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2014 Preview: Chicago Cubs


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.

MLB cancels its Dominican showcase after players protest an international draft

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 13:  A fan flies the Dominican Republic flag during the game against Cuba during Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic on March 13, 2006 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Ben Badler of Baseball America Reports that Major League Baseball has cancelled its Dominican national showcase, which was scheduled for today and tomorrow. Why? Because, Badler reports, trainers and players in the Dominican Republic planned to  skip the showcase in protest over Major League Baseball’s push to implement an international draft.

The kicker: Major League Baseball explored bringing in lesser prospects to serve as replacement players for the showcase. MLB, you might recall, has a poor track record of getting replacement workers to fill in for picketing players.

As Badler noted recently, the international draft proposed by Major League Baseball is, despite whatever MLB says, all about paying international players less money. From the Players Union’s perspective, it’s all about selling out amateur players to the supposed benefit of current union members. The allegedly altruistic justifications for the draft simply don’t hold water.

They certainly don’t fool the Dominican players who, even if they are ultimately powerless to stop MLB from stripping them of their bargaining power, will not give it up quietly.

World Series Reset: Cubs vs. Indians Game 2

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 24:  Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians throws during Media Day workouts for the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 24, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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The Game: Chicago Cubs @ Cleveland Indians, World Series Game 2
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Place: Progressive Field, Cleveland
The Channel: FOX
The Starters: Jake Arrieta (Cubs) vs. Trevor Bauer (Indians)

The Upshot:

We get going an hour earlier tonight due to the threat of rain. As of now, that still looks like it will be the difference between getting this one in or not, as the chance of rain looks to be a lot higher after a 7pm game would reasonably end:


Still, it’s going to be dicey and the conditions will be less than ideal. It will be especially less-than-idea for Cleveland if the game is delayed early and they have to go to their bullpen earlier than expected tonight. Andrew Miller escaped some jams last night and did his job, but he used a lot of pitches to do it — 46 — and may be pretty limited tonight, if he’s available at all. That puts a lot on Trevor Bauer’s shoulders. Or, actually, his fingers, including the pinky finger on his pitching hand which is full of stitches. Those stitches not holding cost him his ALCS start. Terry Francona is hoping to get a lot more out of his starter tonight. Given how little he has pitched in the playoffs he should have the energy as long as his finger holds up.

As for the Cubs, teams that have lost Game 1 of the World Series are 40-70 and, in recent years, have a worse winning percentage than that, losing it all in 12 of the past 13 years. Eh, not too impressed with that stat as it doesn’t actually deal with the series at hand. At hand, the Cubs have superior starters set to go in each of the next two games, starting tonight with Jake Arrieta. He’s not been fantastic in the playoffs this year, but he’s capable of dominating a game any time out.

The Cubs figure to have a better night at the plate now that Corey Kluber is out of the way. Particularly a lefty like Anthony Rizzo, who is probably happy to see Bauer. Jason Heyward will likely be back in the lineup as well. They had better have a better night. Being down 1-0 is not a death sentence in the World Series, even if it has looked like one recently. Being down 2-0 is not something Chicago wants to chance.