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Chicago Cubs 2015 Team Preview

With Joe Maddon at the helm and a bevy of top prospects ready to make an impact, this could be the season the Chicago Cubs return to contention.

After finishing well under .500 for five straight seasons, the Cubs made several big splashes this offseason, bringing in an ace in Jon Lester and, more importantly, a proven manager in Joe Maddon.

The Cubs are stacked with top prospects just itching to make good on their potential and added numerous veterans to fill holes. Their offense is sure to improve with an extra year of development for their many youngsters but will the back-end of their rotation hold up and finally allow them to compete with the likes of the Cards and Bucs?

 

Last Season:

Record: 73-89

Runs: 26th

Batting Average: 27th

ERA: 21st

WHIP: 19th

 

Off-Season:

Notable Additions: Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, Jason Hammel, Jason Motte, Chris Denorfia, David Ross, Tommy La Stella, Jonathan Herrera, Phil Coke, Pedro Feliciano, Gonzalez Germen, Francisley Bueno, Drake Britton

 

Notable Losses: Luis Valbuena, Justin Ruggiano, Wesley Wright, Dan Straily, Ryan Kalish, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, John Baker

 

2015:

1B: Anthony Rizzo

Rizzo has blossomed into one of the best power-hitting first basemen in 2.5 years with the Cubs, improving his batting average to .286 last season while hitting a career-high 32 home runs, scoring a career-high 89 runs, and sporting a career-best .913 OPS. He draws a ton of walks, hits doubles, and is a solid all-around first baseman. Once the Cubs’ top prospects like Baez and Bryant develop, the Cubs will have one of the most fierce infields in the league.

2B: Javier Baez

A top-5 prospect entering last season, Baez struggled mightily in his first taste of the Bigs, batting just .169 with a .551 OPS. His nine home runs in 52 games were still on par with the promise he showed in the minors where he hit as many as 37 home runs in a single season. He doesn’t walk a ton and strikes out a lot but he showed he can be a fearsome power hitter who can add 30+ doubles and 20+ steals, even if he can’t consistently hit for a high average.

He’s already struggling this spring, going just 3-for-26 in the early going, but the 22-year-old could be a steal in fantasy drafts given his power at a weak position.

3B: Tommy La Stella, Mike Olt, Kris Bryant

With Luis Valbuena gone to Houston, the third base job is up for grabs, at least until the Cubs decide it’s time for Bryant to take his rightful place.

Assuming the Cubs wait to call up Bryant, La Stella has a chance to win the starting job after just one year with the Braves. In 2014 he batted .251 with a .644 OPS, 18 extra-base hits, and 31 RBI in 319 at-bats. He’s primarily a singles hitter who rarely strikes out and does a good job of getting on base but won’t strike fear into the heart of any pitcher. He has a solid glove and a bit of speed but he’ll just be a placeholder if he does win the job.

Olt put up numbers similar to Baez last year, batting just .160 with a .604 OPS but he did hit 12 home runs in 225 at-bats, flashing some of the impressive pop he showed as a top-30 prospect in the minors. Olt is an all-or-nothing hitter, blasting home runs but rarely hitting doubles and striking out often. He does a good job of getting on base but he’s basically looking for the home run every time up. He already has two home runs this spring and is probably more likely than La Stella to win the job.

Of course, all of this is moot if the Cubs decide to have Kris Bryant on the Opening Day roster rather than wait til June to delay his arbitration eligibility. Bryant, Baseball America’s No. 1 top prospect this season, is a ridiculous monster out to haunt pitchers’ dreams. He hit 43 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season and has already pulverized six homers this spring while going 10-for-23. He’s a good doubles hitter, draws a lot of walks, and even showed some speed with 15 steals last season. Bryant is more than ready for the Bigs but the Cubs may opt to hurt themselves this season to save a year of arbitration eligibility in the long run and call him up by the summer.

SS: Starlin Castro, Arismendy Alcantara

Castro has been very consistent over the last four years and his .292 BA, .777 OPS, 14 HR, 65 RBI, 58 R, and 33 2B is about what the Cubs can expect from him once again this season. He’s no longer a threat to steal 20+ and he seldom walks but he’s got a solid glove and is one of the better hitters at a weak position.

Alcantara had an up-and-down rookie year in 2014, batting just .205 but hitting 10 homers and 23 extra-base hits in 300 plate appearances. A top-100 prospect entering last season, the 23-year-old hit as many as 15 home runs and 36 doubles in a single season in the minors and has stolen as many as 31 bases. He owned a .284 BA in 530 career games and significantly improved his walk totals as he progressed in the farm system. He also sports a great glove and can play anywhere in the infield and outfield, look for Alcantara to be a big, versatile part of this team in 2015.

C: Miguel Montero, Welington Castillo, David Ross

Montero was an All-Star for the D’Backs last season and had a nice year as he batted .243 with a .699 OPS, 13 home runs, 72 RBI, and 40 R. That’s not quite the level we saw him at just a couple of seasons ago but he remains one of the better hitting catchers in the league, is excellent at drawing walks, and does a good job behind the plate.

Castillo looked to be out when the Cubs acquired Montero and Ross this offseason but it appears that Chicago may go with three catchers, at least to start the season. Castillo hit 13 home runs last year but his .237 BA and 102 strikeouts in 380 at-bats are all easily replaceable. He’s excellent behind the plate though, giving him some lasting power.

Ross is basically here to be Jon Lester’s personal catcher. While their rapport may be good, and Ross is a terrific clubhouse presence, having three catchers certainly limits the Cubs’ personnel options.

 

Outfield:

Jorge Soler is ready to become baseball’s next Cuban sensation. The 23-year-old already has two home runs in 21 at-bats this spring, hit five home runs (while batting .292) in 24 games for Chicago last season, and hit 15 home runs (while batting .340) in 62 games in the minors last year. He’s not just a power threat, adding plenty of doubles, a good deal of walks, and the occasional steal. He doesn’t strike out a lot and has a solid glove. Look for Soler to be one of baseball’s breakout stars in 2015.

Dexter Fowler often deals with injuries but he’s basically a guy who will bat .260-.280 with around 40+ RBI, 60-70 R, 65+ BB, and double-digit steals. He doesn’t have a great glove but he does get on base at a good rate. He’s not the player we saw in Coors a few seasons ago but he’s a serviceable outfielder.

Chris Coghlan had a successful move from South Beach to Chicago last year, where he batted .283 with a .804 OPS, 42 extra-base hits, 41 RBI, 50 R, and seven steals in 432 plate appearances. He does a good job of getting on base and is a good doubles hitter but he’ll need to improve his play in the outfield if he’s going to be an everyday starter.

Chris Denorfia is one of the Cubs’ better defensive outfielders but lacks at the plate. He’s primarily a singles hitter who limits his strikeouts but doesn’t produce a ton. Good guy to have off the bench and is versatile but not a starter-caliber player.

Ryan Sweeney hasn’t shown much at the plate in his two seasons part-timing it for the Cubbies but he has a decent glove and limits his strikeouts.

 

Starting Rotation:

Jon Lester is coming off the best season of his career at age 30 after putting up a career-best 2.46 ERA and 1.10 WHIP between the Red Sox and A’s. His numbers were stellar across the board as he struck out 220 batters while walking just 48 and allowed just 16 home runs. That’s all well and good but he did post ERAs of 4.82 and 3.75 the previous two seasons while owning a combined 1.34 WHIP over that stretch. A move to the NL is helpful but there’s certainly no guarantee he can repeat last year’s success. Regardless, Lester is a solid pitcher at worst and an All-Star at best.

Jake Arrieta struggled with the Orioles for over three seasons but really found his stride in his first full season in Chicago last year, going 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 167 K to 41 BB. A former top-70 prospect, it looks like Arrieta has finally hit his potential but he’ll need to avoid the longball and control issues that plagued him in Baltimore if he’s going to see continued success.

Jason Hammel had a good start in Chicago last year, putting up a 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 17 starts before being traded to Oakland where he struggled. He’s back with Chicago now which may be a good thing since that’s where his best numbers of his career came, despite the small sample size. If he can limit the home runs and keep hitters from getting to him in clips he’ll be a strong middle-of-the-rotation option but there’s always the chance he regresses to his usual mid-4.00s ERA and 1.40 WHIP numbers.

Travis Wood had a promising 2013 run that saw him post a 3.11 ERA and 1.145 WHIP. He crashed and burned last season though, going 8-13 with a 5.03 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and nearly four walks per nine innings. He allows too many batters to reach base and has been hurt by the longball. Wood is really just a mid-to-high 4.00s ERA pitcher with one good year under his belt, not an All-Star who had an off-year last season.

Kyle Hendricks was stellar in 13 stars in his rookie year, going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He progressed quickly through the minors where he owns a career 2.69 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He’s not a strikeout guy but he limits the walks and home runs as well as any young hurler and, despite being in the backend with Wood and Hammel, he’s the real deal.

Edwin Jackson is technically in the conversation for a spot in the rotation but his 6.33 ERA last year and 4.98 the year before have left a sour taste in Cubs’ fans’ mouths. Jacob Turner had been in contention for a starting job but is out for a month with a flexor strain injury. Turner struggled last season too, posting a 6.13 ERA, but the former top-15 prospect still has a high ceiling.

 

Bullpen:

Hector Rondon had a rough 2013 but looked great as the Cubs’ closer in his second year in the league, saving 29 of a possible 33 games while posting a 2.42 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 63 K to 15 BB. He’s off to a great start, let’s hope he can keep it up.

Jason Motte struggled after missing all of 2013 and didn’t look like his old self as he posted a 4.68 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 29 appearances for the Cards. In the three years before his injury he didn’t post an ERA over 2.75, though, so if he can find his pre-injury self he’ll be fine. That’s a tall task for a 33-year-old reliever who has pitched just 25 innings since 2012, however.

Pedro Strop has been great since coming to Chicago from the O’s, posting a 2.83 ERA in 37 appearances in 2013 before improving to a 2.21 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 71 K to 25 BB in 65 games last year. Outside of last year’s short stint with the Orioles, he’s been good with Baltimore, Texas, and Chicago so that’s no reason not to trust the flamethrower once again this season.

Neil Ramirez struggled to convert from a starter to a reliever in the minors but showed none of that in his first taste of the Bigs as he posted a 1.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 53 K to 17 BB in his first 43.2 innings. He’ll need to watch his control but otherwise the former top-100 prospect looks like a keeper.

Phil Coke isn’t very good and his 1.53 WHIP last season is the best it’s been in three seasons. So, there’s that.

 

Grades:

Offense: B- to B

Defense: C+ to B-

Starting Pitching: C+ to B-

Bullpen: B-

Overall:  B-

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