Saturday, March 22, 2014

2014 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs with @BleacherNation

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2014. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is about a week away and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

The past two years I have done an NL Central preview where I get together with some of the best bloggers from around the NLC and get them to talk about their teams and what we can expect from them. As it was last year I will ask each of them 15 questions and they will give you the low down on what to expect in 2014.

After the four previews from around the division there will be a three part series previewing the Pirates. The Pirates preview is, um, extensive.

The first in the preview series is going to be the Chicago Cubs and today I will be talking with Brett Taylor from Bleacher Nation. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. He does great work and was nice enough to come back from last season.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2014 Chicago Cubs.

1) Last season the Cubs struggled with only 66 wins and finished 31 games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central. Obviously this was known as a rebuilding year going in but what can you take away from last season?

BN: Not a lot of good stuff at the big league level, unfortunately. Travis Wood looked great, but outpitched his peripherals considerably. Jeff Samardzija was great in spurts, but fell off late in the year. Welington Castillo really improved defensively, but there are questions about the sustainability of his offensive production. The farm system had a great year, not only in additions of talent, but also in player development. That's what you've got to hang your hat on as a Cubs fan, and it's probably going to be the same story in 2014.

2) Maybe one of the more frustrating things for me about the Cubs is Starlin Castro. He has the talent but really struggled last year (.245/.284/.347) and was only replacement level. It has to get better, right?

BN: Probably, particularly if the plate approach changes that didn't take last year are scrapped and he's able to go back to being an effective see-ball-hit-ball type. Maybe there are even some lingering benefits from the Cubs' efforts to get him to see more pitches last year, and he improves over what he was a couple years ago. He's still improving defensively, and he's just about to turn 24. There may no longer be as much upside as fans hoped, but there's plenty of reason to believe he can be a 3.0 WAR player again in short order.

3) The offseason was really quiet for the Cubs both in what they lost and what they got. Is this just a product of the rebuilding process?

BN: Mostly, yes. It's an acknowledgement that adding a couple pieces for the short-term was not going to make this a competitive team, and, thus, you're essentially flushing dollars (and, let's be honest, future dollar/draft position) down the toilet. And, man, the dollars were plentiful this offseason. There are also some financial restriction issues with the Cubs right now that will take a little time to clear. They went hard after Masahiro Tanaka, because he was the one guy who clearly fit where they are and what they need in the long-term, but they weren't comfortable giving him a deal that allowed him to opt out in four years.

4) Rick Renteria comes in to take over the manager duties. Also most of the Cubs staff is new this year. What are your thoughts on all the new hires?

BN: Mostly a hopeful shrug. There's only so much you can say about a manager (much less coaches) before the season starts (and even after that, you're probably saying more than is fair). What we can see of their impact is so very small. He seems like a nice guy. Mostly says the right things.

5) One of the adds the Cubs had actually happened last season. They were able to get Mike Olt from Texas in the Matt Garza deal. Are you looking for him to jump up and make an impact?

BN: That's certainly the hope of just about everyone following the team, including the front office. Olt's 2013 season was a disaster after a concussion over the 2012/13 offseason, and subsequent vision, tear duct, and allergy issues. He believes those issues were the reason for his struggles, and that those issues are now fixed. The Rangers obviously didn't believe he was going to be able to get back to what he was in 2012, when he was a top 25 prospect in the game. We'll see.

6) Anthony Rizzo struggled last year as well (.233/.323/.419) but was able to post a nice 11% walk rate and still hold a decent OBP relative to his average. Does his BABIP (.258 last year) need to just come to the mean a little more?

BN: Yeah, and that will almost certainly happen. His BABIP might always be a little low (we don't really have enough data yet to know where his baseline is) because of a fly-ball approach, and pull tendencies that are somewhat hurt by defensive shifts. Last year, he did just about everything you'd want to see except get a bunch of singles. His batting average suffered, so it made his slash line kind of ugly. But the power was there and the discipline was there. And he's young.

7) Seems as if people in Chicago really, really love Junior Lake. Where do you stand on him?

BN: Freak of an athlete, really strong tools, really raw and erratic performance. He has pretty significant contact issues that make me concerned about his ability to start at the big league level, but he's so damn athletic and impressive when he's on that he might be that rare guy who keeps improving, and ultimately outperforms what his minor league numbers say he should be. If he's able to stick in center field, then all the better.

8) On the pitching side a lot has been made of Jeff Samardzija and his contract this offseason. Does he end the year as a Cub? Do you want him to end the year as a Cub?

BN: The best possible outcome has always been a reasonable - not even necessarily "team friendly", just reasonable - extension. But Samardzija has made a lot of money in his career, and wants to be paid for the guy he believes he can be. The Cubs, for their part, want to pay him for the guy he's been (great peripherals, rougher results), including considering that he's still two years away from free agency. You don't give a guy in that situation a free agent level contract, and you don't even pay him free agent level dollars for the free agent years you're buying out. So, the Cubs' perspective is reasonable. But Samardzija's position is understandable, too. It's just a tricky spot where a compromise might not be possible. And if that's clearly the case come July - and Samardzija is healthy/effective - it's hard to see him not being traded.

9) Travis Wood was pretty good last year while Edwin Jackson was pretty sub-par. What does the rest of the rotation look like?

BN: Jackson, by the way, was mostly the victim of some bad luck. Most metrics indicate he was pretty much the same guy he always was, he just had some really bad sequencing, which is mostly out of his control. The Cubs signed Jason Hammel as the "flip guy" for the rotation, and there's also James McDonald, Chris Rusin, and Carlos Villanueva as possible back-end guys. Jake Arrieta is the arm you dream on (as the Orioles did for so many unsatisfying years), but he's been slowed by shoulder stiffness.

10) A familiar face to Pirates fans is with the Cubs in James McDonald. Does he have a chance to help the team this year?

BN: He'll get a very good shot to win a rotation spot with Arrieta's injury, though I'm still not convinced of the upside in McDonald. He got a minimal contract from the Cubs, so there's not a ton of risk. If he's over the shoulder issues from last year, then, who knows? Maybe he's really the guy he flashed in the first half of 2012.

11) The Cubs farm system is stacked. It is frequently talked about as one of the best in the league with Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, etc. Give us a brief rundown of your thoughts on the Cubs farm system.

BN: My pants just fell off.

12) Scooter Gennett or Darwin Barney. Who is a more real person (answer: neither is real).

BN: I love you, you love me, let's talk about the origin of species!

13) Who is going to be the biggest wild card this year for the Cubs? Who might be overvalued heading into the year?

BN: So many guys you could pick for this spot, because, for all their flaws, the Cubs do have a huge number of guys who could improve by leaps and bounds this year. Castro is probably the guy who can, on his own, have the most positive impact in terms of 2014 results and long-term value. Lake, Olt, Arrieta are all guys you dream on. Rizzo and Samardzija are guys whom you want to see have strong years. Wood and Castillo are guys you hope really are who they showed last year. Bonifacio is a guy you hope is a pleasant scrap-heap surprise. And, of course, you hope a guy like Javier Baez comes up and instantly dominates (probably won't happen). Overvalued? Probably someone like Wood, whom I really like, but whose peripherals scare you into thinking he's maybe more of a back-of-the-rotation type rather than the front-end guy most Cubs fans seem to think he is.

14) What are your overall expectations for the team this season and what do you see their record being at years end?

BN: I expect the results to be crummy, but I hope there are some individual positive stories. If the Cubs top 70 wins, I'll be surprised, in part because I expect them to strip it down again mid-season if they aren't on a shockingly-good pace come late June.

15) Last year the Pirates finally broke “the streak” and then made the playoffs. Great times. What are your thoughts on them this season?

BN: I loved following the Pirates last year, and it made me happy for Pirates fans to see them get something to enjoy. Since I don't expect the Cubs to be there, and since I really dislike the Cardinals (and kinda sorta dislike the Reds), I'd love to see the Pirates do it again this year. The rotation strikes me as a little iffy (I think Liriano and Locke pull back quite a bit), and you would have liked to have seen them go out and get one big bat. Maybe a little regression this year, but the highest praise I can offer is that, as I look ahead to the Cubs' upcoming competitive window, I'm pissed to see that the Pirates look like they'll still be great at that time. Get lost, Buccos. 2017 is the Cubs' year!

Huge thanks to Brett for taking the time to answer my questions on the Cubs. If you are not already then please give him a follow and check out his writing.

Tune in tomorrow when we take a look at the Cincinnati Reds.

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