With the Chicago Cubs beginning their 2014 season on Monday in Pittsburgh, Justin Agla (@CubsFella) and I decided to put together some "Over/Under" predictions in regards to statistics for some key Cubs players, the team's win total, etc.

Here they are...

Starlin Castro Batting Average: .285 (From Bovada)

Matt: UNDER. After last year's mess (.245/.284/.347 line), it's hard to say Starlin is going to be a .285+ hitter in 2014, although it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. We just have to see it first. Ask me this question again in a month and I could easily say "over". The Cubs' front office and coaching staff are not going to be in Starlin's ear about plate discipline this year, even though it would be great if he'd take a few more walks and get into better hitter's counts. But they want Starlin going back to the "see the ball, hit the ball", "more reacting, less thinking" approach, and we know he's an incredibly talented hitter as he showed in his first three seasons. So consider me optimistic, but still not ready to say he's going to be a .285+ hitter in 2014.

Justin: OVER. Castro was a .295 hitter over his first 3 seasons and I like his chances to get back on track this year after a dreadful season last year.

Starlin Castro Home Runs: 10.5

Matt: OVER. At least 10 homers for Starlin in each of the last three seasons, and he had 14 homers as a 22-year-old in 2012. And assuming he's a much better hitter in 2014 than the guy he was in 2013, you'd expect the home run total to be higher (than in '13), right? I like 12-15 homers for Starlin this season.

Justin: OVER. Even at his worst he hit 10 and he has shown flashes of developing his raw power. I don't think he is to a point where he can get to 20 yet but I definitely think he hits more than 10 this year.

Starlin Castro OPS: .750

Matt: OVER. Even if his batting average and on-base percentage may not be quite what they were in his first three seasons, I think Starlin could have the best slugging percentage of his career thus far and should do enough overall at the plate to have a .750+ OPS.

Justin: OVER. If he is over on both the first two he almost has to be over on this one. He passed this in each of his first 3 seasons and if he does get back on track he should get over it again this year.

Anthony Rizzo Batting Average: .265

Matt: OVER. Rizzo probably isn't a .285 hitter like he was in 2012 over 368 plate appearances, but he's definitely not the .233 hitter he was in 2013 either. Rizzo suffered from an incredibly unlucky .258 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in 2013, when the league average for BABIP is typically around .300. Additionally, Rizzo has greatly struggled vs left-handed pitching in his career (.194 batting average), but looked fantastic against southpaws in Spring Training (granted, a very small sample size) and may be on the verge of improving in that department.

Justin: UNDER. Rizzo still has some holes to fix, and while I do think he bounces back some this year I think batting average might be the last place he catches up.

Anthony Rizzo Home Runs: 25

Matt: OVER. Even in his rough 2013 season, Rizzo still managed to hit 23 home runs, and hit 15 bombs in just 368 2012 plate appearances. In his age-24 season in 2014, look for Rizzo's power numbers to climb closer to the 30-homer mark.

Justin: OVER. Probably not by much, but I like his chances to hit near 30 this year.

Anthony Rizzo OPS:  .800

Matt: OVER. As you can see by now, I'm expecting a very nice season out of Rizzo. I'll go with an .820 OPS for the Cubs' first baseman.

Justin: OVER. Again, not by much, but he is patient at the plate and with his power I think he gets just over .800.

Mike Olt Batting Average: .255

Matt: UNDER. Olt had a great Spring Training, hitting .276 with five homers and an .886 OPS in 63 plate appearances. But he's also coming off a disastrous 2013 season where he hit .201 with a .684 OPS in the minors. However, vision issues (it's assumed) were the main cause the awful numbers and with the vision issues now resolved, he looks like the guy that came into 2013 as Baseball America's No. 22 overall prospect while a member of the Texas Rangers organization. So it's possible Olt has a very nice season with the Cubs at the big-league level, but it's hard to predict him hitting for a high average just yet, anyway. He is a power-hitting, patient guy at the plate, but he also has a low contact rate and may never be a high average hitter (even if he's still highly productive).

Justin: UNDER. Even with perfect eyes Olt was a fairly low contact hitter and didn't have the best average. I think he probably hits in the .240-.250 range.

Mike Olt Home Runs: 15.5

Matt: OVER. His power is real, and when he makes contact, it's usually with authority. He was punishing the ball this spring all over the yard. If he ends up being the primary third baseman/getting 450+ at-bats (which you'd think as the front office wants him playing), you have to like his chances for 18-25 home runs.

Justin: OVER. This one is easy. If he plays enough he is gonna get his home runs.

Mike Olt OPS: .750

Matt: OVER. The average may not be there, but the power and walks should keep the OPS above .750.

Justin: OVER. But probably not by much. His average will probably stay low and he strikes out a lot, but he does take his walks and will get his homers.

Junior Lake Batting Average: .260

Matt: UNDER. No one knows what Junior Lake really is at the plate. We know he has power (as evidenced by the three homers he hit in three consecutive at-bats last week), good speed, a long athletic frame.. he has all the tools. But he has holes and the league began to find those holes as his rookie season went on in 2013. He's going to need to make adjustments and lay off "pitchers'" pitches. Honestly, he could hit anywhere from .200-.300 and I wouldn't be surprised. The skills are there, but they're raw and we don't know if/when the proper adjustments will be made. For now, I'll guess his average lands right in the middle of that .200-.300 range at .250.

Justin: UNDER. Lake has a lot of talent but still lacks a lot of polish. I'll say just under.

Junior Lake Home Runs: 12

Matt: OVER. Similar to what I said about Olt, Lake may not have the high average but he's going to get his fair share of homers if he gets the at-bats (which, again like Olt, he should). I'll guess 13-16 homers for Lake.

Justin: OVER. Lake has tremendous raw power, as we have seen in spring training and got glimpses of last year. If he plays most days I think he can get to 15 HR.

Junior Lake OPS: .735

Matt: UNDER. The slugging numbers may be there, but the on-base percentage probably won't.

Justin: UNDER. Lake doesn't walk a ton and I also expect his average to not be great, so I'll say he finishes under on this one.

Welington Castillo OPS: .750

Matt: OVER. The most underrated guy on the team in my opinion. Castillo now has a solid .748 OPS from the catcher position in over 652 plate appearances in the majors. He'll only be turning 27 in April, and there is much more potential in his bat. He showed a glimpse of that in the second half of 2013 when he had an outstanding .288/.388/.475 line in 165 plate appearances.

Justin: OVER. Castillo was great in the second half last year and has more power than he showed. I think this is the year he shows he can be a good offensive every day catcher.

Nate Schierholtz Home Runs: 19

Matt: UNDER. Schierholtz had 21 homers in 503 plate appearances in a really impressive 2013 season, after never hitting over nine homers in a season before that. Of course, he had never been a full-time starter in his previous seasons either. Still, it's probably more realistic to expect him to be in the 15-17 range than the 19-21 range this time around. Additionally, there's a good chance he's dealt to a contender before the trade deadline and he may end up in a strict platoon in such a situation, preventing him from getting the at-bats to reach this home run total.

Justin: UNDER. I know Nate hit over 20 last year but he had a huge career best year and I think its likely he slips back down a bit this year.

Emilio Bonifacio Stolen Bases: 29.5

Matt: OVER. Bonifacio had 40 steals in 152 2011 games, 30 steals in 64 2012 games, and 28 steals in 136 2013 games. He is likely to play just about everyday with his ability to play pretty much every position, and while batting leadoff frequently. Additionally, it sounds like Rick Renteria wants the team aggressive on the basepaths.

Justin: UNDER. I think he gets close but I'm not sure he is gonna play enough all season to get to 30.

Javier Baez Combined Home Runs Between MLB & Minors: 35.5

Matt: UNDER. I love Baez's power as much as anyone. He is special. And he hit 37 homers in just 130 minor league games in 2013. But 36+ homers is such a high total to predict (injuries happen too), especially given that he'll be playing at the Triple-A (and likely) MLB levels, where he's never played. He's susceptible to offspeed pitches and he'll see better quality of such pitches at the upper levels, as well as pitchers that can execute a plan better.

Justin: OVER. Baez has some of the best power in the entire minor leagues and I expect he will continue to mash while in AAA.

Javier Baez OPS At Triple-A Iowa: .930

Matt: UNDER. This goes back to what I was saying about his home run totals. Even though the Pacific Coast League is where talents like Baez usually put up video game numbers, he may have a few minor slumps/struggles as more advanced pitchers get him off balance with offspeed pitches. I still think he'll OPS over .900, though, in what should just be a couple of months in Iowa.

Justin: UNDER. He doesn't walk a lot so he has to put up a massive slugging number to get this high. He did it in AA last year in limited time but I think he probably sits around .900 in AAA.

Javier Baez OPS At MLB Level: .790

Matt: OVER. Javy is going to mash anyone's fastballs with his insane bat speed and until the league learns this (as well as that he currently has a tendency to chase breaking balls out of the zone) he may go off. He may have rookie struggles late in the year but I think he will  put up big numbers in his first month or two in the majors. And regardless, he's going to hit mistakes a mile too, so the slugging percentage is likely going to be high enough to carry an OPS over .790 even if his on-base percentage isn't great.

Justin: OVER. I think Baez is gonna have a very fast start out of the gate, until people realize that you shouldn't throw him fast balls. I also don't think he will be up til the 2nd half so he could put up some big numbers for a couple months.

Jeff Samardzija ERA: 3.80

Matt: PUSH. A 3.80 ERA (or a little better or worse) is pretty much right what I'd project for Shark. We know he has the potential to be much, much better than this but he hasn't shown enough consistency to predict it. Maybe this is the year he does so? And it may be in another uniform by July 31st as well.

Justin: OVER. Samardzija just hasn't proven he can be a consistent top-of-the-rotation arm. I think he will be solid but not great once again. Probably in the high 3s/low 4s area and is eventually traded this year.

Edwin Jackson ERA: 4.25

Matt: UNDER. Edwin can be maddening because he looks like a front-of-the-rotation guy at times and then looks like a back-of-the-rotation guy at others. But in general he's extremely better than the 4.98 ERA guy he was in 2013, at least, and I think he has a bounceback year of sorts. An ERA right around 4.00 would be my guess.

Justin: UNDER. Some of Jackson's peripherals show that he was probably a little unlucky last year. Most are down on him but I think he has a good chance to keep the ERA around 4.00.

Travis Wood ERA: 3.60

Matt: PUSH. I don't think Travis Wood's 2013 was the total fluke that some out there seem to think, but I also think he's closer to maybe a 3.55-3.75 ERA guy than the 3.11  ERA he put up in 2013. He pitches to both sides of the plate so well and changes speeds so well. He's a gamer and you feel good about your chances of winning every time he takes the hill.

Justin: UNDER. Wood is the guy I most trust right now on the Cubs' staff and I think he will continue to pitch well. He isn't an ace but he can be a very good number 3 on a good team.

Jason Hammel ERA: 4.50 

Matt: UNDER. I was a big fan of this signing and think Hammel can be this year's Scott Feldman, where he puts up a solid season and then the Cubs flip him for a nice prospect return at the trade deadline. The 6'6" right-hander had a 4.97 ERA for the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, but had a terrific 3.43 ERA for them the season before. I think he gets back on the right track and has a sub-4.50 ERA in 2014.

Justin: OVER. I'm not sold on Hammel turning in to this years Feldman, although I'll admit I wasnt sold on Feldman last year either. Still, his career numbers arent great and he isnt getting any younger. I expect an ERA closer to 5.

Jose Veras Saves: 25

Matt: UNDER. I don't see him reaching that total for a couple reasons. One, the Cubs likely aren't going to be winning enough games for Veras to get a ton of save opportunities. And also, I expect the Cubs to trade him to a contender over the next few months. As for whether he could still end up with 25 total saves in that scenario, he would likely be a setup man rather than a closer on a contending team.

Justin: UNDER. I don't think he lasts as a closer long enough to get to 25 because the Cubs will trade him the first time they get a good offer and contenders always want bullpen help.

Number Of Cubs (On Current 25-Man Roster) Traded By July 31st: 3.5

Matt: OVER. There are several candidates to be dealt for prospects, such as Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Jose Veras, Nate Schierholtz, James Russell, Carlos Villanueva, Darwin Barney, Luis Valbuena, Ryan Sweeney, etc. I think the Cubs trade at least four guys on the current 25-man roster as they want to keep using short-term assets to acquire long-term assets, and they could get some nice offers for the aforementioned players.

Justin: UNDER. I'll guess exactly 3.

Number Of Cubs Players With 15+ Home Runs: 4.5

Matt: UNDER. There are several players that are capable of hitting at least 15 homers, such as Anthony Rizzo, Mike Olt, Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, Nate Schierholtz, Justin Ruggiano, Junior Lake, and Luis Valbuena. But I can't comfortably predict that at least five guys will hit that many, though it's certainly possible. Obviously if we knew that Baez would be up fairly soon that would help the chances.

Justin: OVER. Power wasn't a problem for the Cubs last year, as they finished 2nd in the NL in HR, and I don't expect it to be a problem this year either. I think there are 7 or 8 guys with 15 HR potential, maybe more if prospects come up, they won't all get enough playing time or be here long enough to do it, but I'll say 5 guys get to 15.

Total Number Of Cubs Wins: 69.5  (From Bovada)

Matt: OVER. 72. I think they could hit 75 wins or more, if not for inevitable trades of quality players, and if Baez were to come up by May or June.

Justin: OVER. My personal prediction was 70 so I'll say just barely over.

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The Cubs blew a six-run lead to the Rangers in extra innings on Tuesday night in Surprise, Arizona, and lost the game 7-6. But it's Spring Training and we of course don't care about the final score, but rather individual performances and other things of note from the game. Specifically in this game, what Javier Baez and Mike Olt did, and what Josh Vitters didn't do.

In the third inning, the Cubs beat a very good pitcher in Alexi Ogando around for five runs, including back-to-back home runs, and hitting for the cycle over four consecutive batters.The back-to-back homers came from Olt and Baez, with both being extremely impressive opposite field shots:

The homers were the fourth of Spring Training for each player, and really showed off the rare power each player possesses. That's also the third opposite field homer Baez has hit on the spring which is really nice to see.

Baez also roped a double down the left field line, and in his final at-bat, worked a 3-1 count before smoking a line drive right at the shortstop. He struck out in his first at-bat, chasing a couple sliders out of the zone, something that he's done a bit too much of in the last few days. That's going to be the area of his offensive game he really needs to work on when he starts the year in Iowa (assuming this happens), as it's not going to take long for opposing teams to realize he can hit anyone's fastball with his All-World bat speed. He's going to see lots of breaking balls out of the zone at the big-league level and will need to learn to lay off those. Most professional hitters do make adjustments in that department, but we saw for years a guy that didn't make that adjustment in Alfonso Soriano (not that he still hasn't had a fantastic career).

As for Olt, it sure seems his vision issues have been resolved (as he and the team have been saying all spring). He looks very confident in the box right now and is squaring the ball up extremely well as you could see in the home run video. While the Cubs may want him to get some more time at Iowa after his disastrous 2013 season, it's going to be hard to keep him off the 25-man roster to open the year.

Keep in mind that what Olt shows the Cubs' brass over the next year could really effect the "plan" moving forward, in a good way. Olt's sort of became a forgotten guy on the Cubs' prospect radar with Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, etc in the fold on the positional player front. But in 2012, Olt hit 28 homers and had a .977 OPS for the Rangers' double-A club before the vision issues came along. He's also a rock-solid third baseman defensively. So, you want to see what you have with Olt soon, and it could change the positional outlook for other Cubs prospects, along with giving the front office some more potential trade chips to work with if you have an overload of talent at specific positions and want to use one (or more) of those pieces to acquire a position of need (cough, starting pitching, cough) . It would be a great "problem" to have if Olt progresses as the guy everyone around baseball thought he would after 2012.

But while Baez and Olt provided some exciting highlights in the game, Vitters provided a lowlight that may stick in the minds of anyone that saw the game for a while. It was in the eighth inning, I believe, and a Rangers batter hit a lazy flyball in foul territory down the left field line with Vitters playing left field. Vitters (hardly) jogged towards the flyball, and stopped, while the ball landed maybe five feet in front of him. It was an embarrassing "effort" for a former first-round pick that should be trying to prove as hard as anyone that he deserves to make the Cubs' roster at some point in 2014 and still be considered a part of the prospect conversation.

Wayne Randazzo, the play-by-play announcer for the Kane County Cougars, put it well:

On to some other things we took away from the game...

  • Javier Baez got his second start of the spring at second base, and had a tailor-made double play ball go right through his legs. He simply came up a little too early with the glove and perhaps he already had his mind/eyes on the throw to second base before getting the ball. It happens.
  • Jason Hammel went five innings on the mound, allowing four earned runs, seven hits, two walks, and two strikeouts. He looked really sharp in the first couple innings and keep in mind these guys are working on different pitches and aren't used to going more than a few innings yet. 
  • Hard-throwing right-hander Alberto Cabrera looked really good in two scoreless innings of work. He has nasty stuff and may be best-suited for a bullpen role, where he was full-time a couple years ago. Obviously the Cubs are trying to develop starting pitchers and Cabrera's value would be higher in that role if he could prove to be major-league capable in it, but he may be better off being a mainly two-pitch pitcher in a bullpen role where he can really let it all go. 
  • Armando Rivero is another hard-throwing right-hander that hit 97 mph on the gun with his first pitch of the night. I've seen videos of him pitching and have read all the scouting reports, but this was my first time getting a live (on TV) look at him. He also showed off a dirty breaking ball. Unfortunately, he left a mistake pitch right over the heart of the plate and former Cubs prospect James Adduci hit it about 500 feet for a two-run homer. Still, I really liked what I saw of the 25-year-old Rivero and will definitely be following his development closer. 
  • We've seen the pictures floating around of Dan Vogelbach after he reportedly lost 30 pounds, but seeing him stand up in the batter's box for an at-bat in this game really showed how much he's slimmed down. You wouldn't think anything of his figure at all anymore; just looks like your usual baseball player.
  • Jeimer Candelario is one of my personal favorite prospects and my prime breakout candidate for 2014. At just 19 last season, the switch-hitting Candelario had a .256/.346/.396 line at low-A Kane County, hitting 35 doubles, 11 homers, and walking 66 times. He has a very advanced plate approach for his age and as he keeps developing/getting stronger, may start turning some of those doubles into home runs. Well, Candelario started at third base on Tuesday night, and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts but worked the count nicely a couple times. Definitely keep an eye on him this season. 

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Chicago Cubs top prospect Javier Baez answered some questions from fans for ESPN Chicago on Monday, and one of the questions for Baez was in regards to what the longest home run he ever hit in a game was:

What's the farthest home run you've ever hit? -- Jimmy (Champaign, Ill.)
JB: In high school I hit one 446 feet. I think that was the furthest.
My immediate reaction was that Baez was greatly underestimating himself, as he hit at least a few homers between Spring Training and minor league ball in 2013 that seemed to travel at least 446 feet.

And later on Monday, Baez really made me feel that way on the very first pitch he saw in the Cubs' 4-2 Cactus League victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park:

That one looks about 450 feet, to the opposite field. Silly power from the 21-year-old shortstop.

Baez finished the day 2-for-3 at the plate, going to the opposite field with the ball in every at-bat. Going the other way is something Baez has talked about working on as he matures as a hitter, and he hasn't taken long to show off that approach (and while maintaining his incredible power in the process).

Baez also showed off his ability defensively with a terrific running basket catch on a pop-up down the left field line:

Here are some more things to take away from the game and other happenings in the world of the Chicago Cubs on Monday:

  • Starlin Castro is expected to be out seven to 10 days after suffering a right hamstring strain on Sunday. Cubs manager Rick Renteria said, "It's seven to 10 days, and we're just being cautious with him. It shouldn't set him back for the regular season." While it may give Baez some more playing time to show off his skills, it sounds like the Cubs will use it more as a chance to see how Darwin Barney and Emilio Bonifacio can perform there, as they're shaping up to the backup shortstops on the Opening Day roster. 
  • Back to Baez and the ESPN Chicago article linked in the first sentence of this post. When asked what position he would be most comfortable playing if he had to move off of shortstop, Baez said, "I would say second base. You don't have to move as much as you do at shortstop. It's pretty much the same except for that. I think I can do it." 
  • Left-hander Eric Jokisch got the start on Monday, and was terrific. The 24-year-old (25 in July) threw three scoreless, hitless innings against a Brewers lineup containing players such as Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, and Jean Segura. He walked two and struck out one. Jokisch isn't really on the "prospect" radar due to his age and average stuff, but gave a pretty good idea on Monday of why he's posted sub-3.50 ERAs as a starter in each of the last three seasons in the minors (most recently Double-A Tennessee in 2013). Jokisch looked like your classic "crafty" lefty, changing speeds well and showing quality command of multiple pitches; he "knows how to pitch" as they say. The 6'2" Jokisch will likely begin the year at Triple-A Iowa, but if he keeps pitching anything like he did on Monday, don't be surprised if he makes a start or two with the big-league club at some point in 2014.
  • Luis Valbuena smoked an RBI double to right-center that would've left the yard if he got some more air under it. Valbuena only hit .218 in 2013, but suffered from an extremely unlucky .233 BABIP. Consider that and Valbuena's tremendous eye at the plate, and Valbuena may be able to have a .350+ OBP in 2014 (he still had a .331 OBP even with the .218 AVG in '13).
  • Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks had nice things to say about Cubs third base prospect Christian Villanueva on Sunday, and Villanueva got two at-bats in Monday's game. At first, I thought Villanueva was actually Baez at the plate. They really have similar stances and leg kicks going now, with Baez's out-of-this-world bat speed being the obvious difference (as well as Baez's leg kick being a bit more dramatic). As Parks said, Villanueva "looks noticeably stronger" in 2014, and I wouldn't be surprised if the prospect really made a jump this season. Villanueva hit 41 doubles and 19 homers at Tennessee last season, and maybe some of those doubles will start turning into home runs. He's also a very good defensive third baseman. So, even with Baez, Mike Olt, Kris Bryant, etc... don't count out Villanueva when looking to the Cubs' future at third base. He also may be able to handle second base, first base, and left field if it came down to it. If nothing else, the 22-year-old Villanueva could turn into some quality trade bait for the Cubs.
  • Walter Ibarra was Baez's late-inning replacement at shortstop in the game, and hit a game-winning two-run single in his only at-bat. Ibarra is a 26-year-old utility infielder that spent his entire career in the New York Yankees' system before joining the Cubs' camp this spring. 
  • Arodys Vizcaino threw a scoreless inning for the Cubs, but all that we should really focus on with him is staying healthy (particularly that right arm, of course). So far, he feels good. Let's hope that's the case when he wakes up in the morning. His stuff is elite (fastball in high 90s and a nasty breaking ball) and he could be a dynamite late-inning reliever... as long as he stays healthy.
  • Right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel made his Cubs debut of sorts by pitching in the team's "B" game (making up for the rain-outs Saturday) against the San Francisco Giants on Monday morning at Cubs Park. According to Carrie Muskat, Hammel "gave up four hits, including three infield singles, and walked one, hit a batter and struck out three over two innings against the Giants."
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