Playing Pepper 2014: Chicago Cubs

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Chicago Cubs
66-96, fifth in the NL Central

Ah, those Cubs.  There most likely will come a day when we are worried about the baby bears from the North Side.  There might even come a day when they are playoff bound.

2014 is not that day.

I’ll admit, it does seem like Theo Epstein is starting to set the foundation, but there’s still seemingly a long way to go before the Cubs are contending for that top slot.  While that might be perfectly acceptable to the majority of this readership, it’s not as fun for those we’re talking to today:

I’ve got to give extra kudos for these guys to going through this.  You have to know it’s not easy.  Then again, “not easy” and “Cub fan” have gone together for a long time.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

BB: Like I said last year, it’s important to take into account the offseason expectations when handing out grades. I like most of the moves the Cubs made… George Kottaras will make a great backup catcher. I’ve got a soft spot for Emilio Bonifacio‘s position versatility. Jason Hammel‘s contract is great, giving him the chance to be Scott Feldman 2.0. I usually don’t like the idea of paying “closers,” but $3.85M for Jose Veras in 2014 sounds like a good number to me. After hearing new manager Rick Renteria talk at the Cubs Convention, I’ve joined the #RenteriaFanClub and I’m excited to see his management style in action. He’s so positive and supportive, I’d love to play for the guy.

That being said, the two big things on my wishlist for the offseason didn’t get done: Masahiro Tanaka is a New York Yankee, and Jeff Samardzija has not been signed to a long-term extension. If those two boxes were checked, I’d give this offseason an A+ in line with the Cubs’ plan and expectations. But the Tanaka pipedream is long gone, and something has yet to give in the Shark talks. Final grade is a B. If I wasn’t so excited about Renteria, the Cubs would be looking at a C+.

BBH: F. There’s no other grade than the worst one possible. Signing Masahiro Tanaka would have changed this for the better, but none of those that were acquired tell me the Cubs are serious about improving on the field this year. And the introduction of Clark the mascot has been good for some ribald laughs on Deadspin, but it faintly reeks of desperation, too. The way to reverse falling attendance is not some cuddly little bear.

BE: At the risk of sounding redundant, I’m giving the club a straight C this time around. Last year, I gave them a C+ for transactions that might help to win more games this season, and a B for transactions that might help to win more games in future seasons. Regarding the latter, there were several opportunities to pull out a few more stops than they actually did throughout the season, and the result doesn’t support another B at all, nor does it support a better grade. The only thing that justifies a C+ in my mind has less to do with the offseason and more to do with how the club did in the draft, and how they’ve met or exceeded expectations on building their farm system. So, OK, the Cubs have one of the best farm systems in baseball. That’s swell. I’ll be more than happy to eat these words later, but the Royals had the best farm system in baseball a few years ago, and they are still unable to smell kind of success that “you’d think” this would yield years down the road. Barring all of that, the offseason was weak, and totally average in terms of activity.

C70: Do you expect Jeff Samardzija to be with the club all season?

BB: Do I want him to? Yes. Do I expect him to? Not really. The two sides are apart in negotiations. Jed Hoyer said to Dave Kaplan, “there’s a gap or else we’d be having a press conference.” Samardzija reportedly wants a no trade clause and it’s highly unlikely Theo and company give him one. Samardzija doesn’t like the “r word” (rebuilding) and wants to see some commitment to winning. That’s one of the reasons I wanted the Cubs to get Tanaka, it probably would’ve helped in the Samardzija extension talks. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was traded now.

BBH: No. Samardzija just isn’t that good of a pitcher, in my view. When he’s the Opening Day starter, it’s clear that the Cubs have a lot of work to do. He won’t be around after the trade deadline.

BE: I’ll say this much, I was very surprised at his recent extension. I also remained surprised at how many times it seemed like the Cubs were going to move him, and at how many times this didn’t happen. Samardzija’s trade value (in terms of “big time immediate return”) is more arbitrary than it is debatable. His performance has just been too wishy-washy to use as a chip, so his value leans more towards the “relatively healthy, not horrible pitcher with light team control” and that’s what has me confused, because a LOT of teams are looking for this. The Cubs have enough of this kind of talent, but Samardzija’s case makes me wonder if they have the tools to market those kinds of players. Theo and his folks know what they’re doing, and I certainly don’t, so I’ll just settle my own differences by accepting that “it must be the intangibles” and leave it by assuming that if he stays healthy and keeps his ERA under 5, he will be dealt…somehow.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

BB: Third base, although I wouldn’t say it’s a full-fledged “battle.” It sounds like the team is content with doing the Donnie Murphy/Luis “Valbueno” Valbuena platoon again. I will just be interested to see how Mike Olt does, if his eye issues have truly been corrected and if he beats out the platoon for the starting third base job.

BBH: Frankly, I can’t think of any. This is a terribly uninspiring group on the roster right now, and it matters little who gets a starting job and who doesn’t. Others will give you a meatier answer than that, I hope.

BE: I’m going to go out on a limb here…Nate Schierholtz put together a relatively wonderful 2.4 WARP season with the Cubs last year, his best with a Major League club ever, only coming closer in 2011 with the Giants and in 140 fewer plate appearances. The Cubs traded Brian Bogusevic to the Marlins for Justin Ruggiano, who at 31 is a couple of years older than Schierholtz and is more likely to play LF than RF, Schierholtz’s domain. Junior Lake is slated to be the Cubs’ starting LF and can probably handle the job, but if Ruggiano has any hopes of making it on the Cubs’ roster, he’s going to have to compete with Schierholtz more than Lake to make that spot. I can’t fathom Ruggiano spending a lot of time in RF yet, but if Schierholtz falters there’s a possibility he could get a chance to do so…at least more of a chance than Brett Jackson or Josh Vitters do. It’s not quite a battle, or even a donnybrook, but to me, it will be intriguing to see what Ruggiano has to do to get off the bench (other than in a platoon role) and how he will do it.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

BB: Javier Baez! He’ll come up in July and hit 22 home runs. Book it.

BBH: Last year I said Brett Jackson, so my track record here is admittedly terrible. Javier Baez is generally thought to be the nearest of the Cubs’ prospects to making the majors, but they’ll hold him back in order to maximize their control over his arbitration rights. That’s just how they roll.

BE: Well, Jackson and Vitters have already pretty much punched their tickets for departure from the club, so if Luis Valbuena doesn’t absolutely sparkle, we may as well expect Mike Olt to get a chance in the hot corner…and if Valbuena does sparkle, we may as well expect him to get traded and see Olt in the lineup anyway. The Cubs have a LOT of great prospects in the wings, but none of them are really ready to step into the friendly confines for anything other than a tour or a futures game.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

BB: Last year I guessed 75 wins. (lol.) This year I’ll guess 72 wins and see how close I get. As for where, I’d say fourth or fifth place.

BBH: I really hate to be so negative, but 62-100 is the best that I can see this year. I’m not even sure that “Wait ’til next year” applies to this group. They’ll come in last again in the NL Central.

BE: I’m thinking we have another 70-win max season to look forward to, and another round of bottom-of-the-barrel scraping in the division.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

BB: I like watching Samardzija and Travis Wood pitch. Darwin Barney is still fun in the field. Rizzo’s batting stance is awesome. Castro’s going to bounce back too. Really, I like watching a lot of these Cubs, as surprising as that may seem.

BBH: When he hits, Anthony Rizzo can be exciting to watch.But he needs to come back from a down year last year, too.

BE: I’m still a believer in Starlin Castro, and I still enjoy watching the man do his thing, even when his thing is bobbling extraordinary grounders and striking out a little too much. There’s a truckload of blame to pass around for his woes in 2013, but hey…he’s not the only guy on the roster with performance issues, and he’s the most likely to overcome those issues. His style of play is very metal, and I just adore him.

My thanks to all these guys for their time, their thoughts, and their sense of humor.  No matter what the records or how the organizations are going, there’s still nothing quite like a Cards/Cubs game and there are sure to be some good ones this season!

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