I have to learned to keep my "reach" picks to a minimum, but one I am believing in is the Chicago Cubs. You can make a case that the Orioles, Phillies, Pirates and Indians all have more talented and should be ranked higher than the Cubs. Perhaps you are correct in that assessment, but remember, not always to the most talented teams on paper finish as expected. So the question can be posed, Why are you higher on the Cubs than in years past? I really think the Cubs will see a lot from their top prospects this season. Javier Baez hit 37 HR last season, so that is an upgrade already. CF Jorge Soler has the ability to be in the same league as Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, and he is expected to be around this season. Mike Olt, who was acquired in the trade with Texas for Matt Garza, should be ready to start the season as the team's starting 3B until top 2013 draft pick Kris Bryant is ready. I predict that Bryant will make his MLB debut this season and can be up on the north side of the All Star break.
Adding Justin Ruggiano from the Marlins gives the team a starting CF (.298, 18, 50 with Miami). George Kottaras is in to be the backup catcher with RHPs Jason Hammel and James McDonald in to provide some front of the end starting pitching depth. To expect a little more from the Cubs, they need to get improved results from 1B Anthony Rizzo (.233, 23, 80) and SS Starlin Castro (.245, 10, 44).
They are led by top starters Jeff Samardzjia (8-13, 4.34 in 33 starts) and Travis Wood (9-12, 3.11 in 32 starts). Wood should continue to pitch well and Samardzjia will be be even better. Edwin Jackson (8-18, 4.98 in 31 starts) was a disappointment and in my opinion, will pitch better this season. LHP Chris Rusin (2-6, 3.93 in 13 starts) is likely to make the rotation, with Jake Arrieta (4-2, 3.66 in 9 starts) trying to build off his good finish to the 2013 season. Both Hammel (7-8, 4.97 in 26 games, 23 starts for the Orioles) and McDonald (12-8, 4.21 in 30 games, 29 starts for the Pirates in 2012) will provide depth to the rotation.
I feel that the lineup that will start the season will be completely different to the one we see at the All Star break. I am already penciling in Olt as the 3B opening day starter. This is despite him hitting (.201, 14, 42) lousy in the minors in 2013. Luis Valbuena (.218, 12, 37) will get the job if Olt is not ready, but the bottom line is Bryant could be up in the big leagues playing 3B every day soon enough. Once Bryant is up, there is a chance that Olt can compete with Rizzo for some playing time if Antony does not improve from last season. But that would require Olt to raise his game as well. 2B Darwin Barney (.208, 7, 41) is more vulnerable than Castro once Baez comes up to the big leagues. Castro can move to 2B. Nate Schierholtz (.251, 21, 68) and Junior Lake (.284, 6, 16 for the Cubs after .295, 4, 18 in AAA) are projected to be the starting OFs in addition to Ruggiano. Wellington Castillo (.274, 8, 32) will be the starting catcher. The opening day line up is likely to be Barney 2B, Castro SS, Ruggiano CF, Rizzo 1B, Schierholtz RF, Olt/ Valbuena 3B, Castillo C, Lake LF. By mid season, the lineup should be Ruggiano LF, Soler CF, Rizzo 1B, Baez SS, Bryant 3B, Schierholtz/ Olt RF, Castillo C, Castro 2B. Donnie Murphy, Ryan Sweeney and Kottaras make up a majority of the Cubs bench.
The Cubs bullpen is a question mark. RHP Kevin Gregg (2-6, 33 saves, 3.48) is still a free agent after coming out of nowhere to be the clubs 2013 closer. RHP Jose Veras (0-5, 21, 3.02 in 67 games for Houston and Detroit) will likely be the closer but I see him more as an 8th inning pitcher. Expected members of the Cubs bullpen are James Russell (1-6, 3.59, 74 games), Hector Rondon (2-1, 4.77, 45 games), Pedro Strop (2-2, 2.83, 37 games after coming to Chicaco in a trade from Baltimore) and RHP Arodys Vizcaino, who came over from the Braves a couple years ago in the Paul Maholm trade. Two guys to keep an eye on are RHP Kyuji Fujikawa (1-1, 2 saves, 5.15 in 12 appearances before missing the rest of the season due to injury) and RHP Justin Grimm, who came over in the Garza trade and pitched well out of the pen for the Cubs last season. I predict both Fujikawa and Grimm will be featured relievers before long in Chicago and the Cubs bullpen will be better than expected.
New manager Rick Renteria has taken over the team at the perfect time. If the team struggles, he gets the benefit of the doubt as the young players will get some time to be on the MLB roster and contribute. The Cubs have a chance to surprise, but they can also struggle. Vegas places the O/U at 69.5 for a team that finished 66-96. I feel this team can overachieve. I got them at 80-82, 3rd place in the NL Central and one of the major surprises in all of MLB. This time next year, the expectations will be raised.