With a month of baseball in the books, we start a monthly comparison series here on Chicago Cubs Online. This series intends to take a look at the progress of the rebuilding project the team started with the hiring of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. We will compare last season to this season as 2013 was a season that stripped the roster down to bare bones and rid the team of most of the handiwork by Jim Hendry and the veterans he signed to construct the roster. It can be argued that 2014 is the first season that players and coaches alike have been approved by the current regime and will be a part of the rebuilding effort moving forward.
So how has the team progressed so far? Let’s look at some key statistics.
- Team Record: 9-17
- Team Average: .236
- Team ERA: 3.79
- Top Hitter: Anthony Rizzo
- Top Pitcher: Jason Hammel
- Team Record: 10-16
- Team Average: .235
- Team ERA: 3.78
- Top Hitter: Nate Schierholtz
- Top Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija
A lot of good things were said regarding the hire of Rick Renteria and right now he’s a little behind the eight-ball with the team stumbling out of the gate to a 9-17 record. If you compare the statistics though, not a lot seems different from 2013 to 2014 and things might even seem better with core pieces Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro hitting the ball well. The difference between the two seasons is the reverse in fortunes of Rizzo and Castro and the struggles of the supporting cast. Case in point, Nate Schierholtz has been awful. Last season in April, Schierholtz had a slash line of .284/.338/.527 compared to this season’s .217/.227/.265. If you look at the whole starting lineup, besides Rizzo and Castro, only Emilio Bonifacio and Welington Castillo are hitting the ball consistently. It’s hard to score runs and win games when you have a ton of black holes in your lineup especially in run producing spots.
Another mark against this season is a lot of the veterans that the front office tagged to be assets at the deadline have really fallen on their faces. On the pitching side you have Jose Veras and Carlos Villanueva. The two have combined for an unsightly 11.31 ERA with a 2.31 WHIP. Besides the aforementioned Schierholtz, veteran outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney haven’t provided much punch either, struggling to a .211/.280/.278 collectively. Although he’s not a veteran asset, another player who has the admiration of the front office is Mike Olt. Like the veterans mentioned though, Olt hasn’t really shown he belongs either as he’s slashed an awful .164/.210/.377 in April. His power may be the only thing keeping him on the roster and out of the minors as out of his 10 hits, he’s slugged four home runs. All these guys will really have to turn it around if the Cubs intend to gain anything of value for them at the deadline or have any hope of being competitive at all this season.
However, there have been some positives that hopefully suggest that better things are coming. We’ve already mentioned the resurgence of Rizzo and Castro, but if you look back to last April, you can see the differences in each player are pretty stunning. In 2013, Rizzo smashed eight home runs and 20 RBI, but slashed just .224/.315/.531 and this year he upped it to .283/.407/.457 with four home runs and 12 RBI in the first month of the season. While his run production has gone down so far this year, he’s been a much more patient hitter walking 18 times versus 11 times a year ago and striking out less (18) this season than last year (27). The same story goes for Castro who slashed .277/.296/.421 with three home runs and 12 RBI last year and has upped it to .308/.339/.471 with four home run and 14 RBI. Castro though has shown the most improvement in his defense not making silly errors, displaying a lot more focus and showing he may have what takes to be an effective player at shortstop.
Another positive has been some surprising pitching performances. Jason Hammel led the team in April with four wins and adding a solid 2.08 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 0.69 WHIP. If he can keep it going, he’s sure to be traded for a nice return along with staff ace Jeff Samardzija who despite being winless posted a 1.98 ERA with 31 strikeouts and a 1.24 WHIP over the first month of the season. The real surprise in the pitching department has been the emergence of two young bullpen arms in Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm. Rondon took advantage of Veras’ ineffectiveness and has taken over the closer role thanks to an April that produced an 0.68 ERA in 13.1 innings pitched by only giving up one earned run along with 15 strikeouts. Grimm gave up one run in 11.1 innings and added 13 strikeouts. Overall, the bullpen has pitched to a 3.45 ERA this year versus last April’s 4.23 ERA, a vast improvement.
If you look at the straight numbers, it feels like nothing much has changed from last season. The Cubs are getting pitching to keep them in games, but they can’t hit enough to avoid losses. However, good performances from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro provide some semblance of hope as well as a bullpen that has shown a penchant for holding games close. In order for the team to improve and the rebuild to move forward, it’s really up to the other young players on the roster to make some noise and prove they belong. Guys like Schierholtz, Olt and Junior Lake really need to be more consistent and players the team can count on to provide offense. If they can’t do that, it’s going to be another long season.