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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.

‘A lot of pain’ – Marlins cope with Fernandez’s death

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Jose Fernandez made his major league debut against the New York Mets in 2013 and was scheduled to face them again Monday night.

Instead, Miami mourns and the Marlins must push on without their 24-year-old ace, who was killed in a boating accident early Sunday.

“Deep in our hearts there is a lot of pain,” third baseman Martin Prado said. “Somehow we’ve got to overcome that.”

Fernandez and two other men died when their 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach at 3:15 a.m. Sunday, authorities said. The news sent shock waves throughout Major League Baseball.

The other two victims were Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, according to Darren Caprara, operations director of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Marlins’ Sunday afternoon game against Atlanta was canceled, but there were pregame tributes and moments of silence for him throughout both leagues. Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they scheduled in his honor before his final game in their ballpark Sunday.

Fernandez’s backstory made his death even more heart-wrenching. He escaped from Cuba by boat on his fourth try as a teenager, and when his mother fell into the Yucatan Channel during the journey, he jumped in and pulled her out.

“I don’t have the words to describe the pain I feel,” Ortiz said. “Jose was one of the special cases. The story behind him and his family and the way everything happened. You know how remarkable his career was going. But the most important thing was his kindness and the kind of person he was. It’s hard, man.”

A jersey with Fernandez’s name and number hung in the Mets’ dugout as they played Philadelphia at Citi Field. Mets manager Terry Collins reminisced about Fernandez’s debut against his team three years ago.

“When the first pitch left his hand, the first thought is, oh, wow, this is something special,” Collins said. “This was not only one of the greatest pitchers in the modern game, but one of the finest young men you’d ever meet, who played the game with passion and fun and enjoyed being out there.”

Marlins players and team officials gathered at the ballpark to grieve together.

“All I can do is scream in disbelief,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a Marlins executive and native of Cuba. “Jose won the love of all. I feel as if I had lost a son.”

An emotional news conference was attended by every player on the Marlins, except their ace. The players wore team jerseys – black ones.

Manager Don Mattingly and president of baseball operations Michael Hill flanked team president David Samson and unsuccessfully fought back tears. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton didn’t speak but later posted a tribute on Instagram.

“I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare,” Stanton said. “I lost my brother today and can’t quite comprehend it. The shock is overwhelming. What he meant to me, our team, the city of Miami, Cuba & everyone else in the world that his enthusiasm/heart has touched can never be replaced. I can’t fathom what his family is going through because We, as his extended Family are a wreck.”

Fernandez was on a vessel that hit a jetty near a harbor entrance, said Lorenzo Veloz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The boat remained in the water for several hours, its engines partially submerged as its nose pointed skyward, as debris from the crash was scattered over some of the large jagged rocks.

Veloz described the condition of the boat as “horrible.”

There was no immediate indication that alcohol or drugs were a cause in the crash, Veloz said.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, he and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Tampa, Florida, with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

The Marlins drafted him in 2011, and Fernandez was in the majors two years later at 20. He went 38-17 in his four seasons with Miami, winning the NL’s Rookie of the Year award in 2013, and was twice an All-Star.

Last week Fernandez posted a photo of his girlfriend sporting a “baby bump” on his Instagram page, announcing that the couple was expecting its first child.

Fernandez became a U.S. citizen last year and was enormously popular in Miami thanks to his success and exuberant flair. When he wasn’t pitching, he would hang over the dugout railing as the team’s lead cheerleader.

“When I think about Josie, it’s going to be thinking about a little kid,” Mattingly said, pausing repeatedly to compose himself. “I see such a little boy in him … the way he played. … Kids play Little League, that’s the joy Jose played with.”

Mattingly then wiped away tears, and he wasn’t alone.

Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro contributed to this report from Miami.

All Marlins players will wear number 16 in honor of Jose Fernandez tonight

MIAMI, FL - JULY 09:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 9, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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The Marlins game was understandably cancelled yesterday. The baseball schedule has always gone on in such situations, however, and the Marlins will host the Mets tonight in Miami.

As they do so, they will all be wearing number 16, Jose Fernandez’s number, in honor of their fallen teammate.

A nice gesture on what will certainly be an emotional night.