As the season is primed to start in two weeks, now is a good time to preview what we might see over the course of the summer. For the Cubs, specifically, probably another season with more losses than wins, some mid-season trades, and unlike the last two seasons, more prospects being called up…and more of a look at how future seasons may take shape, under the guidance of new manager Rick Renteria. This is my vision of how the roster situation will shake out.
Projected Record: 71-91, 5th Place in NL Central
This team is actually the least talented Opening Day of the three during the Epstein era. With fewer veterans, fewer “rent-to-deal” players, and more placeholders on the roster, the season looks worse at the start. This could shift either up or down, depending on who gets traded, who gets called up, and most importantly, how they perform.
There is a high likelihood that this changes as the season progresses. Hammel is a classic flip piece, in the mold of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman before him. Jeff Samardzija is a guy who could be on the move before the season starts, but will most likely be extended or traded by the non-waiver deadline in July. Jackson should bounce back some after an awful first season in Chicago. Travis Wood is due for some regression in the other direction, as he was excellent last season, and the odds say that probably will not happen again. Arrieta is a wild card. He has great stuff and if he can harness that and pitch to his talent level, could turn out to be an absolute steal from the Feldman trade last summer.
With the amount of speculation surrounding him last year and the addition of Wesley Wright this year, James Russell could also be on the move as the deadline approaches. Carlos Villanueva, in a contract year, is probably the most likely candidate to be traded as the season wears on. With Justin Grimm waiting in the wings, however, the loss of Villanueva is very easily filled from within.
Wellington Castillo asserted himself as one of the top defensive catchers in the game last season. For it, his offense suffered in the first half of the season before coming on in the second half. He has more capability to hit for power than his 8 HRs showed, and this could be the year where Beef Castle puts it all together and emerges as one of the games best young backstops. Kottaras is a left-handed hitter who can fill in capably when Castillo needs a day off.
For the time being, this is the infield. Darwin Barney is definitely a trade candidate this season, as Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez knock at Wrigley’s door. This is a potential bounce back season for Castro, who tried to alter his swing and plate approach last season, to no avail. Anthony Rizzo was hot and cold in his first full season in the majors, but his power and runs driven in were not terrible when compared to other first basemen, and all of that was in spite of his struggles with runners on base. Third base is the only position in question, with Olt making a hard charge to claim the position. If that happens, it opens Valbuena and Bonifacio to utility positions, which they are best suited for. If Olt makes his claim on the position and proves to be the player he was in 2012, it is all sorts of good news for the Cubs, allowing them to move Baez to second or shortstop, and Kris Bryant to the outfield when he is ready to come up.
This group is very likely to see change, as well this season. With Schierholtz being ready to hit free agency, he can be counted on to be moved in July. Sweeney and Ruggiano are also candidates to be moved. Expect to see Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson at some point this season, as they are moving past their injury plagued 2013 seasons, and looking to prove once and for all that they are not the busts that fans think they are.
The winds of change are going to blow strongly this season. This year, however, they will blow in the positive direction. We should see more prospects come up and begin the major league phase of their development. That list could include Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks, and others following next season and beyond. It appears the darkest times are behind the Cubs, with the players they could move this summer being mere place holders for these young players coming through the system. The notable exception to that is Jeff Samardzija, who may go the way of Matt Garza, and be sent out of town after failing to land an extension.