For this year's final grades, I'll stick primarily to the season-ending 25-man roster, since most of the players who aren't on that roster have been traded or otherwise let go. I've added a handful of players who either ended the season on the disabled list or in the minor leagues and who might be a part of the 2015 Cubs when they open the season April 6 at Wrigley Field.
Anthony Rizzo: A- Rizzo came back from a (somewhat) down year in 2013 to post a career high in home runs, make his first All-Star team, and show signs of becoming a team leader. His .913 OPS ranked third in the National League and he'll surely get some downballot MVP votes. The only caveat to Rizzo's season was the back injury that caused him to miss 22 games. It's been suggested that he's put on some weight this year and that could have contributed to the back issue. It's not a major issue now but something he should watch.
Starlin Castro: B+ Castro also came back from a miserable 2013 with solid .292/.339/.438 numbers and a career-best .777 OPS. He tied his career high with 14 home runs, had his third 30-double season, and played better defense. The ankle sprain which ended his season in early September shouldn't be a problem for him going forward and he should be ready for an even-better 2015. Remember, he will turn just 25 years old shortly before Opening Day, with more than 3,000 career plate appearances.
Luis Valbuena: B+ Luis V had a career year. And that's said with kindness, from someone who occasionally criticized him. He did everything you could possibly ask for from a guy who never really seemed like an everyday player, yet became a competent big-league third baseman. He had career highs in pretty much every offensive category, but most importantly, OPS and OPS+. Going forward, I think he'll be a valuable supersub type of player.
Welington Castillo: C+ At times, Castillo seemed like an All-Star catcher with his hitting -- he, too, set career highs in several categories, including home runs with 13, and hit .286/.333/.492 in September (18-for-63, three home runs). But he struck out a lot and his OPS+ dropped from 106 last year to 89, with his bWAR dropping from 4.5 to 1.7. The Cubs could use an upgrade defensively behind the plate, too, though it's still possible that Castillo, at age 27, could improve both offensively and defensively.
Chris Coghlan: B An afterthought of a signing, Coghlan spent the first month of the year at Triple-A Iowa, and then struggled the first couple of months he was on the big-league Cubs, hitting .193 as late as June 26. After that, though, as he was made the starting left fielder, he hit .310/.373/.485 in 297 at-bats with 25 doubles and seven home runs. I still cringe when I see the routes he takes to fly balls, but the man can hit. He was an infielder in the minor leagues and I wonder if he could re-learn second and third base to become a useful backup when Kris Bryant and others come to the big leagues. I was wrong on Coghlan and happy to be so.
Arismendy Alcantara: B- I'm still not sure what to make of Mendy. He plays good defense at second base and does well in center field for someone who never played there before this year. He has some power -- 11 doubles, two triples and 10 home runs in 278 at-bats -- but he needs to do something about the .205 BA and 93 strikeouts. At age 22, there should be plenty of room for improvement.
Javier Baez: C Tremendous power. Tremendous bat speed, much of which is used in waving at pitches as they go by. 95 strikeouts in 213 at-bats. That just won't work if Baez is going to be an everyday player in the future, much less the All-Star we hope he can be. He'll have to make some adjustments in order to succeed. Again, his youth (he turns 22 in December) and the fact that he has struggled at each promotion, only to later dominate, give hope that he can do just that. But he's got to cut down on the K's.
Jorge Soler: B+ Stayed healthy throughout his five weeks in the major leagues, thanks to careful management of his hamstring problems. If he can stay healthy he's likely going to be a solid regular major-league outfielder, if not much more. His numbers were very, very good, though after his last home run September 16 he went just 7-for-38 (.184). Small sample size on everything, and like Baez and Alcantara, he's just 22 years old and I think headed for a very good career.
Mike Olt: D Olt did play better after his recall in September: 263/.370/.368, though with still too many strikeouts (16 in 38 at-bats). This is getting to be a broken record: Without cutting down on the K's, Olt simply isn't going to make it in the big leagues, and he doesn't have youth on his side -- he's 26. Nevertheless, he'll probably get one more shot to show he belongs; the Cubs are going to have him work at corner outfield positions to increase his versatility. Perhaps he could still be a useful bench player.
Junior Lake: D- As Josh has written, maybe the only way to save Lake's major-league career is to try him as a pitcher. He's a mess at the plate, he takes bad routes to balls in the outfield and makes wild throws, and -- don't stop me even if you've heard this before -- strikes out too much (110 in 308 AB). Maybe they could harness that arm into a bullpen role. His time as a Cubs hitter is hanging by the proverbial thread.
Chris Valaika: C- Set career highs for playing time, home runs and RBI, and yet still didn't match his highest WAR season. Also struck out a lot (35 in 121 AB). Will be 30 next year. The Cubs ought to be able to do better than this for a bench player.
Logan Watkins: C Hit well on first being called up, then slumped. Has a reputation as a good defender, but made some egregiously bad errors that can't happen if he's going to have a role as a defensive replacement. That's probably his ceiling.
Ryan Kalish: D Kalish didn't do a single thing this year that was memorable in any way. He's one of many who will pass through this team and 10 years from now you'll say "Who?"
John Baker: C Baker can't hit, but backup catchers don't really need to. He was respected by the pitching staff and could very well be headed to a career as a coach or manager when he's done playing. The grade is raised because of his inning of pitching and scoring the winning run in the 16-inning win over the Rockies July 29. Given his history with Rick Renteria and Jed Hoyer, I suspect Baker will be back in 2015.
Matt Szczur: C Hit better than expected, including a pair of home runs in just 62 at-bats, which is one more than he had in 414 AB at Iowa in 2014. He played good defense and I think could be a perfectly suitable fifth outfielder going forward. He certainly played himself into that conversation, anyway.
Rafael Lopez: Incomplete It's hard to grade a September callup catcher on a few pinch-hit appearances and one start (and one other game where he played almost the whole game after Castillo left with an injury). Lopez appears to be well-suited for backup work, but he might have to wait in line behind Baker for another year.
Ryan Sweeney: D Sweeney spent much of the year injured and didn't play well when he was in the lineup. He's under contract for 2015, but I suspect the Cubs might just eat that money (it'd be $2 million) and let him go.
Justin Ruggiano: B- I was a critic of Ruggiano, but when healthy, he played quite well, although he, too, struck out too much (70 in 224 AB). He's under team control and arb-eligible in 2015, but at age 33, the Cubs might choose to look elsewhere for a reserve outfielder.
Jake Arrieta: A+ What a revelation Arrieta was this year, after missing the first month with shoulder trouble. There was no recurrence of the injury and Arrieta had eight starts (of 25) in which he threw at least six innings and gave up three or fewer hits. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning three times. Had he thrown 5⅓ more innings with the same ERA, it would have ranked sixth in the National League. Great acquisition by Theo & Co.
Travis Wood: D Wood showed flashes of the 2013 pitcher who made the N.L. All-Star team, but mostly he was just bad. At 27, it's still possible he could recover that 2013 form. Since he's lefthanded, I'd keep him around and hope he bounces back. You all know I'm in favor of the DH, but until we get it, Wood's bat is an asset to the team when he starts.
Edwin Jackson: F If I could give an F minus, or a letter below F (say, "Z"), I would. Jackson had one of the worst seasons for any starter in major-league history, and that's not an exaggeration. There's nowhere to go but up for him. I have little hope he can do that, but the Cubs owe him $22 million over the next two years, so they'll probably give him a chance, unless they can make a bad-contract swap.
Kyle Hendricks: A- You all know how much I liked Hendricks even before the season started. He proved he belonged at the big-league level by dominating many of his starts, just as he had done at every minor-league level. He is going to have to continue to have excellent command in order to keep winning, as his velocity won't do it. He's smart and has already shown the ability to adjust after teams adjust to him. Another fine acquisition by Theo & Co.
Tsuyoshi Wada: B There have been conflicting reports on whether Wada will be retained. Personally, I'd do it. Another lefty, and teams can never have too many of those. He's 33, but Japanese pitchers seem to age well.
Jacob Turner: C- At times he pitched like the guy who was the nearly-untouchable prospect the Tigers wouldn't trade for Matt Garza two years ago. At times he pitched like Edwin Jackson. The reality has to be somewhere in the middle, and that would still be a good big-league rotation starter. He's 23 -- younger than many pitching prospects. He's out of options, so he must be retained on the 25-man roster next year or he'll likely be lost to waivers. I'd keep him.
Felix Doubront: C- Like Turner, pitched well at time, poorly at others. Another lefthander who clearly has talent, he pitched for playoff teams in Boston and, as he turns 27 next month, is still young enough to possibly become a decent rotation starter. It's nice to have depth like this, isn't it?
Dan Straily: Incomplete Started one game and pitched all right; relieved six other times and was mostly awful. Again, here's a guy who had success for a playoff team (2013 Athletics). Maybe he's injured. Maybe he's just messed up. He's 25 and still could make it.
Eric Jokisch: Incomplete It's really hard to evaluate a pitcher from so few big-league outings, mostly in garbage time. Another lefthander who might become a bullpen option if he doesn't make it as a starter.
Hector Rondon: A All right, I admit it. I was wrong about Rondon, one of the best Rule 5 picks the Cubs have ever made. Not only does he close games -- just four blown saves in 33 save opportunities -- he does it efficiently, often in 10 or fewer pitches. You really can't ask for more. There should be no closer controversy next spring. This job should be Rondon's for several years to come.
Pedro Strop: A Also did everything he was asked, in being one of the league's best setup men. He posted 21 holds, tied for 11th in the league despite missing quite a bit of time on the DL. Strop and Rondon could be a solid eighth/ninth-inning tandem for just about any team.
Neil Ramirez: A Some think he should go back to starting, but since he spent some time on the DL and has had issues before, I think relief is a perfect place for him. He throws hard and throws strikes and since teams can't use one setup man and closer all the time, Ramirez can fill either of these roles if needed. 53 strikeouts in 43⅔ innings with just 17 walks (1.053 WHIP) is impressive, too.
Justin Grimm: B Another pitcher some think could start again, but good teams need good middle relief, too, and Grimm can provide that. After a bad outing July 23, Grimm posted a 1.75 ERA and 0.818 WHIP in 27 appearances from then till season's end with just three (!) walks in 25⅔ innings and 28 strikeouts. Again, middle relief has been solid this year thanks in large part to Grimm. Keep him there.
Carlos Villanueva: C+ After a couple of horrendous starts, Villanueva went back to the bullpen where he's generally been more successful over his career, and this year was no exception: 10.53 ERA and 2.186 WHIP in five starts this year; 2.64 ERA, 1.121 WHIP in 37 relief appearances. Villanueva is a free agent, but I'd consider bringing him back if the price weren't too high. He seems like a good clubhouse guy and could be a good mentor to some of the younger pitchers.
Wesley Wright: C+ Kind of a forgotten man late in the year -- he pitched only five times in September -- Wright did all right, I suppose. He's still under team control for one more year, but given that he's arb-eligible and might get expensive, I could see the Cubs non-tendering him, as they have other lefty relief options.
Brian Schlitter: C- At times dominant, at times dominated, Schlitter seems the disposable type of reliever you can find on the waiver wire. He throws hard, which means he'll likely get another shot next year.
Zac Rosscup: C Rosscup is one of those lefty options. His terrible overall ERA (9.35) was skewed by his awful appearance in the 13-2 loss to the Cardinals August 30. He had a good September with 10 strikeouts in five innings. If Rosscup has a productive career, at least the Cubs will have something to show for trading away Chris Archer.
Arodys Vizcaino: Incomplete Vizcaino's five appearances didn't really tell us much about what he could do going forward. I assume he'll be part of the 2015 bullpen in some form, but he'll need to get more regular work.
Kyuji Fujikawa: C Like Schlitter (only at a lower level), Fujikawa at times looked quite good, at other times like a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery. Fujikawa has a contract option that will almost certainly be declined, but I'd consider giving him a NRI in 2015, if he's not signed by another team, which he almost certainly would be.
Blake Parker: D+ Only because of his control: four walks in 21 innings. The rest of his year was bad, except for all the frequent-flyer miles he picked up flying from various Triple-A outposts to join the Cubs in five different stints for the team. Parker will be 30 next year; time for him to get his gold watch and head on elsewhere, I think.
10 others played for the Cubs this year: Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Emilio Bonifacio, Eli Whiteside, Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija, Dallas Beeler, Chris Rusin, James Russell and Jose Veras. The total of 48 players marks the first time in the Theo Epstein era that the Cubs have used fewer than 50 players in a season, indicating fewer "tryouts" and more solid roster options. Here's to even fewer, but better, players in 2015.