Pitchers and catchers report in just 17 days. That's not a long time. Frankly, this has been the worst offseason I can ever remember for the Cubs, so I'm ready to watch the 2014 Cubs win 71 games and be eliminated from playoff contention in late May… or am I? Here are some things that could happen. If they do, the Cubs could be more competitive than you'd think.
Starlin Castro takes great leap forward
This one's pretty simple. Until 2013 happened, there were many people who thought Starlin Castro could end up a perennial All-Star, a player that hit .300 and hit 12-15 bombs a year. 2013 was a terrible year, but it was just a season. There are plenty of great players who just had one terrible season (perhaps his was brought upon him by Dale Sveum, perhaps by his outstanding legal issues last year); in any case, Castro is still just 23 years old, and this year will be his age-24 season. If he just repeats his 2012 season and improves his defense a little bit, he's a 4 win player, which coincidentally is 4 wins more than he provided above replacement last season. A new coach (and a new hitting coach) and a fresh start may just be what he needs.
Chance of occurence: 75%
Anthony Rizzo progresses
Rizzo's wOBA fell from .349 in 2012 to .325 last season, but that is almost entirely predicated on a 52 point drop in BABIP. The BABIP drop was preceded by a 5% decrease in line drives and a 3% decrease in ground balls, all ending up in the least productive bucket of battted balls (flyball). Pair that with a 6% drop in HR/FB and you've got a recipe for a disastrous season…except it wasn't, because Rizzo was still a useful player. To his benefit, he didn't let it affect him, actually increasing his walk rate from 7.3% to 11.0% last season. He was worth 1.6 WAR last year and if he can get on top of pitches this season, I bet Rizzo will explode this season. Again, a new hitting coach could provide the perspective he needs to really turn it on this year.
Chance of occurence: 75%
Edwin Jackson regresses to the mean (upwards)
Edwin Jackson's FIP went down 6 points last year, but his ERA went up 95 points. That doesn't really jive. The increase in ERA is primarily driven by two factors: a 44 point increase in BABIP and a 7.9% downtick in LOB%. Neither of those have much predictive value, so I'd allow for some easy regression to a more reasonable ERA next year. It's somewhat disheartening to track his inning pitched each season, fallling all the way to 175.1 this year, but Jackson can still be a solid #3 or #4 guy for the next 3 years.
Chance of occurence: 65%
Junior Lake plays up to his tools
Believe it or not, but in 2009 there was sentiment (if not consensus) that Lake was going to end up getting to the majors before Castro did. Junior Lake is a phenomenal physical specimen, one who has bat speed, power, and a hose. He's also extremely fast. Unfortunately, he has two flaws; pitch recognition and defensive instincts. The latter can be marginalized by putting Lake at a corner (I'd prefer right, but the Cubs prefer left). The former will never be fixed, but that doesn't mean Lake can't be a useful player. Soriano never saw a breaking ball 6 inches off the plate he didn't like, and Lake could end up being the same way. It might be a lazy comparison, but I see plenty of comparisons between the two, and Lake's tools might even be better than Soriano's were at the same age. If things go the right way with Lake, I could envision a .250/.300/.430 line with 20/20 HR/SB, and plus defense at left field. That might not sound like much to you, but that's Alex Gordon. I'm not saying it's likely. I'm saying it's possible.
Chance of occurence: 50%
Alcantara gets a May call-up and rakes
I'm not sure what it'll take to get Darwin Barney out of the lineup, but maybe this is the best chance we have in 2014. I'm a big Alcantara fan, even if I think his future is at CF. He could play 2B serviceably, and he's "proved it" at every level the Cubs have thrown at him. Let's say he crushes in Spring Training and crushes at Iowa (very possible). If a few of the other things on this list happen, maybe the Cubs take a gamble and call up Arismendy. If that happens, he's more-or-less instantly an upgrade offensively over Barney, and maybe not that worse defensively. If Alcantara is even a league-average 2B (an aggressive stance but not an insane one), he's 2 wins better than Darwin at essentially no cost (if you avoid Super Two).
Chance of occurence: 40%
Mike Olt forgets about 2013, grabs hold of 3B job
Olt had a disastrous 2013 season, but there are plausible explanations as to why that might have been. The fact of the matter remains that Olt has some baseball skills and was the #22 prospect just a year ago. No one is asking for Mike Olt to be a superstar player. If Olt is just a major-league regular, he allows Valbuena to go to 2B and Barney to super-sub (just one other way to get Barney on the bench, a recurring theme here). The scouting reports give a wide outlay for outcomes regarding the former RoughRider, but the certainly include a return to form.
Chance of occurence: 33%
Shark ascends to ace-hood
It probably isn't discussed as much as it should given the rampant extension/trade talks surrounding Shark, but Samardzija hasn't ever really been sublime. He's been FIP-unlucky for the last two years, and the numbers are good ones (3.55, 3.77), but those are #2-#3 numbers, not #1s. To be a real frontline starter, you need to be more consistent. Shark has the arsenal to do that, but whether or not he puts it together remains to be seen.
Chance of occurence: 25%
One of the Big Two get a call-up and mash
From every indication this FO has given, historically, neither Baez nor Bryant will play in Chicago this year, barring a September call-up. Perhaps I'm being pessimistic, though. If they prove that it's unfair to AAA to leave them there, they could see themselves in Chicago at any time after Super Two expiration. There is a very real chance that either of them could step into Chicago and be well above-average, and they'd certainly be replacing fungible talent (Baez at 2B, Bryant at RF – just get used to it now). I don't think we'll see either of them for any real amount of time, but it's not out of the realm of possibility
Chance of occurence: 25%
Ryan Sweeney becomes league-average CF or better/Sweeney-Ruggiano platoon works to great effect
Sweeney put together a nice little season last year (besides the injury, of course), hitting .266/.324/.448 on the year. Unfortunately, he was much better before his injury (.295/.342/.527) than he was after it (.225/.300/.338). I'm not sold on Sweeney as anything other than a 4th/5th OF, but he has the pedigree (2003 through 2005, he was a top 100 prospect-type) and he has put together 6 consecutive "won't kill you" seasons.
Ruggiano is the biggest (read: only) offensive acquisition the Cubs made this year. He's basically Brian Bogusevic from the right-side, though he has a career OPS of .834 against lefties. Sweeney's .750 OPS against righties makes him an ideal platoon-mate (neither can hit same-side pitching). Defensively, both are very capable. This platoon could really work (though if Ruggiano platoons with Sweeney, you'd ideally need a platoon for Schierholtz).
Chance of occurence: 20%/40%
Darwin Barney has offensive integer overflow, becomes Barry Bonds
With the exceptions of maybe Adeiny Hechavarrria and Pete "Power of the" Kozma, Darwin Barney has the lightest bat in the majors. To me, it feels like he is reaching the upper bound of futility with the stick. Perhaps there is a literal hard boundary on how bad you can be at hitting a baseball, and Barney somehow crashes through it this year. He'd end up rolling over, and if that happens, he somehow becomes the best at hitting baseball instead.
Chance of occurence: 7.62%
Christopher Lloyd takes his talents to Chicago
In the 1994 classic film Angels in the Outfield, the angel Al, played by Christopher Lloyd, enlists the help of his comrades to propel the hapless Los Angeles Angels to win the pennant. He does so in the hopes that the main character, Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will then be reunited with his birth father. While that doesn't happen, Roger is adopted by George, the Angels' gruff manager with a heart of gold.
Chance of occurence: 6.66%
Rick Renteria makes Faustian bargain for team plate discipline
Rick Renteria has never managed in the majors before. It stands to reason that he'd want to make a good first impression. Perhaps he reaches out to the heavens for guidance, praying for victory before each game. Unfortunately, the other team does the same thing, and so both prayers have little to no effect. After a 5 game losing streak, maybe Rick instead consorts with a less-than-holy spirit. As Renteria becomes more and more desperate, he eventually decides to trade his soul for 24 years of great plate discipline. That is worth at least 10 WAR a season, and probably more.
Note: this and the "Angels in the Outfield" scenario are mutually exclusive.
Chance of occurence: 6.66%
Ted Lilly goes on rampage, kidnaps Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, and Adam Wainwright
The media wants you to think that injuries are what ended Ted Lilly's career. Not so. Several inside sources have confirmed to me that is instead the thrill of the hunt that has gotten into ole' Theodore. He's already defeated the major leagues. Now he plays…the most dangerous game.
Chance of occurence: 1.191924%
Cubs sign Henry Rowengartner, who makes immediate impact
Hey, it's either him or Chris Rusin.
Chance of occurence: 1.03%
Cubs sign key free agents that help contend now and in the future
Chance of occurence: 1%