Cubs optimistic, but still much work to do

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Starting pitcher Jon Lester could very well be a free-agent target for the Cubs this off-season.

    Starting pitcher Jon Lester could very well be a free-agent target for the Cubs this off-season. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/29/2014 10:56 PM

The Cubs left Miller Park on Sunday feeling good about themselves and optimistic about the future.

Their 73-89 record was the best turned in during the three years of the baseball-operations group headed by president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

 

That record means there is much more work to do before the Cubs are able to make a run at contention. Let's look at four key areas. With each, we'll also look at the in-house options.

Starting and relief pitching:

It's common knowledge the Cubs will go after quality starting pitching this off-season. They'll also look to bolster the bullpen.

The most-mentioned name is lefty Jon Lester, who went 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA and a WHIP of 1.10 between the Red Sox and Athletics this season. Lester is quite familiar with the Cubs' management team, which came from Boston.

Don't rule out the Cubs making another run at Jason Hammel, whom they traded to the A's on July 4 with Jeff Samardzija. There's mutual admiration between Hammel and the Cubs, and this time he could be more than a sign-and-flip candidate.

In-house options: The Cubs finished 13th in ERA (3.91) and 13th in quality starts (79). Jake Arrieta proved he was an ace and not just a guy in the No. 1 slot after the trade of Hammel and Samardzija. Rookie Kyle Hendricks showed great promise.

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Beyond that, it's wide open. Travis Wood took a major step back, and Edwin Jackson was banished to the bullpen. The Cubs have interest in bringing Tsuyoshi Wada back, but they'd likely decline his option and look to sign him for, say, $2 million or $3 million.

Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront were just OK in late-season auditions. Right-hander Dallas Beeler acquitted himself well in spot starts when he was summoned from Class AAA Iowa.

With the bullpen, the Cubs won't have to waste money on expensive closers such as Kyuji Fujikawa or Jose Veras. Hector Rondon was 29-for-33 in save chances and had a WHIP of 1.06.

Outfield:

From left-to-right, the Cubs' opening-day outfield was Junior Lake, Emilio Bonifacio and Nate Schierholtz.

Bonifacio and Schierholtz didn't finish the season with the Cubs, and Lake was sent to the minor leagues during the year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Cubs will need more offense from their outfielders next season. They were 11th in the NL in OPS (.688) this season.

In-house options: The call-up of right fielder Jorge Soler was a good start as Soler went .292/.330/.573 with 5 homers in 89 at-bats.

Arismendy Alcantara looked good in center field, but this year's rookie will need to improve on a .254 on-base percentage even as his 10 homers in 278 at-bats provided pop.

The Cubs may want to keep Chris Coghlan, who went to spring training as a nonroster man. The 2009 Rookie of the Year with the Marlins went .283/.352/.452 with 9 homers in 385 at-bats. His .804 OPS would have ranked 23rd had he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

"They gave me an opportunity," Coghlan said Sunday. "I feel grateful for that. I also know that I can't control that, but I love Chicago. My wife loves the city. It's the reason we chose to come play here. When I was in Miami, Hawk (former Cub Andre Dawson) told me, 'If you ever have an opportunity to play in Chicago, it's the best.'"

Third base:

It's all in-house here. Kris Bryant will be the Cubs' third baseman sometime early next season. In the meantime, Luis Valbuena can keep the spot warm. Valbuena had the third-best OPS (.776) on the team among qualifiers behind Anthony Rizzo's .913 and Starlin Castro's .777.

The Cubs may give Mike Olt some platoon time in the outfield against left-handed pitching.

Behind the plate:

Manager Rick Renteria expressed confidence in Welington Castillo, and if the Cubs spend their money on pitching, they might not have enough to think about Pittsburgh's Russell Martin.

Castillo put up a batting line of .237/.296/.389 with 13 homers. The Cubs gave veteran John Baker 68 games as Castillo's backup, and he could be back.

Kyle Schwarber, this year's No. 1 draft pick and an offensive force, will be given a good look at his preferred position as catcher in the minor leagues.

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