Tennessee let a lead slip away in the ninth, while offensive woes continued to plague Daytona in another one-run loss. Iowa and Kane County were both rained out, but LHP Tsuyoshi Wada was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week for the week of April 3-13. Wada went 2-0 with a 0.68 ERA (1 ER/13.1 IP) while striking out 18 hitters in two starts against Nashville and Memphis. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action:
Tennessee Smokies (5-6)
4th Place (-2.5)
Visiting Jackson scored three runs in the ninth inning to beat Tennessee 6-4.
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.300) went 2-for-4 and clubbed his Southern League-leading fourth home run.
- Rafael Lopez (.333) hit his first homer of the season, a solo shot in the fifth inning.
- RHP C.J. Edwards allowed his second career home run when Jackson’s Jack Marder took him deep in the second inning. Edwards has surrendered only two home runs in 198.0 professional innings.
- LHP Austin Kirk (0.00) tossed 2.1 scoreless innings of relief.
- Tuesday’s scheduled contest between Tennessee and Jackson has been postponed due to inclement weather. The game will be made up as part of a doubleheader on Thursday evening.
Daytona Cubs (2-9)
5th Place (-7.0)
Daytona dropped its seventh game in its last eight, falling at Dunedin 1-0.
- RHP Felix Pena suffered the loss despite tossing his second career complete game. Daytona has now lost each of Pena’s three starts this season by identical 1-0 scores.
- CF Albert Almora (.279) went 0-for-3 before leaving the game in the fifth inning with a nose bleed.
- 2B Tim Saunders (.263) recorded a game-high three hits, going 3-for-5 with a double (3).
Iowa wrapped up their series with a win, and Kane County also pulled off a victory Thursday. The bats were quiet in losses for the Smokies and D-Cubs. Here are the highlights from yesterday’s action:
Iowa Cubs (4-4)
T-2nd Place (-2.0)
Iowa defeated Nashville 5-1, and won three of four games in the series.
- RHP Kyle Hendricks picked up the win, going 7.0 innings, giving up one earned run on five hits and a walk while striking out five.
- SS Javier Baez (.154) went 1-for-4 with a sixth-inning, two-run homer.
- 1B Chris Valaika (.263) went 2-for-4 with a double (2) and two RBI (3).
- CF Matt Szczur (.233) and 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.280) recorded two hits apiece.
- RHPs Neil Ramirez (10.80) and Blake Parker (0.00) both tossed a scoreless inning of relief.
Tennessee Smokies (2-5)
T-4th Place (-4.0)
Chattanooga scored a run in the ninth inning to beat the Smokies 1-0.
- RHP Jake Arrieta made his second start with the Smokies as part of a major league rehab assignment, tossing 3.2 scoreless innings while fanning four. Arrieta threw 66 pitches (44 strikes), and has allowed just three hits while striking out seven in two starts (6.2 IP).
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.280) reached base twice, going 1-for-3 with a walk.
- RHP Dae-Eun Rhee (0-1, 3.12) suffered the loss despite allowing just one run in 4.0 innings of relief.
Daytona Cubs (1-6)
T-5th Place (-5.0)
Dunedin tallied 18 hits en route to sweeping the three-game set in Daytona, beating the Cubs 12-2.
- LF Bijan Rademacher (.455) recorded three of Daytona’s seven hits, going 3-for-3 with a run scored and a walk.
- DH Tim Saunders (.211) went 1-for-4 with his third RBI of the season.
- RF Oliver Zapata (.273) went 1-for-3 with a run scored, a walk and one RBI (1).
Kane County Cougars (4-3)
T-2nd Place (-1.0)
Kane County pulled into a second place tie with a 7-5 victory over visiting Fort Wayne.
- RHP Tyler Skulina picked up the win, pitching 5.2 innings and striking out six.
- 2B Daniel Lockhart (.167) and SS Carlos Penalver (.259) combined to go 4-for-10 with five runs scored.
- RF Yasiel Balaguert (.300) went 1-for-4 with a walk and a game-high three RBI (7).
- RHP Justin Amlung (0.00) tossed 2.1 scoreless innings of relief to record his first hold of the year.
- RHP Tyler Bremer (0.00) worked the ninth inning to convert his first save of the campaign.
Christian Villanueva powered Triple-A Iowa to victory, but both Tennessee and Daytona lost one-run games Monday night. Kane County had the day off and resumes action Tuesday. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action.
Iowa Cubs (2-3)
4th Place (1.5 Games Back)
3B Christian Villanueva supported a strong start by LHP Tsuyoshi Wada with a go-ahead, three-run home run with two outs in the sixth inning to lift Iowa over visiting Nashville, 4-1.
- RF Brett Jackson (.143) notched his first two hits of the season, including a fifth-inning triple, finishing 2-for-2 with a run scored, a walk and a stolen base.
- LHP Wada earned his first win in his debut with the I-Cubs. His eight punchouts have him tied for fifth place in the Pacific Coast League this season.
- RHP Blake Parker (0.00) earned the save, striking out two in a scoreless ninth. His 42 career saves are tops in the organization.
Tennessee Smokies (1-4)
5th Place (3 Games Back)
Tennessee fell at Pensacola, dropping a 3-2 decision and finishing the five-game series with a 1-4 record.
- RHP Matt Loosen went five innings, giving up three earned runs, walking three and striking out two in the loss.
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.278) went 2-for-4 with his second solo home run in as many days.
- SS Jeudy Valdez (.375) went 2-for-3 including an eighth-inning double that drove in his first run of the season.
- RHP Ryan Searle (2.08), LHP Hunter Cervenka (0.00), and RHP Tony Zych (9.00) combined for five strikeouts over three perfect innings of relief.
Daytona Cubs (1-3)
T-4th Place (2 Games Back)
Daytona surrendered an early three-run lead at home vs. Brevard County, losing 5-4 and committing three errors.
- LHP Rob Zastryzny gave up four runs in four innings, striking out six and walking two in a no-decision.
- LF Rock Shoulders (.200) went 2-for-4 with a run scored, a double, two RBI and two strikeouts.
- 3B Jeimer Candelario (.286) added two hits, going 2-for-4 with a run scored, a triple and one RBI.
- RHP Yao-Lin Wang (0-1, 0.00) suffered the loss on an unearned run that scored on a fielding error by SS Marco Hernandez in the top of the fifth inning.
Zac Rosscup picked up the win in relief for Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Iowa was able to grab a win in walk-off fashion Sunday, but both Tennessee and Kane County couldn’t muster enough offense in their games. Daytona had the day off. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action on the farm.
Iowa Cubs (1-3)
4th Place (2 games back)
Chris Valaika hit a walk-off single to center field, scoring Matt Szczur, as the I-Cubs beat the Memphis Redbirds, 4-3, to record their first victory of the season.
- LHP Eric Jokisch was solid in his debut, going seven innings, giving up no earned runs and striking out three in a no decision.
- SS Valaika (.200) finished the game going 2-for-4 with a run scored, a walk and one RBI.
- Javier Baez (.091) briefly tied the game at 2-2 with a pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning. It was his first hit of the year, snapping a 0-for-9 drought to start the season.
- LF Josh Vitters (.375) went 3-for-4 with a double and one RBI.
- LHP Zac Rosscup (1-0, 0.00) tossed 0.2 scoreless innings to earn the win.
Tennessee Smokies (1-3)
5th Place (2 games back)
Tennessee dropped its second-straight game at Pensacola, falling 3-2.
- RHP Ivan Pineyro picked up the loss, giving up one earned run in four innings, striking out three and walking three.
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.214) went 2-for-3 with a walk and a ninth-inning, solo home run.
- RF Jonathan Mota (.333) went 2-for-4 with his first RBI of the campaign.
- LHP Jeff Lorick (0.00) struck out two hitters in two scoreless innings of work.
Kane County Cougars (2-2)
T-1st Place (– games back)
Quad Cities scored five runs in the seventh inning to beat visiting Kane County, 7-3.
- RHP Juan Paniagua went four innings, giving up two earned runs while striking out four and walking four while earning the loss.
- LF Trey Martin (.100) and 3B David Bote (.167) each recorded a hit and one RBI.
- CF Jacob Hannemann (.250) reached base twice, going 1-for-4 with a walk and four strikeouts.
- RHP James Pugliese (0.00) and LHP Nathan Dorris (0.00) combined to toss 3.2 scoreless innings of relief.
Josh Vitters homered for the I-Cubs Thursday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Kane County’s offense was on full display early, capturing a win in the season opener. Iowa and Daytona both struggled to put some runs on the board while Tennessee let a five-run lead slip away in a loss. Here are some highlights from action around the minor leagues.
Iowa Cubs (0-1)
T-3rd Place (1 game back)
Iowa dropped its season opener vs. Memphis, 10-2. The Redbirds scored three first-inning runs off I-Cubs starter, Chris Rusin.
- LHP Chris Rusin (0-1) gave up five earned over 3.2 innings, fanning two in the loss.
- LF Josh Vitters was 2-for-4 and hit a third-inning solo home run.
- 3B Christian Villanueva had two hits with a double and a run scored.
- RHP Yoanner Negrin followed Rusin and spun 3.1 shutout innings, allowing one hit while striking out four.
Tennessee Smokies (0-1)
T-3rd Place (1 game back)
The Smokies had a 5-0 lead through three innings at Pensacola, but fell to the Blue Wahoos, 6-5, in their season opener.
- RHP Dae-Eun Rhee pitched four innings, giving up two earned runs on two hits and four walks while striking out four in a no-decision.
- 3B Kris Bryant clubbed a two-run homer in his first at-bat off RHP Mat Latos, who was on a rehab assignment. Bryant went 1-for-3 with two runs scored, the home run and one stolen base.
- CF Zeke DeVoss went 2-for-5 with a triple and one RBI from the leadoff spot.
- LF Rubi Silva and RF Jorge Soler each recorded a double. Soler left the game following his double due to hamstring tightness.
- RHP Ryan Searle allowed just one run on one hit while fanning five in three innings of relief.
Daytona Cubs (0-1)
T-4th Place (1 game back)
Daytona opened its 2014 campaign with a 1-0 loss at Brevard County.
- RHP Felix Pena had a solid outing, giving up one run on three hits while striking out three over six innings despite picking up the loss.
- 2B Gioskar Amaya recorded Daytona’s lone multi-hit effort, going 2-for-2 with a stolen base.
- 1B Dan Vogelbach and 3B Jeimer Candelario both went 1-for-3 with a walk.
- RHP’s Zach Cates and Arodys Vizcaino each tossed a scoreless inning of relief.
Kane County Cougars (1-0)
T-1st Place ( — games back)
Kane County kicked off its 2014 season with an 8-4 victory at Quad Cities.
- RHP Paul Blackburn gave up four runs over four innings, striking out three.
- RF Yasiel Balaguert went 4-for-5 with three doubles and two RBI.
- SS Carlos Penalver was a perfect 3-for-3 with a walk, a run scored, one RBI and two stolen bases.
- CF Jacob Hannemann batted leadoff and went 2-for-5 with two runs scored.
- LHP Nathan Dorris tossed two scoreless innings of relief to earn the victory.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
At the end of each spring, baseball analyst Peter Gammons polls front office members from around baseball on a variety of questions. On Wednesday, Gammons unveiled the answer to his first: “Were there any young players you watched and said, ‘This guy has a chance to be a star?’”
A trio of Cubs—Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Albert Almora—made the list. Here’s what Gammons had to say about the talented threesome.
4. Kris Bryant, 3B-OF, Chicago Cubs. The Troy Glaus comps may be pretty accurate.
5. Javier Baez, 2B-SS, Chicago Cubs. The position is to be named later, the batspeed astounding. I just wish I’d seen the back fields home run hitting contest against Mike Olt. They can hit for miles and miles and miles and miles…
7. Albert Almora, CF, Chicago Cubs. The very smart people in that organization think he is the players’ player, with instincts and aptitude and makeup.
Bryant has just a pair of hits in 20 plate appearances in major league camp, though both left the park for home runs. Baez has put his power on display this preseason, hitting .298 with a .681 slugging percentage and tallying five homers and three doubles in 47 at-bats. Almora has six hits in 14 plate appearances, and the way he mans the outfield has been applauded all spring.
Slugger and 2013 first-round draft pick Kris Bryant has been assigned to minor league camp. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Chicago Cubs have assigned 12 players to minor league camp, reducing their spring roster from 66 to 54 players.
Infielders Arismendy Alcantara and Logan Watkins, outfielder Matt Szczur and right-handed pitcher Dallas Beeler have been optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Jorge Soler has been optioned to Double-A Tennessee.
Six nonroster invitees have been assigned to minor league camp: right-handed pitchers Marcus Hatley and Carlos Pimentel, left-handed pitcher Eric Jokisch, infielders Kris Bryant and Jeudy Valdez, and outfielder Albert Almora.
Additionally, outfielder Aaron Cunningham has been granted his release.
Chicago’s spring roster now consists of 27 pitchers (seven nonroster invitees), five catchers (three nonroster invitees), 11 infielders (four nonroster invitees) and 11 outfielders (five nonroster invitees).
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Major League Baseball’s offseason got off to a fast start roughly a week before the Winter Meetings began in December. There was an early rush that included address changes for multiple All-Stars; then marquee players like Robinson Cano and Clayton Kershaw nabbed record-setting contracts. And the frenzy stretched into late January this year as organizations, including the Cubs, awaited the decision of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka, who eventually signed with the again-free-spending Yankees.
As for the Cubs’ roster? On paper, the squad looks quite similar to the one that wrapped up the 2013 campaign. Though that might worry some fans, especially after a 96-loss season, one of baseball’s youngest lineups should only improve with another year under its belt. Many members of the young Cubs core got their first full season at their respective positions in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends. Plus, the Cubs have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and many of those coveted players are getting closer to making their debuts at Wrigley Field.
“There’s room for improvement,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “There are a lot of talented players on the roster who didn’t have their best year. I know they’re really committed to the work they’re doing this offseason and to doing better this year. And we had guys who did have big breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there.”
The team also added depth at several positions and bolstered the bullpen. Last season, the rotation was good enough to win, but the team struggled to close things out. This offseason, they plugged Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras into the back end of the ’pen, which should keep the squad in a lot more games.
To get you ready for the upcoming season, we go around the horn to see what the roster could look like as the Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh in late March.
Defensively, nobody plays the second-base position better than Darwin Barney. He captured a Gold Glove Award in 2012, and the 28-year-old had comparable numbers in 2013. But if Barney hopes to move into the Cubs core, the defense-first player is going to have to improve his offensive production. His on-base percentage and wins above replacement ranked worst of all qualifying NL second basemen last season.
“I think you have to remember that this game is hard, and that you’re not always going to play as well as you want,” Barney said. “Unfortunately, nothing came together last year, but I’m very confident that isn’t going to happen again.”
Logan Watkins, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, will continue his playing-time push at second and compete with the versatile Emilio Bonifacio and nonroster invitee Ryan Roberts for the extra infield spot.
Around the diamond, nobody’s job appears to be safer than first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s. Despite a dip in his slash line, the power numbers were pretty much as expected, including a position-leading 40 doubles. It’s easy to forget the 24-year-old just concluded his first full season in the majors, and the grind of a 162-game schedule might have gotten the best of him. The slugger’s numbers dipped midway through the year—he hit .210 in July and just .190 in August. But throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it’s safe to assume mistakes will be kept to a minimum on the right side of the infield.
The left side, however, has a few question marks surrounding its personnel. Sure, young veteran Starlin Castro will begin the season as the team’s shortstop. New manager Rick Renteria has gone out of his way to describe the great communication he’s had with the 23-year-old two-time All-Star, who is under contract for at least six more seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the production of top shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who has received plaudits from the front office, minor league experts and anyone else who has seen his lightning-fast, ultraviolent swing.
Depending on Castro’s production, as well as Baez’s continued development, the incumbent may have to eventually make way for baseball’s No. 4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, and shift to second or third. For now, the position is Castro’s to lose. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he’ll have to cut down on his 18.3 percent strikeout rate, which was second highest among qualifying NL shortstops last year. A simpler approach might be necessary to get the 2011 NL hits leader back to that level of success.
“I can’t really speak to what was the change or what transpired to cause how he approached his at-bats,” Renteria said of Castro’s offensive struggles in 2013. “But I can assure you that [the new coaches] are just looking to have Starlin Castro be himself and swing at good pitches.”
Third base is the grab-bag section of the Cubs infield. There are upward of five players who could realistically man the position at any point this season, and that doesn’t include the overflow from short. As it currently stands, the underrated duo of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy should begin the year as a hot-corner platoon, with the left-handed Valbuena likely seeing more time. Despite a .230 batting average between the two, they combined for 23 homers, 23 doubles and a .327 on-base percentage last year.
Trade deadline acquisition Mike Olt also has an outside shot of breaking camp as the everyday third baseman if he can regain the form that once made him an untouchable prospect in the Rangers organization. But that will depend on whether he can put last year’s concussion- and allergy-related eye issues behind him and show the power/defense combination that got him all the way to the major leagues with Texas in 2012.
The first full season of the Welington Castillo era was a resounding success. The 26-year-old backstop exceeded expectations offensively while serving as one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. At the January Cubs Convention, pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching instructor Mike Borzello both took time to praise Castillo’s work ethic and the strides he made over the course of the year.
Typically, catchers don’t get to call their own games until they have years of experience, but Castillo picked up the ins and outs of the position so quickly—and so impressed Bosio with his ability to dissect the scouting report—that he had free rein on pitch selection in 2013. According to baseball website Fangraphs, he also posted 19 defensive runs saved, tops at the catcher position and sixth best for any player in the NL.
Former Royal George Kottaras will replace Dioner Navarro, who signed with Toronto this offseason, as the club’s backup backstop. Though Kottaras is only a career .214 hitter, he is a base-on-balls machine, drawing walks in 14 percent of his 820 career plate appearances. He should be a good addition for a team that had the third-lowest on-base percentage in the game last season.
Much like the infield, the outfield appears to be pretty well set, at least for Opening Day.
Expectations are high for 30-year-old right fielder Nate Schierholtz, a 2013 free-agent signee who opened eyes in the Cubs outfield last year. He led all of the team’s returning outfielders in WAR and nearly doubled his career home run total with 21, though he’s significantly better against right-handers (.262 average and 20 homers against righties vs. .170 against lefties).
It’s also a safe assumption that Junior Lake will get plenty of regular playing time in left field this season. Thanks to his slightly surprising but solid major league debut in mid-July, fans are expecting big things from the Dominican, who will turn 24 four days before the season opener. If Lake can cut down on his strikeout rate of 26.8 percent, it will bode well in other categories. His 27.8 percent line-drive rate ranked second in the NL among players with 250 plate appearances, and his .377 batting average on balls in play ranked third among NL outfield rookies. If Lake can cut his K total down, even to just his career minor league average of 23.8 percent, he could finish with a near .300 average.
The biggest offensive acquisition this offseason came in the form of Justin Ruggiano, a 31-year-old former Marlin with the ability to man all three outfield spots. Traded from Miami during the Winter Meetings for Brian Bogusevic, Ruggiano adds much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and could form an effective platoon with Schierholtz. The lifetime .251 hitter had a career-high 18 homers last season and looks to improve on that total now that he is away from the spacious Marlins Park, where he hit only three dingers in 2013.
“I don’t think it can get much tougher [as a] ballpark than Miami,” Ruggiano said. “I’ve seen so many balls go 420-plus feet and go for doubles. [Wrigley Field] is going to be a good park to hit at.”
Ryan Sweeney, who re-upped this offseason to stay on the North Side, could see a lot of playing time in center field. Sweeney got off to a fast start in 2013, hitting .295/.342/.527 in 44 games before fracturing a rib trying to make a play on June 29. Though his return was less than stellar, he is a singles machine. More than 20 percent of his at-bats have resulted in singles since he started playing regularly with Oakland in 2008. That ranks 21st of all players during that time.
Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will compete with prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur for a potential fifth outfield spot.
The starting rotation was undoubtedly the strong point of last season’s squad, as fans saw many young talents evolve with more playing time and higher inning totals. But the byproduct of two active trade deadlines under Epstein and Hoyer has been a lack of depth. Though the Cubs fell short in the bidding war for Japanese ace Tanaka, they did make a few under-the-radar acquisitions, adding Jason Hammel and James McDonald late in the offseason, that should serve them well.
Former manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija as the squad’s Opening Day starter in 2013, and the power arm fought to live up to that honor all year. Though his 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA were not what Samardzija or Cubs fans had hoped for out of a No. 1 starter, he did strike out 214 hitters, reach 213.2 innings and complete an entire season for the first time as a starter. His 9.01 strikeouts per nine innings were fifth in the NL, and his cumulative strikeout total was good for fourth.
“I really feel like last year was a big learning process, coming off starting 30 times the year before and, before that, throwing 80 innings of relief. I really feel like I had to adjust myself toward the end of the year,” Samardzija said. “I think you look at August and July, and they weren’t great. You look at my September, and I really liked my September and how I finished.”
Though Samardzija slotted in as the ace last year, nobody put up a better season in the rotation than left-hander Travis Wood. The Cubs’ lone All-Star representative was as consistent as it came, going at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts and making it into the fifth inning on all but two occasions. His 3.11 ERA was good for 12th in the NL, and he kept his team in a lot of games with his 6.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio, fifth best in the NL.
After signing a four-year, $52 million contract last offseason, Edwin Jackson will need to step up in his second year in Cubbie blue. Though he showed glimpses of the top-end guy the Cubs hoped he’d be last year, Jackson’s ERA ballooned to one of the worst in baseball, and his 18 losses led the NL.
The good news is E-Jax has dealt with adversity before, having been traded six times in a five-year period. At 30 years old, he has already been around the game for 11 major league seasons and has earned a reputation as a solid workhorse. The last time he finished with such a high ERA, he cut the total down by well over a run the following season.
A newcomer to the fray, right-hander Hammel adds some veteran experience to the rotation. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old, who was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, to a one-year deal on Jan. 31. Hammel got off to a fast 7-2 start in 2013, despite a 4.98 ERA during that time. However, he dropped his next six starts and spent more than a month on the DL with a forearm injury. When he returned, he was inserted into Baltimore’s bullpen.
Many predict a successful first half for Hammel could lead to a trade, similar to what happened with Scott Feldman a year ago. Looking at the right-hander’s career splits, he could make a perfect midseason trade candidate, as he has proven to be significantly better in the first half (36-30, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in the first half vs. 13-29, 5.29 ERA, 1.49 WHIP post-All-Star break).
Jake Arrieta looks to slot into the final spot despite and while he had arm issues as camp got underway, he comes off a successful spell with the North Siders in 2013. The once highly touted prospect came over in the Scott Feldman deal, and gave up one run or fewer in five of his nine starts to finish his Cubs run 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA.
That should give the Cubs a solid (and hard-throwing) front five, but the team also has some depth behind them, with lefty Chris Rusin and right-handers Justin Grimm and Carlos Villanueva. Rusin came up after the Cubs parted ways with Matt Garza in July and made 13 late-season starts. Though he definitely faded in the last month, he showed he has the ability to get major league hitters out.
Grimm, one of the arms exchanged for Garza, was told to prepare to compete for a starting job prior to Spring Training. Despite having just 19 career major league starts, the 25-year-old has an effective fastball/cutter combination and is still viewed as a solid prospect going forward.
Villanueva will serve as a nice cushion for the Cubs, who know exactly what they’ll get out of the 30-year-old swingman. He won a starting job out of Spring Training in 2013 and was great in April (2.29 ERA, .171 OBA) before stepping in to stabilize the bullpen. If Villanueva doesn’t win a rotation spot, he’ll likely serve as a long reliever while Grimm and Rusin are sent to Triple-A to hone their skills in the I-Cubs’ rotation.
If the rotation was the strong point last year, the bullpen was definitely its weaker counterpoint. Cubs relievers finished with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP (both 13th in the NL), 26 blown saves and 210 walks (both 14th in the NL).
The front office spent the early part of the offseason overhauling the ’pen, adding closer Veras as the group’s centerpiece.
“I think we’re bringing [Veras] in because I have confidence that he can follow through in the ninth inning. That’s a special inning in baseball,” Renteria said. “Obviously you guys have seen in times past that there have been particular issues in that particular inning.”
The 33-year-old finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities between stints in Houston and Detroit. He also brought his WHIP down nearly half a point from 2012 to an impressive 1.07, while striking out a respectable 8.6 batters per nine innings.
Pedro Strop should continue to improve since his July arrival via trade. The right-hander got off to a rough start to open the year in Baltimore, but finished with a 2.83 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 over 35 innings with the Cubs. He fits the mold of a two-pitch, late-innings power arm, and could spell Veras in the closer’s role if needed.
James Russell will again operate as the top lefty in the ’pen—but this year, he won’t be the lone lefty, thanks to the acquisition of free agent Wesley Wright. Though Russell gave the club all it could ask for in the first half of 2013, pulling into the All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA, the southpaw was plagued by overuse down the stretch.
Wright should help ease the load this season. The veteran lefty uses a combination of a two-seamer and a slider to get batters out, and he fanned 55 hitters over 53.2 innings in 2013.
Aside from Arodys Vizcaino—who hasn’t pitched since 2011 because of complications following Tommy John surgery—and possibly Villanueva, there are a number of arms who could compete for the final bullpen spots, including Alberto Cabrera, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Zac Rosscup. Last year’s big free-agent acquisition Kyuji Fujikawa should also be back in the mix by the All-Star break.
Down the Line
For the past two-plus years, Epstein and Hoyer have been preaching patience. Just one look at the Spring Training invitee list is proof positive that the club’s patience is close to paying off. The five biggest offensive prospects will all be in attendance to start the preseason, including the aforementioned Baez.
Kris Bryant will likely begin the year as Double-A Tennessee’s third baseman, but he could really push Valbuena, Murphy and Olt in camp. Though his professional career just started late last year, the game’s No. 17 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) has hit at every stop along the way, including in the Arizona Fall League. A productive half season of minor league ball could have him knocking on Wrigley Field’s door by the end of the season.
Another name to keep an eye on at the hot corner is Christian Villanueva, a return from the Ryan Dempster deal with Texas in 2012. Villanueva will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, but most scouts believe the plus defender could excel at third base right now. The only questions in the past have surrounded his bat, but an impressive offensive campaign in 2013, in which he showed strong doubles power and drove in runs, opened eyes around the game.
Infielder Arismendy Alcantara started gaining recognition after his scorching first half at Double-A Tennessee in 2013 and his productive Futures Game performance, in which he hit a homer for the International side. Though he’ll begin 2014 at Triple-A, the five-tool player could give Barney a run for his money at the keystone sooner rather than later.
A year from now, we might be having similar conversations about top outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Though hopes of seeing the two manning the Wrigley outfield when camp breaks are a little premature, the duo will get an opportunity to impress in spring camp before being sent to their respective minor league destinations.
Kyle Hendricks is a bright guy. The Dartmouth graduate with a degree in economics understands his route to the majors isn’t by trying to blow guys away, but rather with his accuracy and plus change-up. The 2013 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year dominated opposing batters last year, finishing 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and just 34 walks in 166.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
It’s difficult to find minor-league pitchers with true command, a skill that comes with experience and polish, but Hendricks has it in spades. Hendricks displays exceptional command of his entire arsenal, particularly his fastball, which he moves around the zone with ease. His knack for hitting spots and even moving the ball outside of the strike zone at will has enabled him to become a more highly regarded prospect than his raw stuff would suggest, and it might be enough to carry him to the big leagues.
The site views Yankee Hiroki Kuroda the staple for current major league control while—unsurprisingly—former Cub and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Greg Maddux is seen as the pitcher with the best command all time.