2014 Cubs preview: Young core gives ‘Lovable Losers’ hope

The Cubs need Starlin Castro (center) to bounce back after hitting just .245 last season.

Rick Scuteri/AP

CHICAGO CUBS

Offense: Ranked 28th in the majors in scoring last year, the Cubs need better seasons from their cornerstone hitters. Shortstop Starlin Castro hit a dismal .245 and drove in just 44 runs while posting a career low on-base percentage (.284). First baseman Anthony Rizzo had decent numbers — 23 homers, 80 RBI .323 on-base percentage — but lacked consistency, and the Cubs need more from him. Another solid year from Nate Schierholtz and a strong first full season from Junior Lake would go a long ways as well.

Rotation: Despite continually swirling trade rumors, Jeff Samardzija remains the club’s ace. Behind him, 2013 All-Star Travis Wood looks to have another solid campaign while Edwin Jackson will try again to make good on the Cubs’ $52 million investment after going 8-18 with a 4.98 ERA last season. Former Orioles top prospect Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Chris Rusin should figure into the back end of the rotation.

2014 MLB PREVIEWS

Bullpen: The Cubs were second in the NL in blown saves last season but did get 33 saves out of Gregg, who wasn’t brought back. The Cubs instead signed Veras to handle the ninth inning. They also added Wright, putting another workhorse lefty next to James Russell. Righty Pedro Strop looks to take on a setup role this season, and Kyuji Fujikawa could return from Tommy John surgery in June after throwing just 12 innings last season.

Player to watch: Lake. The 23-year-old made a splash when he arrived in the majors last season and took over in left field full time when the Cubs traded Alfonso Soriano. With a full season, Lake could put up big numbers.

Why they will win: The offense should be better if Castro, Rizzo and Lake perform to expectations, which of course would give Samardzija, Wood and Jackson the chance to thrive. Cubs brass believes this team can contend for a playoff spot if their young core gets on track and others overachieve.

Why they will lose: The Cubs still appear firmly in building mode after making no major offseason moves. They continue to spend like a small-market team while waiting on various sources of cash to start flowing and highly touted prospects to develop. The roster hasn’t really been upgraded from the one that lost the second most games in the NL last year.

AROUND THE HORN

Jon Paul Morosi’s outlook: We might as well say it now: Wait ‘til next year … or, perhaps, wait ‘til the year after next year. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer & Co. are entering their third season on the North Side, and the pace of their rebuild has been slower than expected because of MLB’s new spending limits on amateur talent and a modest payroll in relation to market size. In the near term, the Cubs need more from the few big-dollar players they have: Jackson, Castro and Rizzo. The greatest intrigue with the 2014 Cubs is whether they will trade Samardzija and when prospect Javier Báez will make his debut.