Cubs: 14 questions for 2014

Cubs: 14 questions for 2014
January 1, 2014, 8:15 pm
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Tony Andracki

As the Cubs enter Year 3 of Theo Epstein's regime, they are dealing with some of the same questions all over again.

There are still trade rumors surrounding the team's best pitcher. The organization's top prospects haven’t made it to Chicago yet. The Wrigley Field renovation drama never ends. There's another new manager in town.

So with pitchers and catchers reporting in six weeks to the new complex in Mesa, Ariz., looks ahead to 14 questions facing the Cubs in 2014:

1. What will happen with Jeff Samardzija?

Will he stay or will he go? The Cubs could deal the big right-hander for a package of prospects, or they could sign him to a long-term extension that would make him a building block. This could be a defining moment for Epstein's front office.

2. Will fans see signs of progress in Year 3?

Fans tired of losing want the Cubs to act like a big-market team again. Unless Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka decides to come to the North Side, the Cubs may have made their biggest splash by hiring Rick Renteria, a first-year manager who will have to deal with the growing pains and keep the clubhouse together. The city is getting restless.

3. How will Renteria handle his first year in Chicago?

Renteria comes across as relentlessly positive and upbeat. Will the impatience and the bright lights of the Chicago market wear him down? Or will he grow into the job and make it to the other side? Dale Sveum thought he was going to be that guy.

[MORE: What are Cubs up against in the NL Central?]

4. When will Javier Baez debut at Wrigley?

Baez is on the fast track to the big leagues after swatting 37 homers and driving in 111 runs in 130 games last season. If he continues to hit at Triple-A Iowa, he could make it to Chicago before the end of the 2014 season.

5. Who will be the breakout prospects?

Infielder Arismendy Alcantara did it in 2013. This year, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and first baseman Daniel Vogelbach could take the same step forward. Both players spent the majority of last season at Class-A Kane County and have shown promise as well as the ability to adapt.

6. Will Kris Bryant keep hitting?

The No. 2 overall pick mashed at every level of pro ball. Can he continue to rake as he advances to the upper levels of the system? If he dominates again, he could be part of the 2015 lineup.

7. Can Albert Almora and Jorge Soler stay healthy?

Almora and Soler are still part of the "Big Four," but both prospects struggled to stay on the field and were hampered by a variety of injuries last season. They could take major steps forward in 2014 – if they can get consistent at-bats.

8. Can Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta build off their success?

They wound up being nice surprises in a lost season, with Wood becoming an All-Star and the team's most consistent starting pitcher. Arrieta, who was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal, put up a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in nine starts down the stretch. At their age – Wood will be 27 and Arrieta will be 28 by the start of the 2014 season – they could become staples in the rotation.

9. Where does Junior Lake fit?

The converted infielder – once thought of as a possible super-utility guy – has so many tools. He will be 24 by Opening Day and gave you a reason to watch this team as a rookie. With his combination of speed and power, he could position himself as part of “The Core.”

10. Who’s on third?

Luis Valbuena has done a decent job at the hot corner the last two seasons. Donnie Murphy was a nice surprise late last season. Mike Olt, who was acquired from the Texas Rangers in the Matt Garza deal, had a top-prospect pedigree but now has to prove he’s over the vision/concussion issues that stalled his career.

11. Can Darwin Barney hold onto his job at second base?

After a dominating defensive season and a Gold Glove in 2012, Barney was still a very good defender last year. But he took a major step back at the plate, hitting just .208 with a .569 OPS. If he continues to struggle, his defense and intangibles may not be enough to keep him in the lineup every day.

[MORE: Kaplan: Cubs will not be outbid for Tanaka]

12. Will the Wrigley renovation saga ever end?

The battle to upgrade and renovate Wrigley Field has had more twists and turns than an episode of "Scandal." The Cubs hope to really start renovating in 2014, but they fear litigation and want assurances from the rooftops.

13. Can Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro bounce back?

Castro took a major step back at the plate in 2013, while Rizzo's struggles might be pinned to bad luck. As two franchise cornerstones signed through their prime, Castro and Rizzo are essential to the plan. It would be bad news for the organization if their struggles carried over into 2014.

14. Will Edwin Jackson return to form?

Jackson was 70-71 with a career 4.40 ERA prior to signing that big contract. He led the majors with 18 losses and put up a 4.98 ERA last season. At the age of 30 – and with three years left on that $52 million deal – it’s time to turn things around.