The Chicago Cubs finished the 2013 season with 66 wins -- the second-fewest in the National League. The team had the fourth-lowest batting average (.238) and sixth-fewest steals (63), but managed to finish ninth in home runs (172) -- so the roster wasn't totally bereft of Fantasy value. The pitching was bad, but it wasn't a total disaster, with a 4.00 staff ERA (21st in the majors) and 1,184 strikeouts (22nd). And while the Cubs head into 2014 with a roster very similar to that of 2013, there are some bright spots and hope for Fantasy turnarounds (as well as a ton of talent in the pipeline).
The player likely to be under the most scrutiny is Starlin Castro. The 23-year-old was rolling through his first three seasons in the majors, coming into 2013 with a .297 career average, while contributing about 20 steals and 32 doubles per year. Things took a nosedive in 2013, though, as Castro hit .245 with just nine steals. He did still hit double digits in home runs (with 10) and had his second-best doubles total (34), but his OPS plummeted to .631 and he set a career high in strikeouts (129). While Castro's BABIP was still league average, it was far below his normally high career rate. But even outside of his peripherals pushing his numbers back to where they should be, the managerial change from Dale Sveum to Rick Renteria (with Bill Mueller the new hitting coach) should benefit Castro -- Cubs president Theo Epstein suggested in an interview last season that perhaps the team had over-saturated Castro with too much information and strategy, causing him to lose sight of, "who he was as a hitter".
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Close behind Castro on the "Scrutiny Scale" is Anthony Rizzo, who hit a career high 23 home runs last season, but saw his batting average drop from .285 in 2012 to .233 in 2013 (although he did finish fifth in walks among first basemen). Rizzo's BABIP suggests a bounceback is in order for 2014, with gains in walks and power being sustained, if not improved upon. Again, a change in voice and instruction with the new coaching staff could pay off for the 24-year-old.
Nate Schierholtz was one of the more surprising players in 2013, hitting .251 with 21 home runs and 32 doubles. While he could easily sustain the numbers, there is a player on the roster who could qualify as Schierholtz 2.0 -- Justin Ruggiano. The 31-year-old had a career year in 2012 with the Marlins, hitting 13 home runs in 288 at-bats. He followed it up with a .222 average last year, but still managed 18 home runs and 15 steals. Like Schierholtz, Ruggiano has never had the chance to play in a hitter-friendly park (being on Tampa Bay and Miami) and never had more than 425 at-bats in a season (two elements general manager Jed Hoyer pointed out as reasons for liking Schierholtz before last season). The problem here is playing time, as the Cubs are full of, "this guy could have a sneaky great season"-type players. Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake, Schierholtz and Ruggiano all have upside. Throw Ryan Roberts in the mix, along with Ryan Kalish and Chris Coghlan, and the Cubs have a wide array of outfielders who all share an "underappreciated" (and, for some, "oft-injured") tag. Playing time could be the major roadblock to potential-fulfilling seasons from most of them.
On the pitching side, the Cubs may live and die with Jeff Samardzija. The 29-year-old finished with a 4.34 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 2013, with 214 strikeouts in 213 2/3 innings. While the numbers were an overall disappointment -- his ERA, WHIP and walk rate were up significantly from 2012, with his strikeout rate and K/BB ratio taking hits -- Samardizja was carrying a sub-4.00 ERA into August, and had a sub-3.00 ERA through the first two months. A higher-than-normal BABIP could have helped this along, as his xFIP suggests Samardzija's ERA should have been almost full run lower. The good news here? His velocity was essentially the same and he still struck out a batter per inning. So there's hope for a bounceback.
The two most intriguing pitchers on this staff are Baltimore imports: Jake Arrieta and Tsuyoshi Wada (see below). Arrieta was acquired in an early July trade, and put together a 4-2 record with a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over his nine-game late-season run with the Cubs (following a stint in Triple-A). Wada was quietly signed this offseason after the Orioles declined a $5 million option.
As for the bullpen, the Cubs brought in Jose Veras on a one-year deal. If the team is out of contention by the trade deadline, he could be a prime trade piece (although we thought the same about Kevin Gregg last season and he stayed with the Cubs through the end of the year). Veras is a solid late-round closer gambit, who should produce about 30 saves on the season and endure constant "he will be traded!" speculation. NL-only owners looking to speculate on post-Veras saves should invest a couple dollars in Pedro Strop -- yet another ex-Oriole who could make an impact -- as the backup closer.
Breakout ... Jake Arrieta, starting pitcher
A former top prospect, Arrieta has been given several chances to fulfill his potential -- and stumbled almost every time. It wasn't until his late-season run in 2013 that he began to put things together. Over nine starts with the Cubs last year, Arrieta had a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, striking out 37 batters over 51 2/3 innings. This Arrieta was the one many had expected, after the 27-year-old put up a 3.22 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over 472 minor league innings, striking out nearly a batter per inning. Arrieta enters 2014 with a 5.23 career ERA and 1.43 WHIP -- which are especially perplexing, considering the skills he put on display as he came up through the Baltimore system. Call it a fresh start, point to him getting out of the AL East or maybe things just clicked for him, but Arrieta looked like he was finally ready to deliver on his promise at the end of last season, and 2014 could be the year he takes it to the next level. He's worth a $1 flier in mixed Rotisserie leagues.
Sleeper ... Tsuyoshi Wada, starting pitcher
In December 2011, the Orioles signed Wada to a two-year, $8.15 million contract. He never pitched a day for the parent club, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012 and pitching 19 games in the minors last season. Over nine seasons in Japan prior to the Orioles signing him, Wada had a 3.13 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 1,444 2/3 innings, with an 8.3 K/9. Last season in the minors, Wada produced a 4.03 ERA over 19 starts. However, that masks his run over his final 10 appearances, when Wada put up a 2.83 ERA. He has some things going for him in 2014 -- a possible opening at the back of the Cubs' rotation, a full offseason to strengthen his arm, more distance between Wada and the surgery and a move to the National League, where he won't have to face a DH. His numbers in Japan weren't as impressive as those of Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma or even Wei-Yin Chen, but Wada had nice control peripherals, which could carry him to a sub-4.00 ERA, provided he sticks in the rotation out of spring training.
Impact prospect ... Mike Olt, third base
According to both Baseball America and MLB.com, Olt was a top 25 prospect heading into last season (and top 50 the year before). But he finished the 2013 season with a .201 batting average (in Double- and Triple-A), hitting just 15 home runs over 373 at-bats. This was after a 2012 in which Olt hit .288 with 28 home runs and a .977 OPS in Double-A. Most of Olt's problems last year can be traced back to a concussion he suffered in the Dominican Winter League before the season -- he experienced sustained vision problems, which are reportedly corrected now. Olt isn't expected to be named the starting third baseman out of spring training (Luis Valbuena should see the most playing time initially), but if he can show the Cubs' front office the vision issues are behind him and get back to his 2012 self, Olt should be up with Chicago by mid-June.
While Mike Olt should have the biggest impact this season, the Cubs' best prospect is shortstop Javier Baez, who hit .282 with 37 home runs and 20 steals over two levels last year. The 21-year-old probably won't see much more than some September action in 2014, as he made 44 errors last season over 123 games, and probably isn't ready to handle the position in the majors just yet. ... Kris Bryant was the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and hit .336 with nine home runs and 14 doubles over 36 games last season (in Class A and the Rookie League). At 21 years old, the college product could be up with the Cubs by 2015 if he can keep the production up. ... Albert Almora has a .326 average over two seasons in the minors (topping out in Class A). The sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, who has yet to reach double digits in steals or home runs in a season, had his 2013 cut short with a bruised bone in his groin. He is still a couple years away from playing with the Cubs. ... Jorge Soler followed up an attention-grabbing spring training (which had followed an attention-grabbing nine-year, $30 million contract in 2012) with a solid campaign in Class A, hitting .281 with eight home runs and five steals over 210 at-bats. Like Almora, Soler had his season cut short by injury (in this case, a stress fracture in his shin). ... C.J. Edwards, acquired as part of the Matt Garza deal with the Rangers in July, is yet another Cubs prospect who made it as high as Class A last season, producing a 1.86 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 116 1/3 innings, striking out 155 batters. The 22-year-old could be a late-season callup if the Cubs trade away members of the rotation around the deadline. ... Kyle Hendricks doesn't have the strikeout potential of Edwards, but he finished 2013 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 27 starts. It was his third consecutive season with a sub-3.00 ERA. Hendricks will likely start 2014 in the hitter-friendly PCL and would probably be ahead of Edwards in the line for late season callups.