Cubs' plan in place, but patience necessary
Impact prospects not yet close to Majors; Castro, Rizzo seek step forward
CHICAGO -- Cubs fans are giddy about the arrival of prospects Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant. The problem is, none of them are expected to be ready for Opening Day 2014.
Next season will be Year 3 of Theo Epstein's rebuilding efforts, and the emphasis will be the same as the club focuses on "building the foundation for sustained success," after it names a new manager, as Dale Sveum was relieved of his duties on Monday.
"There's an awful lot to get excited about," said Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "We had a year that was largely a mixed bag at the big league level, and it obviously didn't go well, but there were some bright spots. We had a fantastic year in player development and acquisition. We put ourselves in position to have an elite farm system with a number of impact players."
The Cubs were busy at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, adding projected 2014 starter Jake Arrieta, possible closer Pedro Strop and Minor Leaguers Ivan Pineyro, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez and Corey Black.
Epstein watched the Cubs' Class A Advanced Daytona team win the Florida State League championship.
"I'm confident a number of those players will be on the field, helping the Cubs win championships, too," Epstein said. "We're really excited about our future."
The present isn't as promising. For the first time since 1960-62, the Cubs have lost at least 90 games in three consecutive seasons, and they could only watch as both the Braves and Pirates sprayed champagne to celebrate postseason berths on consecutive days at Wrigley Field.
"That's what you want," Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said after the Pirates' party. "I think we're getting there, but I think we need to get some things ironed out and get this team mentally in a spot where that's what we're shooting for, and we're not shooting to survive, but we're shooting to win and thrive out there."
The Cubs have holes to fill, but Epstein said they won't be doing so by spending on high-priced free agents. That means it's not wise to believe any rumors linking the Cubs to high-priced free agents like Robinson Cano. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will have to be creative. Finding those perfect hitters and staying within their budget won't be easy.
"I don't think we're going to get to where we need to be through free agency for the short term, honestly," Epstein said. "Given the needs that we have and where we are and the likely price tags on the market, I don't think we'll have the ability to add multiple impact pieces in free agency.
"We're going to have to take a multi-dimensional approach to changing things," Epstein said. "We won't solve our problems through free agency. It's a very viable and sometimes attractive way to add talent, and to be a great organization, you have to do it from time to time. Given our situation on a lot of fronts, it's not the cure for our ills."
The Cubs have gotten the go-ahead from the city of Chicago to install a video scoreboard at Wrigley Field next season, but they won't begin renovations or add the new structure because of possible litigation from rooftop owners. What does that have to do with the team? The Cubs need the revenue from scoreboard advertising.
The Cubs will try to find more players like Nate Schierholtz and Scott Feldman, who were astute enough to sign for a chance to get regular playing time and show what they can do. Schierholtz finished with career highs in home runs and RBIs, while Feldman found himself in the pennant race with the Orioles and the Cubs acquired pieces for the future in Strop and Arrieta.
"We know we're not going to be able to pick and choose what we want in free agency," Epstein said. "We're going to be aggressive where we can be, and when we can be."
Arbitration eligible: SP Samardzija, OF Schierholtz, RP Daniel Bard, RP James Russell, OF Darnell McDonald, IF Darwin Barney, SP Travis Wood, SP Arrieta, RP Strop
Free agents: SP Scott Baker, RP Matt Guerrier, C Dioner Navarro, RP Kevin Gregg, OF Ryan Sweeney
Rotation: The Cubs have a good base with Samardzija, Wood and Edwin Jackson, and they'll have options from whom to choose during Spring Training, such as Arrieta, Chris Rusin and possibly Carlos Villanueva. Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year who was 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, could get consideration. Arodys Vizcaino, acquired from the Braves in July 2012, should be healthy after missing last season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Bullpen: Auditions started for a new closer in the final week of games. Gregg, signed after he was released by the Dodgers in April, notched his third career 30-save season, but he's a free agent. Strop, acquired from the Orioles in July, is one option. The Cubs seem to have setup men in Russell, Blake Parker, Alberto Cabrera, Zac Rosscup and possibly Bard. Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract last December, most likely won't be available until the end of the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in June.
Catcher: Welington Castillo showed he can handle the job on a full-time basis in his first season as the regular backstop. Castillo impressed the Cubs with his defensive skills -- especially his ability to block pitches -- and he developed a good relationship with the pitchers. Half of his eight home runs came in September, and the Cubs project more power. Navarro provided lots of levity in the clubhouse and also impressed at the plate, even posting a three-homer game against the White Sox. The Cubs are thin at catcher in the Minors, with Chadd Krist, who played at Daytona, their best prospect.
First base: Anthony Rizzo went through a sophomore slump in terms of batting average as teams adjusted to the slugger. Rizzo did receive a seven-year, $41 million contract extension in May, and he may have tried to do too much. He ranked among the NL leaders in walks and extra-base hits, which is odd in that he also struggled to hit for average. Said Epstein: "Pitchers made the adjustment to him. He tried to make adjustments back. It was a cat-and-mouse game. He was kind of on the losing end of that cat-and-mouse game."
Second base: Barney should receive his second NL Gold Glove Award after another stellar season. However, he was another player who struggled at the plate. Sveum stuck with the infielder not just because of his defense but also his competitive at-bats. The problem at the plate may have been caused by Barney listening to too many people instead of simply being himself. The 20-year-old Baez is on the fast track after hitting 37 home runs and driving in 111 runs between Class A Advanced and Double-A last season, and he could move from shortstop to second. The top second baseman in the system is Arismendy Alcantara, 21, who batted .271 at Tennessee.
Shortstop: Starlin Castro may prefer to be left alone in Spring Training. The Cubs tinkered with his swing this season, and the results were disastrous. When they finally allowed Castro to be himself, he was more comfortable and more productive. Castro has a unique style of hitting, and whether the Cubs allow him to continue to play that way is to be determined. Baez is waiting in the wings.
Third base: In 2012, Cubs third basemen combined to bat .201 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs. This year, the average was slightly better and Luis Valbuena, Donnie Murphy, Cody Ransom, Brent Lillibridge combined for 30 homers. The Cubs have plenty of prospects in the system, such as Christian Villanueva, Jeimer Candelario and this year's No. 1 pick, Bryant. An intriguing option is Olt, acquired from the Rangers in the July Matt Garza deal. Olt will spend this offseason working with the organization's coaches in Arizona. Who will handle the job full time next year? Good question.
Outfield: At the end of the season, Schierholtz was the only outfielder remaining from the Opening Day lineup, as Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus were both traded. Junior Lake, promoted after the All-Star break, provided some much-needed offense, but the former infielder is still learning the position. The Cubs got a good look at Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic, two left-handed hitters who could be options.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.