Super Mega Deluxe Cubs 2014 Season Preview, Special Edition

WOO HOO!!!

WOO HOO!!!

Opening Day (yes, I am formally capitalizing it) is finally here, and in celebration I’m breaking out my keyboard and banging the keys to create my first ever season preview. If you’ve read much of my writing here before (Hi, Aunt Neicie…), you know that I am far from an insider…more like a troublingly interested fan. If you haven’t read much of my writing before, I’m, uh, the world’s preeminent expert on baseball prognostication. Either way, I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth out of this preview.

I’m breaking the roster into squads and for each I’ll give a quick synopsis of what the Cubs are opening the season with, along with a best- and worst-case scenario for the season. I’ll post my season prediction at the end of the post. So, without further ado…

Starting Pitching

Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Carlos Villanueva

The starters are listed here in the order they’ll start off the season, though I imagine everyone would agree that Travis Wood is the solid #2 on this staff (and if there is any argument it should be whether or not he’s the actual #1). Each of these pitchers starts the season with a ready-to-go narrative. Will Samardzija’s performance on the field match his perception of himself? Can Wood replicate his success of a season ago? Can Jackson un-replicate his un-success of a season ago? Which GM will Theo fleece in a deal for Jason Hammel? Just how bad-ass, really, is Carlos Villanueva, or is it just the moustache?

Best Case Scenario

Chris Bosio continues to establish himself as one of the best pitching coaches in the game, as Jackson and Hammel both get off to blistering starts and are flipped for prospects before the trade deadline. But, unlike years past, their spots are more than capably filled by Jake Arrieta, who comes back from injury to pitch like a co-ace, and Kyle Hendricks, who shows that big brains and a 90mph fastball are more than enough to compete in the show. Shark’s on-field performance lives up to expectations and, with Edwin Jackson off the books, Theo is able to give him the extension he craves. Though the staff is largely healthy, successful spot starts by Eric Jokisch and Neil Ramirez point towards future depth.

Worst Case Scenario

Jeff Samardzija starts believing he really is a shark and perishes in a tragic swimming accident. Edwin Jackson decides to open a fried food emporium in the dugout, but goes out of business when he eats all of the inventory. Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta are abducted by misguided John Waters fans and Chris Bosio decides life would be better living in Dale Sveum’s pool house.

Relief Pitching

Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Brian Schlitter, Pedro Strop, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright

What a fine collection of names. The biggest tragedy here is that Brian Schlitter wasn’t around when Harry was still broadcasting games. God. Damn. Tragedy. Wesley Wright belongs on the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars and James Russell needs to get traded, because what the hell kind of name is James Russell??

Best Case Scenario

The pen opens the season firing strikes and all of those Marmol jokes seem like such distant memories. Veras is lights out until being traded at the deadline, but is easily replaced by a flourishing Pedro Strop. And sometime in August, just as the pen seems like it might run out of gas, Arodys Vizcaino is brought up and takes the league by storm as the Cubs compete for an improbable wild-card berth.

Worst Case Scenario

Justin Grimm turns out to be a Grimm, just like in the tv show, but before he can fulfill his destiny all of his teammates are eaten by trolls or big bad wolves or something.

Catching

Wellington Castillo, John Baker

It’s pretty stunning that Baker ($930,000) is going to make nearly twice Castillo’s salary ($503,000) this year.

Best Case Scenario

The Beef’s hard work pays off and his improved pitch framing and game calling capabilities become the talk of the industry, while his bat shows more flashes of power. Baker is surprisingly competent and plays enough to keep Castillo healthy for 130 starts. By the end of the year phrases like, “best young catcher in the game” are heard in floating through the bleachers.

Worst Case Scenario

Castillo begins a free fall into obscurity, unable to stay healthy or maintain his improved patience at the plate. In a few years people are arguing about where he slots between Rick Wilkens and Damon Berryhill.

Infield

Darwin Barney, Emilio Bonifacio, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Anthony Rizzo, Luis Valbuena

Easily the most intriguing squad on the team, with top prospects pushing hard to shake up the make-up at these positions. This could end up being one of the best infields in baseball or one of the worst, but one way or another we should have more clarity on who stays part of the core and who gets peeled away.

Best Case Scenario

Castro and Rizzo bounce back to become All-Stars, with Starlin in the hunt for the batting title and Rizzo becoming a rich man’s Mark Grace. Mike Olt locks down third base for the next 10 years, which has massive ramifications on the Cubs rebuilding plan. Darwin Barney’s bat improves to serviceable, but there is no stopping the advance of Javier Baez, who become the Cub’s starting second baseman in August. The 2016 NL All-Star starters all wear blue pinstripes.

Worst Case Scenario

Castro struggles again and is dumped in a mid-season trade. Unfortunately the trade is a wake up call and Starlin goes on to have a Hall of Fame career with another team. Anthony Rizzo becomes a poor man’s Carlos Pena, Mike Olt can’t hit a beachball with a 2×4, but there’s no hope as Javier Baez strikes out 190 times at AAA. Arismendy Alcantara is called up, but, just then, Darwin Barney peels off his disguise to reveal Ryan Theriot, who immediately bludgeons Alcantara to death.

Outfield

Ryan Kalish, Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano, Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney

An interesting group, but, sad to say, one that could easily be the worst in baseball. However, there’s a lot of upside, some nice balance and probably more athleticism than one would think at first glance. And, again, prospects are beating at the door, though maybe not as loudly as in the infield.

Best Case Scenario

Junior Lake hits like a young Alfonso Soriano and noticeably improves his defense throughout the year. Ruggiano and/or Schierholtz play well enough to get back nice prospects in a trade, which makes room for a resurgent Brett Jackson, who finds his swing at AAA and brings it with him to Wrigley. Ryan Kalish is one of the best stories in baseball and by midseason Lake, Kalish and Jackson make up one of the most dynamic outfields in baseball. Then, in September, Albert Almora gets a call up and plays well enough to be considered a front-runner for the 2015 ROY award. Meanwhile, with third base locked down by Mike Olt, Kris Bryant moves to the outfield and finishes the year at AAA, along with Jorge Soler. Off-season stories about the Cubs begin to say things like, “embarrassment of riches”.

Worst Case Scenario

Junior Lake fields like a young Alfonso Soriano, not that anyone notices, as he hits like Felix Pie and is traded to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for two slices of toro and some maki to be named later. Ruggiano and Schierholtz play just poorly enough to make nobody want them, while Ryan Kalish and Ryan Sweeney are struck by lightening and bizarrely have their brains switched, but nobody can tell the difference. Down in the minors Albert Almora turns out to be made of popcorn and can’t stay healthy, while Kris Bryant decides to widen his stance further, resulting in him tearing in two. Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters decide to quit baseball, but, on the bright side, do end up as roommates and having a wacky sitcom based on their lives.

Final Prediction

As with most things, real life will fall between the best- and worst-case scenarios. I think Castro and Rizzo do bounce back and I think Olt will be a credible threat, if not the kind of player to make the team move Bryant off of third for the future. I do think Barney is better than he was last year, but I acknowledge that’s not saying much.

The biggest thing, in my opinion, that the team needs from this year is clarity. By the end of the season we need a better handle on the future expectations for a lot of players. Not having that clarity means many things went terribly wrong and, if that happens, this team has a chance to be historically bad. However, I do have a good feeling about this team. It reminds me of the ’89 team that had no expectations, but a lot of young, hungry players. This could end up being a tremendously exciting year and one with better than expected results at the big league level.

Based on that optimism I’m going to predict that this team stays in wild card contention until the last weeks of the season, falling just short, but setting up some really high hopes for 2015 and beyond. While still behind the Cardinals and Pirates in the standings, the Cubs shock everyone by losing, not 100, not 90, but 80 games, finishing the year over .500 at 82-80, good for third place in the NL Central.

Dylan Steele

About Dylan Steele

A Louisiana native, Dylan Steele now lives in Halethorpe, Maryland. A web developer by day, he is also an occasional musician, frequent dog walker and sometimes hoopster. And now he blogs, too.
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