Chicago Cubs 2014 Season Preview

Opening Day is not yet upon us, but the optimism that usually surrounds the Chicago Cubs is not glowing quite as brightly as it typically does each spring. The Cubs are in a full-fledged rebuilding phase, orchestrated by President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein.

While a timetable for the Cubs resurgence has not been established, the consensus among experts and fans alike is that the team will spend at least one more season in or near the basement of the National League Central. However, low expectations do not translate into a low entertainment value for the ever-interesting North Siders. Here are five key questions that will be answered over the course of the 2014 season.

When will Javier Baez make his big league debut?
If there is one thing Cubs fans learned during Spring Training, it is that top prospect Javier Baez appears to be ready for the major leagues. Baez posted a .310 batting average and launched five home runs in just 42 Cactus League at-bats. Baez will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where he will work on his plate discipline and fielding. If the Cubs keep Baez at Triple-A until July, they will delay his arbitration eligibility a full season and keep him under team control for an additional year. When Baez does arrive at Clark and Addison this summer, he will quickly be a focus point for fans and media.

Can Mike Olt make a full recovery from his vision issues?
Expectations were high for Texas Rangers third base prospect Mike Olt entering the 2013 season. However, he was shipped to Triple-A and ended up missing five weeks of the season due to blurred vision. When he did play, he was not at full strength, hitting only .201. The Cubs netted Olt last summer as part of the Matt Garza trade. Olt, who appears to have put his vision issues behind him, will compete with Luis Valbuena for playing time at third base.

Will Jeff Samardzija remain a Cub?
Valparaiso High School graduate Jeff Samardzija has undergone quite the transformation since coming to the big leagues. He first stepped onto the Wrigley Field mound in 2008 as a young, hard-throwing set-up man. Six years later, he is a veteran presence on a young team and will get the nod as the Opening Day starting pitcher on Monday in Pittsburgh. The biggest question surrounding Samardzija is whether the team will hang on to him for the remainder of the year, sign him long term or trade him prior to the July 31 deadline.

Is Rick Renteria the right guy?
The Cubs have swung and missed on each of the last two managerial hires as Mike Quade and Dale Sveum were both shown the door before they could even finish settling into the city of Chicago. Joe Girardi was the team’s primary target this winter, but when the former Cubs catcher decided to stay with the Yankees, they instead selected Renteria, who previously served as the Padres bench coach. Renteria gives off a positive energy and is bilingual, an ability that should make it easier for him to relate to many of the Cubs Spanish-speaking players. However, whether he is a long-term solution or yet another stop-gap skipper remains to be seen.

Will Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro bounce back?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 2013 season was the statistical drop-off of promising young players Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Rizzo saw his average drop to .233, while Castro hit .245 in addition to repeatedly making mental mistakes on the diamond. While the future of the Cubs does not hinge solely on these two players, their performances this season will go a long way toward determining how soon the Cubs return to playoff contention.

Scouting the Central
After voyaging all the way to the World Series in 2013, the St. Louis Cardinals quest for a repeat pennant is underway. The Cardinals appear to be the odds-on favorite in the National League Central with the bulk of their lineup back along with additions Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos. The Pirates are coming off their first playoff berth in 21 years. Pittsburgh’s young and talented roster is led by reigning National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen. Bryan Price has taken over for Dusty Baker, who was fired as Reds manager last fall. The division is expected to be a three-team race between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds as the Brewers join the Cubs in the bottom two slots.