Cubs face adversity, see progress in rebuilding year
Club sees contributers emerge, farm system grow, but finish in NL Central cellar
CHICAGO -- It was a perplexing season for the Cubs.
The season ended Sunday, and on Monday, the Cubs dismissed manager Dale Sveum.
Sveum had been under public review since Sept. 17, when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said he was evaluating the manager and his coaching staff. In Sveum's first season in 2012, the Cubs were 61-101, and the team finished this year last in the National League Central at 66-96.
They had solid starting pitching, ranking among the National League leaders in quality starts and innings pitched. But the bullpen underwent a total makeover, with only lefty James Russell and Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon sticking for the entire season.
On Opening Day, Carlos Marmol was the Cubs' closer, but he lost his job the first week, was dealt in July, and in the final week of games, Kevin Gregg, who had been released by the Dodgers, had saved more than 30 games and was arguing with management about keeping his job. Gregg was nearly released with eight games left for voicing his displeasure with the decision to test Pedro Strop in the role.
Gregg and Strop were two of a franchise-record 33 players who made their Cubs debuts in 2013. Of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster, only 12 remained on the active roster at the end of the season. Nate Schierholtz was the only outfielder from Opening Day who was still starting in September.
The security guard outside the Cubs' clubhouse was busy checking identification badges.
Chicago finished last in the NL Central, which boasted three playoff-bound teams. They lost at least 90 games for the third straight year, the first time the Cubs have done that since 1960-62.
"We haven't had the year we wanted, and there are some things that have gone wrong, but it's been a mixed bag," said Epstein. "We've had as good a year as we could ever expect in terms of player development and to a certain extent, talent acquisition."
For the second straight year under Epstein, the Cubs restocked the Minor League system before the Trade Deadline, dealing Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Marmol for future prospects. With Soriano gone, Sveum rotated six different players in the cleanup spot in the lineup, including backup catcher Dioner Navarro.
Navarro didn't do too bad, either.
It was a strange year statistically. The Cubs ranked among the NL leaders in home runs at home, yet they had a lopsided losing record at Wrigley Field. They had the most extra-base hits in the NL, but were on the bottom of the Majors in hitting with runners in scoring position, proving it's not how many hits you get, but when you get them that counts.
Offensively, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were subjected to scrutiny about their struggles. Castro began the season with a career .297 average, and the team tried to tweak his swing. It didn't work, and they finally decided to let the shortstop "be me," as he put it. He finished strong.
Rizzo received a seven-year, $41 million contract extension in May, and led the team in home runs and RBIs, but the first baseman and the team expected more than a .190 average in August.
"Obviously, they haven't had too good a season," Sveum said of Castro and Rizzo. "On the other hand, it's only Rizzo's second season, and we seem to forget that a lot of times. This kid came up last year on top of the world, coming from Triple-A, and fell right in and was living on electricity last year.
"This year, he's putting too much pressure on himself for whatever reason," Sveum said of the first baseman. "This is a grueling season, and it's a grueling thing to be in the third hole in the Chicago Cubs lineup in Chicago. Those are things that are learning experiences that go on."
Record: 66-96, fifth in National League Central
Defining moment: The Cubs were a manageable 23-30 after winning five in a row May 26-31, but on June 1 at Wrigley Field, Samardzija struck out 11 in a quality start against the D-backs, giving up three runs over 6 1/3 innings. Chicago had a 3-1 lead after the first, but Russell blew a save opportunity, Marmol served up an eighth-inning grand slam to Paul Goldschmidt, and Zach Putnam also was charged with four runs in one inning of relief in a 12-4 loss. Six Chicago pitchers combined to walk eight batters. By the way, the Dodgers also had a 23-30 record after May 31. They rallied to win the NL West.
What went right: In his second full season as a starter, Samardzija reached the magic 200 mark in both innings and strikeouts for the first time, and ranked among the league leaders in strikeouts. The Cubs' starting pitchers provided quality starts and ranked among the NL leaders in innings pitched. Gregg not only saved games, but he saved the Cubs. He was released by the Dodgers after Spring Training, and he joined the Cubs on April 16 and saved his first game one week later. Marmol had lost the closer's job after the first week of games, and Kyuji Fujikawa had issues with his elbow. Gregg finished with 30-plus saves for the third time in his career. Welington Castillo, 23, emerged as a solid defensive catcher in his first full season, and provided some much-needed offense in the final month. Third base didn't provide much offense in 2012, but the combo of Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom and Donnie Murphy ranked among the top among NL third basemen in home runs and RBIs.
What went wrong: The bullpen had a revolving door. Only Russell and Rondon were in the bullpen for the entire season. The Cubs used a franchise-record 56 players, including 23 relievers. It was tough finding a winning combination, as they ranked among the NL leaders in blown saves.
Jackson, the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason, struggled in his first year, including blowing a six-run first inning lead Aug. 23 against the Padres. Jackson and Sveum got into a shouting match in the dugout after the right-hander's Sept. 16 start against the Brewers when he was pulled after four innings. The Cubs also invested in Fujikawa, but he needed Tommy John surgery in June. Scott Baker, who signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2012, was limited to three September starts. Offensively, the Cubs couldn't deliver with runners in scoring position, posting one of the lowest averages in the Majors.
Biggest surprise: Castro began the season with a .297 career average, including two .300 seasons, and one in which he led the NL in hits. He has a unique hitting style. The Cubs tried to change that and it was a bust. Epstein admitted that they may have been guilty of throwing too much at the shortstop.
"He's at his best when he's single-mindedly himself," Epstein said.
Sveum inserted Castro everywhere in the lineup except fourth, and finally left him in the leadoff spot, where the shortstop did well. Castro says he just wants to "be me." Now the question is, will they leave him alone?
Hitter of the year: In his first season as a regular player, Schierholtz delivered. The right fielder posted career highs in at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, home runs and RBIs, and he was the most consistent Cubs player with runners in scoring position. Schierholtz injured his right shoulder in late June. We'll give an honorable mention to backup catcher Navarro, who often batted fourth after Soriano was traded. Navarro made the highlight video with his three-homer game May 29 against the White Sox, when he drove in six runs. He set a career high in homers this season.
Pitcher of the year: This was Travis Wood's first full season in the big leagues, and the lefty performed well, leading the Cubs in quality starts. He went at least six innings and did not give up more than three runs in his first nine outings, and he was named to his first All-Star team. His record didn't show it, but he performed well against NL Central teams. Wood never got frustrated, despite the lack of offensive support.
Rookie of the year: Junior Lake was recalled from Triple-A Iowa for the Cubs' first game after the All-Star break, July 19, and never looked back. Although he had played primarily third and shortstop, Lake was inserted in the outfield.
It was his bat that was impressive. He went 3-for-4 in his Major League debut, and began with a seven-game hitting streak, batting .484 in that stretch. It was one of four hitting streaks of at least seven games. Lake shares honors with Chris Rusin, who ranked high among left-handed rookie starters in the Majors in ERA. His outings included six scoreless innings against the Cardinals in a 3-0 win on Aug. 9, and limiting the Pirates to two runs over seven innings on Sept. 12.
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.