Kasper: Young Cubs showed us a lot this season
We learned a fair amount about the Chicago Cubs in 2014.
We found out Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were worth the long contracts they signed a couple years ago. Not that I was too worried, particularly about Rizzo, whose patient approach and low batting average on balls in play in 2013 signaled a likely uptick in fortune. He actually far exceeded expectations, finishing among the league leaders in OPS and home runs.
Castro's resurgence came from his pure ability to make contact on pitches just about anywhere for base hits, resulting in a .292 average. He also took to the cleanup spot, putting up a career-high .438 slugging percentage. He doesn't project as a No. 4 hitter, but I could see him being a 20-homer guy when it's all said and done.
The bigger question will be, how long will he remain the Cubs' shortstop? With Javier Baez showing flashes there of being a dynamic defender and Addison Russell waiting in the wings, it's possible a position change could be in Castro's future.
We learned the Cubs have an ace pitcher after all, even following the Jeff Samardzija trade. Jake Arrieta might have been the season's best story for this team, putting up a sparkling 2.53 earned run average as he flirted several times with a no-hitter. I expect the Cubs to make a pitch to some top-of-the-rotation free agents, but none will come here with better stuff or coming off a more impressive season.
The back of the bullpen looks set with the emergence of hard-throwing Hector Rondon. Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm head an impressive group of affordable, fireballing short relievers.
A few of the kids finally showed up and what we saw was a somewhat expected mixed bag.
Jorge Soler hit the ground running and looks like he could be a perennial all-star. I wish I could find something he could do better, but in his short stint here he earned all A's and looks like a polished 10-year veteran. Same goes for starter Kyle Hendricks, who has the poise of a brain surgeon, meticulously placing his pitches wherever he wants.
Arismendy Alcantara brings a dynamic presence with athleticism, versatility, power and a two-way bat that still needs to figure out two-strike off-speed stuff. My hunch is that experience is all he needs to become a key part of the core.
Javier Baez is the trickiest of the bunch to dissect. His final numbers look bad, but many of his struggles were anticipated. His seven-plus-week trial was about seeing what he needs to figure out about big league pitching. Clearly, he has to stop hacking at everything. A few mechanical tweaks can't hurt I'm sure, but it's more about what's going on in his head.
If Baez lets the game come to him, the sky's the limit. While I can't guarantee superstardom, I will cut a 21-year-old kid with plus tools more slack than a couple of months worth of ugly at-bats before I'm ready to write him off.
I know that sounds like a lot of positives for a last-place club, but 2014 was about turning the corner and starting to bear the fruits of three trade-filled seasons. The stockpiling of young talent won't cease, but now many among the first wave of prospects are becoming big leaguers. And with that, expectations are rising.
Life is never boring around the Chicago Cubs, and the next few years should prove to be particularly intriguing.
• Len Kasper is the TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter@LenKasper and check out his baseball-blog with Jim Deshaies at wgntv.com.