CHICAGO -- As you might expect with a 66-96 team, there were as many positives off the field -- or in the minors -- as there were on the playing diamond for the Chicago Cubs in 2013.
By far the starting staff was the brightest spot on the big-league team, but even they couldn’t do it alone as poor defense early and a year-long problem of getting on base contributed to the team’s woes.
And finding the worst stories for a last-place team shouldn’t be hard right?
But don’t forget, the Cubs' record during this rebuilding phase is by design. If they wanted to win a few more games they wouldn’t be trading veterans during the season. So the five worst stories for the Cubs in 2013 have little to do with actual games won or lost.
5. Donnie Baseball: No, infielder Donnie Murphy didn’t get the Cubs closer to the playoffs after being called up from the minors in early August, but his offensive performance over the final two months is worthy of mention. He hit 11 home runs and drove in 23 in just 149 at-bats. For comparison, shortstop Starlin Castro hit 10 home runs in 666 at-bats. Even more impressive was Murphy’s performance in clutch situations. In spots deemed “late in games and close,” Murphy hit .368 with three home runs and seven RBIs. That batting average was second on the team while the home runs were tied for first and the RBIs tied for second. And he produced those numbers in just 19 at-bats. His hot finish earned a contract for 2014.
4. Feldman/Garza trades: We’ll have to wait a while to know if these are for-sure winners, but when the Cubs moved Scott Feldman and Matt Garza to the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, respectively, in July, they got back three, younger dynamic arms. Jake Arrieta is already a back-of-the rotation guy -- just as Feldman was -- but his stuff screams the ability to be better. His devastating curveball can freeze hitters while his lone weakness is control. He showed flashes after coming over and says getting away from the Orioles and a fresh start with a new pitching coach is all he needs to flourish. Pedro Strop is a closer in the making, although he will probably start 2014 as the main set-up man. Feldman parlayed his season into a $30 million deal with the Houston Astros, but it’s the Cubs who could end up the big winners. As for Garza’s deal, the Cubs acquired righty CJ Edwards, who helped Single-A Daytona to a championship. He’s small of stature but can throw lights-out. The Cubs also acquired one-time hot prospect Mike Olt. The third baseman took a dip in 2013, but with injuries behind him, he might turn into a steal.
3. Javier Baez’ season: There were high expectations for the Cubs' No. 1 pick from 2011 and Baez not only met them, he exceeded them. Not many players at age 20 have had minor league seasons like Baez did. Gary Sheffield comes to mind who, ironically, is the player most observers compare Baez with. That’s because of his vicious swing, which produced 37 home runs and 111 RBIs between Single- and Double-A. He also stole 20 bases, while his plate discipline got better as the season wore on. He did commit 44 errors, but the Cubs don’t seem overly concerned. There’s still work to be done, but starting 2014 at Triple-A means he’s a couple of hot months away from being called up to the majors.
2. Drafting Kris Bryant: Remember, this was no slam-dunk pick. At least not in the mind of the public. The Cubs had a myriad of hitters and pitchers to choose from picking No. 2 in this past June’s amateur draft and by all accounts -- so far -- they hit a home run. (No pun intended.) Bryant is big, strong and can crush the ball. He hit 31 home runs for the University of San Diego to lead the NCAA last season. Second place hit 21. That says it all. He won honors for top collegiate player, then went on to rip up minor league pitching in the final months of the 2013 season. To top off his year he won MVP of the Arizona Fall League where he hit another six home runs to lead all hitters. In handicapping young prospects he’s more of a “sure thing” then Baez, but both can be transformative players for a given team.
1. Wood emerges: For a rebuilding team nothing is more important than advancement at the major league level by young players. During this phase the front office is always on the lookout for “core” players they can lock up. Lefty Travis Wood pitched his way into being one in 2013 with a masterful year. Despite lousy run support, he was the Cubs' most consistent and best starter from April to September. He ranked 12th in ERA (3.11) in the National League, pitching exactly 200 innings for the first time in his career. Opponents hit just .222 against him, sixth best in the NL. He worked both sides of the plate, up and down, and was nearly as good against righties (.226) as he was against lefties (.207). It was a breakout year which could put him in line for a long-term contract in the near future.
5. Kevin Gregg's mea culpa: Towards the end of a meaningless season in the standings, closer Kevin Gregg was forced to march up to the press box in order to clarify previous critical statements about losing his role to recently acquired Pedro Strop. The Cubs were miffed that Gregg overreacted to manager Dale Sveum telling him Strop would get a few chances to close games down the stretch. Team President Theo Epstein also marched up to the press box to explain things -- pointing out how the Cubs helped resurrect Gregg’s career -- and nearly released him on the spot. His near roll of the eyes summed up the situation: it was the last thing he needed at the end of a long year.
4. Castro bats eighth: Tuesday, Aug. 20 may have finally sealed former manager Sveum’s fate. After moving Castro around in the order all season, the shortstop was dropped to eighth for the first time since his rookie year. And for the first time Castro voiced his displeasure. Sveum said he didn’t know how long he would leave Castro there, but by the next day he was batting lead-off again. At the time sources said it wasn’t Sveum’s call to move him back up. He stayed in the one-hole for the rest of the season -- and performed better -- and looking back, that kind of gap in communication may have been a contributing factor to Sveum’s ouster.
3. Samardzija’s second half: If Jeff Samardzija had pitched the second half like he did the first half then maybe the Cubs wouldn’t have any doubts about giving him big money two years before free agency. His rising ERA in July (5.28), August (5.54) and September (5.58) contributed to an average season for him as a starter who threw 200 innings for the first time. Maybe it’s no coincidence his woes came as the team sold its veteran parts and fell way out of the race. Samardzija needs the adrenaline of a pennant race to pitch his best, but until that day comes a better showing in non-meaningful games will help prove he deserves big pay day.
2. Castro's season: There’s plenty of blame to go around for a career worst season after back-to-back All-Star bids. His batting average dipped to .245 and his play in the field was just as curious as ever -- at least early in the season. A better final month-and-a-half on offense and defense gives hope for 2014, but did the Cubs mess with him too much to be fixed? The front office, Sveum and the coaches are all to blame along with Castro. A fresh start is needed for one of the Cubs mainstays.
1. Wrigley (non) renovation: The Cubs like to call it “Restoration”. Whatever. It’s nothing until it actually starts. If it’s red tape that’s holding it up then the Cubs have gone through a lot of it and still no resolution has been found. Rooftop owners have dug in while the Cubs aren’t changing their stance either: they claim they need the renovations in order to bring in new revenue in order to compete. The rooftop owners have a contract for unimpeded views. Neither side looks good and so the whole story counts as one of the worst of the year.