Yankees opponent preview: the 2014 Chicago Cubs

Attacking the catcher is an interesting strategy, Pedro Strop. - Justin K. Aller

Are the Cubbies a dangerous up-and-coming team, or are they just another also-ran in a franchise well-acquainted with disappointing seasons?

The Yankees and Cubs got rained out tonight in the Bronx, so tomorrow, they will play an unusual day/night doubleheader in which the teams will only play each other on that day and then part ways. In the opener, former Oriole Jason Hammel is expected to start for the Cubs against Masahiro Tanaka, and in the nightcap, lefty Travis Wood takes on Michael Pineda. In their quest to end their 105-year World Series drought and 68-year wait since their last NL pennant, the Cubs are off to a slow start with new skipper Rick Renteria at 4-8, and PECOTA is not confident in them either, forecasting the Cubbies to go 68-82 the rest of the way, worse than all other NL teams except the Marlins. In theory, the Yankees should be good enough to sweep the doubleheader, but could the Cubs surprise them?

Position Players

The Cubs do seem to have a decent young offense that has some potential. At almost every position, there's a kid who has flashed some talent. Behind the plate, there's 26-year-old Welington Castillo, who hit .274/.349/.397 as a full-time catcher for the first time last year with a 106 wRC+ and is projected to hit 15 homers in 2014. He actually was the Cubs' leader in fWAR in 2014, finishing at 3.2 WAR. On defense, he's more of a question mark, as he threw out 29% of baserunners against him last year and rated as one of the worst pitch framers in baseball last year, allowing 94 extra strikes and 13 extra runs. He does seem to be much better at blocking pitches though, and he's already slugged a pair of homers this year. He's a fine bottom of the order hitter.

Castillo will likely only catch one of the games tomorrow. The other will be manned by 33-year-old veteran John Baker. He's about as typical as a backup catcher could be--average on defense and crappy with the bat. He's 0-for-11 this year, went 6-for-40 last year with the Padres, and couldn't crack a 60 wRC+ in the Pacific Coast League in 40 games for the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate. He has not homered since September 4, 2009, when he did it against something named Garrett Mock. Atta boy.

The Cubs have an interesting pair of corner infielders in Anthony Rizzo and Mike Olt. Both players were trade acquisitions, and Rizzo has already become a pretty decent hitter. A former Red Sox prospect and Padres rookie, the lefty-hitting Rizzo flourished Wrigley in 2012, batting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers and a 115 wRC+ in 87 games, and the Cubs rewarded him in May of 2013 with a seven-year, $41 million extension. He slipped a little bit in 2013 with a .233/.323/.419, 102 wRC+ line, but he did still notch 23 dingers. The 24-year-old is hitting .319/.389/.489 in the early goings of 2014, so Tanaka, Pineda, and the bullpen must pitch him carefully, especially given his lefty power swing and the short porch. The righty Olt was one of baseball's top prospects entering the 2013 season after a gaudy 168 wRC+ campaign with Texas's Double-A team in 2012, but eye problems and other maladies led to a disappointing follow-up in 2013. He was the main trade piece when the Rangers traded him for Matt Garza at the deadline. Olt earned the Cubs' starting third base job for 2014 and he still has plenty to prove, though he's started well with two dingers in 12 games. Chicago could also use third base backup Luis Valbuena, and he has a little bit of pop as well, having gone deep 12 times in 2013. At .222/.303/.350 for his seven-year career however, he's not much of a concern.

Up the middle is where it starts to get maddening for the Cubbies. When team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer gave baby-faced shortstop Starlin Castro a seven-year, $60 million extension in August of 2012, people around baseball were optimistic that the then-22-year-old would be the next Cubs icon. In the approximately 20 months since then unfortunately, Castro has looked terrible. His 2013 season was a nightmare, as his strikeout rate escalated, his walk rate fell, and he often appeared to lose focus on the field, leading to a bit of a decline on defense, too. He ended 2013 at almost exactly replacement-level. It's definitely not too late for a resurgence from him, but he arguably has as much to prove as Olt after such a disastrous year. He's hit .300/.327/.460 with two doubles and two homers so far. Castro's double play partner, Darwin Barney, also had an awful 2013. Although a slick defender, his already-poor bat plummeted to below Chris Stewart levels at .208/.266/.303 with a 51 wRC+. If any Yankee gives up a hit to Barney, then he owes everyone else on the pitching staff a beer.

The Cubs' outfield is probably better than one might think. From left to right, it's Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, and Nate Schierholtz. Lake was a former shortstop prospect who was hitting far too well in Triple-A last year for the Cubs to keep him down. He hit .284/.332/.428 with a 109 wRC+ in 64 games upon being promoted and has begun 2014 well with a .265/.306/.559 triple slash. To the Yankees' benefit, his high strikeout rate (27.8% in the pros) does not bode well for him against Tanaka and Pineda. Although Sweeney has bounced around the majors since 2006, he is surprisingly still not 30 and bounced back from a few lost seasons to hit .266/.324/.448 with Chicago, notching 1.1 fWAR in 70 games, his highest total in four years. The lefty has started 2014 slower than any other Cub though, batting .200 with no power in nine games to date. Out in right is a more dangerous lefty, "Nate the Great," who some fans might remember from the 2010 World Series champion Giants and from the 2012-13 off-season, when we begged for the Yankees to sign him. Instead, they re-signed Ichiro Suzuki, and Schierholtz took his bat to Chicago, where he slugged 21 homers in 2013. Yippie. Baserunners should not try to take the extra base against Schierholtz, who has a rocket of an arm. Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Kalish, and Emilio Bonifacio will all also be available off the bench to pinch-hit or possibly start at DH.

Pitching

Yankees fans should remember Jason Hammel, who came out of seemingly nowhere to post a solid season in the Orioles' rotation during their run to the Wild Card in 2012. The regression bug attacked him last year, so Baltimore decided to let him walk as a free agent. He joined the Cubs on a one-year, $6 million deal, and he's been great for Rick Renteria's early on with a 2.63 ERA, 1.3 BB/9, and 0.512 WHIP in two starts against a solid Pirates team. In three starts at Yankee Stadium, he has had a 2.65 ERA, but take those numbers with a grain of salt since it's not much of sample. His best pitches are a two-seam fastball that averages about 92-93 mph and an 83 mph slider. He'll also occasionally mix in a four-seam fastball, a curve, and a changeup. Being that he posted an ugly 4.97 ERA and 4.93 FIP last year in 26 games for the Orioles though, he should not be too much of a problem for a team with a good offense like the Yankees.

Travis Wood will start the other game of the doubleheader, and he's with his third year in Chicago since being traded from the division rival Reds prior to 2012. The 27-year-old reached the 200-inning plateau for the first time in 2013, finishing with a fine 3.11 ERA, 3.89 FIP, and 2.8 fWAR. He doesn't strike out too many batters, but he also has nice control with a 2.97 BB/9. Although Wood's fastball is high-80s/low-90s, his money pitches is the cutter, which has easily been his most effective pitch during his young career.

The Cubs' bullpen features Jose Veras, who has already lost his job as closer, and Yankees whipping boy Pedro Strop. That's probably about all that needs to be said about it, but the middle relief has been surprisingly decent so far. Both Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon have hurled seven scoreless innings with a high strikeout rate, so there may be hope for the Cubs' bullpen yet. Being that their top relief arms entering the season have been miserable though, no lead should be considered safe with them.

The Yankees might deal with some dingers from the likes of Rizzo and Schierholtz, and given their histories, there's a chance that Hammel and Wood could frustrate them on offense. However, even given the trend of most doubleheaders to end in a split, the Yankees should be disappointed if they don't sweep the set from the Cubbies. With Tanaka, Pineda, and their offense, they are simply the better team.

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