It's been a quiet offseason and it seems that except for the possible addition of another pitcher, it's going to stay that way. This has caused some angst about the 2014 season and understandably so. The 2013 season, particularly the last two months, left a sour taste in all our mouths.
The Cubs seem uninterested in appeasing the call for cosmetic short term additions. Rather, their focus has been on a less direct approach. Improve at the margins with role players while solidifying the bullpen. But not even the most optimistic of us have any illusions that that's the formula for a major turnaround this season.
Any significant improvement from the Cubs has to come from within. It has to come from Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, and Edwin Jackson.
Young players like Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake, Jake Arrieta, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, and Welington Castillo must continue to improve.
The Cubs are confident they have the talent to be better than they showed last year. There were glimpses of what they could be but they were overshadowed by long stretches of poor fundamental play.
Their focus then, hasn't been on adding talent; it's been on better utilizing the talent they believe they already have. Most of the players that will make the team out of spring training may not be around for the long haul, but the Cubs will certainly look to develop a core that they can build around.
Ideally that should have been the case last season, but there was immense disappointment in the development of core players.
There is no way to sugar coat this, so I'll just say it. The biggest failure of the Cubs under this new front office to date has been continuing the development of young players at the major league level. They underestimated how poor that development had been at the minor league level and thus the readiness of those players to contribute consistently at the MLB level. They hired and trusted manager Dale Sveum and his hand-picked staff to continue that growth -- and in some cases, jump start it. We were supposed to see a step forward from the core players in 2013.
But it didn't happen. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Their adjustments with starters Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Darwin Barney backfired. Their attempt to prepare upper level prospects like Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters was an unqualified disaster.
Can it all be saved?
That's what we're about to find out. To the front office's credit, they cut their losses and dumped Sveum as well as his hitting coach tandem of James Rowson and Rob Deer.
In their place comes Rick Renteria, Bill Mueller, and Mike Brumley. The Cubs also added other coaches with some experience with coaching hitters, particularly QA coach Jose Castro. 1B coach Eric Hinske and 3B Gary Jones can also lend a hand when needed.
The Cubs have kept the coaches who had success such as pitching Chris Bosio, bullpen coach Lester Strode, and catching coach Mike Borzello who was instrumental in Castillo's defensive development. They even seemed to think of the details, bringing in minor league veteran Chad Noble as their new bullpen catcher, perhaps preparing the popular backstop as early as last season. In 2013, he played at 3 different levels and has a head start with all the Cubs upper level pitching prospects.
But it's not enough to have great coaches. Perhaps Sveum's greatest single failure as manager was the inability to communicate a consistent, unified message. Players got mixed signals and information sometimes reached the media before it was clarified with the players.
I don't want to tear down Sveum here. He has his strengths and I think he'll be a good coach, but ultimately the lack of a strong voice at the top undermined his well-intentioned efforts to build a strong clubhouse.
With the core's development stalling and with more top talent such as Mike Olt, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Kris Bryant knocking on the door, the Cubs want to make sure they don't make the same mistake. Mueller has already started preparing the Cubs prospects,
"One of the topics was handling the moment," said Mueller."What are you going to do when it's your moment to the effect of this is going to be real for you guys? How are you going to prepare for that particular moment?"
It's no coincidence the Cubs brought in a strong, bilingual communicator in Renteria. They also brought in an experienced leader in player development in Brandon Hyde to help as bench coach. The Cubs have not only stocked up on good coaches who all add their unique strengths and perspectives, but they made sure they had the necessary leadership at the top to sort it all out and make sure the message stays consistent.
The key to the Cubs improvement then, is not in it's player additions but rather in the players that are already here. Only this time the Cubs hope they have a better staff to guide and develop the talent they already believe they have -- and will have in the near future.
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