By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) Last week I discussed the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections for the White Sox, who were projected for a 75-87 record and to finish fourth in the AL Central. This post focuses on the Cubs' projections.
BP projects the Cubs to finish 71-91 and last in the NL Central behind St. Louis (88-74), Cincinnati (83-79), Milwaukee (80-82) and Pittsburgh (78-84). On the positive side, this would represent a five-game improvement over 2013. On the negative side, it would be the second-worst record in the NL and the third-worst in all of baseball. That's the state BP believes the Cubs have reached -- not exactly rock bottom but close enough to brace for impact.
These are the projections for position players:
Adapted from data at Baseball Prospectus.
It is intriguing that BP expects contributions from prospects like Christian Villanueva, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez before anything from Kris Bryant. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are projected to have decent seasons, with Rizzo projected to increase his home runs and Castro to return to form. Castro batted .297 with a .761 OPS in his first three years, showing the ability to hit major league pitching and that 2013 might have been a fluke season. His challenge will be draw more walks -- the average major leaguer has about a 60-70 point difference between batting average and on-base percentage, with Castro around half of that and not projected to be much better in 2014. If he's to remain at the top of the batting order, this needs to improve.
The outfield will definitely be in flux with Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake and Chris Coghlan fighting for two positions; absent unforeseeable circumstances, Nate Schierholtz is probably set in right field. Seeing Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters on this list caused me to shake my head to clear it and check the calendar to see if it's still 2012. There's enough projected production from the these players to get by, but they're all placeholders at best, waiting for the cream of the Cubs' minor league system to grow into their potential. BP doesn't appear to expect any of that young talent to emerge this season.
This is the chart for pitchers:
Adapted from data at Baseball Prospectus.
Jeff Samardzija and the Cubs avoided arbitration, settling for $5.345 million on Saturday. He threw the most innings of his career in 2013 but also saw increases in home runs allowed per nine innings, WHIP and his ERA (by more than a half a run). With only two years of Samardzija as a starter, BP has to project which is the real Samardzija, the 2012 version or 2013. He'll turn 29 this year, and the Cubs have to decide if he's a pitcher to build a rotation around or a player to dangle at the trade deadline.
After Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood, the rest of the rotation will be determined during spring training. Jason Hammel was a recent signing, so he wasn't included specifically in the Cubs' PECOTA projections and is projected to have a 7-8 record, 4.18 ERA and a 1.0 WARP in 126 innings. He hasn't pitched 160 innings since 2011, so durability is a legitimate concern. Jake Arrieta and Carlos Villanueva will battle for the fifth starter position.
BP projects Mike Olt with a decent chance to break out, Rizzo with the second-best odds of significant improvement in all of baseball (behind baseball's newest rich player, Freddie Freeman) and Castro to play at his 2010-2012 production level. Put all this together, and BP sees a Cubs team still pointed toward the future with little hope for 2014.
Projections are not guarantees. In 2008, the Cubs were coming off a disappointing playoff performance against Arizona but were still considered one of the better NL teams. Who were the players who helped the Cubs return to the playoffs? Jim Edmonds, Reed Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome, none of who had been with the club in 2007. They also got a 17-6 year out of 2007 closer Ryan Dempster, a Rookie of the Year season from Geovany Soto and the best power production in Mark DeRosa's career. Reasonable projections could not have foreseen any of these seasons, and to have predicted not just one of these players but all six to have the years they did would have been outright conjecture.
The Cubs are not in similar shape for 2014, and it will be difficult to outperform BP's win projection by a significant margin, let alone contend for the playoffs. It doesn't mean it's impossible, just not projected.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.
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