COMMENTARY | All signs point to 2014 being another tough one for the Chicago Cubs.
Talk of all the top prospects lurking in the wings has hope stirring on the north side, but that hope remains at arm's length because, well, Edwin Jackson is the No. 3 starter.
Despite that, the Cubs may have a few surprises for fans in 2014. Those surprises might not be in the form of wins, but they might be in the form of exceptional individual performance.
Here are three possibilities:
Chris Rusin - Starting Pitcher
It would sure be nice if Rusin came to play this season because the Cubs desperately need the starting pitching.
Rusin only has 20 career starts under his belt, but 13 of them came in 2013 and he looked pretty good throughout. You can ignore the 2-6 record (the team lost 97 games), but he posted a 3.93 ERA and only gave up four runs three times.
If you're willing to look beyond his final two starts, of which neither were good, he posted a 2.85 ERA and gave up less than one hit per inning across the other 11. Not only were these numbers respectable, but they were also significantly improved over his first season in 2012. Over seven starts in 2012, he never pitched more than five innings, posted an ERA of 6.37, and had a WHIP of over 1.6.
He may not be ace material, but if he continues to trend upward, he might be a valuable piece for the Cubs in 2014.
Mike Olt - Third Base
At this point, we're admittedly just making excuses for Olt. Valid as those excuses may be (what's a more valid excuse for a hitter than having vision problems?), we're all relying on Olt's presumed potential, not his past performance, to dictate where he falls on the prospect spectrum.
After batting those vision problems all of 2013, Olt says he's healthy and ready to go for spring training. Hopefully, he's right, since his career batting average in Triple-A is .197. He's got power and only has to get through Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy to win the starting job.
With Kris Bryant flying through the minors, Olt should have a little sense of urgency to lock up the position.
Justin Ruggiano - Outfield
The Cubs have been criticized for, once again, not signing anyone of major consequence this offseason. Ruggiano fit right into that complaint, but might actually be poised for a solid showing in 2014.
At 31 (32 within the first few weeks of the season), Ruggiano probably doesn't predict as a long-term answer in one of the outfield positions, but the Cubs do have holes to fill in that area and Ruggiano will probably be platooning most of the season.
Nate Schierholtz was the Cubs' best outfielder last season, but only hit .170 against left-handed pitching. Ruggiano hit 40 points better against lefties than right-handed pitchers, and almost 80 points better than Schierholtz. Beyond Schierholtz, it's hard to know what the Cubs will get from Ryan Sweeney, as well as if Junior Lake will continue his early success or kick off into a sophomore slump.
Ruggiano has power (18 home runs in 2013) and has the ability to drive in runs (50 RBIs in 2013). If he's only inserted into situations that benefit his skill set (which is the point of platooning), then he might be a nice contributor for the Cubs. He might make decent trade bait come the deadline, too.
Brian is a lifelong Chicago Cubs follower. He was heartbroken in 2003, disappointed in 2007, and truly believed in 2008. Living in Illinois his entire life has given him a chance to closely follow (and suffer with) the Cubs and he is cautiously optimistic about the current rebuilding scheme. He also writes music and short stories.
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