Much of the talk about the Cubs centers around the future beyond next season. We hear that the Cubs are going to lean with erring on the side of long term over short term. That part of the plan shouldn't change if the Cubs intend to build an organization that can compete for the long term year after year. It's still about getting to a point where they can depend on their own organization to produce talent rather than acquiring it from other organizations.
In the meantime there's a few things the Cubs can do to make the 2014 season much more palatable. We've talked about big prizes like David Price and Carlos Gonzalez, but today I want to look at less costly, more realistic solutions.
They've built a solid rotation and their defense has improved in each of the last two years. Last year they improved their ability to hit for extra bases. Here's my grocery list for the Cubs this year...
- Increase their OBP: Easier said than done. It's hard to tinker with players at the MLB level and OBP oriented players are no longer market inefficiencies. The Cubs may need to increase this from within their own organization. One idea is Logan Watkins, who has a good approach at the plate though it's a question of how much he'll hit. The Cubs retained Ryan Sweeney who showed a propensity to work counts as well. Welington Castillo showed excellent OBP ability in the 2nd half. Other possibilities include a return to form from Brett Jackson and Brian Bogusevic, both LH hitters who can take pitches but are still question marks as full-time players. The Cubs have kicked the tires on Grady Sizemore the past couple of years but this year might be the right time as far as him a) being willing to take on a smaller deal b) move to LF full time and c) enough time to have fully recovered from his injuries. Sizemore has a career walk percentage of 10.6%. I've always had a thing for Coco Crisp but he looks like a bargain right now at the 7.5M option the A's have on him. Hard to believe they'll let him go when they have a chance to win next year. An option here might be David Murphy, who was brought up in the Red Sox organization and is coming off an offseason. Perhaps the Cubs can get him as a cheap, top of the order type of hitter who will take some walks, hit for average power, and play very good defense in the OF.
- Obtain a front line starter: There is one player worth spending big money on who fits the Cubs timeline and philosophy and that is Masahiro Tanaka. If the Cubs don't land him, I don't expect them to pursue anyone big but perhaps take a flyer on someone like Josh Johnson. A front line guy can slot down the rest of the rotation. That may take some pressure off the Cubs current rotation arms who may not quite fit at the top right now.
- Get Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro back on track: I think this has to do with getting stronger leadership at the top. Dale Sveum was a good coach and had his good qualities, but he wasn't able to communicate a streamlined message to his young players. I do think Sveum can be a good manager, but he'll need a veteran team with players who will better be able to listen to advice, keep what works and discard what doesn't. I think young players like Castro and Rizzo need more focused instruction rather than getting too much advice from different people. The same will be true of all the Cubs young players that are coming through their system. It's imperative that the Cubs hire a manager who can not only coach, but communicate well with his players. Of course, it's not just coaching. The players have to put the work in themselves and there is nothing to suggest that either Rizzo or Castro won't work hard to rebound for next season.
- Improve the bullpen: This is another area where the Cubs can improve internally. After depending on not-ready prospects and waiver wire castoffs, the Cubs are slowly developing some strong young arms in their bullpen such as Justin Grimm, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon, Zach Rosscup, and Pedro Strop to go along with veteran James Russell. Daniel Bard, Arodys Vizcaino, Chang-Yon Lim, Brooks Raley, and Alberto Cabrera are wild cards while Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta may be options if they don't make the starting rotation. I suspect the Cubs will give Arrieta every chance to take that 5th spot, however. If the Cubs do look on the outside, I don't expect them to spend big, but rather go with an undervalued pitcher with good walk rates and solid peripherals, perhaps someone like Matt Belisle, who had great walk numbers and good FIP numbers but struggled in Coors Field. The Cubs are also said to be interested in Korean RHP Suk-Min Yoon.
- Get some short term RH hitting help: I know the long term concern is LH hitters but for 2014 it's RH hitters. The Cubs will start Anthony Rizzo, Nate Schierholtz, and Ryan Sweeney from the left side and it's possible that Luis Valbuena retains his platoon role and Logan Watkins steals playing time from Darwin Barney. There's also Brian Bogusevic. The trade of Alfonso Soriano leaves the Cubs without a serious power threat from the right side. Castro and Castillo can provide average power but Darwin Barney is a liability on offense. The Cubs could find themselves once again vulnerable to LHP> Junior Lake is a possibility in-house as is Mike Olt, who could fill a lot of holes if he can recover from his eyesight issues and become the player many thought he was at this time last year. An interesting flyer candidate from the outside is Corey Hart. Hart is more of a power hitter these days as injuries have robbed him of some of his athleticism. He may be willing to take a short term make good type contract if he can find an opportunity somewhere. He could certainly find that with the Cubs. Another player who will get a shot at being a RH bat is Josh Vitters, who will move to LF. He hits LHP much better than RHP and could be a platoon player
- Get more athletic/more baserunners: Olt and Lake are athletic players, as is Sweeney, Bogusevic, Watkins, and Jackson. None are going to steal a lot of bases but they could help provide the Cubs with better base running -- guys who can go from first to third and put themselves in scoring position more often. Someone like David Murphy, who we mentioned earlier, could fit that bill as well.
Of course, it's easiest if you can combine these traits into one player, such as Mike Olt, who could provide defense, RH power hitter, OBP skills, and an athletic player that won't hurt you on the basepaths. Logan Watkins could potentially provide an OBP oriented player with athleticism at the top of the order. The Cubs may have to mix and match again in LF. Hart is a possibility as a full-time player. If not the Cubs could go with a platoon of Josh Vitters or Junior Lake and Brett Jackson, Brian Bogusevic or David Murphy in LF.
It may not be a glamorous solution and some will be disappointed in this kind of offseason, but with players like Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara, and Javier Baez knocking on the door, the Cubs may not want to get locked into big contracts. They may be in better position to do that next year when they have a stronger idea of what their core will look like.
And as I have mentioned on past occasions, I don't think the Cubs are as far away as people think. We've talked about how thing could have been very different at the all-star break last year had things fallen into place as many of us expected. A return to form by Rizzo and Castro will go a long way and a couple of well-placed acquisitions to go with a stronger bullpen may not make the Cubs World Series contenders, but I think they can be good enough to give us some real hope heading into what's expected to be a big infusion of full-time young talent in 2015.
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