By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) The most important story about the Cubs this year will be the development of their young talent for 2015. But it’s not 2015 yet, so this post will concentrate on the team they’ll roll out in less than three weeks when they open the season in Pittsburgh.
There are fewer questions marks than a team that won only 66 games in 2013 should have, and everything is predicated on no big surprises like injuries or trades. Also, it’s important to not place too much emphasis on the small sample size of spring training.
Catcher appears set with Welington Castillo and George Kotteras, although non-roster invitee (and left-handed hitter) John Baker is having a solid spring. Several questions surround the infield, the main one being Starlin Castro’s status. Bruce Levine of 670 The Score reportedCastro hopes to return sometime next week.
Mike Olt has played three games at designated hitter and three at first base, spots where the Cubs have zero need. He had two home runs in Wednesday’s game against the Mariners and is doing everything he can to show he belongs on the Cubs roster. With Kris Bryant sent down to the minor league camp, he might be given time at third base. If he can keep hitting and play third base adequately (two very big ifs), he could fill a glaring hole and give the Cubs options in other areas.
The outfield is probably set with Nate Schierholtz and Justin Ruggiano at the corners and Ryan Sweeney or Junior Lake in center. Of the four, only Ruggiano has had a good spring, but alternatives like Casper Wells and Chris Coghlan have done nothing to put pressure on them. Albert Almora and Jorge Soler were also sent to the minor league camp, so they won’t be part of the solution any time soon.
After Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel, nothing is certain with the pitching. James Russell made his spring training debut, and his role as eighth inning set-up man is probably set. Pedro Strop will be part of the mix along with Blake Parker, but Parker has not had a good spring. Other than that? Totally up in the air.
This could be the roster the Cubs open with in three weeks:
The 1927 Yankees they aren’t, and rarely has the slogan “Wait ’til next year!” been more apt. With a projected payroll around $85 million, the Cubs will be in the bottom quarter of the league, but their interest in signing Masahiro Tanaka proved they’re not afraid to spend money for future production.
What about the young talent? Infielder phenom Javier Baez and Bryant hit for power and made real progress, and Soler and Almora also looked good in limited play. Bryant, Soler and Almora were all sent to the minor league camp on Wednesday, so any contributions in 2014 will probably be limited to September call-ups. If Baez continues to hit home runs like he did Wednesday evening, he’ll force an interesting discussion as to not only when to bring him up, but where to play him.[tweet https://twitter.com/LenKasper/status/443948651639865344]
Baseball Prospectus projects the Cubs to win 72 games, which would represent a six-game improvement over 2013. Without making wild speculations, it’s hard to see many more wins from a Cubs team constructed as it is.
If these were the long-term prospects, it would be cause for alarm, but hopefully it’s not; 2014 is important as the last transition year, the third year of a three-year rebuilding plan. The Cubs minor league standings will be watched as closely as they have been in some time, and we’ll have a better idea within a year if Epstein/Hoyer plan is real or not.
At this point all signs point to another dismal year, but one with promise going forward. We’ll find out soon enough.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.