Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Given that the Cubs have racked up 91, 101, and 96 losses in the past 3 seasons, respectively, and have added very little to improve the quality of the major league team, it is likely that 2014 will be another woeful season on the North Side. This is especially true as division rivals in Pittsburgh and St. Louis continue to produce young, talented minor league players (such as Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Michael Wacha). Though another losing season is likely, 2014 will prove to be a pivotal year for the Cubs management. When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs in late 2009, they began an unprecedented rebuilding process that consisted of a complete remodeling of the team. The Ricketts family earned some credibility with fans by luring Theo Epstein, architect of the 2004 Red Sox team that ended the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino,” to Chicago. Immediately after signing Theo, optimism spread throughout Chicago… but after two years and 197 losses, fans began to lose patience at the end of 2013. Attendance has dropped substantially in the Ricketts era – from 3.3 million in 2008, to 2.6 million in 2013. With patience already waning, the Cubs did next to nothing this offseason to improve the team. It is widely thought that the Cubs will need to demonstrate to the fans that the team is moving in the right direction. The following list highlights five areas (in no particular order) that will provide some indication of which way the arrow points for the Cubs, up, down, or sideways.
All that we have heard from Theo Epstein over the past two years is that this team will be built from the bottom up. Undoubtedly, the Cubs’ farm system has come a long way with players like Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Dan Vogelbach, and CJ Edwards working their way through the system. In 2011, Baseball America ranked the 71-win Cubs as having the 16th best minor league system. This past October, Baseball America ranked the Cubs as the 5th strongest system (and quite frankly they may have been higher if players that will be in the majors in 2014, such as Rangers’ shortstop Jurickson Profar, and Astros outfielder George Springer, were not included in the rankings). Management has been careful to give these players enough time to develop at each level. The continued development and progression of each of these prospects through the minor leagues is critical to the success of the team. Knowing that 2014 is likely to be a bad year means that we will be looking to minor league players, hoping that they will progress enough to come up in 2015. A strong year for these minor league players will provide management with an excellent silver lining to a losing season. At the same time, a poor year from these players could deal a devastating blow to the increasingly agitated fans.
2. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro
What little hype has surrounded the Cubs recently has focused on youth that has already reached the major league level. After coming to the Cubs in a 2011 trade, Rizzo posted gaudy numbers in 2012 for the AAA Iowa Cubs, essentially forcing Theo and Hoyer to promote Rizzo to the majors. Rizzo did not disappoint in 2012, posting a .285 batting average and 15 home runs in only 87 games. 2013 told a different story for the young first baseman as Rizzo’s batting average fell to .233, although he still ended up hitting 23 home runs. Castro came up in 2010, one-and-a-half seasons before Epstein came to Chicago. After hitting .300, and .307 in his first two Cubs seasons, Castro’s numbers dipped slightly in 2012 (batting average fell to .283), but then dramatically to .245 in 2013.
A major result of these poor performances was the Cubs’ decision to fire manager Dale Sveum. Theo and Jed Hoyer recognize that much of the Cubs’ future rests on the success of these two young, talented players, which is why each was signed to a long-term deal. A rebound year for Castro and Rizzo will go a long way in reassuring fans that management understands what they are doing, but a repeat performance, or worse, a regression for either player would further rock the confidence that fans have in the management.
There are several directions that the Cubs could take with Jeff Samardzija. They could trade him at any point between now and the July 31st deadline, they could sign him to a long-term extension, or they could continue to do nothing. In 2012, they were in a very similar situation with right-hander Matt Garza. Management decided to hold onto Garza until the trade deadline in 2012, which proved disastrous when Garza was shut down with elbow issues just 10 days before the 2012 trade deadline. The Cubs were fortunate to be able to trade Garza (notably acquiring CJ Edwards and Mike Olt) in 2013 after the 2012 injury kept him off of the mound until late May 2013.
If the Cubs plan to extend Samardzija, the cost will continue to go up as he continues to succeed. The earlier they can lock him into a deal, the better the terms will be. If they decide to trade him, doing so in 2014, rather than 2015 will provide his new team with an extra, resulting in greater trade value, while minimizing the Cubs’ risk of Samardzija getting injured. A splashy trade, for example, packaging Samardzija with some prospects to acquire David Price, would also do a lot to inspire confidence in the Cubs management. Standing pat with Samardzija is likely the worst thing the Cubs could do. Timing is everything with this right-hander and regardless of what they do, it will be interesting to see when they take care of it.
4. Junior Lake and Mike Olt
These two players are in make-or-break seasons. With the possibility of players like Bryant, Almora, Soler, and Baez being ready to come up within the next year or two, Olt and Lake will need to do what they can to earn a spot on the roster. Lake has essentially earned himself the opportunity to start in centerfield after pleasantly surprising everyone with a solid midseason call-up. Lake hit .284 with six home runs, and added speed to the outfield when David DeJesus went down with an injury. Lake’s biggest problem was plate discipline, as he struck out 68 times in only 64 games. His performance also dropped off towards the end of the season, keep in mind that he hit .324 through his first 34 games.
Olt, on the other hand, has not yet had the opportunity to play for the Cubs’ big league team. After having a stellar 2012 minor league season (earning nominations for the Minor League Player of the Year Award, losing out to Wil Myers), Olt hit only .201 in 107 minor league games last year. At 25, Olt’s window of opportunity appears to be closing. Given the lack of depth at third base on the major league team, it would be encouraging to see the Cubs give Olt a chance. If these players have success at the major league level, it will lessen the pressure put on Baez, Soler, and Almora as the core of the team will be strengthened. It will also provide fans with some new faces to be excited about (though Lake would not really be a new face). If these players cannot make the team, fans will have to continue to watch the collection of players like Luis Valbuena and Justin Ruggiano, who have washed out of other major league systems.
5. Free Agency
The final thing to watch in 2014 is free agency. The Cubs approach both right now, mainly with the bidding for Masahiro Tanaka, and after the 2014 season with give the fans an idea of whether the Cubs think they can be competitive. The Cubs keep saying that they will supplement their team with free agents when they think they can be competitive. The lack of free agent activity this past offseason indicates that the Cubs do not intend to compete in 2014. If they are similarly disinterested in free agency in 2014, it could be a sign that 2015 will be ugly as well.