triple-A should someone go down with an injury, and once Jake Arrieta gets healthy he will likely be given a rotation spot to show what he can do.

Bullpen Preview

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    Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Bullpen

    Player2013 Stats
    RHP Justin Grimm27 G, 17 GS, 7-9, 5.97 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 76 K, 98 IP
    RHP Brian Schlitter*54 G, 1-6, 22 SV, 2.42 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 58 K, 63.1 IP
    LHP Wesley Wright70 G, 0-4, 0 SV, 3.69 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 55 K, 53.2 IP
    RHP Hector Rondon45 G, 2-1, 0 SV, 4.77 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 44 K, 54.2 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

    *Minor league stats

     

    Outlook

    Last season, Chicago Cubs relievers combined for a 4.04 ERA to rank 25th in the MLB and converted just 39 of 65 save chances.

    The additions of Wesley Wright and Jose Veras this offseason should help improve things, as both are proven veterans capable of being called on frequently. Veras was solid as the Houston Astros closer before being traded to the Detroit Tigers last year, and he'll fill that role again.

    The 28-year-old Pedro Strop is one to watch this year, as he was terrific after joining the Cubs in the Scott Feldman trade. He made 37 appearances post-trade, with a 2.83 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 35 innings of work.

    James Russell is back as a proven setup man, Hector Rondon pitched well enough to stick as a Rule 5 pick last year and will once again open the season with a bullpen spot. Brian Schlitter beat out Alberto Cabrera for the final middle relief job, while Justin Grimm opens the year as the long reliever.

    Blake Parker was the breakout reliever of the 2013 season, but a rough spring landed him in the minors to open the year. He'll likely be back at some point and could be joined by Zac Rosscup, who had a terrific season in the minors last year and also pitched well down the stretch in Chicago.

Prospects to Watch

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    Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

    SS Javier Baez (Triple-A, 21 years old, No. 1 prospect)

    The team's Minor League Player of the Year last season, Baez looks to be destined for superstardom, and it is only a matter of time before he plays his way onto the big league roster. His 147 strikeouts last season show he still has some developing to do, but there is no ignoring the 34 doubles, 37 home runs and 20 stolen bases he put up. His bat will carry him to Chicago at some point in 2013, though it remains to be seen where he'll wind up defensively.

     

    3B Kris Bryant (Triple-A, 22 years old, No. 2 prospect)

    Taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant signed in time to play 36 games last season, and he put on a show at the plate with a .336/.390/.688 line that included 14 doubles, two triples and nine home runs in 128 at-bats. He followed that up by winning Arizona Fall League MVP honors, and his tremendous power potential could make him a superstar in the not-too-distant future.

     

    2B Arismendy Alcantara (Triple-A, 22 years old, No. 7 prospect)

    The breakout prospect of 2013, Alcantara spent a full season in Double-A last year, hitting .271/.352/.451 with 36 doubles, 15 home runs and 31 stolen bases. He was added to the 40-man roster in the offseason and should be able to push Darwin Barney and Emilio Bonifacio for the everyday second base job by midseason.

     

    RP Arodys Vizcaino (Triple-A, 23 years old, No. 10 prospect)

    Acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Paul Maholm trade, Arodys Vizcaino underwent Tommy John surgery on March 20, 2012, and he has been recovering since. His stuff has turned heads this spring, but the team is being patient with him, and he'll open the season in extended spring training, according to Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. He could be closing games by season's end, and if nothing else, he should be able to make an impact of some sort out of the bullpen.

     

    SP Kyle Hendricks (Triple-A, 24 years old, No. 11 prospect)

    Picked up from the Texas Rangers along with Christian Villanueva in the Ryan Dempster trade back in 2012, Hendricks was not even ranked among the team's top 30 prospects entering last season. His stuff is not eye-popping, but there is no ignoring his numbers, as he was 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.058 WHIP over 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year. He's not going to be a future ace, but he could be a useful middle-of-the-rotation arm, and he should make his debut at some point in 2014.

     

    Note: Prospect rankings courtesy of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook.

Breakout Candidates

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    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 last season and was one of the few bright spots in the Cubs' lineup.

    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. His .274/.349/.397 line was decent, but it was on the strength of his terrific defense that he was able to rank among the game's top backstops.

    Now entering his age-27 season, the team will be looking for him to take a step forward offensively. With no real catching prospects that profile as everyday options down the road, they're counting on Castillo to lock down the position as they continue to rebuild, and a breakout offensive season would be another big piece of the rebuilding puzzle.

     

    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 has dealt with some shoulder problems this spring and will start the season on the DL, but he will be given every chance to prove he deserves a spot in the present and future rotation once he returns.

     

    RP Zac Rosscup

    A 28th-round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2009, Zac Rosscup came to the Cubs as a throw-in piece of the Matt Garza blockbuster trade prior to the 2011 season.

    He split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, appearing in 46 games and posting a 2.12 ERA with an eye-opening 83 strikeouts in 51 innings of work. That earned him a late-season call-up, and he allowed just three hits and one run in 6.2 innings down the stretch.

    He will start the season in Triple-A, but the 25-year-old will likely be the first reliever called upon should the bullpen need reinforcements. Much like Blake Parker last year, he could be an unexpectedly reliable arm out of the bullpen once he arrives.

Top Keys to a Successful 2014

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    A Resolution to the Jeff Samardzija Situation

    An extension candidate heading into last year, Samardzija saw his ERA spike from 3.81 to 4.34, though he did reach a career-high 213.2 innings as a workhorse atop the staff.

    A free agent at the end of the 2015 season, Samardzija's name popped up in rumors at the trade deadline last year and then again this offseason. He starts the season in Chicago but could see his name on the block once again this season.

    An extension remains a possibility, but at some point in 2014, the Cubs will need to come to a decision on what to do with the Shark long term.

     

    A Return to Form for Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

    Entering 2013, the Cubs looked to have two core pieces in Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, but both fell well short of expectations.

    Rizzo saw his OPS drop from .805 to .742, and his home run total climbed from just 15 to 23 despite seeing 269 more at-bats than the previous year.

    Meanwhile, Castro hit just .245/.284/.347 after making the NL All-Star team the previous two seasons and piling up hits. Both Rizzo and Castro have been locked up long-term, and they will need to get back on track or the rebuilding process will take a step backwards.

     

    Continued Progression from Top Prospects

    The future looks incredibly bright for the Cubs, as they have the No. 4 farm system in baseball, according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook.

    The big four of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler give the offense an incredibly bright outlook, while secondary prospects like Arismendy Alcantara and Dan Vogelbach look to have bright futures as well.

    They are still somewhat thin on pitching, but C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson are both coming off of impressive seasons, and guys like Neil Ramirez and Kyle Hendricks were solid last year as well.

    Continued progression from their farm system is the single most important factor of the team's push back toward contention.

Previewing Chicago Cubs' Opening Series

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Game 1

    When: March 31

    Time: 12:05 p.m. CT

    Pitching Matchup: RHP Jeff Samardzija vs. LHP Francisco Liriano

    The Cubs will face Francisco Liriano to kick off the season, and they did not fare well against the southpaw last season. In five starts, he was 3-1 with a 2.12 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, and that included a complete-game effort in Wrigley Field on July 5.

    Jeff Samardzija takes the ball for the Cubs, and while he was just 1-3 in five starts of his own, he did have a solid 3.00 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 33 innings. That included a gem on Opening Day, in which he went eight innings and allowed just two hits while striking out nine.

     

    Game 2

    When: April 2

    Time: 6:05 p.m. CT

    Pitching Matchup: RHP Edwin Jackson vs. RHP Gerrit Cole

    Gerrit Cole will take the mound for the Pirates in Game 2, coming off of a terrific rookie season and looking to establish himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game. He made two starts against the Cubs in 2013, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.

    Edwin Jackson is the No. 2 starter to open the year as he looks to bounce back from his disastrous 18-loss campaign. For as bad as his numbers were last year, he was 2-2 with a 3.48 ERA in four starts against the Pirates.

     

    Game 3

    When: April 3

    Time: 11:35 a.m. CT

    Pitching Matchup: RHP Jason Hammel vs. RHP Charlie Morton

    After starting the season late recovering from Tommy John surgery, Charlie Morton went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts upon returning, and that earned him a three-year, $21 million extension this offseason. He was 0-1 with a 3.50 ERA in three starts against the Cubs last year.

    Newcomer Jason Hammel takes the ball in Game 3 for the Cubs, setting up Travis Wood to pitch the home opener. He did not face the Pirates last year while pitching for the Baltimore Orioles and is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA in four games (three starts) for his career.

2014 Chicago Cubs Season Outlook

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    Predicted Record: 74-88

    Predicted NL Central Finish: Fifth

    The Cubs have not had a winning season since 2009, losing 90-plus games in each of the past three seasons. They improved slightly last season, tacking five wins onto their terrible 61-101 finish in 2012, but they are still a long way from contention.

    This will be their third season under Theo Epstein, and his full-scale rebuilding and farm system gives fans plenty of reason for hope moving forward. As for the present, this is a team that will struggle mightily to avoid another last-place finish in the NL Central.

    An influx of motivated young talent in the second half should give fans a reason to keep paying attention after the All-Star break, but a fifth straight losing season seems like a safe bet.

    Avoiding 90 losses seems like a legitimate goal for the 2014 Cubs, and we'll say they pull it off and finish 74-88 on the year, albeit last in the division once again.