Here's my annual exercise in giving letter grades to each of the men who played for the 2013 Cubs. I approach this with some trepidation, because usually there's at least one grade I hand out that results in vehement disagreement from all of you, or at least some of you.
That's OK, of course; it's why we're here, to discuss the past and future of this team. Here's hoping that 2014 will be a better year.
First, I'm not going to bother giving final grades to the field management staff, since Dale Sveum was dismissed and many of his coaches likely will also not be returning. Plus, I just wrote this post two days ago giving my thoughts on the current coaches and who I think the Cubs should retain. They were also all graded in my midseason report card; I haven't changed my mind on any of those grades.
That said, I'll quickly give out one grade to a member of management before heading on to the players, and it might surprise you.
Theo Epstein: B+ Thinking about Theo, I actually like many of the things he did this year. The trades made, in general, were positive for the club's future; I particularly liked the Feldman deal, which brought good major-league talent in return. The draft was well done and, just this week, Theo acknowledged that a field manager change had to be made in order to keep this organization moving forward. For those of you who think I "hate" the rebuild, keep thinking that way, but you'll still be wrong. Theo has more work to do. He's heading in the right direction.
Now, on to the players. Remember that I'm giving these grades not on an absolute scale, but also considering the expectations of each player. I'm also not going to bother grading the players who were traded, since they're obviously not going to be back (and I graded them at the All-Star break, not long before they were traded. You can read those grades here); mostly, this will be about players who were on the roster at the end of the year. (Plus, since the Cubs used a team-record 56 players this year, that would make this article ridiculously long.)
Anthony Rizzo: B- If any of you think Rizzo had a bad year, think again. Yes, his batting average was low. But did you notice that he finished sixth in the NL in walks? Or that he hit 40 doubles, fifth-most in the league? Rizzo played good defense and could win a Gold Glove; his OPS+ was at least a bit above average at 101, and he posted 2.6 rWAR. Look at Ron Santo's 1962 season as an example of a young player who had a strong year, regressed, then had a breakout year the following season. Rizzo is just 24. He could be in line for an excellent 2014.
Darwin Barney: D And "D" is not for "defense." Barney might win another Gold Glove this year, but his offensive production was awful. He tied with the Marlins' Adeiny Hechavarria for the worst OPS+ among all qualified players in the NL (56). He's regressed offensively two straight years after a decent 2011. I don't know what to say about Barney; he could be a good utility player on a good team, but going forward, he can't really be a starter if the Cubs are going to improve.
Starlin Castro: C- We've discussed how Castro's head might have been messed with this year; it seems clear that part of the firing of Dale Sveum is the handling of Castro and Rizzo. Castro is still just 23; he turns 24 in March and could be timed for a rebound season, under a new manager. His defense did seem to improve later in the season.
Luis Valbuena: C- Early in the year, he did everything that was asked of him: hit for power, drew walks, played good defense. Later, he seemed to regress; he hit just .165/.290/.329 after the All-Star break (100 PA) and spent some time on the DL. His 2013 season looks almost identical to his 2009, his only other year of 100 or more games played. Like Barney, he's really a utility player forced into a (mostly) starting role.
Donnie Murphy: C I mean, seriously, you can't think that Murphy is as good as he looked when he first came to the Cubs. 11 home runs in 149 at-bats is impressive, no doubt about it, as is a 127 OPS+. From August 25 to the end of the season Murphy hit .214/.275/.369 in 84 of those 149 at-bats, with 29 strikeouts. He plays good defense and can play three positions. He's another utility player.
Junior Lake: B- I really don't know what to make of Lake. He got off to a hot start and looked shaky in the outfield -- not surprising, as he had played just six games there in his minor-league career. As time went by, his hitting declined as his defense got a bit better. He needs work on both. .284/.332/.428 in 254 PA is certainly not bad for a debut season (106 OPS+). Lake has talent. Whether the Cubs can find the right place for him and whether he can harness that talent remains to be seen.
Ryan Sweeney: B- Sweeney was establishing himself as a starter when he got hurt running into a wall in Seattle and missed two months. He hit just .225/.300/.338 (91 PA) after his return in September; he was likely rusty from the long layoff and still trying to get back in playing shape. He's got talent and could be a late bloomer.
Nate Schierholtz: B- Schierholtz had an excellent first half and also declined after the All-Star break. He hit .230/.268/.435 after the break (.269/.327/.498 before). Reportedly, he had some nagging injuries that might have resulted in the poor second half. He's relatively inexpensive and would be a good guy to bring back in the same platoon role he had in 2013.
Welington Castillo: B+ Castillo made a great leap forward offensively and defensively this year. After a weakish first half during which he hit .266/.324/.353 (13 walks and two HR in 241 AB), he hit .288/.388/.475 (21 walks, six HR in 139 AB) after the break. He could be headed for a breakout season in 2014. Kudos to everyone in the organization for sticking with Castillo and furthering his development.
Dioner Navarro: A- I have no idea where this came from. Navarro never had a season even close to the one he had this year for the Cubs; he hit like crazy and played decent enough defense. I'd love to see him stick around. He might get a better offer to be a starter, but the Cubs would be looking at a considerable downgrade if they have someone else back up Castillo. In my view it would be worth a bit of an overpay to keep him.
Brian Bogusevic: B- Had a good year as a part-time player in Houston in 2011. Had a bad year as a full-time player in Houston in 2012. Had a good year as a part-time player in Chicago in 2013. Are you detecting a pattern here? If the 2014 Cubs need a part-time, fifth outfielder, maybe this is the guy. Or maybe they could find another one on the waiver wire.
Logan Watkins: Incomplete I don't think any of us understood Dale Sveum's use of Watkins; maybe he's not part of this team's future, but how could we know? He barely played after his recall; he was on the active roster for the team's last 52 games, but played in only 27 of them, starting five of them. He is three weeks younger than Anthony Rizzo; maybe he's a decent MLB player, a utility guy, something... but there's no way to know given how he was used this year.
Jeff Samardzija: C+ At times, looked dominant. At times, looked like he didn't even belong in the major leagues. Seems to get easily rattled and lets that take away his focus on the field, something a big-league player should never do. If he could keep that focus and concentration, he might still be able to be a solid No. 2 starter -- I don't think he's TOR or "ace" material. He was durable, finishing fifth in the NL in innings and fourth in strikeouts -- but also second in most walks issued. There's another thing Shark has to work on.
Travis Wood: A- Big breakout season for Wood, who not only pitched well, but hit three home runs. (No, I haven't changed my mind. Despite Cubs pitchers hitting six home runs and driving in 29 runs, they also hit .146/.166/.229 with 121 strikeouts in 301 at-bats.) Wood was the Cubs' most consistent starter all year and I hope they offer him a contract extension this offseason.
Edwin Jackson: F This season can only be chalked up as a complete failure for Jackson. He led the league in losses (for whatever that's worth). His ERA+ of 79 ranked 76th of 81 qualified starters in the major leagues this year. He was just awful. We can only hope for improvement, because the Cubs are stuck with him for three more years.
Chris Rusin: C At times, Rusin looked like the next Jamie Moyer, a soft-tossing lefty who, in his prime, put up solid seasons. Other times, he didn't even look like he belonged in the major leagues. He could still become a competent fifth starter; at the very least, he should be in line for a bullpen role in 2014.
Jake Arrieta: C I could duplicate Rusin's comment here. Arrieta had some starts that were dominant. At other times, his command and control deserted him and he walked too many guys and then got hit hard. This, from my understanding, was his problem in Baltimore, too. He has talent, no question about it. It might be better suited to a bullpen role. Arrieta will turn 28 in March; 2014 is really his sink-or-swim season.
Kevin Gregg: B For half a season, Gregg was a revelation. After the All-Star break? Not so much, with a 4.08 ERA and three of his five blown saves. Overall, Gregg's year looks very much like some of his previous seasons; he's not likely to be back, but his performance prevented the Cubs from having to use completely inexperienced pitchers as closers. That might have resulted in even more losses than the Cubs had.
Pedro Strop: B+ Did almost everything he was asked; I would have liked to see him get more save opportunities, especially after Dale said he would. (This sort of communication issue might have been another one of the reasons Dale was fired.) Strop posted a 0.943 WHIP with the Cubs in 37 appearances and struck out 42 in 37 innings. He's in line to be the closer in 2014, and, again, this was an excellent acquisition by Theo & Co.
James Russell: C- Another pitcher overused, with a good first half and bad (5.23 ERA) second half. It was clear Russell was burned out; he pitched just five times in September, and wound up allowing home runs in four of his last eight innings. Russell has talent and could wind up traded.
Carlos Villanueva: B Someone else who did exactly what he was asked to do. His 2013 season looks almost identical to his 2012 year with the Blue Jays. He could have been a good "long reliever" if Dale Sveum had understood what that term actually meant. Perhaps the next manager will. A guy like this -- who is not likely to be in the 2014 rotation -- could be very valuable in the bullpen if used the right way.
Hector Rondon: C+ This is the best Rule 5 selection the Cubs have made in decades. Rondon started out slowly, but after the All-Star break posted a 3.20 ERA and 1.145 WHIP in 20 appearances, and didn't even have to come down with Rule 5 Disease, spending the entire year on the active roster. He could be in the mix for a setup role in 2014.
Blake Parker: B I was actually surprised at how well Parker did in the major leagues. He spent two full years and parts of four others at Iowa and holds Iowa's all-time career saves record (hint: this isn't good, it means you're spending too much time there). One of the things holding him back was too many walks in the minor leagues... but with the Cubs this year, Parker issued just 15 walks in 46⅓ innings. He's another candidate for the setup role in 2014.
Justin Grimm: Incomplete Grimm came over in the Matt Garza deal. He actually made 17 starts (and not very good ones) for the Rangers this year, but might be better suited to a bullpen role. He didn't pitch enough for me to make any real judgment on him.
Zac Rosscup: Incomplete He showed flashes of being a good situational lefty for 2014. That would be helpful. Also, it would provide at least some extra benefit from the original Matt Garza deal (the one with the Rays; Rosscup came over in that trade).
Brooks Raley: D Raley's lefthanded. But he hasn't shown much either as a starter or reliever, in my view. He's a longshot to make next year's team.
Alberto Cabrera: Incomplete Here's another guy with a great arm who hasn't really done much at the major-league level. He was tried as a starter this year at Double-A, with decent results. In relief, both at Triple-A and in the big leagues, he had control issues. 2014 will likely be a make-or-break year for him; he'll turn 25 later this month.
Chang-Yong Lim: Incomplete Lim, 37 years old, was signed out of the Japanese major leagues (he also pitched quite a few years in his native Korea) after having Tommy John surgery. He threw very well at four minor-league levels this year, but his major-league outings were inconsistent. He'll get a shot at the bullpen in 2014.
Scott Baker: Incomplete That's about the most obvious grade of all of these. Baker made just there starts after several setbacks coming back from Tommy John surgery. He threw pretty well. I'd give him an incentive-laden deal to return (say, $2 million base, then $1.5 million each for 10, 20 and 30 starts; that way he makes $6.5 million if he finishes a full season).
Matt Guerrier: Incomplete Guerrier pitched pretty well after coming over from the Dodgers in the Carlos Marmol deal (better than Marmol likely would have as a Cub, anyway), then also had his season ended by injury. He's probably worth inviting back as a NRI, if not given a split contract.
The following players spent significant time with the Cubs this year before being traded: Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus. Those three were graded in the midseason post. Scott Feldman was traded before the All-Star break and so was not graded then; I'd give Feldman a solid B+ for his time with the Cubs. Thanks, Scott; you brought back some good future pieces.
The following players made at least one appearance for the Cubs this year, were graded in the midseason post, and likely will be back, or have a chance to be back, in 2014: Kyuji Fujikawa, Rafael Dolis and Thomas Neal.
The following players made at least one appearance for the 2013 Cubs and either are already gone or will likely not be back: Cody Ransom, Julio Borbon, Scott Hairston, Dave Sappelt, Cole Gillespie, Darnell McDonald, Brent Lillibridge, Steve Clevenger, J.C. Boscan, Alberto Gonzalez, Kameron Loe, Michael Bowden, Hisanori Takahashi, Zach Putnam, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Carlos Marmol, Henry Rodriguez and Eduardo Sanchez.