By Omar Gobby
Here we sit on the eve of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, and the Chicago Cubs sit in the unfamiliar seat belonging to the overwhelming favorites.
This is not a team, despite the protestations of many haters, that has not experienced success. The Cubs have been in the playoffs 7 times since 1984. This is more than 11 teams (not including expansion teams Arizona,Colorado, Miami, and Tampa). The problem is that when they have met with success, they inevitably came crashing back down to earth shortly thereafter due to mismanagement and injuries and just some rotten luck. The only Cubs’ team to actually live up to the hype was the 2008 edition. They surprisingly won the division with 85 wins in 2007, behind a steady offense and a second in the National League (4.04 ERA) pitching staff. That 2008 group added only a few new faces (Kosuke Fukudome, mid-season additions Jim Edmonds and Rich Harden) to an otherwise fairly intact roster and rolled to the National League’s best record (97-64) before getting whitewashed in a 3 game NLDS by the Dodgers, losing by a combined score of 20-6. And just like that, the magic wore off. No major on-field changes for 2009, and the team just plodded along, finishing barely over .500 (83-78). But one significant change took place in July of that year which set the table for what Cubs fans are seeing today. The 2010 team limped home (75-87) and changed managers (Mike Quade took over for the final 37 games) and started to clean house. Fan favorite Derrek Lee was moved to the Braves and workhorse pitcher Ted Lilly (along with scrappy Ryan Theriot) found new homes with the Dodgers. Along the way, some of the kids from the minor leagues started to get a taste of the Major Leagues. Foremost among these was a kid shortstop named Starlin Castro. And then there was 2011…
The disaster that was the 2011 season for the Cubs also was the first seed planted in their rebirth. General Manager Jim Hendry was on the hot seat. While he was responsible for developing some promising youngsters (Castro, Welington Castillo, Jeff Samardzjia, among others), he made questionable moves at the major league level (Carlos Pena, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza). The day he was fired (July 22, 2011) may end up as being the greatest day in Cubs modern history.
Shortly after the conclusion of that 2011 season, Ricketts made two hires. He brought on former San Diego Padres General Manager Jed Hoyer to the same position with the Cubs and also brought on former Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein to run the show as team president. And the effects were instantaneous. Ineffective veterans were replaced either by cheaper youngsters (Luis Valbuena, Tony Campana, Travis Wood, some kid named Rizzo) or short term stopgap veterans (David DeJesus, Paul Maholm) and the team struggled (61-101 record) as younger guys got the chance to develop. The June amateur draft, long an afterthought at Clark and Addison, became a centerpiece event. Gone were the days of drafting whoever was there and here were the days of carefully scouting and drafting the right fits for the puzzle. The first 3 years of Theo were painful to watch for outsiders, but exciting times for serious fans. Cubs fans got to watch as prized youngsters such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Hendricks bided their time on the farm and other youngsters such as Anthony Rizzo, Arismendy Alcantara, and Starlin Castro had their chance to show what they could do every day at the MLB level. It did not pay off in wins and losses, but it surely helped in giving these kids confidence in their own abilities. It also didn’t hurt that Epstein/Hoyer were able to pull off shrewd deals (Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, and Jeff Samardzjia netted Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Billy McKinney, Addison Russell, and some guy named Jake). Add to that one of the most successful coups in modern MLB history, and the foundation was firmly in place.
Why all this backstory? Because, if the 2016 Chicago Cubs really do pull this off, the “Making of…” story will be just as important as the actual events as they unfold.
So, without further ado, I present the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
Is there a better all-around infield in MLB? There are three previous All-Stars (Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Anthony Rizzo) and one probable (Addison Russell) one in the starting spots. Add to that a guy who would be starting for most MLB teams (Javier Baez) and a guy who is a great left handed contact bat (Tommy LaStella).
Defensively, this group is better than people think. Bryant was far from a butcher at the Hot Corner, and Rizzo and Zobrist are both well respected defenders. While Zobrist was disappointing defensively at second base in 2015, this seems to be a blip rather than a trend, as his metrics up to that point were stellar. Russell is already being mentioned, in his second season, with the elite shortstop defenders. Baez is slick and smooth in the middle. LaStella is steady.
Offensively, this group is good and only stands to get better. Bryant did everything expected of him, and more, in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2015. Critics point out that he had a quite high strikeout rate (199 in 650 plate appearances), but fail to notice that he also was patient enough to coax 77 bases on balls (.369 OBP). With a stringer lineup surrounding him, and one more year under his belt, his production should be just fine.
Rizzo simply had the best season of his career to date, in 2015. He set career highs in hits, RBI, SB, walks, and runs scored while finishing 4th in NL MVP voting. This team is squarely on his shoulders.
Addison Russell came up from Iowa shortly after Bryant and struggled at the plate while adjusting to a new position (2B). He settled into the lower part of the lineup, and took over at his natural shortstop position after the benching of Starlin Castro and put up better numbers all across the board. With the lowered expectations that come with batting 7th or 8th, Russell is in a prime spot to have a breakout season with the bat.
Zobrist has been the model of consistency at the plate ever since becoming a regular with the Rays in 2009. He has a bit more pop as a right handed hitter, but gets on base at a pretty much equal rate from each side. This is one of the smartest acquisitions this team has made.
As for the reserves, LaStella is a good contact guy with low strikeout rates who provides a valuable left handed bench bat. Baez has tremendous right handed power and flashes good speed.
This team has a problem many other teams wish they had. What problem is that? How to find playing time for 4 top tier outfielders.
In center field, the Cubs resigned second half hero Dexter Fowler. While he was not by any means an excellent defensive player, he was much better than he had been in previous years with Colorado and Houston. His impact on this team was in many ways other than with the glove. He got on base from the leadoff spot regularly (.346 OBP) and scored a lot (102 runs) while taking time to also pop a career high 17 HR. His impact on the 2015 Cubs was much like what Gary Matthews meant to the 1984 Cubs.
In left field, the team actually faces a dilemma of sorts. Former right fielder Jorge Soler and the hard hitting Kyle Schwarber will at least start off the year in a time share. Neither player is likely to win the spot outright due to his glove, so Maddon is likely to just play the hot hand. The games that Schwarber is playing at catcher or, as in the case of the opening series, the team needs a DH in an American League ballpark, both SOler and Schwarber will be able to be in the lineup.
Then there is right field. One season after Jon Lester signed the richest deal in Cubs history, Jason Heyward moved Lester to second place. Heyward is not going to hit 30 HR. He will not hit .340. He will not drive in 120 runs. What he WILL do is get on base at an excellent clip and provide other-worldly defensive support. There have been plenty of offseason debates as to whether this deal is favorable for the Cubs or not. Time will tell. It stands to reason that if Heyward exercises his out clause and once again hits the free agency market after the 2018 season, that would indicate a “win-win” scenario for both player and team.
The incumbent is Miguel Montero, and there is no reason not to expect more of the same from him. He can be penciled in for .250-.270 with 12-18 HR and solid defense. And there is not a thing wrong with that. The catcher position is not one which is expected to be a major offensive producer anymore. Teams rely on their backstops to stabilize a pitching staff and play 5 times a week. That is exactly what Montero gives you.
Behind him is the stalwart David Ross, who has already announced that 2016 will be his last MLB season as a player. He is the epitome of “Leader”. He doesn’t put up the flashy stats, and never really has (2006 excepted). What he does provide is leadership and insight. His influence on the 2015 was far greater than his statistics would seem to indicate.
Waiting in the wings in the case of injuries or ineffectiveness, the Cubs have Matt Szczur (who will open with the team while Baez is on the 15 Day DL), Arismendy Alcantara, Jeimer Candelario, Tim Fedorowicz, Kristopher Negron, Willson Contreras, Matt Murton, Shane Victorino, and Munenori Kawasaki. Madden loves to use his roster, and any combination of these guys are likely to spend significant time with the 2016 Cubs.
And then there is the pitching…
Let’s first look at the bullpen.
Closing things will be Hector Rondon. In Chicago sports, there are always two guys who the fans love to hate. One is whoever is the starting QB for the Bears, the other is whoever is the 9th inning guy for the Cubs. No matter what the incumbent is doing, the fans always seem to think the guy in waiting would do better. The case is no different this year.
For a stretch last year, Rondon was removed from the closer role. During the offseason, a lot of people were clamoring for Rondon to be replaced by such names as Papelbon, Chapman, etc. I could understand that when your incumbent has been ineffective. So, how ineffective has Rondon been? How about 30/34 in saves, a 1.67 ERA, a crisp 1.00 WHIP? Or how about during the summer months (June, July, August) when he had a 0.50 combined ERA with 15/16 saves? This guy has been good, people. He is also 28 years old, so just reaching his peak performance. No need for a replacement.
Leading up to him will be where the Cubs can make or break their season. The rest of the relief squad is filled with guys who have about as much upside as they do question marks. When these guys are “on”, they’re on. But when they’re “off”…
The top right hander in the pen is Pedro Strop.When he was good in 2015, he was REALLY good. But when he was bad…just ask Bob Costas. When looking at his performance breakdown, it is particularly alarming to see how he did when a runner reached third base. A .625 opponent’s batting average with the bases loaded has got to have sabremetric guru Maddon cringing. To Maddon’s credit, he continues to let Strop try to work his way through these blips.
The top lefty is an interesting study. Travis Wood was brought to the Cubs as a 25 year old starting pitcher with a great upside. He was solid in his first two Cubs seasons with good peripheral numbers and an All Star appearance. His third season was a disaster in every way, and he entered 2015 as the Cubs fifth starter. As a starter, he seemed to hit a wall around the middle of the game, as he dropped precipitously in the 5th and 6th. Madden saw this quickly and moved him to the bullpen after only 9 starts. What a good move that turned out to be. Wood became a reliable and durable member of that bullpen. He was pretty effective against both right and left handed batters, so he was not relegated to your typical LOOGY status, and could be stretched out.
Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm seem to be the best options after that. Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill had their moments, especially late in the season, but neither looks to be a major factor for 2016. And interesting pitcher will be former Yankee Adam Warren who just may end up being the right handed equivalent of Travis Wood. He was arguably more effective as a starting pitcher than out of the bullpen for the Yankees, and he will likely be shuffled between both roles for the Cubs in 2016.
Waiting in the wings, as relief pitchers tend to be shuttled in and out for every MLB team, are guys such as Zac Rosscup (on the 60 day DL), Manny Parra, Ryan Williams (who looked REALLY good in Arizona this Spring), Aaron Crow, and Jean Machi.
As for those starters, this is an intriguing group.
Lester was brought in to headline this staff coming into 2015. He did everything ask of him except win a lot of games. This was not his fault. He so often pitched with horrible run support, as his peripheral statistics were all on par with his best years with Boston. With a bit more luck and support, he easily would have been a 15+ game winner.
Postseason stud John Lackey was brought in to fill the #3 slot in the rotation. He is coming off a very effective season (2.77 ERA, 5.7 WAR) with the hated Cardinals and should fit in nicely.
At 4 and 5, for the time being, are Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel. Hendricks quietly had a pretty good season in 2015. He has a decent repertoire and great makeup. While I will not be so bold as to predict a Hall of Fame career for him, his composition is quite reminiscent of a young Greg Maddux. Being slotted lower in the rotation will only help him as he learns from watching the veterans ahead of him.
Hammel is an interesting study. He has yet, at age 33, to put together a solid full MLB season, but has always tempted with flashes of excellence. 2015 was no exception. He was practically unhittable until he suffered a hamstring injury just before the All Star break. While he didn’t miss significant time, he was not the same after the break. While he can be a decent contributor to an average staff, I don’t see him being a major factor for a competitor. I look for him to lose his rotation spot to Warren before long, and probably look for him to be moved to another team sometime in the summer.
Which brings us to the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta. What he did after the calendar changed to June was simply sparkling. He truly was unhittable. What many fail to realize is that Arrieta was no one-hit wonder. Ever since joining the Cubs in 2013, he has been dominant (36-13, 2.26 ERA, 0.940 WHIP, 14.7 WAR). He had a 5.3 WAR (compared to 8.7 in 2015) in 2014 in only 25 starts. This guy is good, people. While no intelligent person expects him to put up the same supernatural numbers as he did in 2015, there is no reason to expect a dramatic downturn.
This staff, while not exactly the 1971 Orioles, is not one to take lightly. When the dust settles, and that #5 slot is stabilized, this is a starting staff that can easily win 65-70 games.
When all is said and done, I see the 2016 Chicago Cubs triumphing in the NL Central Division, in the National League, and, dare I say it, in all of Major League Baseball. They will defeat the Kansas City Royals 4 games to 2 on Tuesday November 3, 2016. Not only will the free world elect a new President that day, the history books will be rewritten as 108 years of futility will finally come to an end.