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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.

Orioles signed Tommy Hunter to a major league contract

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 12:  Pitcher Tommy Hunter #48 of the Cleveland Indians pitches in the ninth inning during the MLB game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 12, 2016 in Anaheim, California. The Indians defeated the Angels 8-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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The Orioles announced, prior to Sunday’s game against the Yankees, that the club signed pitcher Tommy Hunter to a major league contract. In related roster moves, the club recalled pitcher Oliver Drake from Triple-A Norfolk and designated pitcher T.J. McFarland and outfielder Julio Borbon for assignment.

The Indians released Hunter on Thursday after he struggled in a rehab assignment with Triple-A Columbus. Hunter was recovering from a non-displaced fracture in his lower back. The right-hander put up a respectable 3.74 ERA with a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings for the Indians.

This will be Hunter’s second stint with the Orioles. The O’s had acquired him along with first baseman Chris Davis at the trade deadline from the Rangers in 2011 in the Koji Uehara trade.

The Orioles are only responsible for paying Hunter the prorated major league minimum.

Orioles’ Mark Trumbo becomes the first to 40 home runs this season

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Mark Trumbo #45 of the Baltimore Orioles hits a home run during the eighth inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 28, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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Orioles DH Mark Trumbo drilled a two-run home run to left-center field off of reliever Ben Heller in the eighth inning of Sunday afternoon’s game against the Yankees. In doing so, he became the first player to reach the 40-homer plateau this season.

Trumbo finished 1-for-4 on the afternoon. Along with the 40 dingers, he’s hitting .257/.317/.541 with 96 RBI. He has already set a career-high in homers and is four RBI away from tying his career high in that regard.

Trumbo is eligible for free agency after the season. Needless to say, his performance in 2016 bodes well for his ability to secure a hefty contract.