An exercise in summary, inspired by Bill James:

The 2014 Cubs in 25 words: The climax of the season will be the trade deadline. A young team, they’re still a year away. Yet, their talent baseline is rising.

The 2014 Cubs in 100 words: Year Three of the Theo Epstein Rebuild will be only slightly less painful than its predecessors. Chicago has some of the best future big-leaguers in professional baseball, but the parent club remains bereft. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the two fixtures of the future with long-term contracts already signed, had regressive seasons in 2013. We’ll see how they rebound. Around them, an MLB-caliber offense is beginning to take shape, but won’t gel this year. Significantly improved depth offers hope of a less dismal second half, even though Jeff Samardzija is likely to be one of a half-dozen players dealt away.

The 2014 Cubs in 250 words: This is when it’s hardest. The patience required of the front office and the fan base over the next six months will be equal to the patience required over the past two years combined. It will take patience to resist promoting Javier Baez to Chicago when he’s merely ready, and not yet polished into a truly finished product. It will take patience to demand the best deal before surrendering Jeff Samardzija, whose trade value has fallen after a rough second half and who hasn’t yet shown enough to merit a long-term commitment from a team that can’t leverage his talent right away. The best course may yet turn out to be waiting Samardzija out all the way into next winter. Time will tell.

Thankfully, no saintly patience will be required of the team on the field, this time around. The last two Cubs teams were fraught with mental lapses, slow development, testy media sessions and ugly on-field style. Though they won’t vault toward the top of the NL in OBP, they should be significantly better than the group that reached base less often than every team but Miami last year. They have speed. They have stronger defenders. They have Mike Olt, Jose Veras and Emilio Bonifacio, three excellent sources of swagger and energy in a clubhouse that sorely missed it. They may be a 75-win team, but they’ll be more fun to watch, and the glow of the onrushing future is beginning to swallow the darkness of the present.

The 2014 Cubs in 1,000 words: Starlin Castro’s four most comparable players through age 23, according to the state-of-the-art algorithm Baseball Prospectus uses to build the best projection systems in baseball, are: Jose Reyes, Wil Cordero, Tom Tresh and Ernie Banks. In other words, PECOTA still thinks Castro has a very good chance of blossoming into a superstar, but it now also acknowledges the risk that he’ll be bad forevermore.

That’s the conundrum Castro presents. His two All-Star selections through age 22 continue to tease and tempt, and he even flashed the tools of a very good hitter at times during his disastrous 2013. Still, his stagnation—and even regression—calls to mind a player whom Bill James’ Similarity Scores prefers to pair with Castro, over and above any of those four: Garry Templeton. Templeton, who (eerily) shares Castro’s birthday, also had two 200-hit seasons as a dynamic, very young shortstop, but thereafter, he went backward. He simply didn’t understand the work that would be necessary in order to avoid having the league figure him out and swallow him up, and he played out the string, watching his physical gifts wane and finding himself unable to compensate for it.

Castro seems to have a better handle on the challenge ahead. He also has plenty of motivation to get better, and fast, thanks to the pair of middle-infield prospects knocking on the door of Wrigley Field as the season opens. The most interesting storyline around the Cubs this year will be Castro’s effort to stave off obsolescence, and the resulting scramble to fill out long-term infield slots on the team.

Mike Olt appears to have third base locked down, for now, but after a lost 2013 season and a rough debut back in 2012, he’ll need to prove that MLB pitching isn’t going to flummox him over the course of a full season. If he should stumble, not only is Luis Valbuena (who will, presumably, platoon with Darwin Barney at second base in the meantime) ready to slide over and pounce on an opportunity, but three players threaten to force their way to the spot from below. They are:

  • Christian Villanueva, who led the Southern League (Double-A) in extra-base hits last season and possesses the best third-base glove in the minors;
  • Javier Baez, who will open the year as Triple-A Iowa’s shortstop, playing to Villanueva’s left, but whose thick, short, powerful frame suggests he may be more at home at third in the long run; and
  • Kris Bryant, who stands about six inches taller than Baez and looks nothing like a third baseman to me, but who has acquitted himself well enough there early in his pro career that he will begin 2014 as the hot-corner handler in Double-A Tennessee.

Meanwhile, at second base, Barney and Valbuena will tussle for playing time, but one would really have to shine in order to keep someone else from making that spot their own. That someone could be Baez, who has played second a few times during Spring Training, or Castro, but the most pressing threat may be Arismendy Alcantara, a switch-hitter with both pop and speed who played shortstop until Baez caught up to him in Tennessee last summer. One way or another, these eight players are going to sort themselves out this season, and by year’s end, you’re likely to know which are long-term infielders, which are ticketed for the outfield, and which may have no future in the organization anymore.

The pitching staff is much deeper than it was last spring, with perhaps as many as 10 viable big-league relievers. (Last season, they broke camp with no more than five.) That’s good, because it’s going to get a whole lot thinner as the season progresses. Jeff Samardzija is two years from free agency, with no extension in sight, and a good first half would make him just ripe enough to be picked by some team needing an arm to shore up their rotation down the stretch. Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood are less likely to be moved, as they’re three years from the market and less sexy, but Jason Hammel (who is even less sexy than they are, but is signed to a one-year deal) is almost sure to go. So are one-year relief rentals Jose Veras and Wesley Wright. For the third year running, the Cubs will prevent runs fairly well, until the guys in charge of that all get run out of town.

The outfield is the darkest spot on the team, chock-full of unfulfilled (or half-fulfilled) promise. Nate Schierholtz will try to build value as he approaches free agency, but if he’s anywhere between miserable and sensational, he’s likely to become trade bait. Junior Lake, whose stiff, flat-planed swing has gotten a bit more fluid this spring, will try to make enough adjustments to his approach to leverage that and tap into his awesome tools. It’s not likely to work. Justin Ruggiano has bloomed into a decent player, but will be 32 in April, so he’s a bit like one of those flowers that blooms at midnight and wilts at 12:05. Ryans Sweeney and Kalish have undeniable talent and seem to do some of everything, but their fragility and lack of power have marginalized them as they each head into their late 20s. Emilio Bonifacio, who will also be a utility infield option, might have the strongest MLB track record of the bunch, but the flashes of elite base-stealing ability and strong OBP skills he showed a couple years ago now look like a standard to which he will never really rise.

You can dream on this team, not just in the long run, but right now. That’s a step forward from where they had been. Alas, it will almost certainly remain just a dream, until 2015.

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