To the naked eye, the 2014 season was far from successful for the Chicago Cubs. After finishing 73-89, and never even coming close to contending in the National League Central, it would be fair to say the Cubs were a bad team once again this year. While the wins may continue to be far and few between, 2014 will go down as a very important year for the franchise.
This season marked the fifth straight losing season for the Cubs. Obviously, not a position that the organization is happy to be in. That being said, there is a clear difference in attitude surrounding the team heading into this off-season. Led by arguably the best stock of young talent in baseball, the Cubs appear to have a very bright future ahead. With a lot of that talent either on the doorsteps or actually reaching the majors late in the season, the immediate future is beginning to look very bright.
Most of this optimism comes from an impressive stock of young position player talent. Through shrewd trades, smart buy-low opportunities and incredible scouting, Theo Epstein and his staff have done an incredible job of stocking talent the past few years to rebuild this organization, and it is really starting to show.
Heading into the 2014 season, there were serious questions surrounding the Cubs’ two best players, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. The 2013 season was disastrous for both young stars. That year, his first full season in the majors, Rizzo hit 23 homeruns which was nice to see, but his .233/.323/.419 slash line left plenty to be desired. Most notably, Rizzo struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. His .189/.282/.342 line against lefties had many wondering whether the Cubs would be better off finding a platoon partner for Rizzo.
Rizzo really turned his career around this season hitting .286/.386/.527 with 32 homeruns. He showed incredible power to all fields throughout the season, and his plate discipline was very impressive. Far and away the most impressive part of Rizzo’s season was his incredible improvement against left-handed pitching. He clearly put an emphasis on that part of his game, as his 2014 line against LHP was .300/.421/.507, a stark improvement over last season, and very impressive numbers for a left-handed slugger.
Rizzo’s ability to hit the ball the other way helped him tremendously in his improvement against lefties. On top of that, he owned the inside half of the plate, crushing those pitches with his incredible pull power. No matter what arms they throw with, opposing pitchers really had to pick their poison against Rizzo this season.
For the first time in his career, Rizzo was named to the All-Star team for his impressive performance. Also, his power numbers were right up with the best in the National League. His 32 homeruns were good for second in the NL, while both his slugging percentage (.527) and OPS (.913) were the third highest total in the NL.
For the sabermetric darlings, Rizzo had a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) of 153 good for third in the NL and the eighth best total in all of baseball. Basically, wRC+ uses many factors to determine how many runs each offensive player created compared to league average. It is safe to say that 2014 was an impressive season for Rizzo, who is clearly a strong block for the Cubs to build upon.
While 2013 was ugly for Rizzo, it was much worse for Castro. The shortstop entered the 2013 season as a 22-year-old two-time All-Star with an incredibly bright future ahead of him. Castro appeared to try to change his approach at the plate throughout 2013, as the Cubs wanted him to try to develop more power and to become more selective with his pitches. The results were awful, as Castro appeared to be lost at the plate throughout 2013, finishing the season hitting a pitiful .245/.284/.347.
There were serious questions surrounding Castro’s game last off-season, and for good reason. Fortunately, he was able to right the ship in a big way this season. Castro got back to his aggressive ways at the plate. He was far less timid than he was in 2013, and appeared to be much more comfortable as a hitter. The results were obvious as Castro finished the year hitting .292/.339/.438. He was also named an All-Star for the third time in his career, very impressive considering he is only 24-years-old.
There are many reasons to expect future success out of the Cubs, possibly starting in 2015. None are more important than the bounce-back seasons that Rizzo and Castro had in 2014.
Heading into this season, the Cubs had one of the best minor league systems in baseball. Not only did the organization add more impact talent in the minors, major future pieces graduated to the big leagues in 2014. The first to arrive was 22-year-old infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara, who made his big league debut on July 9th.
Alcantara mostly played second base before moving to centerfield to make room for another hotshot prospect a little later in the season. Alcantara is an extremely versatile player who showed incredible defensive ability no matter where the Cubs wanted him to play. Alcantara came up as a shortstop, and could certainly play there if the Cubs needed him to as well. For now, he appears to have found a home in centerfield and looks to be very comfortable out there.
Alcantara is a very athletic player, and while he is on the small side (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), he has a very quick swing that surprisingly generates a lot of power. When he first arrived to the majors, Alcantara showed great contact skill and impressive pop in his bat. As time went on, the league started to catch up to him as he finished the year with a less than impressive .205/.254/.367 line.
As promising as the great defense, 10 homeruns, eight steals and obvious athletic ability is, Alcantara had clear contact issues as the year went on. His 93 strikeouts to only 17 walks proves that he has plenty to work on, but he is still a very young player with a bright future ahead, and is an important player for the Cubs moving forward.
The next mega-prospect to make his debut in 2014 was 21-year-old second baseman Javier Baez, who moved to second base from shortstop due to Castro’s hold on the position. After hitting .282/.341/.578 with 37 homeruns in the minor leagues in 2013, Baez entered this season commonly considered one of the top five prospects in all of baseball. His raw athletic ability and incredible pure power generated by an incredibly fast swing had scouts everywhere enamored.
Baez had a bit of a rough start to this year at Triple-A, but was able to turn things around as the year went along. He hit .260/.323/.510 before eventually getting the call to the big leagues to make his debut on August 5th.
In that game against the Colorado Rockies, Baez went 0-5 with three strikeouts, before he walked to the plate in the top of the 12th inning. In that at bat, Baez showed Cubs’ fans his massive ceiling as he crushed an opposite field game-winning homerun. The very next night Baez went 0-4 before a 3-4, two homerun performance the night after that. In those three games Baez showed his obvious raw talent and upside, but he also showed his weaknesses.
Part of what makes Baez such an impressive and exciting hitter is his aggressiveness. He swings as hard as he can almost every time he swings the bat. While that is obviously fun and exciting to look, it has also gotten Baez into trouble throughout his career. His strikeout totals have always been high, while his walk rates are low. Baez has real contact issues that could easily hold back his career. While his ceiling is seemingly unlimited, his bust rate is fairly high as well.
As was pretty much expected, Baez struggled for most of his time in the big leagues this season. His line of .169/.227/.324 is bad, but that just means there is plenty of room for improvement. The strikeouts and overall contact issues will always be somewhat of a problem, but his raw talent and power could easily overshadow them. When it comes to Baez, the bad will likely always come with the good, but he has MVP-like potential.
Perhaps the most impressive prospect to make his big league debut this season was 22-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler, who got the call to Chicago late in August. While his sample size certainly was small, Soler certainly looked like he belonged with the big league club.
Soler hit .292/.330/.573 with five homeruns and eight doubles in only 89 at-bats with the big league club this season. He showed great power and athleticism, but even more importantly, Soler showed incredible plate discipline for such a young hitter. He is such a polished and patient hitter, who also has all of the physical tools. Soler is a safe bet to at least be a solid contributor for a long time, but he also has some huge upside.
Catcher Welington Castillo hit a less than impressive .237/.296/.389 this season. At 27-years-old he still has plenty of upside, but his offensive results have been poor, and he is a below average defensive catcher. It is unlikely that they completely give up on Castillo, but the Cubs could look to find a catcher this off-season who could split the starts with him.
While he never reached the big leagues, it simply would not seem right to review the Cubs’ 2014 season without mentioning Kris Bryant. Between Double-A (68 games) and Triple-A (70), Bryant hit an incredible .325/.438/.661 with 43 homeruns and 110 RBI this season. For good measure Bryant also added 34 doubles and 15 stolen bases. Simply put, Bryant dominated all faucets of the game all season long.
He has won every Minor League Player of the Year award worth mentioning, and is considered by most to be the top prospect in all of baseball. Bryant is a huge part of the future of this organization, and will likely make his mark at the major league level early in 2015.
Joining Bryant at the top of the prospect lists will be shortstop Addison Russell, who was commonly considered to be a top ten prospect in all of baseball at the start of the season. The Cubs acquired Russell in an early July trade with the Oakland A’s, and while he is not guaranteed to see the big leagues in 2015, he is a very important piece of the organization.
While the young offensive players are clearly the most exciting part of this Cubs’ roster, there are veteran offensive players who will certainly play a role for the team next season.
After struggling the past few seasons, the Cubs signed former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan to a minor league costless agent deal this past off-season. While he did not start the season in the big leagues, Coghlan was called to the majors in early May, and played a major role on the team for the rest of the season.
Coghlan was the primary lead-off hitter for the Cubs for a majority of the year, and had an impressive resurgence season hitting .283/.352/.452. He also had a wRC+ of 123. His 432 plate appearances were short of making him a qualified player, but if he had enough to be qualified, Coghlan would have been just outside the top 20 in the National League in wRC+. Pretty impressive for a player who had to settle for a minor league deal at the beginning of the season.
The Cubs may look to add to the outfield this off-season, making Coghlan’s role with the team unknown. That being said, he is a solid player who could provide nice production and good veteran leadership for all of the young players. Certainly a guy worth keeping around.
Luis Valbena had another impressive season with the Cubs hitting .249/.341/.435 with a wRC+ of 116. Valbuena may not have the most impressive tools, but he is a disciplined hitter with some pop in his bat.
With the likes of Baez, Bryant and Russell making their way to the big leagues, there may not be a starting spot for Valbuena much longer, but his leadership and skills would make him a great addition to the bench. Expect Valbuena to continue to be an important member of the Cubs, just probably in a smaller role.
The 2014 season may not been one for the record books, it was a very important year development-wise for the organization. Between Castro, Rizzo, Baez, Soler, Bryant, the others mentioned above and even other players who have not been mentioned, the Cubs have a very exciting young core of offensive players. While it will likely take some time to work out the kinks, a line-up full of power, discipline and speed is in the makings on the North Side of Chicago.