It's a funny thing. For years I got accused here, and elsewhere, of being too optimistic about the possibilities for the Chicago Cubs.
Now, when the major-league team has been mostly awful for the last two years, I get accused of being too pessimistic.
Maybe that's true. I know there are good prospects -- some -- coming through the system. I tend to believe it will be longer than most think before these prospects become major-league stars.
That isn't the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to write about five things I've seen this year from the big-league Cubs that I think are good signs for the future of this team. These are not listed in any particular order or ranking.
1. The emergence of Travis Wood as a rotation mainstay
After Wood's acquisition from the Reds before the 2012 season, you could see -- at times -- his potential. It wasn't enough to keep him on the major-league roster all year in 2012, but this year has been a breakout season for him. He's been one of the most consistent starters in the major leagues in 2013, and though he seems to be fading a bit, he's likely going to post his first 200-inning season (needs just 21 more). Even with the recent decline, Wood ranks 15th in the National League in ERA and 12th in WHIP and has posted 3.7 bWAR. He'll be 27 in February and the Cubs should at least consider locking him up long-term.
2. Junior Lake bursting on the major-league scene with success
Lake was always viewed as a talent, although he didn't even register on Josh's Top 20 prospects in the BCB preseason annual. His infield defense was thought to be his downfall -- I recall Josh even presenting the idea that Lake should be converted to relief pitching because of his great arm, though the arm wasn't really accurate enough to be a good infielder.
Thus the move to the outfield appears to be the breakthrough for Lake. He's still a very raw talent, both in the field and at bat. He's got power; a .468 SLG in 188 at-bats is impressive. But he still strikes out too much (48 times) and he hasn't really used his speed in trying to steal more bases. And, though he's looked better in the outfield recently, obviously, he still needs work there too.
No question, the ability and talent and desire are there from Lake. He's exciting to watch. He's almost exactly the same age as Starlin Castro (three days younger). He could wind up being a solid everyday regular in the outfield for several seasons.
3. The trade of Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop
Feldman has, interestingly enough, been just about as good for the Orioles as he was for the Cubs. It's by far his best major-league season; could he have continued to do this if the Cubs had kept him? Maybe, but given his track record, that would have been a stretch. Instead, the Cubs have a solid relief pitcher (Strop) who could be closer material in 2014 (if only he didn't have to face the Brewers -- since he came to the Cubs he has 26 appearances against teams other than Milwaukee, and has allowed one run in those games, while he's allowed eight earned runs in 1⅓ innings in two outings against the Brewers), and another pitcher (Arrieta) who has shown flashes of brilliance in starts, while being not-so-great in others. Arrieta could also be a good bullpen piece if he can't make the rotation. This was an excellent trade.
4. The emergence of Welington Castillo as a solid regular catcher
Castillo's defense has improved; he works with special assistant Mike Borzello every day in the outfield on blocking pitches. He's thrown out 28.6 percent of base stealers, a decent percentage (obviously, he's no Yadier Molina, but that's an improvement). And after a start during which he drew only five walks in the season's first two months, Castillo is hitting .265/.363/.365 since June 1. You'd like to see a little more power, but that's an excellent OBP; perhaps the power will still come.
5. The possibility the Cubs could have found a diamond in the rough in Ryan Sweeney
Sweeney was released by the Red Sox at the end of spring training, and the Cubs snapped him up just two days later. It had been reported that Sweeney had been working on hitting for more power during winter ball, and that showed in his 91 at-bats at Triple-A Iowa, where he hit .337/.396/.627 with six home runs.
Recalled in early May, Sweeney started to hit again and was hitting .295/.342/.527 with four home runs in 112 at-bats -- pretty close to his Triple-A production -- when he got hurt running into the outfield wall in Seattle. That's really a shame, because he'd have played regularly for the two months he missed, especially after the trades of Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus.
Sweeney is just 5-for-20 (one double, one home run) since his return, but he has at least put himself in the conversation for a starting outfield spot in 2014, and he won't be expensive, though he is arb-eligible.
There! Five good things from this year's team. Perhaps you have more. Leave your thoughts in the comments.