Ed. note: Welcome the newest edition to our cast of contributors here at WARR.com, Kevin Luchansky, who will be our recurring baseball writer this season.
Kevin, a New England native, grew up a Red Sox fan (naturally) but he grew to love the Chicago baseball scene upon moving to the midwest. Kevin studied studied sports marketing and journalism at Indiana University and he’s already blogged extensively on the game of baseball as well as appeared on our “D and Davis Show.” Kevin says he wants to try and bring a fresh perspective to Chicago baseball this season with opinion, insight and analysis.
Below is Kevin’s take on the Chicago Cubs and their off-season acquisitions entering this new baseball season, which opened up with a competitive 1-0 loss in 10 innings yesterday in Pittsburgh. Stay with WARR.com for Kevin’s takes on Chicago baseball every week this season and if you’ve missed his season preview for the White Sox, you can read it here.
Following an abysmal 2013 season in which the Chicago Cubs ranked 14th in the National League in both runs and hits, director of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer analyzed an underwhelming open market of free agents.
What the management duo found was that their immediate needs in trying to stay competitive could best be filled by veteran stopgaps and a few former top prospects out the Red Sox’ farm system, as the Cubs’ top-tier minor league talent is probably still a season away from being regular Wrigley contributors.
Offense was far from the only concern for the Cubs last season, as their team ERA was slightly above 4, nearly 25 points higher than the National League average. The club also surrendered the fourth most earned runs in the NL with 643. This offseason’s free agent market for pitching was weak at best, and the front office wisely decided to address offensive concerns instead, doing so by dishing out short-term contracts to position players. No sense in overpaying for available talent if that talent isn’t a part of the Cubs’ long term plan, which is seemingly now a 10-year plan, as opposed to the initial five years Epstein offered when he was hired.
With a 2013 slash line of .238/.300/.392 as a team, the Cubs’ offensive needs were fairly obvious – they needed guys that could hit for average and get on base. Sure, the problems weren’t limited to just those two categories, but they were two that could possibly be addressed through free agency. Furthermore, two of the Cubs’ most impressive contributors last season – Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus – were dealt away at the trade deadline and with a Triple A team that isn’t exactly rich in outfield talent, the team was in search of at least two outfielders capable of being contributors at the major league level.
Returning Cub Ryan Sweeney looks to be the key player in a perceived platoon in centerfield (Emilio Bonifacio started in the Opening Day loss to Pittsburgh). Cubs fans have seen a little of what Sweeney can do, and still certainly needed outfield roster help. It was a small sample size (70 games, 212 plate appearances) but Sweeney struggled at the plate last season, but not enough to lose the position to prospect Brett Jackson, who finally put together the type of year in 2013 Triple A that the Cubs were hoping for when he was drafted out of California.
Searching for a left-handed bat with some pop, Theo then reached out to a former top Red Sox prospect, and offered him a minor league contract for 2014. Kalish, now 26, has had a career riddled with injuries, and most recently sat out the 2013 season recovering from two torn labrums.
Because of those injuries, we can only draw incomplete conclusions on Kalish, as he has only played in 36 games the past three seasons. However, he has shown some flashes of brilliance when healthy, and has certainly made the most of his spring training at-bats this past month, posting 14 hits in 46 at-bats and swiping six bases. The Cubs just recently purchased his contract from Triple A Iowa, and Kalish has begun the season with the club in Pittsburgh.
Speaking of newcomers that could make a splash, third basemen Mike Olt – a former top Rangers prospect out of UConn, dealt in the Matt Garza trade – could really provide a lift and stability to a position held down by committee last season.
Once a trade untouchable for Texas as well as the number 22nd ranked prospect by Baseball America, Olt was let go of relatively for cheap, as his batting average plummeted in 2013. Olt also spent time on and off the disabled list with an eye injury.
After having corrective eye surgery in the offseason, Olt is ready to return to his former self, and has shown signs of light in spring training this season, where he posted a .929 OPS in 56 plate appearances.
A small sample size? Absolutely. But there is no denying Olt is seeing the ball far better than he was prior to the surgery.
‘‘He’s looked like the guy from an offensive side that everybody expected to see a few years ago,’’ new Cubs manager Rick Renteria told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this week about Olt.
Rounding out the new faces I expect to see make an impact on the Cubs’ offensive front is Bonifacio, a veteran utility man. Bonifacio provides help at a lot of different positions and certainly provides a little speed to a lineup that finished 25th in the majors with just 63 stolen bases last season. Emilio alone swiped 28 in just 136 games.
More critical to the possibility of Cubs success in 2014 is the likely need for Starlin Castro to take a huge step forward and distance himself for a 2013 he would soon rather forget, coupled with the continued improvement of Anthony Rizzo’s swing. But it is encouraging to see the team’s front office spend wisely in the offseason, while adding two former top prospects in Olt and Kalish, still in their mid-20s.
The good news is that after rock bottom, the only place to move is forward. After all, with this year being Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary, it should be a Cubs season to celebrate. We’ll see how much the team itself has to offer the party.
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