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starlin castro javier baezAlthough the Cubs are behind the 8-ball having already lost every game they’ve played this season, some folks can look at their situation and still find seeds of optimism.

To be sure, my dispassionate take on the Cubs’ likeliest outcome this year has them somewhere in the 70-win range, tops, with an expected summer sell-off accelerating the losing in the second half. I’ll hedge by noting that I do like the composition of the roster, particularly the versatility and flexibility, and I do see many players who could surprise to the upside (and if enough of them do it at once, great things can happen). All, in all, though, I don’t see .500 in the Cubs’ future this year.

But FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron can see it. In his recent piece on five things he believes about the 2014 season (must read, naturally), here’s what he says in part about the Cubs, whom he believes might be better than folks think:

I think this team might be surprisingly not awful, in part because I think the players who are taking the field on Opening Day might not be regulars for a terribly long period of time. Javier Baez looks to be on the verge of a Major League call-up, and if he hits in Triple-A like he did in Double-A last year, the Cubs won’t keep him down for too long. And depending on how the infield shakes out, he might not come alone. Arismendy Alcantara and Kris Bryant also aren’t that far off, and depending on how aggressive the Cubs want to be with second half promotions, Jorge Soler could see Chicago towards the end of the year as well.

Toss in the addition of an arm like C.J. Edwards on the pitching side, and the Cubs have a wave of pretty great prospects that could finish the year in Wrigley Field. It’s unrealistic to expect all of them to contribute this year, but with this kind of talent, the odds are good that one or two of them prove to be ready faster than expected, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Baez, Bryant, and Edwards ended up being pretty solid Major League players as soon as they hit the field. I’m not expecting any of them to pull a Yasiel Puig, but given early enough call-ups, I could see some combination of prospects adding three to five wins to the Cubs total this year, and I don’t think a .500 season is completely out of the question.

That’s an interesting perspective, and you certainly can’t rule it out. If Baez continues his tear and is up in June, that alone could add a couple wins on the year. I tend to think, though, that if the Cubs do surprise and approach .500, it’s going to have more to do with guys like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Junior Lake, Welington Castillo, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and the like surprising to the upside. That’s a boatload of potential impact – probably more than Baez/Bryant/Alcantara/Edwards could effect in a half-season, even if they all came up in June/July (which they won’t).

None of that is to poo-poo Cameron’s point, which is a good one: when we project a team’s season, it’s so easy to ignore surprising prospect promotions and impact, which does seem to happen every year. Are there many teams better positioned than the Cubs in that regard? Probably not too many.

Which brings me to the follow-up point that Cameron’s comments brought to mind: are we actually hoping the Cubs go .500 this year?

If you’ve been around for the duration of The Plan, you’re not unfamiliar with this discussion. And frankly, even after having it so many times, I’m still not sure where I land. Since it is unreasonable to hope for the playoffs this year (not impossible, but so unlikely that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if that’s where you put your eggs), should we be hoping for the best possible non-playoff record the Cubs can record?

The downsides to winning, say, 81 games, rather than 69, are pretty obvious: a lower draft pick, less draft pool money, less international pool money, and maybe an unprotected first round draft pick next year (probably right in the range where it’s particularly painful to lose a first rounder, too).

But there are upsides to going .500, especially if your team has been well under .500 for a half decade. There are attendance and revenue increases (particularly notable when on the verge of a new TV contract). There are possible intangible benefits when trying to convince free agents to sign on.

And there’s the big one: for this Cubs team to actually go .500, that means a bunch of individual stories were great this year. A bunch of guys developed. A bunch of guys produced. A bunch of guys look really good going into 2015. Sure, that’s all kind of backwards-looking – which is to say, you’re not really rooting for .500, you’re just rooting for that good stuff to happen (which then results in .500) – but it’s probably the most important part of this discussion.

In the abstract, would I rather the Cubs lost the most games in baseball if they aren’t going to make the playoffs? Maybe. But if that actually happens, things could look really ugly heading into the offseason. I’d rather have a whole bunch of things go right for the Cubs – things that make the near-term future picture look bright – and have them “suffer” the consequences of a .500 record.

At least I think. As I said, this is something of an ongoing internal debate …

  • NorthSideIrish

    Mark Gonzales ‏@MDGonzales 14m
    Arrieta says he’ll make 1st rehab start saturday for Tennessee at Pensacola

    Hope it goes well…really anxious to get an extended look at Arrieta this season.

    • willis

      Me too…hopefully he’ll be back by the thirdish week of April. He could really be a difference maker to this rotation.

  • Justin

    I really hope Baez and Bryant are up in June. I would think Baez is up midseason for sure, but I really hope Bryant is up midseason too. Knowing how the Front Office works prospects arb clocks if Bryant isn’t up midseason there is no way that he would start next yr in the majors. That would suck and obviously hurt there chances in 2015…

  • http://BN Sacko

    For someone that talks about his own antics after losing a tennis match to even say Maybe it’s not a bad idea to lose is disturbing and has been an awful attitude of late for a lot of individuals strategy.
    You might imagine what Rizzo and Castro go through what’s possible every day every year for several years now compared to someones stupid tennis match. If you want these players to start playing better and others to develop it will happen with winning not Maybe it’s ok to lose. Now have That attitude as a player and a team? You might as well keep tanking, non of the upcoming players are going to develop properly. Unbelievable

    • Coop

      Reading comprehension fail ^^^

      • http://BN Sacko

        not necessarily for you to comprehend. The one this is intended for will comprehend.

  • Chuck24

    If the Cubs can go .500 with a number of young prospects, that’s great. You said it yourself, fans are more optimistic, they buy more tickets and paraphernalia, watch and listen to more games (which creates more TV and radio value) and all that spells more revenue, which means the chance to seriously upgrade the roster and put yourself in the position of competing for a postseason spot next year. I also agree that it also shows potential free agent signees that the Cubs might be a good team to sign with…which saves money, because then you don’t have to overpay to get them to come to Chicago. By the way, they need to re-sign Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs talk about developing home-grown talent, especially pitchers…well, here’s a good one that they need to keep. The last one they traded away, Andrew Cashner, is now on the verge of becoming the ace of…San Diego’s (!)…staff. I am still not sold that deal for Rizzo. It’s a lot easier to find hitters than it is good pitching. Letting Samardizja, now an established MLB starter, go would be a step in reverse and send the wrong message to Cubs’ fans.

  • ssckelley

    I am a huge supporter of getting a high draft pick if the team is unable to make the playoffs. To me the teams record does not matter much if you fail to make the playoffs. But eventually the young talent is going to take over. Even if the Cubs do have a sell off at the TDL who is to say that the players they call up to replace them are worse? If the Cubs trade Schierholtz would could they potentially get better calling up Vitters and giving the other outfielders more playing time? If they trade Barney you are not losing much offensively no matter who they replace him with. About the only player they could trade where the Cubs might be negatively impacted is if they deal Samardzija because I do not see TOR potential in any of the arms that are close to being ready at Iowa.

    If the Cubs plan on opening up the purse strings and spend money next off season then a top 10 pick would be nice so that it is protected. But if not then to me there is not a huge difference in talent between drafting 11-20. Besides the farm system is well stocked, let’s build up the major league team with talent now. If the Cubs have a good scouting system in place they can sustain a good farm system without having to have top 5 picks every year.

    • http://BN Sacko

      I agree with the flips and trades as they are not part of the future anyway. I just hate listening to the loosing attitude. After those individuals are gone you still want to put the best possible players on the field to win. I can’t imagine Club House talk yea we lost today, that means a higher draft pick!

  • bbmoney

    The CBA and the related amateur spending restrictions unfortunately make it desirable to finish in the bottom 10 of the league if you’re not going to make the playoffs. It makes finishing with a bad record desirable if you aren’t really thinking you can compete for a playoff spot. Working with those realities I’ve been supportive of the re-build and un-competitiveness of past few years.

    That said I’d much rather the team finish around the .500 mark this year than finish with 90+ losses again. The Cubs are getting to the point where they should be looking to compete soon, and have already pretty well loaded the farm with impact talent. An incremental step toward competitiveness, while not absolutely necessary (see what the O’s and A’s did a couple years ago), would probably be beneficial both in terms of increased revenues and player development / morale (which can be over played by some people….but also let’s be real….baseball players are humans and can get discouraged).

    All that said I’m left with two opinions:

    1. I think this team might win a few more games than last year, but not enough to say they’re pushing .500.

    2. I hate the CBA and all the stupid spending restrictions that are in place. I applaud the Cubs FO for working with the CBA in what I believe was an appropriate fashion that gave them the best chance to build sustainable success given the exact set of circumstances they were facing. BUT, I’d like to just blow the CBA up because it is almost inconceivably stupid to have a set of rules in place that can benefit/promote the kind of re-building we’ve seen in Chicago and Houston (again…I don’t blame the FO or Houston’s FO…I blame the owners and players association that agreed to these stupid rules that put stupid disincentives to winning in place).

    That’s all.

    • Kyle

      The new CBA is not *that* different from the old CBA, and there’s still plenty of downsides. Many clubs have chosen to not rebuild this way, the fact that two have foolishly chosen it is not indicative.

  • SenorGato

    Eh, I’m not not optimistic about this season at the ML level. It’s a younger, more athletic roster than last year with a deeper pitching staff.

  • Dug Dascenzo

    BN,

    Are there any concrete signifiers for you that the Cubs have bailed on 2014?
    I know we’ve been told that we’re capable of making the playoffs, but if the front office doesn’t think we’re in contention for this year, how much will they sacrifice for one more year of rebuilding?

    If Castro, Olt, Rizzo–and, for argument’s sake, Lake and Castillo–play up to their potential and this looks like a 75-win team, does the front office take the foot off the accelerator (or move it out of neutral, maybe) to lose some games and get another high first-round draft pick by platooning one or some of them to build trade value for platoon dudes, or–for example, if Olt is performing–trading upside performers at prospect-rich positions for pitching prospects?

    I.e. does the rebuild accommodate a MOR team when the MOR team does nothing for the rebuild?
    Will this front office consciously lose games to get draft picks and flip high-upside acquisitions?

    Should I be okay with that?
    Is there a point of inflection where some player’s development/potential with the team is sacrificed to the aims of rebuilding when winning is not the goal?

    One more question: do the Cubs keep Vogelbach because the NL will go to DH within the window of his development? I don’t see much use for him outside of as a trade chip, but are the Cubs expecting the DH to come to the NL within the next 3 years given the preponderance of inter-league play?

    Thanks,
    #29

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