Young talent brightened Cubs' tough campaign

Young talent brightened Cubs' tough campaign

CHICAGO -- The Cubs closed 2014 with their fifth straight losing season, but it was the most intriguing of the five as fans finally got a glimpse of the promising future.

The kids are coming, and this year was the first chance to see Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks at Wrigley Field.

"For me, I'm still a prospect, but watching these guys in the big leagues, I think it's an exciting time to be a Cubs fan," said Kris Bryant, the Cubs 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, who hopes to join them on the big league roster next season.

Before we get to previewing 2015, let's look back at manager Rick Renteria's first year. The Cubs got off to a slow start with a 9-17 first month, but rallied to finish with more wins than the 66 they amassed in 2013. And they did so despite dealing two of their starting pitchers (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) before the Trade Deadline for the third straight year.

The roster went through another overhaul because of trades for prospects or the need to make room for prospects. Remember the Opening Day lineup? It was Emilio Bonifacio, Junior Lake, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Mike Olt, Welington Castillo, Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney and Samardzija -- with Jose Veras as the closer. By Sept. 1, Bonifacio and Samardzija had been traded, Schierholtz, Barney and Veras were released and playing for other teams, and Lake and Olt had returned after some time in the Minor Leagues.

The Cubs got a head start on the makeover with the July 4 blockbuster deal that sent Samardzija and Hammel to the Athletics, which resulted in the addition of highly touted prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney.

"We certainly hope this is the last year we'll be obvious sellers at the Trade Deadline," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the time. "Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team's chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series."

Things can change, though. When they made the deal, the Athletics had the best record in baseball and a 3 1/2-game lead in the American League West. By season's end, they were battling for a Wild Card berth.

Travis Wood, an All-Star in 2013, wasn't in 2014. The good news for the Cubs is that the two who did go to the All-Star Game, Castro and Rizzo, are considered cornerstones. And both rebounded from disappointing seasons, thriving under Renteria's positive attitude and with new hitting coach Bill Mueller's approach.

There were other highs, including a sweep of the defending-champion Red Sox from June 30-July 2 at Fenway Park, and another over the AL East leaders, the Orioles, on Aug. 22-24 at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs continued to struggle against NL Central opponents, which is something that will have to change.

The only surprise in Renteria's first season as a big league manager was all the rain in Chicago and the Midwest. Remember, he spent the previous six seasons in San Diego.

He knew about the talent in the Cubs' organization before he took the job, having studied the Minor League rosters before his interview. Sure, Baez struck out a lot, and Alcantara made a few errors. They're young.

"I think there are a lot of good things in place here," Renteria said. "I think the organization is moving in the right direction. I sincerely believe that; I sincerely believed that when I first interviewed for this job. It's legitimate."

Record: 73-89, last in National League Central

Defining moment: It was actually a three-day stretch after the Cubs blockbuster July 4 trade that sent Samardzija and Hammel to the Athletics. On July 8, Tsuyoshi Wada made his Major League debut against the Reds and threw five shutout innings. The next day, Alcantara was called up to cover for Darwin Barney, who was on paternity leave, and the rookie went 8-for-23 in his first five games, including a home run. On July 10, pitcher Hendricks was promoted. Although Wada and Hendricks were one-day callups at that time, they both returned to the rotation to stay and gave the Cubs more able fill-ins than the two previous seasons. Alcantara did so well at second that Barney was designated for assignment on July 22.

What went right: Baez and Soler made Cubs player development people look smart when they both homered in their respective big league debuts. ... Dartmouth grad Hendricks didn't overpower but was dazzling, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in six August starts to win NL Rookie of the Month honors. ... Castro and Rizzo both rebounded from disappointing 2013 seasons and were named to the NL All-Star team. ... Young arms Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm showed promise as key pieces in the bullpen. ... Hector Rondon emerged as the closer. ... Chris Coghlan looked like the player who won NL Rookie of the Year in 2009 with the Marlins.

What went wrong: Edwin Jackson's struggles continued. ... Schierholtz couldn't follow up a career season, batted .192, and was released. ... Veras struggled as closer, was injured, then released. ... Injuries to Rizzo and Castro in September left big gaps in the lineup. ... Junior Lake batted .114 in July, and had to be sent back to Minor Leagues. ... Wood had 24 quality starts in 2013; 13 this year. ... Olt led NL rookies in home runs at the All-Star break with 12, but was batting .144 at that point, and sent to the Minors.

Biggest surprise: When the Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta in July 2013, he had 7.23 ERA in five starts with the Orioles and had made more Minor League starts that year than big league starts. Fast forward to this season when the right-hander emerged as the Cubs ace. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning three times, has thrived at Wrigley Field and become a leader in the clubhouse.

Hitter of the Year: Rizzo's 2013 season wasn't awful -- he did hit 23 home runs and drove in 80 -- but he batted .233 and struggled with runners in scoring position. This season, the first baseman ranked among the NL leaders in home runs and became just the fifth left-handed Cubs batter to reach 31 homers in a season (he finished with 32). And he was clutch, delivering two walk-off home runs.

Pitcher of the Year: Arrieta was the Orioles' Opening Day starter in 2012, but went 3-9 that season. The next year, he was traded to the Cubs, and they may have found an ace. The right-hander did miss the first month of the season because of tightness in his shoulder but finished strong. See Biggest Surprise above.

Rookie of the Year: Hendricks did his homework at Dartmouth to complete his degree in finance, and prepared just as well for his big league starts. Of course, the right-hander said it was much easier watching video of baseball games than reading text books. He has prompted comparisons to Greg Maddux, because he doesn't overpower batters but baffles them with good location. Reds manager Bryan Price was impressed, saying Hendricks "is a very talented young guy who understands how to pitch."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.