2014 Preview: Chicago Cubs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The 2013 Cubs should have been better. Their team should have won more games, their young roster core should have produced better, their players manager should have engaged the team better. If one takes the basic “rebuilding” route of the Cubs into consideration, 2013 does not look to be a terrible year for the Cubs. Yet, given the path their front office took to gain another step toward respectability, 2013 was not a good year for the Cubs.

2013 Preview
2012 Preview

The Cubs brain trust made some excellent decisions to sign “low-risk, potential reward” pitchers, while also giving some part-time / minor league stars a chance to play for a full season in 2013. Nate Schierholtz helped turn the Cubs right field position into their most successful, productive area of the diamond. Scott Feldman helped instigate an 82-run improvement by the pitching staff, before landing two controllable arms in a midseason trade with Baltimore. These types of rebuilding success stories were not enough to help the club to a notable overall improvement, as struggles with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro diminished the offensive potential of the club. Cubs fans also did not respond well to the club’s general trajectory, and the local newspapers documented a combative year with the organization (as always, media analyst Mike Miner provokes thought). Whether it was questioning the Cubs’ direction — some suggested a big market club ought never to rebuild — or following the civic battles over Wrigley’s renovation and expansion — even a threatened move to the suburbs!, the negative perception of the organization in Chicago did not help cushion the growing pains on the diamond.

Skeleton-to-Backbone Rosters
Years ago, I called the Cubs’ roster a “Skeleton” roster. Basically, their roster had a sizable frame full of big-contract MLB players, but not “meat.” There was little of substance to lead the team to winning seasons while the Cubs waited for a few contracts to wind down (and encountered injuries from other players). A question worth asking, after last year’s performance, is whether the Cubs’ roster has now hit the “foundation” for rebuilding. That is, this year the Cubs’ front office even set up lower “risk/reward” pitching deals (i.e., their “low-risk” contracts did not have as much of a ceiling), and they now have a mostly low-pay core in place (their payroll has also decreased $20 million between 2013 and 2014, after falling approximately $18 million over the previous three seasons).

Here’s how the 75-win 2010 Cubs compare to the current MLB Depth Chart for the Lakeview Nine:

Cubs 2010 ($144.4M) 2014 (Depth; $86.8M)
C G. Soto W. Castillo
1B D. Lee A. Rizzo
2B R. Theriot D. Barney
3B A. Ramirez L. Valbenua
SS S. Castro S. Castro
LF A. Soriano J. Lake
CF M. Byrd J. Ruggiano
RF K. Fukudome N. Schierholtz
BN T. Colvin L. Watkins
BN X. Nady D. Murphy
BN K. Hill G. Kottaras
BN J. Baker
BN B. DeWitt
SP1 R. Dempster T. Wood
SP2 C. Zambrano J. Samardzija
SP3 T. Lilly E. Jackson
SP4 R. Wells C. Rusin
SP5 T. Gorzelanny J. Arrieta
SP6 C. Silva J. Hammel
SP7 C. Coleman J. McDonald
SP8 T. Diamond C. Villanueva
CL C. Marmol J. Veras
RP S. Marshall J. Russell
RP A. Cashner K. Fujikawa
RP P. Strop

If you’re wondering, “Where on earth are the Cubs spending $86 million?,” the answer is in those moderate buy-low contracts. The Cubs are only paying Castro, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Edwin Jackson more than $5 million, but they are paying eight players between $2 million and $5 million.

Looking at these rosters side-by-side, it’s interesting to think about how closely the spectres of “Rebuilding” and “Contending” align in the MLB. In 2010, the Cubs were following an 83-win campaign with a roster largely in-tact from their competitive 2008 season. Yet, that core continued their slide away from their strong performances. In 2014, the Cubs do not have any pretensions about contending, and yet, they already have several future-contending core players in place. A number of their new acquisitions, such as Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta, are under contract control long enough to bridge the gap between rebuilding and contending. The difference is that this new core has not yet been tested as a contender, while the 2010 roster was on the bad-side of their contending cycle.

Missed Improvements
One of the keys I pointed to in last year’s preview was the Cubs’ solid young duo of Castro and Rzzo. It is indisputable that both players currently stand as the first wave of the Cubs’ next contending class, and it is also indisputable that their bats are necessary to lead an offensive resurgence. Although the Cubs improved by 5 runs against their environment between 2012 and 2013, their overall offense remained more than 70 runs below their league and Wrigley Field. Neither Castro nor Rizzo can fix that issue on their own, but both will be necessary fixtures for an improved Cubs offense in 2014.


Batting Types BattedBallsInPlay (% of PA) Brewers Example
Extreme Contact >75% 2013 Segura
Contact-Oriented ~71% to 75% 2012 A. Ramirez
Generic / League Average ~67% to 71% 2013 A. Ramirez
Non-Contact-Oriented ~63% to 67% 2013 Gomez
Extreme Non-Contact <63% 2013 Weeks

While sites like FanGraphs include players’ rates of contact on their swings, when I write about players’ contact profiles, I focus on the rate at which they bat the ball into play. I believe that this fits the more colloquial use of the term “contact hitter;” in this sense, a contact hitter is someone who largely relies on their batted-balls-in-play, rather than home runs and/or walks, for their production. On the other hand, an extreme non-contact batter relies extensively on walks and home runs for productive value. Of course, their are strange breeds; Ryan Braun is a contact-oriented power hitter that sometimes produces low BIP% because of his home run totals; Prince Fielder, at his best, is a non-contact hitter because of his extreme BB% and HR% while also being a high AVG player.

Both Castro and Rizzo batted the ball into play less frequently in 2013; while Rizzo’s shift was more extreme, Castro’s shift might be more important. Rizzo batted fewer balls into play because his walk rate notably increased, while his strike outs also increased and homers dropped. Still, Rizzo’s homer rate was solid, as was his strike out rate; he transitioned from aan average contact bat to a bat that relied much less on batting the ball in play. On the other hand, Castro has been an extreme contact bat throughout his career, relying extensively on batting the ball in play. It would be one thing if Castro batted fewer balls into play because his power materialized or his walk rate increased; however, in 2013, his strike out rate increased from 14.5% to 18.3%. Even that total is respectable, but his homers plummeted and his walk rate also decreased. In short, this is precisely the type of batting profile shift that contact-driven Castro could not afford.

Rizzo (PA) K% BB% HR% BattedBallsInPlay
2011 (153) 30.1 13.7 0.7 .529
2012 (368) 16.8 7.3 4.1 .709
2013 (690) 18.4 11.0 3.3 .664
Castro (PA) K% BB% HR% BattedBallsInPlay
2010 (506) 14.0 6.3 0.6 .785
2011 (715) 13.4 4.9 1.4 .800
2012 (691) 14.5 5.2 2.0 .777
2013 (705) 18.3 4.3 1.4 .750

According to FanGraphs, Castro’s ability to hit line drives has not declined significantly, as he consistently hit around 20% line drives over the last couple of years. It is worth noting that Castro’s strike zone contact declined somewhat, as his swinging strike percentage has increased each year of his career. Castro’s issue is not necessarily one of discipline with pitches outside the zone, but discipline in general; the shortstop is obviously not handling HIS pitches in the zone.

On the other hand, Rizzo’s line drive rate has fluctuated madly during his career, and it declined by nearly 20% between 2012 and 2013. Similarly, Rizzo hit more fly balls without continuing his extreme HR/FB pace of 2012. Given the general ease with which MLB outfielders turn fly balls into outs, this was a recipe for a productivity drop during Rizzo’s 2013 season. However, Rizzo’s contact profile remains strong, especially as his improvement with pitches outside the zone (and swinging strikes) spurred an exceptional walk rate increase.

Commanding Rotation
Like last year, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein have loaded their rotation with a series of pitchers looking to comeback from injuries or prove themselves in a new environment. However, this time, one of their newcomers is Jake Arrieta, a righty with several years of control landed in the Cubs’ trade with the Orioles last year. Arrieta was once one of the strongest prospect arms in the Orioles’ system, but he has yet to translate that pedigree to MLB success. Similarly, the Cubs also can rely on Chris Rusin, an organizational lefty that is a holdover from the Jim Hendry years in Lakeview. These two contract-controlled pitchers will battle for rotational spots with James McDonald and Jason Hammel, two righties seeking redemption in the NL Central.

2011-2013 Primary Pitch MPH IP K / BB / HR
J. Hammel (R) Rising Fastball 92.9 427.7 303 / 158 / 52
J. McDonald (R) Rising Fastball 92.2 371.7 318 / 167 / 46
J. Arrieta (R) Rising Fastball 92.9 309.3 262 / 135 / 46
C. Rusin (L) Slider 84.2 96 57 / 35 / 12

Across the board, these pitchers face the same fate: if they do not improve their walk and home run rates, they will have a difficult time succeeding at Wrigley Field. Oddly enough, both Arrieta and Rusin outplayed their Fielding Independent Pitching during their brief stints at Wrigley in 2013. Without an improvement in the walk and home run departments, these pitchers will stand at the mercy of the Cubs’ defense.

2013 FIPRatio FIPRuns ActualRuns
J. Arrieta 1.72 30 22
C. Rusin 1.57 37 30
NL 0.61

The Cubs have an interesting tension within their back rotation. On the one hand, both McDonald and Hammel lead the way with experience and the potential to work a full, successful season. If either one of these righties succeeds in the first half, the Cubs front office could potentially flip them for some organizational depth in the minors; even if a top prospect won’t be netted by either player, the Cubs could use these pitchers to gain control years and perhaps a minors reclamation project or “low risk” player. On the other hand, both Arrieta and Rusin have the chance to pitch with the organization for years to come, and the Cubs will want to see what they have with both pitchers. While their upside might not necessarily be top rotation, landing two controllable middle-to-low rotational arms could be an important bridge between rebuilding and competing (for, even competitive pitching staffs simply need warm bodies).

Granted, during 162 games, the Cubs will probably encounter injuries and ineffectiveness that allows them to work each of these pitchers into the rotation. Yet, heading into the season, the alignment of these pitchers in the rotation could impact the Cubs’ strategy to make midseason rebuilding trades or assess their future rotational members.

Breakout: Renegade Outfield
Junior Lake has one of my favorite names in baseball, among newcomers. Junior Lake just sounds like a ballplayer, not unlike Scooter Gennett or Lonnie Chisenhall. These are the types of names one might expect to read about in future recaps of the 2010s MLB landscape, perhaps as fringe-players-turned-heroes, or organizational-player-turned-pennant-superstar. Anyway, Lake is one of the anchors of a Cubs outfield that could be poised to wreak collective havoc on NL Central pitchers.

First, Hoyer and Epstein roundly succeeded with PCL-stud Nate Schierholtz in right field during 2013, and they seek to repeat this formula in 2014. This year, Schierholtz defends his title as most-productive Cubs bat against Castro and Rizzo, as well as newcomer Justin Ruggiano. Centerfielder Ruggiano somewhat matches Schierholtz’s profile, since he is a previously part-time player earning an opportunity to shine over a full summer in Chicago. Furthermore, Ruggiano’s home run power has recently taken off, and his ability to slug stuck as he earned more plate appearances over the last couple years. Over a full series of plate appearances, the duo of Ruggiano and Schierholtz could hit as many as 40-to-45 homers.

2011-2013 (PA) K% BB% HR% AVG / OBP / SLG
Nate Schierholtz (1134) 17.7 6.4 3.2 .261 / .314 / .442
Justin Ruggiano (903) 24.8 8.2 3.9 .257 / .322 / .446
Junior Lake (254) 26.7 5.1 2.4 .284 / .332 / .428

Lake, on the other side of the outfield, is less of a power threat, but there is a sense that he did not gain a full chance to show off his speed in 2013. The youngster stole 54 of 73 bases in the upper minor league levels, and he has always been an aggressive batter at the plate. The swinging outfielder will need to decrease the gap between his strike outs and walks at the big league level, but if he continues to hit his way on base he could give the Cubs a secondary top-order weapon.

Mostly, Schierholtz, Ruggiano, and Lake have an excellent arena to showcase their skills. Given the Cubs’ rebuilding scenario, they should have jobs to keep throughout the season. Furthermore, they will play out their opportunity in one of the friendliest hitting environments in the NL. This is the perfect recipe for a trio of outfielders giving their all and producing solid results for their club.

Best Case Scenario
If you want to have a good time in Chicago, take up a bet with the first person you see: say, “I bet the Cubs will make the World Series within five years.” You see, Chicagoans have already tired of rebuilding, especially since fans of the bandwagon sort can jump on packed trains for the Blackhawks and (to a lesser extent) the Bulls.This attitude has numbed Chicago baseball fans to the strength of their minor league system, as well as the proximity of their top minor league stars to the big league club. Within two years, the Cubs should hopefully graduate their three very best prospects to Wrigley. Depending on the development of the current roster core, these players could immediately earn the Cubs a spot as noisemaker in the Senior Circuit playoff races.

In a sense, the best case scenario for the Cubs is almost entirely on the side of the minor league system. In terms of balance, their success might be graded by 75% on the farm, and 25% on Addison and Clark. The Cubs need to keep their top prospects healthy and keep them moving forward without major productive setbacks. However, some might argue that the big league club deserves a more important share, since the Cubs must see if their new manager, Rick Renteria, can motivate or relate to the players more effectively than Dale Sveum. Similarly, there was a sense that fans and front office should have seen a more prominent improvement on the diamond last year; this year, the W-L record may not be terribly important in terms of playoffs, but it could be incredibly important as a confidence vote on the rebuilding process. For the Cubs to successfully rebuild, they need to see their young core step forward. Now, Castro, Rizzo, Lake, Welington Castillo, Rusin, and Arrieta may not be able to fully drive the club, but their 2014 performances could serve as key evidence about the potential success of future Cubs squads.

When the elite crop of minor leaguers graduate to the majors, will they have an established core to join? The best case scenario for the 2014 Cubs will answer that question in the affirmative.

2013 Preview
2012 Preview

BaseballAmerica. Grdinmedia, LLC., 2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2014.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2014.

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