2014 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is the wait almost over?

It has been 105 long years since the north side of Chicago last celebrated a World Series title and in seven months that number will be pushed to 106.

Let’s get it out of the way: this 2014 edition of the Cubs is hopeless. There’s not enough firepower in the lineup, not enough shutdown stuff on the pitching staff, and they’ll play in a five-team division that features four much better squads. Bovada pegs the Cubs’ over-under win total for the 2014 season at 69.5 — same as the Marlins and well below the Brewers (79.5), Pirates (83.5), Reds (84.5), and Cardinals (90.5).

And it doesn’t take a casino odds-maker to figure out what’s wrong with the Northsiders’ roster.

The four-year, $52 million commitment made last winter to right-handed starter Edwin Jackson already looks like a bust. Travis Wood is very good but far from a typical ace, and Jeff Samardzija took a step back in 2013 after flashing front-line numbers in 2012. Some combination of Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Chris Rusin, and James McDonald will fill out the final two spots of a thoroughly-unintimidating starting rotation.

The lineup isn’t any more formidable. Anthony Rizzo has promising upside at first base, but his park-adjusted batting numbers were nearly league-average for that premium offensive position during the 2013 season. Fifth-year shortstop Starlin Castro was a complete disaster last summer, hitting .245/.284/.347 for an OPS+ of just 72. Luis Valbuena (3B), Nate Schierholtz (RF), Junior Lake (LF), Ryan Sweeney (CF), Welington Castillo (C), and Darwin Barney (2B) make up the rest of the Cubs’ starting position player group.

So, is the wait almost over? It depends on whether you have a gracious definition of “almost.”

What else is going on?

  • A total of seven Cubs prospects appeared in last month’s Baseball America Top 100, tied for the second-most of any organization. Javier Baez looks like a star in the making and will likely work his way into the major league infield mix by the end of this summer. He batted .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, could also become a starter — at third base — by the end of 2014. He tallied nine homers and 32 RBI in just 36 minor league games last season. Right-handed starter C.J. Edwards and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler were among the other Cubs prospects named to Baseball America‘s list. Team president Theo Epstein is building a legitimate nucleus.
  • Something to keep an eye on with this rising class of elite-level prospects: Javier Baez was drafted as a shortstop in 2011 (ninth overall) and has played nothing but shortstop in the Cubs’ minor league system. Starlin Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million contract extension with the Cubs in August 2012, but he might not finish out that deal in Chicago. Castro is young enough and has enough raw talent that he will presumably attract interest from other clubs even if he doesn’t bounce back right away in 2014.
  • Darwin Barney won a Gold Glove for his outstanding defensive play at second base in 2012 and probably should have won it again in 2013, but he owns a hideous .246/.293/.336 career slash line in 1,799 plate appearances at the major league level and the situation only worsened last season. Emilio Bonifacio can probably steal that starting second base job away from Barney by early-to-mid summer.
  • The Cubs fired Dale Sveum last September after just two years in the managerial post and officially selected Rick Renteria in early November to be his replacement. Renteria was the Padres’ bench coach when current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer worked in the San Diego front office and is well-respected around the baseball world. Renteria is the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.

Predicton: A rough start but slightly-brighter finish yields 72 wins. Last place, NL Central.

Nationals place Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list

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Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg lasted only two innings in Sunday’s start against the Diamondbacks. He said he had trouble getting loose and had some stiffness in his forearm. Two days ago Dusty Baker said that expected Strasburg to make his next scheduled start on Saturday at home against the Rockies.

Nope. Not happening.Today the Nationals placed Strasburg on the 10-day disabled list with a right elbow nerve impingement.

Not that they expect it to be a long stay. The plan is for him to miss one start, rest up and come back. Erick Fedde will be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse to pitch in Strasburg’s place on Saturday against the Rockies.

Optimistically, this is a situation in which, if the Nats were in a tight race, Strasburg would try to gut it out, but since they’re not, they can afford to be cautious with him. Obviously time will tell if such optimism is warranted.

Danny Tartabull: dumbest fugitive alive

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Remember Danny Tartabull? He was a pretty dang good, and underrated, slugger in the 1980s and 1990s. For a brief moment he was even baseball’s highest-paid player. He began with the Mariners, but his best years came in Kansas City where he put up a line of .290/.376/.518 (144 OPS+) with 124 homers over five seasons. From there he went to the Yankees, where he continued to be a solid producer for the most part, with an .845 OPS (128 OPS+) and added another 81 homers in four seasons. He was a journeyman after that and retired after the 1997 season.

Since then things haven’t been all that great for Tartabull. While he was a key contributor to the teams for which he played, he didn’t contribute much to his own dang children. In 2011 he was adjudged a deadbeat dad with a $275,000 outstanding child support bill for which he received a criminal conviction. He was granted probation, which he violated, and then failed to report for the six-month jail sentence he was handed. Since 2012 there has been a warrant out for his arrest.

Given that there are still enough people around who know and remember Danny Tartabull, it seems like it’d be pretty easy to track him down. He’s been a fugitive for the past five years, however, likely due to the police not prioritizing a six-month sentence for a deadbeat.

Thankfully, though, Tartabull helped them out. How? He called them:

54-year-old Tartabull has basically been under the radar ever since … until July 24, when he called police himself to report that his car had been broken into near his apartment in Agoura, CA.

When cops arrived, they ran Tartabull’s name through the system and noticed the active warrant — and immediately arrested him.

Not supporting your kids is shameful. Skipping out on a jail sentence is wrong. Calling the cops when there’s a longstanding warrant for your arrest is stupid.

Congratulations, Danny. You haven’t played baseball for 20 years, but this week you won the triple crown.