MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs ended their season seven wins better than last year with some breakout performances and rebound seasons from several players. Not all was good, but key players did take steps. Here’s a wrap-up of individual performances in 2014:
MVP: Anthony Rizzo
There are a few candidates here, but Rizzo wins this award with a big season at the plate. He was just one of three National League players with 30 or more home runs. His .386 on-base percentage ranked sixth in the league. And Sabermetrically speaking, he was one of the best, as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranked third in offensive win percentage behind Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. That’s pretty good company. And in runs created, he ranked fourth overall. Rizzo led the charge on and off the field, assuming a leadership responsibility and becoming a spokesman for his teammates. He is your 2014 Cubs Most Valuable Player. Honorable mention: Jake Arrieta
Most clutch: Starlin Castro
If you can believe it, there was no one better with men on base or in scoring position than Castro. Good thing, considering he batted cleanup for most of the season. That’s a situation that could have fazed him, but he embraced the RBI chances hitting .286 with runners in scoring position. That ranked first on the team after Jorge Soler, who has had minimal at-bats in the majors. Overall, Castro hit .328 with men on, an impressive stat by any means.
Biggest surprise: Hector Rondon
Yes, Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks get some votes here, but Arrieta always had the stuff to become a No. 1 starter and Hendricks had the makeup of a winner from the moment the Cubs acquired him. Rondon came out of nowhere to not only win, but excel in the closer’s role. He was 29-of-33 in save opportunities and simply didn’t walk the tightrope that often happens in the ninth inning (especially for the Cubs over the years). And remember, he was a former Rule 5 draft pick -- not exactly a highly touted prospect. His success late in games was a huge surprise. Honorable mention: Chris Coghlan
Biggest disappointment: Edwin Jackson
At first glance, this seems like an easy call -- and at the end of the day, maybe it is -- but it also depends on your perspective. Travis Wood made the All-Star team just last season. His ERA in 2014 was 5.03 and he gave up 190 hits in 173.2 innings. But all things being equal, when the highest paid player is your worst -- Jackson’s ERA was 6.33 -- not much more thought needs to go in to this decision.
Breakout player: Kyle Hendricks
There is simply no reason to believe Hendricks can’t pick up where he left off after a marvelous start to his career. He pitched well both at home and on the road, against contenders and pretenders and never hit the proverbial rookie wall. He totaled over 180 innings pitched, and there is no reason to think he can’t exceed 200 next year. The only question is, how many games can he win? Sky seems the limit for the crafty right-hander, who produced a 7-2 record with a 2.46 ERA. Honorable mention: Neil Ramirez
Best interview: Jake Arrieta
A breakout performance on the mound turned into one in the locker room, as Arrieta was able to articulate his success better than anyone. He admitted maturing was his biggest asset this season, and he took over as the leader of the pitching staff. Arrieta was honest about his team both before and after the Cubs traded their top pitchers and embraced his new role as ace of the team. He’ll be a big voice coming out of the locker room in the years to come. Honorable mention: Rizzo
Most exciting: Jorge Soler
There really were only two choices, Soler or Arismendy Alcantara. The latter tailed off so much that we rarely saw his great athletic ability down the stretch, as his high strikeout total got in the way of seeing his speed on display more. Soler showed what he could do both in the field and at the plate with monster home runs and a rocket of an arm from right field. He also displayed the plate discipline he was known for coming up through the minors; that in itself was exciting to watch, as he rarely went down easy.
Toughest to get a read on: Arismendy Alcantara
Again, there are several candidates that qualify here. Welington Castillo might be one, as could Javier Baez. But Alcantara is a mixture of speed and power, but with it all came a ton of strikeouts. He had 93 in just 70 games while walking only 17 times. The Cubs hope he reverts to some on-base numbers he put up in the minors. But he only had one season when he earned a good amount of free passes -- 62 at Double-A in 2013. And at times he played a stellar center field but also made some maddening mistakes. There’s no conclusion to be made on Alcantara, of course, but a better handle of the strike zone will go a long way to his success. He does have some excitement to his game.