2014 Cubs: Can They Compete?

dmick89 has finally been cured! Not of his back problems, but of his boundless optimism for all things Cubs. That article is more-or-less required reading for this article, but I'll very quickly sum it up and say that there isn't a whole lot of hope that the Cubs are going to be actual contenders next year or the year after. I'm not as pessimistic about the Cubs chances, but I'm going to attempt to take a hard look at what a 2014 team might look like should the Cubs actually find themselves as a competitive team. My "projections," as they are, are necessarily optimistic, because that's the only real way that this team could realistically compete; even I know that. 

First, let's take a look at the 2014 free agents (mlbtr here): 

A pretty slim pickings to be certain. I'll highlight who I think could be interesting:

Brian McCann: I think there's every chance he reaches free agency with the Evan Gattis phenomenon coupled with his probable payday. He's on the wrong side of 30, but if you really needed a catcher (and the jury is out on Castillo's ability to put together 120 solid games: .267/.322/.353 for a .301 wOBA this season), he's really the only guy. Everyone else is a backup. I'm not about to touch him but he's the best a small crop.

The Cubs don't need a 1B. There actually three intriguing guys to me in Justin Morneau, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Morse. Morse can "play" LF (worst fielder in the majors by far) and is antithetical in approach to Epstein, but he'd be instant power. He'll make too much for the Cubs to seriously inquire at LF. 

In a scenario in which the Cubs compete, they either have a) landed Robinson Cano in free agency to some ridiculous deal (hopefully this doesn't happen), b) Darwin Barney finally has a wOBA north of .300 (could happen), or c) Logan Watkins picks up the mantle at 2B and sticks. I think b) or c) have equal chances of happening and would be happy with either outcome. Chase Utley will be a free agency but no thanks. Ben Zobrist also has a chance of making it, but since his option is $7MM and the buyout is already $2.5MM, the Rays will probably pick that up even if the price tag is pretty high. 

I think that Brendan Ryan is actually an intriguing backup MINF prospect. He's a toolsy fielder who can't hit if his life depended on it (career wOBA: .279). However, he can play SS and 2B really well and is the type of 25th man that good teams would love to have. I don't think he fits on the Cubs, especially if Lake and/or Watkins are going to be occupying that role, but it's an interesting thought regardless, as well as a measuring stick to see if the Cubs are actually serious about competing. When they start trying to pick up the neat bench pieces, I'll start feeling confident that THEY are confident. Castro is absolutely, 100% essential to any competitive Cubs team so for the purposes of this article we are assuming he's more 2011 than 2013. 

I think Luis Valbuena has played himself (current slump notwithstanding) into consideration at 3B next year, though he's been putrescent lately. There's no hope in FA at the position, so the position is either filled via Valbuena, Lake, or Vitters next year. 

I'm assuming (hoping) that Soriano is not a Cub next year. There's no help here: all of the FA options are as bad as Sori or worse. Furthermore, there is no real help on the horizon next year. The only outfielders of note at AAA are Brett Jackson and Jae-Hoon Ha, neither of which have the bat to even pretend to play at LF (neither are a sure bet to have a bat for CF!). This is probably where I'm least confident in the Cubs' ability to field a competent player, though there are some creative options: Curtis Granderson can hack it in LF, though you'd rather him play CF to maximize his value, and same with Tacoby Bellsbury.

I'm hoping that Brett Jackson can at least be a below-average player here. If not him, than Dave Sappelt. If not Sappelt, than the Cubs could either target Granderson or Ellsbury. Franklin Gutierrez is an interesting option, especially defensively; unfortunately, he's so often injured, and those injuries have taken away his major weapon (speed). 

I'm going to blow your mind right now. There's a greater than 50% chance that the best outfielder on the Cubs roster in 2014 right now is Julio Borbon. Schierholtz should be traded, as should DeJesus (though either could stay for competitiveness/injury reasons). The Cubs badly need an outfielder that can provide offense and can plug a hole for a little while. I think that gap is going to filled by Shin-Soo Choo. He's incredible this year, even if he's well off his pace from the beginning of the season. June was his worst month this year and he still had a .364 OBP. I think the Cubs will at least make a VERY strong play at Choo in the offseason, even if he's older than is typical for this FO to pursue. Nelson Cruz and Hunter Pence are the only other two mildly appealing options at RF and I'm not especially interested in either of them. 

There are way too many options to meaningfully parse through; let's just say there are a bunch of 30-somethings that I'll trust the FO to use to address whatever holes the Cubs might have at the bottom of their rotation. 

Same as SP, except there are actually a few very flattering options. Eric O' Flaherty is closer material, though he is having UCL surgery and as such is a TJS guy that this FO loves to take chances on. He's a 2015 guy at the earliest and thus past the scope of this article; I mention him only because I'd like to see this FO take a chance on him. Boone Logan is another great lefty out of the pen that the Cubs could easily look at as well; should the Cubs trade James Russell (and I really, really want them to do so because the return could be slightly better than Marshall's was), Logan could become a definite target for a 3/15 type of deal. Kind of crazy to think about paying 3 and 15 for a reliever, but here we are. 

A Short Aside on Trades:

It's also important to realize that any shortfalls this team might have could be solved partially by the return on any trades the Cubs make. The Cubs could be trading Schierholtz, DeJesus, Feldman, Villanueva, Soriano, and Garza this year. The Cubs could easily net a capable outfielder in one of those trades, which really helps out the outlook of the team.

Let's go ahead and just imagine that the only impactful FA signing is Shin-Soo Choo (5/75? 5/80? IDK), and he plays RF. The Cubs of 2013 could look like this:

    wOBA wRC+ FIP
C Castillo 0.31 95  
1B Rizzo 0.355 125  
2B Barney 0.285 75  
SS Castro 0.32 100  
3B Valbuena 0.32 100  
LF Wasteland 0.3 85  
CF Jackson 0.3 85  
RF Choo* 0.36 130  
MINF Watkins 0.31 95  
CINF Lake 0.3 85  
COF Hairston 0.31 95  
OF Sappelt 0.3 85  
SP Samardzija     3
SP Wood     3.6
SP Jackson     3.5
SP Villanueva     4
SP Negrin     4
RP Bowden     |
RP Parker     |
RP Rodriguez     |
RP Coleman     |
RP Lim     |
RP Neshek*     v
RP Logan*     average?

This team is not hard to envision. It's essentially an average offense with little punch but a slightly stronger bottom of the lineup than average, and a slightly above-average rotation coupled with a dice-roll bullpen. You're only signing one player of real note (Choo), and a pair of relievers that together couldn't cost you more than 7 million per. In addition, I don't doubt for a second this FO's ability to get slightly more creative than Wasteland at LF, and this also disregards any returns on a trade this team could have at the deadline. It projects a return to form for Castro (no sure thing), a modest gain for Rizzo, and fairly achievable numbers for everyone else. Looking at that team, I could see it winning 79-87 games; not exactly knocking down the door for the playoffs, but a respectable launching pad for 2015 for sure.

Do the Cubs have more than a 5% shot of making the playoffs next year? Probably not. However, it's important to show signs of progress, and on that front I really do think the Cubs are getting there. Alcantara could come as soon as the mid-2014, and the rest of the reinforcements could arrive in 2015. Hopefully, this is the last year the Cubs are really bad, and I think that could be the case realistically as well.