With the Cubs coming off two seasons where they lost at least 96 games, and projected for another season well below .500 in 2014, it is no surprise that the Cubs have a few spots with undecided starters. It actually may be more of a surprise that only three starting spots are up for grabs: third base, second base and one outfield spot. Over the next few weeks, we will look at each of these positions, examining both what the contenders did in the past, and what ZiPS projects them for in 2014.
We start at third base for two reasons. First, some of the contenders at third base could also be contenders at second base… but only if they aren’t the starter at third base. Second, the highest ceiling prospect (Mike Olt, whose status I discussed here earlier this offseason) is in the competition at the hot corner.
2013 statistics: 391 PAs, .218/.331/.378, .315 wOBA, 95 wRC+, 12 HRs, 13.6% walk rate, 16.1% strikeout rate, .233 BABIP, 2.0 fWAR
2014 ZiPS projection: 481 PAs, .241/.325/.376, .311 wOBA, 92 wRC+, 11 HRs, 10.6% walk rate, 20% strikeout rate, .285 BABIP, 1.7 fWAR
2013 statistics: 163 PAs, .255/.319/.530, .366 wOBA, 130 wRC+, 11 HRs, 4.9% walk rate, 29.4% strikeout rate, .300 BABIP, 0.8 fWAR
2014 ZiPS projection: 350 PAs, .229/.291/.417, .310 wOBA, 91 wRC+, 13 HRs, 6% walk rate, 26.3% strikeout rate, .278 BABIP, 0.6 fWAR
2013 statistics (between 104 games at Triple A and 3 games at Double A): 432 PAs, .201/.303/.381, 15 HRs, 12.7% walk rate, 30.6% strikeout rate
2014 ZiPS projection: 461 PAs, .220/.299/.383, .301 wOBA, 85 wRC+, 15 HRs, 10% walk rate, 30.8% strikeout rate, .293 BABIP, 1.0 fWAR
The Likely Opening Day Starter
Until last week, I thought we’d see another Valbuena/Murphy platoon to start the season. However, Ken Rosenthal, who is as well connected and accurate as any of the baseball reporters, reported that the Cubs’ brass definitively wants Olt to break camp as the starting third baseman.
As a note, I would ignore the ZiPS projection for Olt, or any projection for Olt, despite the fact that I generally like ZiPS as a projection system, at least more than FanGraphs’ other projection systems. To start, it’s likely heavily influenced by Olt’s cup of coffee with the Rangers at the end of 2012. Beyond that, Olt is such a hit or miss option, that a projection for him really cannot take the middle road. If his problem was not the eyes in 2013, or his problem was his eyes and his eyes are not fixed, Olt likely fail no matter whether he plays in the National League or the Pacific Coast League. If the eyes were the problem and are fixed, the projections really are unable to take that into account positively for Olt. As projection systems don’t generally take into account why a player was terrible, the safer bet for ZiPS and all projection system is just to presume that Olt is bad at baseball.
This is the position I am least sure of. I previously thought that the Cubs would send Olt to Iowa to start the season to show that he’s healthy. But with Rosentthal’s report, I think it’s 50/50, with the sole question being Olt’s health. If the Cubs’ brass and scouts think Olt’s eyes are right, he will be the starting third baseman on Opening Day. Olt also provides the best upside by a significant margin, as a solid OBP, above average power bat who could be one of the Cubs best hitters this season, as long as he, you know, can actually see the ball.
Who I Think Should Start
Olt, if his eyes are right. Murphy is who he is, a Jeff Baker type who strikes out more and walks less. Valbuena has value as a high walk, decent power left handed part of an infield platoon, but he can contribute elsewhere. Olt has the ceiling to positively change the Cubs’ competitiveness timeline, if he is healthy and plays well either by turning himself into a valuable trade chip or allowing the Cubs to convert other infield prospects such as Arismendy Alcantara and Jeimer Candelario into trade bait for pitching help.
As a bonus, Olt being with the Cubs alleviates a roster crunch in the upper minors, where there legitimate third base prospects who need regular playing time at the position at Triple A, Double A, and Single A (Christian Villanueva, Kris Bryant, and Jeimer Candelario respectively). This should not factor into the decision, but Villanueva, who some say is the best defensive third baseman in all of the minor leagues, getting regular time in the line up at Triple A is up there on the importance meter.
Next week, we move to an even more crowded field at second base.