The Chicago Cubs are not going to be a very good team in 2014.
This is, generally speaking, already both accepted and acceptable among those who follow the team. The idea that somehow a club with the Cubs' resources should require a three- to four-year rebuilding plan has more or less been sold to the Chicago faithful without much in the way of a hitch, which speaks volumes about the amount of good faith that general manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein earned with their work with the Boston Red Sox. It's a pretty narrative, too: The geniuses who fixed one long-suffering franchise and brought them a World Series title going to the only team left out in the cold nearly as long and trying to do the same. It may or may not work out that way, but at least it sounds nice.
The expectation is that the 2014 Cubs should at least be better than the 2013 version, who lost 96 games and found themselves near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories. But we're not here to talk about the lineup today. We're here to talk about a unit with a bit of a brighter future, perhaps, and definitely more ties to former Red Sox executives: the team's starting rotation.
The 2013 edition of the Cubs had a pitching staff that performed fairly well, considering the injuries and personnel turnover -- only a slight bit worse than league average at 4.25 runs allowed per game (league average being 4.17), though the Cubs were one of the most efficient teams in the majors in the field. However, two of that squad's most productive arms in limited action, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza, will not be returning -- and the guys stepping into fill the gaps will have their work cut out for them.
Ace: Jeff Samardzija
The prevailing narrative surrounding Samardzija's 2014 has less to do with what he'll accomplish on the field -- Cubs fans would be happy if he could nudge the walks down a little bit and have a stronger second half next season than he did in 2013 -- but whether or not the Cubs will be able to convince him to accept a similar arbitration buyout/extension to the ones signed by Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. My feeling is that due to the clear and obvious premium the market currently places on young free agent starting pitching, no agent worth his license would ever advise a starter that's even been as rocky as Samardzija's been -- a 4.32 ERA in the rotation; a 4.19 ERA for his career -- to sign away a single free-agent year.
Samardzija's last year of arbitration is in 2015; if he has a good year this year and follows it up with an amazing 2015 campaign, even if it's only due to good luck on batted balls or a ridiculously depressed rate of home runs allowed, he'll take home $60-70 million in guaranteed money from some team in addition to whatever he was able to get out of the Cubs in arbitration. And if he gets hurt? Worst case scenario, he'll still get a $6-8 million dollar make-good contract, and if he does well on that then he's right back to looking at big money in free agency. The only way to get Shark to take a deal that buys out free agency years should be to heavily overpay for them -- that's just the economics of the sport right now -- and at that point, even the biggest Samardzija booster has to ask what he's really done to deserve that kind of a deal.
Two: Edwin Jackson
The Jackson deal isn't the worst contract signing that Hoyer or Epstein has presided over in his career -- ask the Dodgers and Red Sox about those -- but it hasn't worked out particularly how the Cubs might have hoped so far. Jackson is by far the highest-paid player on the team in terms of annual contract value at $13 million a season (his total deal was for four years, $52 million, signed last offseason), and in 2013 he turned in the worst full season of his career since all the way back in 2007 with the Tampa Bay Rays, when he posted the exact same ERA+ of 79 in 14.1 fewer IP (it's telling about the differences in offensive environment between those two places and times that in 2007, an ERA+ of 79 was good for a 5.76 ERA, while in 2013 it merited only a 4.98).
It was already a somewhat strange signing, a team in the middle of a public rebuild inking a slightly better than average starter for four years and relatively big money, and Jackson certainly hasn't made it look less silly with his play so far. Still, Jackson has a long track record -- almost 1,300 innings of it, in fact -- that says he's the guy the Cubs signed instead of the guy the Cubs got, and he's young enough that it's reasonable to expect that guy to come back. But still, the guy the Cubs signed had a career ERA of 4.40. No one should be expecting miracles.
Three: Travis Wood
Wood, meanwhile, might end up being the best pitcher in the Cubs rotation again. The only left-hander in the Cubs' projected starting five, he paced the staff easily last year with a 3.11 ERA in 200 IP. His peripherals aren't as optimistic as Samardzija's -- he walks fewer batters than Shark, but he strikes out fewer still -- but his results have improved over the past few years by seeing his hits allowed come down from a career high in 2011, and then seeing his home runs allowed come down from a spike in 2012.
Last season was the first time his stuff worked without either getting slapped all over the park or knocked out of it; that could be luck, or that could be learning how to pitch. A guy with Wood's numbers as a Cub (356 IP, 3.62 ERA, 111 ERA+ over two seasons) would be a perfectly acceptable No. 3 pitcher in most rotations, but only if the guys ahead of him are worthy of their spots -- and last year the script was flipped, with Wood outperforming both Samardzija and Jackson.
Four: Jason Hammel
Which brings us to the new guys, and something I'm personally bewildered about, namely, why in the world the Cubs and Orioles think it's a good idea to keep swapping pitchers when they haven't had a great staff between them for about half a decade. Last year -- and we're going to restrict it to just last year, because the recent history of the Cubs and Orioles swapping players and it ending poorly for everyone involved goes back to at least Sammy Sosa -- the Cubs sent Scott Feldman to the Orioles in exchange for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Feldman was serviceable for the Orioles, though more than a little bit worse than he had been for the Cubs up until that point in the season, and Strop slotted nicely into the Cubs bullpen -- just as he slotted nicely into the Orioles' bullpen the season before. Cubs fans will learn all about Strop and his control problems in time. Arrieta we'll get to in a moment.
Now, the second highest-paid player on the 2014 Chicago Cubs by annual contract value, edging out Starlin Castro by a bit more than $100,000, is Hammel, who came over in free agency. Hammel's value trades heavily on his contributions to the magical 2012 Orioles team that fell to the Yankees in the ALDS; before getting injured, he looked like a completely different pitcher thanks to a two-seamer with great arm-side action that he'd abandoned in Colorado for Coors Field reasons (two-seamers generally rely on inflicting bad contact on hitters to get outs; thanks to its extreme offensive profile, though, "bad" contact in Coors is a lot less reliably good for the pitcher). Last year, however, he just looked like Jason Hammel again. Neither season ended with him throwing more than 140 innings of major league ball. It's more likely that Hammel's 2012 was dust in the wind just like the rest of that Orioles team than it is he's figured something out, and if the thing he's figured out keeps him hurt to the point where he can throw only about 100 innings a year before physically falling apart, maybe it wasn't worth figuring out in the first place.
That said, the Cubs aren't likely to keep Hammel long beyond inning 60 or so. If he's as successful as he hopes to be, and the Cubs are as bad as they could turn out, then Hammel will be one of the first guys dealt at the deadline. And knowing how history works, it'll probably be to the Baltimore Orioles.
Five: Jake Arrieta
Another fun convergence between the Orioles and the Cubs: Both teams are currently run by the brains behind the two previous Red Sox administrations. Hoyer and Epstein won the championships in Boston, but at least in 2004 they did it with a roster full of players inherited from outgoing GM Dan Duquette, who vanished from North American baseball for a decade before resurfacing in Baltimore in 2012. Duquette likes to make his bones in the trade and waiver markets, and dealing Strop and Arrieta for Feldman was exactly the kind of move he's shown a propensity for -- "win now" in spirit, but cautious, low-risk and tepid. Both Strop and Arrieta had worn out their welcome in Baltimore by the time they left town. Arrieta, specifically, still has a lot of promise. Unlike Hammel, he is still under team control and still reasonably young, so there's little to no chance of the Cubs flipping him in 2014 unless someone blows them away.
Behind Samardzija -- perhaps even including him at this point -- Arrieta probably has the most raw upside of any of the projected Cubs starters, though that's more or less damning him with faint praise. Wood may never have a year better than his 2013, Jackson's a known product and Hammel probably won't be around long enough to matter in this discussion. There's a meme that followed Arrieta around during his time in Baltimore -- an idea often repeated, not an image macro -- that he fell apart with runners on base, but the numbers don't particularly bear that out once you remember that when a pitcher allows runners on base, it's usually because he's already pitching poorly. More concerning is that while Arrieta flashes a very pretty curveball from time to time, his inability to command it and the general mediocrity of his other off-speed options don't bode well for his future. He, like Strop, had a promising half season on the back end of 2013, but it would be surprising if it continued.
The Rest: James McDonald, Chris Rusin, Justin Grimm, Arodys Vizcaino
McDonald, formerly of the Pirates, will be joining the Cubs in spring training on a minor league deal with an invitation to the big league camp. It would be surprising if he made the Opening Day roster without an injury to one or more of the men above which, given Hammel's recent history, is certainly possible. McDonald has injury problems of his own: He spent most of last year on the 60-day DL with shoulder problems, and experienced loss of both velocity and command when he was "healthy" before that. His problems actually extend back to 2012, when he posted a first half that put him in the running for a downballot Cy Young vote or three -- 92.1 IP of 2.73 ERA ball -- but was so poor in the second half he finished with only 171 IP and a 4.21 ERA. He's neither young enough nor has been good enough in the past to treat as anything but a backup option.
Rusin is a low-velocity lefty who had a somewhat sparkly ERA in under 70 innings last year for the Cubs (3.93 ERA, 66.1 IP) but walked a whole bunch of batters (24) and struck out relatively few (36) across those innings. Unless new manager Rick Renteria is dying for another southpaw in his rotation and Arrieta gives him an excuse to send him to Triple A in camp, it's likely Rusin is the odd man out for the time being. With a fastball in the upper 80s and a demonstrated lack of command at the MLB level, he certainly has less upside than almost anyone else the Cubs could tack on as their No. 5.
Grimm came over from the Rangers with Mike Olt in the Matt Garza deal, and barring a great spring training by McDonald, he is probably second in line behind Rusin to make the Opening Day squad if there's an injury. Grimm has gotten generally poor results in his time in the big leagues (112 IP of 6.35 ERA ball is terrible even in Arlington), and if he's unable to show something this year he is probably destined for the bullpen.
Vizcaino is one of the more interesting Cubs prospects set to debut this season, though he probably won't make an impact until the middle of the season. While Grimm's or McDonald's best way onto the team is if someone gets hurt, Vizcaino probably finds his way to the bigs on a set schedule, perhaps one that revolves around Hammel getting traded. The problem with Vizcaino, however, is that he's essentially a black box: Though he has great minor league numbers and even a little bit of MLB seasoning from back when he was in Atlanta, he hasn't pitched in two years. He missed 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery and 2013 recovering from arthroscopic surgery to clear out a calcium buildup in that same throwing elbow. It's entirely possible that the Cubs get him back on the mound in a game situation and don't like what they see after his long time away -- perhaps moving him into the bullpen to deal with fatigue issues or just shelving the idea of bringing him up in 2014 altogether. The 2011 version of Vizcaino had the talent to at least be a dominant closer at the major league level if the starting role didn't work out; no one really knows what to expect of him now, almost three years later.
There are other guys in the mix -- including yet another former Oriole, Tsuyoshi Wada, who spent his entire two years with Baltimore on the disabled list with arm injuries -- but those are probably the four worth watching the most.
I picked the 2013 Cubs to finish third in their division mostly because I was sour on the Pirates and I thought the Chicago rotation was good at the time; that's not something I'm likely to do again, and not because I've particularly come around on the Pirates. There are pieces on the Cubs that could work -- could be great, even -- but that's true of just about any team in baseball.
We're about to start Epstein and Hoyer's third season at the helm. Eventually, the team has to stop being about signing and flipping guys like Hammel and hoping that guys like Arrieta figure it out, and instead be about winning games. In this league, that starts with solid starting pitching. I don't think that these Cubs have that, and I don't see many names in the organization right now -- major league or minor -- who look to stand a good chance of producing that before 2016 or so. For Cubs fans' sake, I hope I'm wrong.