It took the Kansas City Royals 29 years to return to the playoffs this season and with a sweep of the Detroit Tigers, the baseball world is abuzz of the Royals. If anything, Cubs fans are jealous, but also hopeful that the current rebuild will do much of the same for their favorite team. Usually 73-89 is not something to celebrate, but when the season before your team almost lost 100 games, it’s somewhat of an accomplishment.
Of course, every GM in baseball will tell you that the goal every season is to win the World Series and in that respect the Cubs failed. However, from the beginning the front office has mentioned “The Plan,” and “The Plan” was all about being consistent, sustainable and a chance to make the playoffs every season. Something Cubs fans hated rivals the Cardinals have been doing for a while now.
- Team Record: 73-89
- Team Average: .239
- Team ERA: 3.92
- Top Hitter: Anthony Rizzo
- Top Pitcher: Jake Arrieta
- Team Record: 66-96
- Team Average: .238
- Team ERA: 4.00
- Top Hitter: Welington Castillo
- Top Pitcher: Travis Wood
If you look at the numbers from this year to last year, not a lot has changed. What did change was the start of young talent beginning to make themselves indispensable. At the end of 2013, this team had a lot of questions. Core players Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija had down years and didn’t really leave fans with much confidence that they were going to make that next step. If anything you had a good feeling that Travis Wood, Pedro Strop and Welington Castillo were the players to make the next step and you had seen flashes of consistency in players like Jake Arrieta, Nate Schierholtz, Rizzo, Castro, James Russell and Blake Parker. Compare that to the end of this season and one can see how much better this squad was.
First off, when was the last time as a Cubs fan you felt confident that your bullpen could be relied on? Ten years? Fifteen? The foursome of Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were stellar this season and they pitched to a combined 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and averaged 9.9 K/9 IP. This combination helped buoy the rest of the bullpen to a nice 3.61 ERA, an almost half earned run improvement over last season’s 4.04 ERA. Other names who showed flashes were Wesley Wright, who helped make James Russell expendable as a situational lefty, Brian Schlitter who was one of Rick Renteria’s most trusted bullpen arms until an arm injury landed him on the DL that likely led to a rough September and Zac Rosscup who was the opposite of Schlitter, who was awful most of the year but was solid over the last month where he struck out 10 batters in five innings.
Despite the improvements, all was not great in the bullpen and the team will likely bring in some veteran help to add some depth to assist their top four. Blake Parker was a nice surprise in 2013 posting a 2.72 ERA, but struggled to a 5.14 ERA in 2014 and gave up a lot of runs in key situations. Free agent Jose Veras was signed to be the Cubs’ closer in the off-season and only lasted 12 games as he struggled to an 8.41 ERA. He was designated for assignment and the team ate his $4 million contract in the process. Kyuji Fujikawa came back from Tommy John surgery in August and looked pedestrian with a nice strikeout rate with an 11.8 K/9 IP, but a weak 4.85 ERA. Young pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Dan Straily had trouble getting people out and will likely be ticketed for Iowa next season rather than with the big club.
Another positive in the pitching department came from the maturation of young starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. In nine games started the previous year, Arrieta showed flashes of being a dominant starter in the majors and in 25 games this year; he finally showed those flashes constantly. Sporting a sparkling 2.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 167 strikeouts in 156.2 innings and the team’s only complete game shutout, Arrieta has shown he has the potential to be a dominant starter in this league provided he can stay healthy. Hendricks’ late season audition success is similar to Arrieta’s last year in the sense that a young Cubs pitcher showed in limited starts he has the ability to be special the next season. Hendricks is a different pitcher than Arrieta and will likely be more of an innings eater than an overpowering starter. In 13 games he went 7-2, with a 2.46 ERA, 1.083 WHIP and just 47 strikeouts in 80.1 IP.
Other than Hendricks and Arrieta, the rest of the rotation was all over the place this season. Samardzija and Jason Hammel were shipped to the A’s on July 4 in exchange for prospects and just like that two pitchers with a combined 10-12 record, 207 strikeouts in 216.2 IP and a 2.91 ERA and 1.11 WHIP were gone from the rotation. An early season strength was replaced by two struggling starters the team hoped to get more out of in Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson. It’s hard to say which pitcher had a more disappointing year, Wood or Jackson. Wood was the team’s most consistent starter a year ago pitching 200 innings and a 3.11 ERA. Those stats this season ballooned to a 5.03 ERA in 173.2 IP. Jackson, who the front office hoped would have a bounce back from last season’s 8-18 record and 4.98 ERA in 175.2 innings, instead had a nightmare season and pitched even worse to a 6-15 record and 6.33 ERA in 140.2 innings. Tsuyoshi Wada was a solid in 13 starts with a 4-4 record, 3.25 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. If you look a little deeper, Wada pitched six or more innings in only five starts. Towards the end of the year, two young pitchers in Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront also got a chance. Doubront was more effective with a nice 3.98 ERA in four starts, but a not so nice 1.46 WHIP. Turner, who was claimed off waivers from the Marlins, had only one nice start out of six and struggled to a 7.12 ERA. All of the above struggles led to a 4.11 ERA for the Cubs starters and is an area that needs improvement if the Cubs hope to reach their goal in 2015.
On the hitting side, the year was a mixed bag and made it even more impressive that the team was able to improve as much as they did over last season record wise. Rizzo and Castro had come back seasons and showed why they were signed to extensions. Rizzo posted a line of .286/.386/.527 with 32 home runs and 78 RBI while Castro posted a line of .292/.339/.438 with 14 home runs and 65 RBI. Castro’s defense also improved to his best fielding percentage yet at .973. Others who surprised on this year’s Cubs squad were Chris Coghlan, who took over the leadoff spot and left field job around midseason and hit .283, and Luis Valbuena, who smashed a career high .245 average, 16 home runs and .776 OPS. Justin Ruggiano showed he could be a valuable bench bat hitting .281 in limited at bats. Jorge Soler might have been the most exciting offensive player outside of Rizzo and Castro though. In 89 at bats, Soler managed a .292/.330/.573 line with five home runs and 20 RBI and provided fans with hopefully a nice preview for next season.
Speaking of young players though, there was a lot of disappointment that leads to a fair amount of uncertainty for next season. Javier Baez showed big time power slugging nine home runs and 20 RBI in 213 at bats, but hit a putrid .169/.227/.324 with an alarming 95 strikeouts. Arismendy Alcantara and Mike Olt also showed major power, strikeouts and a hard time getting hits. Alcantara slugged 10 home runs and 29 RBI in 278 at bats with a line of .205/.254/.367 and 93 strikeouts. Olt bashed 12 home runs and 33 RBI in 225 at bats with a line of .160/.248/.356 and 100 strikeouts. All three players figure to own big roles with the club next year and really have some work to do if they are to meet the lofty expectations the front office and the fans have for them. Two other young players in Junior Lake and Welington Castillo also struggled mightily this year and may have hit a crossroads in their Cubs careers. Lake was given every opportunity to earn the left field job and instead hit a measly .211/.246/.351 with nine home runs, 25 RBI and 110 strikeouts to go with just 14 walks. Castillo posted a career high 13 home runs and 46 RBI, but his average plummeted to .237 after hitting .274 the year before. Castillo’s game calling skills also received mixed reviews as he improved to 33 percent against opposing runners over 29 percent the previous year, but his ERA went from 4.02 ERA in 2013 to 4.20 in 2014. Another major disappointment on offense was the absolute face plant Nate Schierholtz did. Many Cubs fans were surprised when the front office hung onto Schierholtz who was in the midst of a career season in 2013 that saw him hit 21 home runs, 68 RBI and a .251 average in the most playing time he had ever received. The Cubs were likely hoping for a repeat to give the team some depth in the lineup. Schierholtz awarded that faith with a disgusting .192/.240/.300 line that included with six home runs and 33 RBI, an almost perfect reflection of the Cubs offense who struggled to a combined .223 with runners in scoring position and never really got going.
Overall, this Cubs season was a mixed bag, but with a little more good than bad over last season. With a 73-89 record, the team avoided 90 losses for the first time since 2010 and improved its record once again under the Theo Epstein regime. Castro and Rizzo re-solidified themselves as franchise cornerstones and may be joined by Arrieta and Soler next year. Other young pitchers like Ramirez, Grimm, Strop, Rondon and Hendricks have shown they can be effective and their continued improvement gives this team some exciting young pitching not seen since the Kerry Wood and Mark Prior days. In order for the Cubs to improve further next season, Baez, Alcantara, Olt and Castillo must show why the front office had so much faith in them to begin with. Epstein has high hopes that the Cubs can compete for the NL Central next season, that may be a stretch, but if the team can top .500 it will be the first time the team has done so since 2009 and be the dawn of a new era for Cubs fans. Here’s hoping.