The Cubs offseason isn't likely to be as explosive as some teams, but Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer still have some big questions to answer this winter, and here are five key players, listed by how much they fit in to the team's future plans, by five key categories.
Must keep: Anthony Rizzo. Most Cubs fans were disappointed in Rizzo's 2013 campaign and for good reason. His .233 batting average was over 50 points lower than his 2012 season. He hit 23 home runs, which is OK but not exactly what Cubs fans were expecting after he hit 16 in only half a season the year before.
But if you look closer into the number, you see why the Cubs can't give up on Rizzo. For one, his batting average was severely hurt by a terrible .258 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His home-run-to-fly-ball ratio went way down as well. Both of those are often the result of just bad luck, which can't be expected to continue in 2014. Additionally, Rizzo's walk percentage actually went up last year by a significant percentage. His strikeouts increased a little bit too, but his overall BB/K ratio was much better in 2013 than in 2012.
To be sure, not everything in Rizzo's 2013 was just bad luck. He was hitting more lazy popups and he wasn't driving the ball nearly as well as he did in 2012. That accounts for some of the decline, but not all of it. It wasn't as if Rizzo turned into a slap hitter overnight. From all indications, Rizzo should bounce back big in 2014.
On top of that, Rizzo is signed to a team-friendly extension that will keep him a Cub through the 2019 season with two club option seasons after that. The Cubs have no one in the minors who can take Rizzo's place and no, I haven't forgotten about Dan Vogelbach. He bats left-handed, and the Cubs' big boppers in the minors are all right-handed.
Good first basemen are hard to find in baseball theses days. Even if Rizzo doesn't turn out to be a perennial all-star, he should end up as a quality first baseman for a long time. Keep him at all costs.
Should keep: Starlin Castro. Like Rizzo, Castro had a lousy 2013, and you can't say "He had a lousy season but . . ." as easily as you can with Rizzo. The bottom line is that Castro was bad in 2013. He hit a career-low .245 with a terrible .284 OBP. His strikeouts were up. He was criticized for not having his head in the game at all times. His defense took a step back. Castro had a terrible season, period.
On top of all that, the Cubs have a player in Javier Baez who is almost ready for the majors and he looks like he can handle short. Trading Castro would open up a spot for the Cubs' top prospect.
But I'd argue that the Cubs shouldn't be looking to deal Castro. Now, clearly, if a team in need of a shortstop decides to blow the Cubs away with an offer of great young pitching (I'm looking at you, St. Louis), then the Cubs have to consider the offer. But as Jed Hoyer said in his talk with the season ticket holders, the worst time to trade a player is after a bad year. Maybe the Cardinals still like him enough to pay for him at his 2012 prices, but that seems unlikely. More likely, teams would want to grab him on sale, and the Cubs have no reason to part with him cheap. Like Rizzo, Castro is under contract through 2019 with an option year for 2020.
Castro doesn't turn 24 until March. Had he been a rookie in 2013 and had put up those numbers as a 23-year-old, we'd be thinking he was a promising prospect who had been rushed. But he's not a rookie and he was a career .297 hitter in three seasons before 2013. Through his age 23 season, he has 692 hits. That's a lot. Players who have that many hits that young usually have long careers.
The Cubs hired Rick Renteria as manager for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that they feel he's the right guy to get Castro back on track. The Cubs should at least give him a chance to get Castro right before shipping him off elsewhere.
Neutral: Nate Schierholtz. The Cubs picked up Schierholtz off the scrap heap last winter when the Phillies declined to offer him a contract. They were rewarded with the best season of his career as he hit 21 home runs from the left side and played a solid right field. It was a no-brainer for the Cubs to offer Schierholtz arbitration this winter.
But Schierholtz turns 30 in February and is unlikely to be in the Cubs' long-term plans. He has to sit against left-handed pitchers and his numbers in the second half of 2013 weren't as good as the first half. Coming off his power surge in 2013, his value may never be higher. The Diamondbacks are rumored to be interested in him and Jed Hoyer says there is no shortage of teams that have inquired about his availability. So there should be no reason for the Cubs not to deal him, right?
Not so fast. First, the Cubs still need to try to field a team in 2014 and Nate Schierholtz had the team's best OPS+ last year among the 2013 starters. The Cubs have their right fielder of the future in Jorge Soler, or Kris Bryant, if they want to go in that direction, but neither one of them is ready to take over the position in April. On top of that, we don't know what the other teams are offering. I'd suspect most teams are interested in Schierholtz because they think he's cheap, both in salary and in terms of what they'd have to give up. The Cubs have no reason to just give Schierholtz up for nothing. He's not going to bring back a major prospect, but the Cubs should get a valuable major leaguer at worst for Schierholtz.
If the price is right, the Cubs should deal Schierholtz and hope Brian Bogusevic can hold down right field in 2014. (Or Junior Lake in right, with Bogusevic in left and Ryan Sweeney in center.) But the Cubs could do a lot worse than going into 2014 with Nate Schierholtz as their starting right fielder.
Should trade: Jeff Samardzija. Everyone knows Samardzija's potential and his stuff. He pitched over 200 innings in 2013 and struck out over a batter an inning. His ERA wasn't that good, but I'd argue that's more a result of the poor defense behind him than anything. When you look at his advanced metrics, Samardzija looks like a #2 pitcher in the majors, and that's exactly what the Cubs need at this time.
So why in the world should the Cubs trade him? Because he will be a free agent after the 2015 season and has so far been unwilling to sign a long-term extension. For a team that is still rebuilding like the Cubs, that's a problem. For a team that is looking to win now, Samardzija's value will never be higher. With two years of control left, teams would be willing to give up a lot more knowing the Shark will give them two bites at the apple rather than just one.
On top of all that, pitchers get hurt. There's no indication of Samardzija having any arm problems at this time, but it would just take one arm injury to send Samardzija's trade value plummeting through the floor. By dealing him now, the Cubs could expect to get premium value back in return.
Now, my preference would be to not trade Samardzija at all and sign him to a long-term deal. The Cubs need pitching and Samardzija is the best one they have. But if he's determined to test free agency in two seasons, the Cubs need to deal him now when they can get a lot for him, rather than scramble in a year and hope some team is desperate enough to overpay for a half season of Samardzija.
The Cubs need a deal similar to what they gave up for Matt Garza for Samardzija. But if such a deal comes along, they need to bite.
Must trade: Brett Jackson. The Cubs really don't have any players on their major-league roster any more that they have to get rid of in order to improve the team. The Epstein/Hoyer purge of the past two seasons has taken care of that. Rather, this move is for the good of Brett Jackson, rather than the Cubs. Brett Jackson can do everything you'd want on the baseball diamond except for one thing, and that's making consistent contact at the plate. That's kind of a big "but" and it's not really something you can overlook.
There have been questions about Jackson's swing and his ability to make contact going back to his college days at Cal. The Cubs have had five seasons to try to fix that and have failed utterly. If anything, Jackson got worse after the much ballyhooed rebuild of his swing after the 2012 season. The Cubs have tried everything and nothing has worked. It's time to see if another team and a change of scenery can help Jackson. The Cubs won't get much of anything for him at this point, but it doesn't look like they'll get anything from him if he sticks around. Jackson is a good kid and a hard-working athlete. It's time to see if another team can fix him.