5 Reasons for Chicago Cubs Fans to Be Optimistic in 2014

Jacob Kornhauser@@KornSportsCorrespondent IIIMarch 29, 2014

5 Reasons for Chicago Cubs Fans to Be Optimistic in 2014

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    Traditionally, Cubs fans don't have a lot to look forward to with each new season. At least that has been the case on the north side for several years now and fans surely want to find some solace in different aspects of this year's team. Unlike in the past few years, they can actually find a few things to give them comfort about the year to come and the next couple years of Cubs baseball.

    There are several aspects of the 2014 Cubs team that should give fans more to watch this season as well as more to watch for in 2015 and beyond. In other words, the major league product should see an upgrade on the field while displaying some of what the future has in store. Really, 2015 is the first year that the Cubs realistically want to be competing for the playoffs and the progress they make in 2014 will go a long way toward determining whether that becomes reality or not.

    Through offseason additions, spring performances and other things that have happened behind the scenes, expectations for the 2014 season are starting to take shape. While expectations aren't sky high for this year's team, these five things should give Cubs fans some hope in 2014 and beyond.

5. Ongoing Player Questions Will Be Answered

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    There have been a few storylines that have existed on the north side for a while now and it's likely we can all finally stop hearing about a few of them by the end of this season. When focusing on two players who have been the subjects of trade speculation, there is a good chance both will have their fates decided by the end of the season. 

    Those two players are, of course Jeff Samardzija and Darwin Barney. Samardzija has been hesitant to sign a long-term extension with the Cubs as he's not completely sold on their rebuilding project. If they can't sign him to an extension by the trade deadline this season, the Cubs would be wise to move him. That way they would get rid of him with a season and a half left on his contract as opposed to just half a season (if they dealt him at the 2015 deadline). That year-long difference could be the difference in acquiring an extra key prospect. 

    Barney has been the subject of trade speculation because of his great fielding, but soft hitting last season. When the Tigers lost shortstop Jose Iglesias for the season, they inquired about Barney, but ended up going in a different direction. There may be a contender at the deadline that wants to add to their middle infield depth and that could lead to Barney's departure from Chicago. If not, he will likely be delegated to a backup role in 2015 with Javier Baez ready to reach the big leagues very soon.

    No matter what the answer ends up being to both of these huge question marks, both will have answers by the end of this season. Once those questions are cleared up, the direction the Cubs are headed in the future will become much clearer.

4. 2014 Will Act as Bridge Year to the Future

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    It's no secret the last four seasons on the north side haven't been particularly pleasant to watch. Supposedly, the next three to five years of Cubs baseball are supposed to be better. So where does that leave 2014 in this grand plan? Well, it should act as something of a bridge year to the future. 

    Basically, the Cubs are now good enough to not embarrass themselves, but they're still not nearly good enough to compete for a playoff spot. That's a bit of a crossover between the past and what the future is supposed to be like. For that reason, 2014 is actually essential to the rebuilding project as a whole. If the team totally flops in 2014, that could set the team's timeline back a year. If the year goes really well, and by "really well" we're talking about a .500 record, then they could build momentum into the future. 

    Fans should be optimistic about 2014 because it looks like it will be the first time since 2009 that they're not atrocious. Again, it's not likely the Cubs are going to compete in 2014, but the progress the team should make on the field will make the fan base more optimistic going forward.

3. Mike Olt Starting at Third, First of Wave of Prospects

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    In terms of the Cubs' long-term plans, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo arrived a little earlier than the rest of the players the team hopes play key roles in the future. The next wave of Cubs talent is right on the cusp and will be featured at Wrigley Field soon. Mike Olt is the first player in that next wave.

    As was recently announced, Mike Olt made the Cubs' Opening Day roster and will be the team's everyday third baseman. This should be exciting for Cubs fans because it's yet another player they can look forward to watching and knowing he will be there when the team figures to be competing. Sure, players like Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz are solid players to watch, but most fans are aware that those players likely won't be with the team when they're competing. That's not the case for Olt, however. 

    After struggling through vision problems last season, Olt seemed like he put it together this spring. He hit five home runs, showing off his power. Based on that power upside and the fact he would slide nicely between the lefty pairing of Rizzo and Schierholtz, there's a good chance Olt ends up as the team's cleanup hitter. How Olt performs will help determine where the remaining Cubs prospects land when they get their call ups.

2. More Prospects Likely to Get Called Up Before Season's End

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    There are a few top hitting prospects that could be joining Olt in Chicago before this season is up. Infielder Javier Baez showed that he is clearly ready to be playing in the major leagues every day. The only reason he isn't right now is because the team doesn't want him to be arbitration eligible a year sooner. However, there are a few situations that could bring about the call up of a few prospects. 

    Should Barney be traded around the trade deadline, Baez could be called up to replace him at second base. Even though the team already has utility man Emilio Bonifacio who could take over at second, they may prefer to keep him in the utility role. In that case, fans would be able to get their first taste of Baez at the major league level in the regular season.

    It would've seemed impossible when they drafted him last June, but there is also a chance third base prospect Kris Bryant could be in the big leagues by the end of the year. If Olt is playing well at the hot corner, Bryant will be relegated to the outfield, but fans will be treated to his sweet swing nonetheless. 

    So even though these prospects may not have a gigantic impact on the outcome of the 2014 season, being able to get a glimpse of the future should be exciting for Cubs fans. The flashes that these players show will make fans feel closer to the club's promising future than their disappointing past.

1. Improved Bullpen

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    The one area the Cubs improved the most this offseason is the bullpen. While a lot of the things that Cubs fans should be optimistic about in 2014 have to do more with the future than the present, the improved bullpen is a reason to be optimistic in 2014 itself. Several moves were made in the offseason to bolster the unit that was in the bottom third of the league last season. 

    Chicago Cubs' Opening Day Bullpen Locks:

    • LHP Wesley Wright
    • LHP James Russell
    • RHP Pedro Strop
    • RHP Jose Veras

    Chicago Cubs' Opening Day Bullpen Remaining Candidates:

    • RHP Alberto Cabrera
    • RHP Justin Grimm
    • RHP Hector Rondon
    • RHP Brian Schlitter
    • LHP Zac Rosscup
    • RHP Neil Ramirez
    • RHP Blake Parker
    • RHP Armando Rivero
    • LHP Jonathan Sanchez

    While the team still has plenty of decisions to make about the state of the long relievers in the bullpen, the back end of the 'pen is solid enough for Cubs fans to be more optimistic about the upcoming season. The addition of Wesley Wright gives the Cubs much more flexibility with how they use their lefties. In the past, James Russell had to pitch every situation that required a lefty. Now he and Wright can split those duties and give the Cubs more matchup advantages late in games.

    Pedro Strop looks to build on the strong end to his 2013 campaign with the Cubs in 2014. He will be the club's setup man and could be auditioning for the closer job in the future. Another player who could be the closer of the future, Arodys Vizcaino could be in the bullpen at some point in 2014 as well. He touches triple-digits on the gun and averages 96 mph on his fastball. His electric stuff could be featured at Wrigley Field soon. When he returns from injury this summer, Kyuji Fujikawa could bolster the bullpen as well. 

    The addition of Jose Veras bolsters the Cubs' bullpen, too. He has experience setting up and closing games in the big leagues and he will be doing the latter for the Cubs this season. With such a solid back four in the 'pen, the Cubs should be able to close out many more close games this season than they did a year ago. Naturally, that results in more wins and a more successful season. If that doesn't give fans a reason to be optimistic, nothing will.