(SportsNetwork.com) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to the Chicago Cubs.
In 2013, baseball's Lovable Losers finished in fifth place in the National League Central for the fourth straight season. Pitcher Matt Garza and outfielder Alfonso Soriano were jettisoned at the trade deadline. At the end of September, manager Dale Sveum was given his walking papers after just two years on the job. While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around, his tenure did produce the worst two-year stretch in the organization's long history -- no small feat considering that history includes 105 years and counting without a World Series title.
In steps new manager Rick Renteria, whose reputation of working well with young players was a driving factor in the front office's hiring decision. Meanwhile, the 2014 season marks president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer's third year at the helm. The front office continues to embrace a long-term rebuilding model, and for good reason. As such, there were no big-money signings or splashy offseason moves. Instead, the Cubs' focus is on nurturing their young prospects for the future while also trying to sprinkle in some wins now despite an Opening Day payroll of around $87 million, the club's lowest figure since 2005. Although the win-right-now part of that equation will be a pretty big challenge for this Cubs team bereft of talent, the front office remains steadfast in its approach to contend beyond 2014.
2013 FINISH (66-96) - Fifth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jason Hammel (RHP), Emilio Bonifacio (2B), Justin Ruggiano (CF), George Kottaras (C), Jose Veras (RHP), Wesley Wright (LHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Scott Baker (RHP), Kevin Gregg (RHP), Dioner Navarro (C)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Starlin Castro (SS); Luis Valbuena (3B); Anthony Rizzo (1B); Nate Schierholtz (RF); Junior Lake (LF); Ryan Sweeney (CF); Welington Castillo (C); Darwin Barney (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jeff Samardzija (RHP); Travis Wood (LHP); Edwin Jackson (RHP); Jason Hammel (RHP); Jake Arrieta (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jose Veras (RHP)
MANAGER: Rick Renteria
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE OFFENSE?
After scoring the third-fewest runs in the majors last season, are the Cubs any better off heading into 2014? Perhaps, but a handful of players will need to step up for that to happen. For example, can shortstop Starlin Castro improve upon a dreadful 2013 campaign that saw him post a career-worst .245/.284 line with 44 RBI? The ability is certainly there, as he has proven he can do it at the big league level, but he'll need to exorcise whatever demons consumed him last year. Likewise, the team needs 24-year-old first basemen Anthony Rizzo to more closely resemble the player he was in 2012 when he hit .285 with 15 home runs in only 87 games, as opposed to the player who last year hit only .233 but still produced solid power numbers (23 HR, 80 RBI) in his first full season.
At the hot corner, Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy are slated for a platoon. However, the organization would certainly not mind if former top-25 prospect Mike Olt, acquired at last year's trade deadline from Texas in the Garza deal, eventually claimed the starting job. Olt's spring was limited by a shoulder issue, but he flashed some pop by belting four home runs. And in the outfield, the team has high hopes for left fielder Junior Lake who enters his first full season after hitting .284 with a .332 OBP in 64 games last year. In the other corner outfielder spot, Nate Schierholtz produced a career-high 21 homers and 68 RBI in 137 games, and the team is banking on similar power numbers.
HOW MUCH HAS THE BULLPEN IMPROVED?
Hardly any bullpen was less effective than Chicago's in 2013, as it ranked 13th in the NL in ERA and blew a collective 26 saves, second-most in the league. The Cubs have moved on from several members of that group, including up-and-down journeyman closer Kevin Gregg and his 33 saves.
Instead, the closer's job was given to right-hander Jose Veras, who posted a 3.02 ERA last season between Detroit and Houston while converting 21-of-25 save opportunities. Setting him up will likely be righty Pedro Strop, who was solid after being acquired along with former Orioles top prospect Jake Arrieta for Scott Feldman. Southpaw James Russell also figures to see some late-inning work as does another left-hander, Wesley Wright.
Based on the turnover from last year's disastrous relief corps, along with the early returns from the current unit, the bullpen does appear primed to take a step forward in 2014. It might not be a particularly big step, considering the general lack of high-upside talent, but the Cubs will take any improvement from what they got from the 'pen last season.
HOW FAR OFF ARE THE CUBS OF TOMORROW?
Things are not all doom and gloom for the Cubs, and ultimately, this is the million-dollar question. After all, once promising youngsters such as Castro, Rizzo and Olt have already logged big league service time. In line behind them is a total of seven prospects currently ranked in Baseball America's Top-100, including two in the top-10.
Coming in at No. 5 on that list is 21-year-old shortstop Javier Baez, who hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. If his quick bat continues to produce anywhere near those kinds of numbers, he has a good shot of getting called up to the big club later this season. At No. 8 is 22-year- old Kris Bryant, a power hitter who could find himself manning third base or perhaps an outfield spot for the Cubs before season's end. The second overall pick in the 2013 Amateur Draft, Bryant led the nation with 31 homers last year as a junior for the University of San Diego. After being drafted, he went on to blast nine homers and 32 RBI in just 36 minor league games, then was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League with a 364/.457/.727 line and six home runs in 20 games.
There are a handful of other prospects in the Cubs' system who could end up climbing the minor league ranks sooner than later (see right-hander C.J. Edwards). For Cubs fans (understandably) running low on patience, however, there is no secret formula for expediting the development of that group of youngsters.
X-FACTOR: STARLIN CASTRO
Just ask Starlin Castro about that development process. Castro, a one-time top prospect in the organization and already a two-time All-Star, saw his batting average hover around .300 over his first three big league seasons and in 2011 became the youngest player ever to lead the National League in hits. But last year, for one reason or another, was simply a disaster for the 23-year-old shortstop. Perhaps the seven-year, $60 million contract extension signed in August 2012 crept into his head. In any case, the front office is committed to him, at least for now. Should those struggles continue in 2014, however, things could get interesting if teams start flooding the Cubs with offers. Keep in mind, Baez was drafted No. 9 overall in 2011 and the Cubs have played him strictly at shortstop ever since.
The time was bound to come when the Cubs' front office was going to have to pay the piper for, well, paying too many big contracts and not getting enough return. The team is still on the hook for $14 million of Soriano's contract this season, courtesy of the previous regime, while the jury is still out on the current regime, which got an 8-18 record and a 4.98 ERA in the first year of its $52 million investment in Edwin Jackson.
But Epstein and Hoyer laid out their organizational plan upon coming on board in October 2011, and they are sticking to it. They'll get what is essentially a blank slate in terms of payroll in 2015, and a lot of talent in the pipeline to boot. Don't tell it to tortured Cubs fans, but better days surely do lie ahead. After all, how much worse can things get in Wrigleyville?
While there appears to be plenty of top-shelf talent in the farm system -- particularly in the hitting department -- there is a clear lack of major- league ready talent right now. Ace Jeff Samardzija's candidacy to be dealt at the trade deadline gets stronger every year, and this year could be the tipping point. With hardly a household name on the current roster, the result will likely be another cover-your-eyes kind of year in the north side of Chicago.