What combination of things would have to happen to make 2014 an interesting season to watch at the major league level? I am not talking about winning a postseason spot in a division with two 90 win teams (Cardinals and Pirates) and another quality foe (Reds). I am talking about what would have to happen to make this team interesting to watch through the regular season. What needs to happen for this team to finish above .500, even if only slightly?
Well, as a starting point we need to examine where the Cubs roster currently stands. The Cubs won 66 games last season, but by run differentials and WAR should have been anywhere from 5 to 10 wins better than that. However, the roster that accumulated those statistics is not the team heading into 2014. Based on Steamer projection (h/t Myles at Obstructed View) the current roster should win about 72 games. That seems like a reasonable starting point for analysis.
What if the Cubs land Masahiro Tanaka?
Oh. Never mind. It sure would've been fun though! We could have used more mileage from our NORAD Tanaka Tracker. The money that's not going to Tanaka now can probably be used for other pitchers this offseason (Paul Maholm, part two, perhaps) or can be saved for next offseason when some very attractive names get to the market. However, not having a guy like Tanaka at the front of the rotation does hurt a bit. It's not insurmountable, but it certainly stings. This may or may not affect the trade situation for Jeff Samardzija etc., which we'll talk about below. We wont even talk too much about the rooftops, let's just say we hope they lose.
What if Starlin Castro goes back to being Starlin Castro?
By all rights, Castro had a horrible season last year although he did show some improvement on defense. If Castro can show some positive regression towards his two-time All-Star form (heck, even 2012 Starlin would do), while maintaining his progress on defense, we could be looking at a two-to-three win player again. This would, of course, be an improvement of two-to-three wins overall for the team, as Castro was below replacement level in 2013. The upshot: he's still young, he's growing into his body, he's getting in shape, and he can still make good contact with the ball. There's little reason not to trust he'll make some improvements from last season.
What if Jeff Samardzija takes that step forward?
Assuming (big assuming) that the Cubs elect to keep Samardzija (possibly on an extension), we are hopeful that he makes good strides and heads up what should be a solid rotation. It won't be spectacular even if Samardzija approaches #2 or even #1 starter potential, but Samardzija has the ego and the drive to get to that point. Samardzija has also said he wants to get to 230 innings pitched, and we have reason to believe the arm will hold out as he topped 200 innings for the first time last season.. At that juncture it'd just be a matter of filling in the gaps in the rotation past Samardzija, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson (see below). A decent Samardzija gives us about 3 wins, a decent Wood gives us 2-3 (last season has "regression" written all over it, but we'll see).
What if Edwin Jackson rebounds?
Edwin Jackson is what he is; a league average pitcher with occasional signs of dazzling stuff. Considering the economics these days, the $52MM contract Jackson signed is pretty much right on the money for that type of pitcher. On another team Jackson would have been a #4 or #5 starter (possibly would have been shifted back if the Cubs had landed Tanaka, *tear*). If Jackson bounces back, we're talking about a 2-3 win swing in value. An in-house guy like Jake Arrieta, if he's all he can be, could be a nice end-of-the-rotation guy to back up Jackson.
What if Mike Olt is an above average 3B?
This is pretty big. Olt is a good defensive 3B by most scouting reports we've read, and if his bat is even close to decent, he could shift the Donnie Murphy/Luis Valbuena platoon over to 2B, which means less Darwin Barney and a more robust offensive middle infield until Javier Baez arrives (more on that below). Come on Olt, don't fail us now.
What if Justin Ruggiano is more than a short end of platoon bat?
The Cubs' outfield is more or less a collection of 4th and 5th outfielders, but with creative platoons it could be reasonably productive. Nate Schierholtz was solid as a platoon bat for most of the season, so if Ruggiano and whatever non-roster invitees (who are right-handed) can keep up their end of the deal (or more) for Schierholtz and Ryan Sweeney, the offense might not be too atrocious.
What if Anthony Rizzo takes a step forward?
The power is real, the Gold Glove caliber defense is real. Anthony Rizzo was plagued by a really low BABIP last year at .258; he was at .310 in 2012. Keeping his 20+ homer power and good defense, an uptick in BABIP could allow him to break past the three-win plateau.
What if Javier Baez is #TheUnicorn?
At the Convention and also from scouts like Jason Parks, Javier Baez is thought to be the real deal. Baez will start the season in Iowa playing shortstop, but the Cubs have discussed playing him at other positions including second base. If he hits as well as he did in Tennessee and continues putting up video game numbers in Iowa, we could have a substantial upgrade in the Cubs offense come June 2014.
What if the bullpen is as good as it is on paper right now?
The Cubs underperformed their Pythagorean winning percentage the past two years and a lot of it has to do with giving up late leads because of Carlos Marmol and other pitchers not named Carlos Marmol. With the bullpen getting a bit of an overhaul and Jose Veras being installed as the closer until Kyuji Fujikawa returns from Tommy John surgery, the bullpen is expected to be an improvement from last year's dumpster fire. So the hope here is that the Cubs either meet or exceed their predicted winning percentage.
As Cubs fans, especially after missing out on Tanaka and with the Cubs unlikely to do much with their money now, we pretty much have to hope that all the internal options work out and some of them outperform their projections. There's very little chance the Cubs can overtake the top three teams in the division to sneak into the Wild Card; our best bet is to hope that this merry group of misfits can improve on last year's 66 wins, which should happen barring a Samardzija trade or another fire sale to secure a 2015 top draft pick. Either way, the Cubs front office has always been very transparent about their plan, and they're certainly sticking to their guns. Conservatively we can guess that the Cubs can get to about 70 wins, but sniffing 80 isn't out of the realm of possibility here. At least a couple wins could be squeezed out by how well new manager Rick Renteria communicates with the growing players, uses platoons and defensive shifts, etc. Even if it all goes to hell at the trade deadline, the first month or so should be interesting to follow.