What do the Cubs Need to do to Compete in 2014
With the July 31st trading deadline come and gone, and the Cubs bereft of the type of players that would make it through waivers, we have a very good idea of what the Cubs will look like the rest of the way through 2013. This also means that we have a pretty good idea of what the Cubs will look like in 2014.
Despite the record, the Cubs are a significantly better team this year than last year. This is largely due to the Cubs not trotting out starting pitchers that just are not good enough to get by the in Majors, are not ready for the Majors, or both, 4 out of 5 games. While this is somewhat related to injuries and innings limits last season, the Cubs are also just deeper as far as starting pitchers are concerned this season. Whereas the Cubs were flawed in all phases of the game a year ago, they are now just largely a team that does not score enough runs. They have a good starting rotation, and an ok but inconsistent bullpen.
The Cubs have some big time prospects in the minors, and there is a legitimate argument that 8 Cubs farmhands will be in Top 100 lists next year. Yet only one of those prospects is in Triple A (Mike Olt). In other words, the big influx of high ceiling talent probably is not coming until 2015, although I will be discussing when you can expect to see those eight prospects in the Big Leagues on Friday afternoon.
Considering the Javier Baez and Kris Bryant types in the farm system are not coming to save the day, what can the Cubs do to compete in 2014? For the sake of this article, my definition of “competing” is being at least within 5 games of the division lead for most of the season. It would mean that at the All Star Break and trade deadline the Cubs would be in the division hunt. I am not going to reference things that need to continue, so the Cubs’ strong starting pitching won’t get a reference. These are the things that need to change.
The Cubs Need Better Luck Part 1
The Cubs -31 run differential is better than the Washington Nationals’ run differential (-35). The Nationals are 4 games under .500, pretty much right where their run differential says they should be, the Cubs are 13 games under .500. The Cubs have been terrible in 1 run games this season, but that is due to two things: (1) poor bullpen performances, particularly early in the season; and (2) a lack of clutch hitting. Here’s the thing: do you know what are two of the biggest things in baseball that are not predictive of future success or failure? One is bullpen performance, which can vary greatly from year to year. Relief pitchers have among the highest early flameout rates, and the way they are used leads to small sample sizes in any given year. And the second is clutch hitting, which is something that no one has been able to show is a skill as opposed to just plain old randomness.
But the Cubs Also Actually Need a Better Bullpen
This is especially true at the start of the season. Now, the Cubs will have an advantage at the start of 2014: they will not be trying to showcase Carlos Marmol. The Cubs have also put together a pretty solid collection of young hard throwers who are MLB ready, at least as relievers, but they are going to have be very good in 2014 for the Cubs to compete.
Rebounds and Improvements
The Cubs have gotten nothing offensively from the middle of the infield this season. No, really, they’re below 0 WAR offensively in the middle infield. Starlin Castro has been among the most disappointing players in baseball this season, although he was much better in July (.292/.339/.442). Second base has been a complete offensive black hole for the Cubs, although that is largely due to Darwin Barney’s .228 BABIP. While Barney has never been a good hitter, his elite defense at the position at least made him survivable at the bottom of a lineup. At first base, Anthony Rizzo has been pretty good this year, but has not yet become the ideal middle of the order force many think he can.
Legitimately, for the Cubs to compete in 2014 Castro and Barney will have to at least revert back to their 2011-2012 form offensively. This means that Castro will have to become an above average offensive shortstop, and Barney just has to not be a complete black hole in the 8 hole.
However, I think Rizzo is going to have to become a stud in short order for the Cubs to compete in 2014. If anyone in that lineup is going to become a .900 plus OPS force, it’s going to Rizzo.
Someone Will Have to Surprise
I’m looking at you Brett Jackson and Mike Olt. One of you is going to have to get past your strikeout problems and become an average regular at least. I’m also kind of looking at you Junior Lake, but you just have to prove that you can continue to be a productive major leaguer. Other candidates: Logan Watkins, Alberto Cabrera, Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley.
The Cubs Will Have to Make a Move or Two
I think the most likely move the Cubs will make is for David Price, but Price will not improve the club enough on his own in 2014 alone to make the difference. Over this year’s rotation, adding Price would add 4 wins at most. Getting Price now would be to sign him long term, so he’ll be heading a rotation that the Cubs expect to make the playoffs several times between 2015 and 2020.
But I do not think the Cubs can trust the left field role to Junior Lake and expect it to work, so they will need to get someone. My top choice would be Carlos Beltran, if he is not tendered a contract by the Cardinals. On the down side, Beltran’s walk rate has gone downhill this year and he should only be playing in left field. On the up side, Beltran still hits for average and power and the Cubs should only need him to play left field.
The Cubs Will Need Some Better Luck, Part 2
This part of the better luck scenario is that the Cubs will need some help from their division mates. The NL Central is too strong for the Cubs to reasonably compete if the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds play up to their potential. The Cubs will likely need one, if not two, of these teams to have rough 2014s to compete.
- Edwin Jackson had what may have been his worst start since April, giving up 7 runs in 5 innings on 10 hits and 2 walks, only striking out 2. Jackson had clear issues with location throughout the night.
- The Cubs attempted a comeback, scoring 3 runs in the ninth to make it close. They were aided by a Domonic Brown error that scored the 8th run, but the game ended when new Cub Thomas Neal flied out to Brown.
- Anthony Rizzo and Donnie Murphy both homered. Wellington Castillo stayed hot, going 3 for 4 with a walk.
- Julio Borbon cleared waivers and was assigned to the Triple A Iowa Cubs. It is unlikely we’ll see him back with the big league club this season.
- Double A Tennessee Smokies’ pitcher Eric Jokisch came back from the DL last night, and promptly threw a no-hitter. While Jokisch’s ceiling tops out in the back of a MLB rotation or middle innings relief, he is a legit prospect (anyone who can contribute in the Majors is a legit prospect, and Jokisch can), who is also a Northwestern alumnus (go Big 10). A great night for the young lefty.
- Top prospect Javier Baez added 4 hits in support of Baez. To get an idea of Baez’s potential, even before last night’s performance Baez had a .909 OPS as a 20 year in Double A, despite striking out in more than 30% of his plate appearances. Imagine how good he could be if he gets the Ks under control.
STATE OF THE SYSTEM
by Rob Willer
Top Prospect: Arismendy Alcantara
Background Info: Signed by the Cubs in 2008, shortly after his 17th birthday, Alcantara has had an unremarkable, quiet start to his career. Alcantara’s double play partner also has a bright future ahead of him who would be Javy Baez. Over the past two years we have seen the Cubs stockpile this system with talent. Most of the talent is Low A to Double A so 2014 should be a fun year as many players will be promoted to Double A from High A or even Triple A from Double A.
Nineteen players from the 2012 Futures Game already are in the big leagues, including All-Stars Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez and Jean Segura. Alcantara, who played second base last month and at 21 has just as big a future as the players mentioned above.
Season Stats: Alcantara hit .266 with 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases for Double-A Tennessee. Alcantara has great skills with the bat and the glove something that definitely has improved is his walk rate which is around a very solid 10%. The strikeout rate still worries me at almost 22 percent but the walk rate is encouraging so will keep an eye on both for the rest of the season as well as the future. If he can get his strikeout rate closer to 15 percent I see no problem with his development and we’ll likely see him in Chicago by 2015 at the latest.
Prediction: Alcantara gets promoted to Iowa to start next season at second base for the Iowa Cubs. Has an opportunity by the end of the 2014 season to win the job if Javy Baez plays third base at the major league level. Darwin Barney will be an interesting name over the next few years as he might be a trade candidate if Alcantara plays at high level in the major leagues.
Sleeper Prospect: Gioskar Amaya
Amaya has been an intriguing prospect to watch, he played both 2010 and 2011 at rookie ball for the Cubs. In 2011 Amaya, turned in a ridiculous season batting .337/.417/.510 for an impressive OPS of .927 which resembles an MVP caliber player in the majors. Yes rookie ball is completely different on the talent level than the majors but it was great to see Amaya breakout in 2011. After his promotion the following year to the Boise Hawks (Short Season A Affiliate of the Chicago Cubs) he still kept on hitting as a young nineteen year old. Through 272 at-bats for Boise Amaya hit .298/.381/,496 while clubbing eight homers, six doubles, 12 triples and 15 stolen bases. From the above mentioned stats we can see that Amaya gives the Cubs something of everything at a young age he has shown increased power which translates into a better slugging percentage. One also has to look at the 12 triples and get excited to see that speed in action in addition to the 15 steals which gives him a well rounded makeup as a hitter.
Finally we got to see Amaya get the call to Kane County to start the season in 2013 where in 97 games he is batting .265/.335/.394 which is to be expected as he keeps moving through the system there will be adjustments to be made. Personally I have seen Amaya play this summer and he is just a fun player to watch whether it be with the glove or the bat he puts on a show. We have to keep in mind he is only 20 years old just like his fellow third baseman Jeimer Candelario who is only 19 these kids need time to develop. If all goes to plan I see Amaya progressing to Daytona next year to start the season with a shot at being called up to Double A by the end of the season in 2014. In the end, Amaya should be in consideration for a call-up to the Cubs in 2016 barring any injuries.
Interview Alert: Be on the lookout next week as I’m scheduling interviews with some of the Cubs prospects across the lower levels. So far I can confirm Jeimer Candelario I am interviewing Jeimer Candelario after the game on Sunday.