This is a part of the soon-to-be-published SBNation.com baseball preview, in which they asked every team blogger why their team will win the pennant. I received this request in mid-February, and it's taken me about this long to stop laughing about the concept. Having ceased laughter... here's what I think about this year's Cubs.
They won't. No, seriously, they won't. Even in the optimistic month of March, where sunshine is abundant and rookies blast home runs, there's no way this motley collection of Cubs can possibly win the National League pennant. And that's coming from someone who's normally way overoptimistic about this team's chances. Championship 2014? Not happening. Not from a team coming off two years of 101 and 96 defeats.
Now, let me try to talk myself out of that statement. There are some things that could happen to this year's Cubs that might make them a .500 team, or perhaps even slightly better. These things would all have to occur for that to be the result, and … well, as a Cubs fan for more than five decades, I can tell you that just doesn't happen to the Chicago Cubs.
Here's one thing that gives me a bit of optimism: the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, who after a couple of years of sort-of contention, won 94 games. Now, the 2014 Cubs don't have the same talent-base to build on, but what they do have is a team that scored only 32 fewer runs than the Pirates last year. The Pirates won 94 games in large part because they allowed the second-fewest runs in the N.L. in 2013, and much of that was their excellent bullpen, led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, as well as an unexpectedly huge year from Francisco Liriano. In contrast, the Cubs' bullpen was just a shade above horrific. If Kevin Gregg hadn't come along and replaced Carlos Marmol as closer when Marmol was blowing leads seemingly every other day, the Cubs might have lost 100-plus games again. Even then, the Cubs had 26 blown saves and a relief ERA of 4.04, ranking 25th in the major leagues.
The Cubs have attempted to address this issue. It looks as if Jose Veras, signed as a free agent, will close; Pedro Strop did a good job as a setup man after his acquisition from the Orioles at midseason, and he fits the profile of a pitcher who can step into the closing role if Veras fails. Wesley Wright, an experienced reliever who fills his role well, has been added so that the Cubs can stop the constant flow of Triple-A guys on the Des-Moines-to-Chicago shuttle into the pen.
That will help. Will it produce 94 wins? No, it won't.
More about that Cubs runs-scored total from 2013: it was 602. That was the lowest run total for a Cubs team in a non-labor-dispute season since 1963, so, clearly, offense is a bigger issue than pitching. And so the Cubs went out and signed two big offensive forces for the middle of the lineup...
Wait, wait. No, they didn't do that.
So they have to hope that the following things happen, in order to score more runs:
- Starlin Castro must return to his 2010-11 level of performance. Castro had a couple of personal issues in 2013, along with reportedly having his head messed with by the previous regime's coaching staff. He just turned 24 and he's had success at the major-league level, so this is certainly possible.
- Anthony Rizzo must fulfill the promise he had when Theo and Jed traded Andrew Cashner for him two winters ago. Rizzo's .233/.323/.419 line from last year doesn't look all that great, but it did produce a 101 OPS+, and his .258 batting average on balls in play was far below league average and down sharply from his 2012 level. He also ranked sixth in the N.L. in 2013 with 76 walks. Rizzo is also 24.
- Mike Olt must come back from vision problems caused by a concussion he suffered in winter ball during the 2012-13 offseason. He had an awful season in the minor leagues in 2013, which led to the Rangers' willingness to send him to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. The Cubs need him to claim the third-base job and become a productive No. 5 hitter.
- Welington Castillo must become the middle-of-the-order hitter that he appeared to be in the second half of 2013, when he hit .288/.388/.475 with six home runs in 139 at-bats. The Cubs love his defense and hard work, but need him to be an all-around player.
- Darwin Barney must go back to hitting at his 2011 level, when he averaged .276/.313/.353 for an OPS+ of 83. That isn't great, but with Barney's defensive prowess, that would be sufficient for him to continue to be the starting second baseman. If he hits the way he did in 2013 -- an OPS+ of 52, one of the five worst in the major leagues last year -- he's a utility player.
So that's what, only five of the Cubs' eight starting position players who have to all improve their games? That isn't asking too much, is it?
And I haven't even gotten to the outfield, which consists of a Who Knows? (Junior Lake), a former Top Prospect (Ryan Sweeney), a WYSIWYG (Nate Schierholtz), and a platoon/backup guy (Justin Ruggiano), none of whom have ever had sustained success in the major leagues. The only one of those four who's had any real big-league success is Schierholtz, and his best year -- 2013 -- produced 1.4 WAR. He's a replacement player.
The starting rotation was one of the best things about the 2013 Cubs, but two of those pitchers (Matt Garza, Scott Feldman) were shipped off in July for two young, major-league-ready pitchers (Strop and Jake Arrieta) and four prospects (one of whom, Olt, is being counted on this year). So that leaves four holdovers (Arrieta, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson) and new acquisition Jason Hammel, who is likely to be this year's Feldman -- if he's even healthy. Wood made the All-Star team in 2013, largely because every team has to have a representative, but he actually deserved the honor, finishing 12th in the league in ERA and 13th in WHIP. At 27, he's likely entering his peak years.
What to make of Samardzija? He's still got "potential" marked on him despite being 29. He turned down a long-term contract extension from the team, hoping he'll put up big numbers in 2014 and get even more money. He'll need to have a breakout year to get that, though, and it's quite possible he'll be traded before the deadline.
Edwin Jackson was one of the worst starting pitchers in the league in 2013; about the only thing he did right was not miss any time due to injury, and that's his value – as an inning-eater. He didn't do much of that last year, averaging only 5.6 innings per start and throwing seven or more innings just five times all year. The Cubs are stuck with him for three more years, including 2014, and his front-loaded contract (which pays him just $11 million a year for each of those years) might make him dealable if he improves. Arrieta is the wild card in this rotation. He was at one time a top prospect of the Orioles, but they soured on him after 69 games and a 5.46 ERA in the majors. He pitched pretty well for the Cubs in nine starts after the trade, but he turns 28 in March and it's probably now or never for him.
If every single one of the things I mentioned above -- improved bullpen, hitters playing up to their potential, starting rotation solid -- happens, the Cubs might be able to improve from the 66-win team they were in 2013 (and for the last two months, after their deadline deals, the Cubs weren't a 66-win team; they played .309 ball, a 50-win pace over a full season) to a .500 club, or maybe slightly better.
Could it happen? Sure, and I could be elected mayor of Chicago.