As some of you may still be recovering from closing out the 2013 year last night, it may be a good opportunity to take one final look at last season before fully turning our attentions to the upcoming 2014 campaign. Considering that the Cubs fan base had to endure another losing season, a good way to kick of the New Year would be to take away 13 positives from 2013. How can one fathom even a couple of good notes, much less 13, from a 96 loss season? Continuing reading.
- 13) For starters, the Cubs “only” lost 96 games. How is that a plus note you ask? Well the Cubs lost 101 games in 2012. North Side fans knew full well what the team was getting into when they hired Theo Epstein to head the front office and take on a honest, full blown rebuild job. While a five game improvement may seem moot, the 2013 ball club was just a competent bullpen away from being an upper 80’s loss team within eyesight of .500. Either way, change to winning ways was not going to happen overnight and the 66-96 record is a small step in the right direction.
- 12) Alfonso Soriano finally parted ways with the Cubs. After blocking a move to the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants a year before, the veteran slugger accepted a trade back to where it all started for him in Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees. While Epstein and Jed Hoyer were not able to get much of a return on the aging left fielder who, to Soriano’s credit, had a bounce back year in 2012 that saw him break the 30 HR and 100 RBI thresholds again, sending the former Texas Ranger and Washington National packing symbolized another step away from the previous reign under Jim Hendry. While Soriano developed into a bit of a leader in the clubhouse the last couple of seasons, he still represented the money throwing approach of the last regime. The deal also made way for the promotion of Junior Lake.
- 11) Speaking of Lake, the rookie made a nice splash onto the North Side scene with a solid debut campaign. The 23 year old hit .284 with a .332 OBP with six HR and 16 RBI in 64 games played. Just as Soriano represented overspending on free agents, Lake provided a glimpse of the future and the breathe of fresh air of a prospect translating production to the Major League level. While his 68 strikeouts are a bit alarming and continue the trend of one his weaknesses from the minors, any chances of him improving on his plate discipline should become increased under the current front office and new hitting coach Bill Mueller. Even if Lake ends up as just a solid corner outfield platoon player, it says something that he has already had more success than 2009 first round draft pick Brett Jackson. Lake has also been able to make the jump despite spending a majority of his minor league career as an infielder.
- 10) The Cubs were able to keep Hector Rondon on the 25 man roster without having to try to bend the use of the disabled list like they did with fellow Rule 5 draft pick Lendy Castillo. Rondon was a highly touted prospect in the Indians system before an injury derailed his route to the Majors. The Cubs snatched him up from the 2012 Rule 5 and after raising eyebrows in Spring Training, Rondon was able to hold his place in the Wrigley Field bullpen for the entire season. His 4.77 ERA, 1.409 WHIP, and 4.1 walks per nine innings clearly show that he is still a work in progress, but the upside is there for a rebuilding team like the Cubs to capitalize on going forward. Rondon can project to be a solid set up man by the time the Cubs plan on being contenders.
- 9) Kevin Gregg did more than just save 33 games for the Cubs. The journeyman reliever stabilized the closer role after Carlos Marmol continued to set new lows for his own definition of rock bottom. Despite Gregg’s end of season clash with management that appears to leave him outside of the club’s plans for 2014, the goggled closer deserves plenty of credit in helping the Cubs quest to avoid a second straight 100 loss season.
- 8) In retrospect, the mutually beneficial signing of back up squatter Dioner Navarro. The switch hitting catcher provided plenty of entertainment for Cubs fans, considering the losing and rebuilding circumstances. To go along with 34 RBI in 89 games, the veteran bopped a career high 13 homers. Included in that mix were clutch home runs and the memorable three tater game against the crosstown rival White Sox on May 29th. He also hit .300 with a .365 OBP and turned his 2013 performance into a two year, $8 million deal with the Blue Jays this off season.
- 7) If that was not fun enough for you, how about six HR and 29 RBI in offensive production from the pitching staff? Carlos Zambrano who? Led by Travis Wood with three homers and eight RBI on the season, the sweet swinging Cubs pitchers also provided some smiles, cheers, and laughs for Cubs fans in an otherwise down year.
- 6) Welington Castillo handled the anointment of being the starting catcher in 2013 with a passing grade. While taking on the added responsibilities as the lead back stop, including the handling of a pitching staff, Castillo steadily increased his offensive production from a part time 2012 campaign that saw him take over for the traded Geovany Soto. In a career high 113 games, Castillo hit .274 with a .349 OBP and slight increases in his power and RBI totals. Despite the rumors of the Cubs being interested in free agents Brian McCann and Kurt Suzuki, Epstein and Jed Hoyer have not made any moves to question Castillo’s status as the starting game caller. In 2014 he should see his playing time increased to 120 games plus and with the vote of confidence from the front office, should continue his development as a solid back stop.
- 5) The silver lining of the 96 losses? The Cubs will have a top 5 draft pick in the June 2014 draft. After spending over their slot in international signings this past year, the North Siders will be limited on the international amateur signings this season. So the top five pick in June will have a bit of a greater importance, maybe even more so than the second pick in the draft the year before that netted the Cubs Kris Bryant.
- 4) The Cubs took a gamble on Scott Feldman, who was coming off of an injury, by signing him to a guaranteed one year deal. The righty was also a rare bright spot in 2013, pitching better than his 7-6 record on the North Side would suggest. The best part is that Epstein and Hoyer would be able to deal him to Baltimore along with Steve Clevenger in exchange for younger arms Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
- 3) Matt Garza finally returned from a stretch of injury to go an attractive 6-1 with a 3.17 ERA and put the Cubs in position to deal their ace by the trade deadline. As we all know the rest is history, as the Cubs found a dance partner in the form of the Rangers, and accepting a package of prospects that included C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez. While the impact of the return remains to be seen, the front office certainly maximized Garza’s remaining trade value.
- 2) After spending much of his career as a bit player with the Giants and most recently with the Phillies, Nate Schierholtz was just looking for an opportunity to show what he could do with consistent playing time. That chance came on the North Side and the Cubs were rewarded with 21 HR and 68 RBI from their first choice platoon right field. That is the kind of run production the previous regime had hoped for when they imported Kosuke Fukudome. Except Epstein and Company only invested $2.5 million for Schierholtz, who is eligible for arbitration, rather than the $48 million four year deal dished out to Fukudome by Hendry. If Schierholtz can repeat that level of production in 2014, he may very well have just found the home he has been looking for at Wrigley.
- 1) Do not be mislead by the 9-12 win loss mark. For the final highlight of 2013 we circle back to lefty starter Wood, who emerged as a top half of the rotation starter on his way to his first All Star Game selection. He had a career best 3.11 ERA paired with a 1.145 WHIP while logging 200 innings of work, also a first for him. Even with the release of Dave Sappelt, Wood’s positive 2013 campaign has the makings of a plus return for trading away reliever Sean Marshall.
While a few of the highlights are limited to just the 2013 season, the rest of the list should give Cubs fans hope that the team is indeed moving in the right direction. We are another year closer to the all in rebuild approach bearing fruit. Happy New Year for sure!