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.

Gomez HR sinks Nats after Martinez ejection, Mets sweep

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NEW YORK (AP) Turns out, the only thing Mets manager Mickey Callaway lost this week was his voice.

Days after New York’s front office declared support for its criticized, second-year skipper, Callaway’s players rallied for another startling victory Thursday and a four-game sweep of the division-rival Nationals.

Carlos Gomez slipped out of his shoe during an early dash, then hit a go-ahead, three-run homer in the eighth inning that helped the Mets overcome a comeback that started after Washington manager Dave Martinez’s heated ejection for a 6-4 victory.

Gomez bolted around the bases, smacking himself in the helmet and letting out a few joyous shouts after his two-out shot against Wander Suero (1-4). Players jumped out of the dugout and danced on the warning track while he rounded the bases, greeting him with flying handshakes and hugs.

Callaway was already hoarse Thursday morning when he met with reporters. After Gomez’s stunner, he could hardly get his pipes working.

“Sorry for the voice,” he said. “I’ve been screaming and yelling (through) these crazy games.”

Gomez delivered his first homer of the season in his seventh game. The 13-year major league veteran opened the year with Triple-A Syracuse, hoping to extend his playing days at Citi Field after breaking into the majors with the Mets as a 21-year-old in 2007.

“I’m blessed,” Gomez said. “Came back here in this situation and play the way that we’re playing right now with a lot of energy, you know, I’m enjoying every single time. You guys can notice when I’m in the dugout or playing defense like a little kid. I’m enjoying every single moment.”

It was the third straight game New York beat Washington in its final turn at-bat.

The Nationals seemed as if they’d snapped from their funk after Martinez’s ejection in the eighth. Plate umpire Bruce Dreckman rang up Washington’s Howie Kendrick for a strikeout as he tried to check his swing leading off, then tossed the veteran infielder. Martinez charged from the dugout, spiked his hat and kicked dirt on home plate while barking relentlessly at Dreckman.

“I just didn’t think he swung,” Martinez said. “We just got into it. All I did was tell him to ask for help. That’s why the first base umpire is there. He didn’t like it.”

Juan Soto then walked against Robert Gsellman (1-0), Victor Robles singled, and Yan Gomes brought in Soto with a double. Gerardo Parra followed with a pinch-hit, two-run single for a 4-3 Washington lead.

The Nationals have lost five straight and six of seven. Washington dropped to 19-31, a record better than only the Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals.

Hardly the kind of start expected from an NL playoff hopeful.

“You can’t put a blame on one thing,” Martinez said when asked where culpability fell. “You really can’t. This is a team thing.”

The Mets swept the Nationals/Expos franchise over four games for the first time since July 1-4, 1991. It was the first four-game home sweep by New York in the series since May 15-18, 1972.

New York is 18-13 against the NL East and 24-25 overall. The Mets enter a three-game series against Detroit hoping to climb over .500 for the first time since May 2.

“Now we’re winning ballgames, there’s definitely a different air because of that,” Callaway said. “But these guys have not quit one time. They’re tremendous. That’s an unbelievable comeback right there.”

Edwin Diaz retired the side in order in the ninth for his 12th save.

Mets starter Steven Matz allowed 10 hits over six innings of one-run ball. Washington starter Stephen Strasburg allowed two runs and five hits over seven innings.

Starting with an unusual 12:10 p.m. first pitch, both teams looked short on caffeine. New York had two errors, Washington had one and both teams had players thrown out on the bases.

SHOE FLY DON’T BOTHER

Gomez stole second in the fifth inning and took third on catcher Gomes’ throwing error, and his left shoe flew off in the process. Gomez never broke stride and scored two batters later on Juan Lagares‘ sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead.

IT’LL BE ALL RIGHT

New York placed infielders Robinson Cano (left quad strain) and Jeff McNeil (tight left hamstring) on the injured list prior to the game, leaving the team without two regular position players. The Mets went with an all right-handed lineup against a right-handed starting pitcher for the second time in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Nationals: 1B Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis in right foot) has experienced some pain running in recent days and will back off. He was still expected to hit in a batting cage Thursday.

Mets: Luis Guillorme and Ryan O’Rourke were recalled from Triple-A Syracuse. … New York claimed former Phillies OF Aaron Altherr off waivers from San Francisco and designated RHP Tim Peterson for assignment.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Open a four-game home series against Miami with RHP Kyle McGowin (0-0, 6.00) set to make his second career start. RHP Pablo Lopez (3-5, 5.06) is up for the Marlins.

Mets: RHP Noah Syndergaard (3-4, 4.50) starts the opener of a three-game home series against Detroit, opposing LHP Gregory Soto (0-2, 10.80).

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