Keep Waiting; NL Central Spring Training Preview: Chicago Cubs

Cubs President Theo Epstein is probably the only person anticipating 2016 more eagerly than Hillary Clinton. 2016 has been the target date for the Cubs to compete for their elusive third championship ever since Epstein began his rebuilding project on Chicago’s north side. While he has been able to stockpile a number of highly regarded minor league prospects, the Major League team never got off the ground in 2013, and was in last place practically wire-to-wire.

Even worse than finishing 31 games out of first place was the fact that many of the teams’ young talents actually regressed last season. Players that Epstein is counting on for 2016, such as shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, had disappointing seasons. Castro struggled statistically-his on-base percentage plummeted to .284- and drew the ire of the Wrigley faithful for his frequent mental lapses. New manager Rick Renteria, who like Castro is a fluent Spanish speaker, is expected to be something of a mentor for the young shortstop. Rizzo, 24, has had serious struggles against left-handed pitching but managed to belt 23 home runs in the middle of the order. Another bright spot for Chicago is catcher Wellington Castillo. In his first year as the starter, the Dominican led all catchers in defensive Wins Above Replacement according to baseball-reference.com

In characteristic Cubs fashion, the pitching staff is defined by a near miss. Chicago was a finalist in the bidding for Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who ultimately signed with the Yankees. The Cubs rotation certainly could have used Tanaka’s services. Southpaw Travis Wood projects as the team’s ace after a compiling a very nice season 3.11 E.R.A. in 2013. Jeff Samardzija also had a solid season for Chicago, but he has been the center of many trade rumors. Given that Epstein has had a penchant for dealing away pitchers mid-season, it would not be surprising if Samardzija is shipped off to a contender. Beyond Wood and Samardzija, there is not much depth on the pitching staff. Edwin Jackson’s E.R.A. ballooned to 4.98 after he came over from Washington, but his heavy contract probably assures that he will remain in the rotation. The Cubs’ bullpen is similarly shallow. After struggling to find a reliable closer last season, Epstein signed Jose Veras- who had all of five career saves before last season- to fill the role.

It is impossible to imagine the Cubs contending for a playoff spot in 2014. Yet with a good crop of prospects in the farm system, Epstein’s target date of 2016 does not seem so far-fetched. Until then, Cubs fans will have to continue to do what they have done for over a century- wait.

By Ben Tannenbaum