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January 23, 2014

Fantasy Team Preview

Chicago Cubs

by Craig Goldstein

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Last year was yet another tough one for Cubs fans, even if the Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod-led front office continues to stockpile assets. The win-loss record is a nagging source of frustration for the fans, and the on-field lineup might just be as frustrating for fantasy owners. With the potential to sport a platoon in the outfield and a defensive specialist in the infield, as well as a patient front office that will keep its drool-worthy prospects at bay, this Cubs tree isn’t likely to bear much fruit in the early going.

Projected Lineup

1. SS Starlin Castro
2. 2B Luis Valbuena
3. 1B Anthony Rizzo
4. RF Nate Schierholtz
5. LF Junior Lake
6. 3B Mike Olt
7. C Welington Castillo
8. CF Ryan Sweeney
9. Pitcher

There’s not a ton going on here, though I did try to inject a little more by inserting Mike Olt into the starting lineup, as I think there’s a chance that he emerges with that job. Castro has been harangued (not to be confused with Haranged) plenty for his poor play. The fact remains that he’s 24 years old, with a track record that would imply a rebound despite some unnerving trends. It was not that long ago (2012) that he posted a 102 OPS+, which, at SS, is nothing to sneeze at. The OBP is never going to be pretty if the average isn’t but he’s worth taking a chance on if everyone else is wary. Rizzo is most productive member of this lineup when it comes to fantasy, but I do think he gets overrated just a tad, as people combine his batting average from 2012 (.285) with his home run total from 2013 (23), and then project growth from there. I’m not sure that’s a fair thing to do to a young player like Rizzo. Growth is obviously the name of the game, but if he’s going to be a 30-home-run threat, I’d anticipate a batting average closer to the one he produced in 2013 (.233), because if he’s a .285/30 HR type, he’s one of the best first basemen in the league. I think a fair expectation is something in the .265-.275 range on the batting average and 20-25 home runs. Unfortunately, the lineup surrounding him is going to make it hard for him to produce much in the way of context statistics, so that’s going to ding his value a bit as well.

Outside of those two, your best chance for fantasy value comes from Junior Lake, who I mentioned in an article shortly after the season ended. There are some impact tools there and I actually like him as a late flier just in case something clicks, but he’s more likely to be exposed over a full season than anything else. As far as catchers go, Welington Castillo is an interesting one. He’s not someone you want to count on, but for a $1 backstop, a .269 career average is potentially helping you, and while he doesn’t feature a ton of a pop, he might be able to clear the double-digit mark with a full season behind the plate. He does strikeout a lot, so be aware of that if your league penalizes batter strikeouts. As mentioned above, I think Olt is the other interesting name here. It was a bad year for him in 2013, and there’s no way around that. He’s still someone who can play quality defense at third base while providing a dose of power if he’s right, which of course remains to be seen. The Cubs though, have every incentive to find out if he can be even 80 percent of what we thought he was going to be in Texas, and if he is, that is a boon to this lineup and fantasy owners alike.

Projected Bench

Nate Schierholtz wasn’t mentioned above, because I’m including him here with Ruggiano. They should share time in the outfield (potentially including shared time with Sweeney as well) and either could be useful if your league is deep enough/provides you with enough bench space to use a platoon man. Kottaras has enough ability behind the plate to be useful if he gets extended stretches of playing time, though with mediocre power comes a poor batting average.

Projected Rotation

There remains a chance that Samardzija isn’t on the roster come Opening Day, which would be a pretty big blow to an already ugly fantasy rotation. No matter where he lands, I view Samardzija as more of a middle-rotation guy (both real life and fantasy) than top of the rotation, though his strikeouts help his fantasy value play up. I wouldn’t want to enter a season with him as my no. 2 guy, but it’s not the worst option out there. Jackson will continue doing what he does—namely frustrating the hell out of people who don’t understand what he is. What he is, is an innings eater who won’t destroy ratios and will have a few starts that make you wonder why you own him at all without nearly as many reminding you why you do. And yet, at the end of it all, he was decent. He was there and provided bulk… something. Granted, he was less than this last year, seeing a dip in strikeouts, but not in walks and an ERA that barely squeaked in under 5.00. I expect the normal Jackson to be back in action come 2014, with an ERA squeaking in below (hopefully) 4.00, along with everything else I just talked about. He’s a “close your eyes, and the result will be fine” type, who will destroy your will to live if you watch him. Travis Wood remains more pumpkin than carriage to me, despite the incredible season. I don’t value him less than Jackson though, as he should be a fine fifth starter type in fantasy. I would expect an ERA closer to his career 3.83 than the 3.11 he produced in 2013, but if that’s your expectation, he shouldn’t disappoint.

Rusin made some starts last year, but I’m far more optimistic about Justin Grimm, who they acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to Texas. Grimm has struggled in the opportunities that have been afforded to him in the big leagues, but he’s got the potential for three average pitches, and doesn’t lack velocity. He might not have a legitimate bat-misser in the arsenal, but he should be able to occupy a slot at the back of a major league rotation, much less one at the back of the Cubs’ rotation. Another option in the minor leagues is Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks had a phenomenal 2013 campaign, putting together a 2.00 ERA over 27 starts between Double- and Triple-A. The issue of course is that he’s far more of a guy who thrives on location and deception than he is one who gets by on stuff, and major league hitters often figure those hitters out. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a major-league future—but if he does, it’s as more of a fifth starter than anything else.

Projected Bullpen

The Cubs’ bullpen is likely to be a mess, and without much fantasy value. Of course, we thought that last year as well, and Kevin Gregg became a legitimate closer in fantasy leagues, at least for a moment. Veras is in a similar situation in fantasy leagues as he was last year – weak team, mediocre skills, but… he has a job. Treat him as you did last season. Strop is the backup option to Veras who is already struggling for relevancy. He won’t have value unless Veras is hurt or ineffective—both distinct possibilities. I wouldn’t bother owning Strop until Veras goes down or is replaced though, as speculating for saves is usually a waste of a roster spot.

Position Battle: Third Base: Luis Valbuena vs. Mike Olt
Valbuena was good enough last year to merit a spot on the team this year, and his positional flexibility helps with that. It’s likely the Cubs would like Olt to force them to move Valbuena to the keystone as it would be a win-win for fantasy leaguers. As good as Darwin Barney is defensively, he doesn’t merit use in fantasy leagues so if Valbuena, even as a low-end option, got the playing time, it would be a boon. If Olt can rediscover his form we’re talking a potential top-15 bat at the position, though, that is in an ideal scenario. There continues to be a dearth of power on the market, so if Olt can come away with the gig, it would at least add another source.

Player to Target: Starlin Castro, SS
As discussed above, there are a lot of reasons to believe in Castro despite a rocky 2013. It’s not that I believe he’ll turn into the second coming of Hanley Ramirez, but he doesn’t need to. Hopefully the Cubs will let him return to his aggressive, contact-oriented ways as that is how he was most successful. There’s still downside here, of course. But a lot of people have abandoned ship entirely, and at a position as dreadfully thin as shortstop, I’m just not sure there’s room for that. There is at least as much upside as there is downside, and if the average does come back, it can count a little extra thanks to his lack of walks.

Player to Avoid: Jake Arrieta, SP
Arrieta still gets mentions as a guy with top of the rotation stuff if you listen to a broadcast, though they’ll often gloss over his utter inability to command it. He will look like an ace in an inning, or even for three, but his control leaves him at the mercy of opposing lineups far too often, and he can struggle with throwing quality strikes. I don’t expect him to last the season in the rotation and have pushed before for him to occupy the closers role, though the signing of Jose Veras makes that possibility even more remote. If he does make a full slate of starts, I expect that will say more about the Cubs’ lack of other options than it will say about his ability to thrive as a starter.

Deep Sleeper: Arismendy Alcantara, 2B
Like I was going to write about someone else? As much as I like the idea of the Cubs handing third base to Olt and moving Valbuena to second, the best part about a guy like Valbuena is that he is (or can be) good enough to cover a position for long stretches, while still being bad enough that it’s okay to replace him with another option at a moment’s notice. That brings us to Arismendy, who is more than just a great name. Once a shortstop prospect, Alcantara shifted to second base with the arrival of the highly touted Javier Baez at Double-A. He plays the position well, and while he’s not going to be Ryne Sandberg with the bat, he did record a .271/.352/.451 slash line at Double-A, while taking his walk total from 19 to 62, all at age 21. He’s not a big guy at 5-foot-10/160 pounds, but he has a nice swing and uses his hands well, which is why he can generate 55 extra-base hits (36 doubles, four triples, 15 home runs). Add in 31 stolen bases and we’re looking at a very viable second-base prospect who won’t hurt you in several categories and will actively help in others. With the lack of depth at second base, there’s plenty of value in that. If he gets the call to replace Valbuena, he’s worth a waiver-wire pickup.

Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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