Quiet Optimism

So, we've got the team. My best guess at the 25-man roster (Wins Above Replacement – Myles):

Position Player WARM
C Castillo 1.5
1B Rizzo 3.0
2B Valbuena 1.0
SS Castro 2.5
3B Olt 1.0
LF Lake 1.0
CF Sweeney 1.5
RF Schierholtz 1.0
4OF Ruggiano 1.0
5OF Vitters 0.5
UTIL Barney 1.0
UTIL Roberts 0.75
2C Kottaras 0.5
#1 Wood 2.0
#2 Samardzija 2.0
#3 Jackson 1.5
#4 Hammel 1.0
#5 McDonald 0.0
Spot Villanueva 0.75
Spot Rondon 0.25
LOOGY Russell 0.25
LOOGY Wright 0.0
MI Parker 0.0
SU Strop 0.5
CL Veras 1.0
Total   25.0
Adjusted   72.7

Other considerations for the 25-man roster: Logan Watkins, Darnell McDonald, Justin Grimm, Chris Rusin, Armando Rivero, Arodys Vizcaino. There are plenty of other configurations that could emerge, but none of them are appreciably different.

These are quick-and-dirty calculations, and for the most part I think they are very defensible. I admit some of the bench pieces are high, but I built in more playing time than they'll get in their calculations. This assumes that every single player on the 25-man stays on the 25-man the whole season – this obviously won't happen (I think I remember a study showing that a team's 25-man Opening Day roster accounts for roughly 80-85% of that team's playing time in a season). Still, it's a reasonable facsimile, especially if you believe that every team will face roughly the same amount of roster turnover and that their replacements will be of similar quality (I think our replacements are actually slightly better than the average, actually). 

I let's make a sub-table of the players likely to be traded this year and their midseason WARM (either not signed for 2015 or unwilling to sign an extension):

Schierholtz 0.5
Samardzija 1.0
Hammel 0.5
Villanueva 0.375
Veras 0.5

That's only a loss of 2.375 WARM. If that's the case, I think we can reasonably project that even if we jettison every tradeable asset in 2014 (including Shark, which is no certainty), we'd still hover around a 70 win true-talent team. There's a psychological boon to starting your win total with a 7, but more importantly it would represent some incremental progress towards respectability. 

70 wins isn't as far away as you might think. Terrible as the Cubs were last season, they still won 66 games. Their pythagorean win total was 71, so even if we haven't improved (and don't worry, we haven't), we still have a similar true talent level. We're a young team as well, so we aged better than the average squad, and most of our star talent underperformed. 

The "go-for-it" win expectation is probably around 85 wins. Once you have a mid-80s squad, each marginal win becomes incredibly valuable. However, you have to climb the ladder some time. Being 20 wins away means it is very easy to punt on 2015, which (in turn) makes it easier to punt on 2016. 15 wins is still a hell of a climb, but you can get 15 wins in an offseason if you spend correctly and promote a few prospects that work out (something we're poised to do in 2015). In 2015, we could reasonably see the full-season debuts of Christian VillanuevaJavier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara, C.J. Edwards, and Pierce Johnson. It's incredibly unlikely (150 to 1 odds?) that all 6 of those take the steps necessary to be ready for the season, but it is possible. Pitchers historically require less seasoning in the majors, and it's worth noting that in the BP Cubs Top 10 they have an ETA of 2015 (not late 2015) or sooner for each of the top 9 guys. 

Here's some more optimism. I'm way down on Junior Lake, who I think will be absolutely exposed in the majors offensively. He's a prospect at SS, a sort-of prospect at 2B, and a 4th OF and a corner. However, Junior Lake would have placed 8th on the BP list if he was eligibile (he was 10th on the talents 25 and under, and Castro and Rizzo are there). That might be damning with faint praise; it isn't. Everyone above him was a comfortable Top 101 prospect, and most people have preached the high ceiling that still exists. I don't think Junior Lake is going to work out, but I'm seemingly in the shrinking minority. If you think about Junior Lake as being a bottom-100 prospect that just so happens to already be on the team, it's more exciting than it was before (and Lake DID put up 1.6 WARP last season). 

Even if 2014 doesn't end up being a magical ride into the sunset, the Cubs still have enormous payroll flexibility in the future. The Cubs shed $33 million in payroll with the losses of Soriano, Hammel, Schierholtz, Fujikawa's buyout and Villanueva. Shark gets probably a $3 million arb raise, Rizzo and Castro graduate to another $5 million, and most of the other arb situations are irrelevant (let's put another $18 million on those raises (Castillo, Wood, and another 10 or so players that graduate in arb status, but many of these players will be non-tendered so that's probably a huge overstatement). That puts the Cubs up $7 million from an already extremely depressed payroll ($84.5 to open this year, if you're wondering). If the Cubs' effective payroll is just a cool $100 million, that's something like $23 million a year to play with AFTER arb raises. That could buy a lot of stuff.

2014 doesn't figure to be a very successful year. However, I think it'll be incremental more successful than 2013, and hopefully a nice springboard to a watchable 2015. Also, milb.tv is just $40!