Friday, July 18, 2014

Predicting the Cubs' 2015 Opening Day Lineup

With a little more than half of the season behind us, the Cubs are alone in the cellar of the NL Central at 40-54, 8.5 games behind the 4th place Pirates and 12 games behind the 1st place Brewers. As far as on field production goes, things aren't nearly as bad as the Cubs' record would suggest. Jake Arrieta has the look of a potential 1 or 2 pitcher, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have both had extremely solid first halves, and many other surprises like Chris Coghlan and Justin Ruggiano have made watching our Major League club a little bit more enjoyable than in recent years.

Luckily for Cubs fans, the MLB team is only going to get better and more enjoyable from here on out until the Cubs will be competing for World Series titles on a regular basis. While this year will most likely go down as another last place finish for the Cubs (barring any divine intervention), next year brings optimism, and with it, the first major wave of Cubs prospects.

Here are my predictions for the Cubs' 2015 Opening Day Lineup (in batting order):

1. Chris Coghlan - CF

Former 2009 NL Rookie of the year Chris Coghlan had a rough stretch after what looked like a promising start to a young star's career. In 2009 with the Marlins, Coghlan slashed .321/.390/.460 in 128 games according to Fangraphs. However, inconsistency and injury dropped him back into the minors where he struggled, even when receiving the eventual call up back to the Marlins. After a disappointing season, Coghlan fell into the Cubs' lap.

Theo & Co. have a knack of finding under-performing players whose peripherals say that they should be doing better. That's exactly what Coghlan was. After a rough start to the year where Coghlan hung around the Mendoza line, he has increased his slash line to .275/.355/.477, thanks in part to his recent surge where he has hit .435 in 13 games in July. The Chris Coghlan we've been seeing as of late is reminiscent of his rookie year in Florida, and I would gladly have that Chris Coghlan lead off for me.

2. Arismendy Alcantara - 2B

After spending the first half of the season wondering who the first big-name prospect to come up would be, Cubs fans got a look at one of the most underrated prospects in the game, Arismendy Alcantara. Alcantara is a super-athletic super-utility man who can play all over the diamond and excel with a glove on his hand. He doesn't walk as much as you would like, so he'll never have the OBP to be a true leadoff hitter (.337 for his career according to Basebal-Reference), but his speed and knack for finding the gaps make Mendy a dream #2 hitter. A future 20/20 player, Mendy should have a home in the Cubs' lineup for a long time. What position he plays though is a very different question.

Neither Javier Baez nor Addison Russell should make the Opening Day roster, so there's still room for Mendy to play 2B. Once those two come up, expect him to play CF. And once Almora comes up, well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Either way, Arismendy Alcantara is my dream #2 hitter and that's where we'll see him on Opening Day next year.

3. Starlin Castro - SS

24 year old comeback kid and 3-time all-star Starlin Castro is having a much better season on the ball field, with his bat, glove, and head. Offensively, his BA is returning to around the .300 range like where it was his Freshmen and Sophomore years, but the best part about his improvement this year is that his power streak is finally coming on. According to CBS Sports, Castro is on pace to finish the season with 19 HRs, 92 RBI, 44 BBs (up from 30 in 2013), and 122 KOs (down from 129 in 2013). While you would still like to see him strike out less, it's nice to see that number trending down in the right direction while his walks are on pace to increase by 50%.

Until Baez or Russell can prove that they're a better defensive option at short than Castro (who has a career-high .973 fielding percentage), Castro seems to have that position all but locked up. Look for Castro to become an unprecedented 4-time All-Star at the age of 25 next year.

When Jeter was 25, he was only a 2-time All-Star. Just saying.

4. Kris Bryant - 3B

This makes me happy. This makes me really happy. Cubs' savior and boy wonder Kris Bryant will finally be a part of the Cubs' lineup after a year-long wait that felt like an eternity. Slashing a ludicrous .350/.446/.712 through the first half of his season at AA and AAA (Baseball-Reference), Kris Bryant has simply been a monster. There's not much else to say that I didn't say here, but there is merit to bringing up again just how good he is. Don't expect Bryant to hit 40 HRs and drive in 120 RBI in his first major league season, but don't be surprised if he does.

He'll start the year at 3B because, similar to Castro and Mendy, his position is dependent upon where Russell and Baez end up playing. A move to the outfield would be likely, and it would most likely to LF because Soler should have RF locked up. Wherever he's playing defensively, his bat will play.

And it will play well.

5. Anthony Rizzo - 1B

People might look at this and think: "Wow, he's an All-Star and he gets demoted from batting 3rd to hitting 5th?" But see, for me, with this Cubs lineup, the #5 hitter is just as important as the #3. Kris Bryant strikes out a lot and will undeniably leave Castro, Alcantara, or Coghlan on base more often than we would prefer. In this spot, Rizzo is clutch. Especially now that he's learned how prey upon left-handing pitching, late in games, teams who try to bring in lefty-specialists out against him will do so in futility. Another key element to his positioning in the lineup here is his incredible patience, ability to work counts, and is BB%. While he's batting a respectable, .275, his OBP is more than .100 points higher, sitting at .381 (Fangraphs). His propensity to walk will load up the bases often for the stellar Cuban import behind him.

As far as positioning goes, Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman, and is under contract until at least 2021 with a very team-friendly deal. Needless to say, Rizzo is going to be here for a long time, and everybody should be glad that he is.

6. Jorge Soler - RF

Great is the day for any team when $30m Cuban-defector Jorge Soler is your #6 hitter. Signing back in 2012, Soler was the first big international signing for Theo & Co., but injuries have ruined his promising career up to this point. A strain here, a tweak there, Soler just couldn't seem to stay healthy enough to progress through the minors at any decent rate. However, after his last injury, the Cubs found an error in his running mechanics that kept causing those strains and tweaks. So during his rehab, the Cubs worked with Soler and changed how he runs, and now he seems to be 100% healthy and much more durable *knock on wood*. Now that he finished his rehab and was allowed to settle in and get comfortable in AA, Jorge Soler-Power has been an absolute beast. Take a look at these two players and their numbers at AA this year according to Fangraphs:

Player 1: Slashing .355/.458/.702 | 11.27 AB/HR | KO% 25.9% | BB% 14.5% |

Player 2: Slashing .415/.484/.925 | 8.83 AB/HR | KO% 22.6%  | BB% 12.9% |

Now both of those players are having incredible seasons. One of them is Jorge Soler, the other is Kris Bryant. People were drooling over the numbers Kris Bryant put up in AA, but what's surprising is that Player 2's numbers (which are significantly better than Player 1's), do not belong to Kris Bryant. Through 17 AA games this year, Jorge Soler is destroying the pace that Kris Bryant set. Now, I know Jorge Soler is played 1/4 of the AA games that Bryant played and that eventually, Soler's numbers will float a little bit closer to what could be considered 'normal', but wow. That stat line is absolutely absurd.

Soler has tremendous potential that I think we're finally seeing now that he is healthy. Expect him to be promoted soon and to spend the end of the year at AAA, making a play off run with Iowa. Soler is being paid like a big-leaguer because of the nature of his international contract, so I think Theo & Co. would be wise to get him out on the field ASAP so that fans can enjoy his play and the team can reap the benefits that he would bring to the lineup day in and day out.

7. Wellington Castillo - C

Castillo has been a solid defensive and serviceable offensive player to the Cubs, and when the rest of the Cubs' offense will be as packed as it is, the defense that Castillo brings day in and day out will be enough to secure him a spot in the lineup for a long time, barring any injuries or free agent acquisitions. According to Baseball-Reference, Castillo has a career fielding percentage of .988, which puts him almost on par with the likes of Brian McCann.

The 27 year-old catcher has had somewhat of a down year thanks to injuries, but expect Castillo to have a bounce-back year and to be entrenched behind the plate for the next few years.

8. Ryan Sweeney - LF

Ryan Sweeney may not be the most glorious option in left field, but he's serviceable, and until the wave of mid-season call-ups hits in Chicago, somebody needs to do it. Ryan Sweeney had a solid year last year, slashing .266/.324/.448, but he's dropped this year to a dismal .218/.261/.286. Some of that is due to the fact that he missed spring training and the start of the year with an injury, but also because of his uncharacteristically low BABIP. Owning a career .315 BABIP, he's sitting at .246 this year. That just doesn't happen. Maybe he's not hitting the ball as sharply or he did last year or maybe he's not beating out as many infield hits, but he's been flat out unlucky. Expect Sweeney to have a bounce-back year in 2015.

Sweeney has a $3.5m option that he's expected to pick up next year, so he'll be on the roster for sure, and until Baez, Russell, Schwarber, or Almora arrive, he'll be starting.

9. Max Scherzer - P

Wait, the Cy Young Winner who's pitched better than Justin Verlander the past two seasons and who has the awesome eyes?

Yes. That Max Scherzer.

30 year-old starting pitcher Max Scherzer hits the free agent market this summer, and when you take a look at the upcoming free agents, he is really the gem of the pack. The Cubs have their two best current players, Rizzo and Castro, under contract for at least 7 more years at very team-favored deals. The next wave of greatness (Bryant, Baez, Russell, Almora, Soler, etc.) each have a long time until they can hit the free agent market and command exorbitant sums of money. This means that for the next 5 years, the Cubs have almost no money committed to anybody (except Edwin Jackson but we prefer not to talk about that). This means that we have the money to go out a buy ourselves a bonafide ace. The Cubs will not win the World Series next year, but they'll be competing for it very, very soon. Look for the Cubs to go out and either trade or sign a big name ace to a 4-5 year deal this off-season. Maybe it's not Scherzer, but soon, very soon, the Cubs will have one of the best pitchers in baseball - one way or another.

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