Manager: Joe Maddon Projected Record: 84-78
While this isn’t exactly what anyone has in mind for this season, this is about where the Cubs are as currently constructed. Although this off-season was exciting because of the acquisitions and the Cubs launched #LetsGo as the slogan after years of needing to be #committed from watching rebuilding baseball, this is not the year. This is one heck of a giant leap year, though. Leaping from the bottom of the standings into some relevant baseball late in the season. Leaping from trying to avoid 90 losses (and marginally succeeding last season) into the Wild Card chase. The Cubs, depending on how things play out around the rest of the National League very well could snag the second Wild Card spot, too. Even at third in the division. But this season still figures to be one where they’re putting the pieces together to make really loud noises next season.
Jon Lester is a tried and true ace. There is not a lot of discussion that needs to be had about the guy. He goes to work, he gets guys out, and he leads to wins. It really is that simple. The discussion starts with Jake Arrieta, who was worthy of Cy Young discussion based on his performance. The thing that kept him from being higher on ballots was the lack of innings. This year, he comes in healthy and if he can duplicate the 4.9 fWAR he posted last year in 200 innings, the Cubs will have a true 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Last year, Arrieta posted that 4.9 in only 156 2/3 innings. He pitched at ace level last year. If he repeats the same performance over a full season, he may out-pace Lester, and the Cubs may start to float higher in the standings, both in the division and in the playoff chase. Jason Hammel brings stability to the middle of the rotation, and while it shouldn’t be expected that he duplicates his first half performance from last year before he was sent to the A’s in the Samardzija/ Russell deal, he should post solid mid rotation numbers. Kyle Hendricks will start the season in the rotation, according to Joe Maddon, which was mostly expected. He was excellent in his first go around in the majors, posting 1.5 fWAR in 80 1/3 innings last year. While he doesn’t have dazzling stuff, he works efficiently, he works intelligently, and he is more than capable of getting people out. The fifth starter spot figures to go to Travis Wood, who Chris Bosio is proclaiming to be back this year. It is worrisome that Wood, by his own admission, thought he’d arrived after 2013, but in terms of peripheral numbers he was pretty much the same guy as he’d ever been. Since 2011, his xFIP has never strayed between 4.50 and 4.62 and his SIERA has remained between 4.41 and 4.54. If he can get similar results to those of 2013, the Cubs will have a formidable rotation. If his results skew to what they were last season, he could be looking for a new place to pitch. Generally speaking, he probably pitches to the middle of those results, which is in line with his peripheral stats and career averages. If the Cubs are in contention, he could find his way out with those numbers. Jacob Turner is out of options and will either need to be on the roster or designated for assignment when he returns from injury. If Wood is struggling, Turner may get every chance to take his spot.
The bullpen was very good last season, paced by the breakout of Hector Rondon, the revelation that was Neil Ramirez, and the pure stuff of Justin Grimm. Grimm had his moments of weakness early in the season, but in the second half of the season, he posted a 2.60 ERA, held hitters to .200/.259/.227, averaged over one strike out per inning, dramatically reduced his walks, and didn’t give up a home run. Jason Motte can bring some veteran leadership to a group who is very young and lost veteran leader Carlos Villanueva to free agency this past off-season. Wesley Wright is gone after being non-tendered this winter, so Zac Rosscup is an early favorite to be the lefty in the bullpen. Felix Doubront could also play that role, as well as the role of long reliever if the Cubs decide to cut ties to Edwin Jackson. With the prospect return being minimal and the financial cost being high, it remains possible that the Cubs simply release Jackson. What happens with him is worth watching because his roster spot on both the 25 and 40 man rosters provide more value than he has over his first two years as a Cub. While bullpens are volatile and this one is young, there is reason to believe that this group could be dominant. They throw hard. They have good stuff. They’re hungry to prove last year was not a fluke. And Joe Maddon is crafty enough with his bullpens to maximize their abilities. This pen has a lot of ability. They could be nasty and there are more arms in Iowa waiting for a chance to contribute to it.
Smart money says this group thins out by 1 with the smartest money being wagered on Welington Castillo being traded. Since there is no obvious trade partner, though, he will most likely be with the Cubs when they come north. David Ross provides a good deal of veteran leadership because he’s been around since the first Roosevelt administration. He won’t give a lot in terms of offensive production, but he is a mentor who has been a part of winning teams and understands what it takes to get to the next level. And he can catch Jon Lester because they’re friends, so that works out. Miguel Montero comes over after a pair of down years in Arizona. He hits right handed pitching well, he works counts, and he is the gold standard at pitch framing. Teammates have universally raved about him, so he also brings being a respected veteran to the club. He’s been on the decline, but if the Cubs can get 110-120 games out of him at the 1.2 fWAR pace he played at last year in 136 games, they would probably count that as a win. How Welington Castillo would be used if he remains with the team is still up in the air, but if he were to form a true platoon with Montero, while allowing Ross to work in with Lester, the catching group could be particularly good for the Cubs this season. There are still questions that need to be answered here, but in some ways, those questions are good questions…because the Cubs have too many able catchers at the moment.
Kris Bryant makes this list because he will most likely be on the major league roster by the end of April. He will get the vast majority of the starts at third base this season. And even though he will start in Iowa for service time reasons, he will be a Chicago Cub for much of the season. Outside of that bit of business, the rest of the infield looks pretty well set. Anthony Rizzo emerged as one of the bright young stars in the game last year, and if the Cubs do the winning they intend to do this season, Rizzo will likely be a big reason why. He may find himself on MVP ballots across the country if that happens. He’s outstanding, both offensively and defensively. At 25, he is just starting to show what he can produce, too. Javier Baez will need to reduce his strike outs and make more contact to stay on the field and on the major league roster. If his strike outs persist, he could be supplanted early on by Arismendy Alcantara or Tommy La Stella. The depth at the position is going to put Baez in the position to continue to earn his playing time. Starlin Castro will turn 25 on March 24. HE IS THE YOUNGEST STARTING SHORT STOP IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL! Coupled with that fact is that he is a three time All-Star, has 846 career hits, 11.2 career fWAR, and is coming off his best season. Oh, was it mentioned that HE IS THE YOUNGEST STARTING SHORT STOP IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL!?!? If that doesn’t do it for those who have a problem with Castro, he is massively outperforming his contract and is still getting better. Let’s stop the foolish and, ironically, lazy conversations about how Castro is lazy and doesn’t care. The 5 teams he’s been a part of have all been bad and he’s onto his 5th manager in 6 years. If the last 5 years were lazy Castro, we should all be on the edge of our seat eagerly awaiting the arrival of motivated Castro because that guy is going to be a perversion of another dimension.
While there are only 4 listed outfielders here, Mike Olt, Kris Bryant, and Arismendy Alcantara all have the capability to play out there. Jorge Soler brings a full season of his advanced approach for a 23 year old player. That should be an improvement over the performances the Cubs have lived with over the last few years in right field. Soler, along with Bryant, are legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates as the season opens. It is a good problem to potentially have both in the middle of the same line-up, and depending on how Bryant’s defense and Mike Olt’s performance shake out, possibly in the same outfield. Dexter Fowler’s defensive numbers are not great by any stretch, but he runs well and could have been a victim to massive center fields in Houston and Colorado. He is a true lead off hitter and should bring veteran stability to the outfield and the top of the line-up. His acquisition was significant, and may be one of the driving forces to the Cubs making a run this year.
The Cubs are a very young and inexperienced team. That’s just reality. They have a ton of talent, but the uneven play of young teams is something that needs to be considered when projecting how they finish. The pitching staff looks to be strong, but it has been strong in past years. The Cubs will go as far as their young hitters take them. If they can get on base, continue to hit for power, and score more runs that they have in recent years, the 84 win projection may be entirely too low for this team. If they have the struggles that they had in past seasons where scoring runs looks like a Herculean task, they will allow some wins to slip from their fingers. This team is difficult to project for that reason. They have a ton of ascending talent. It is simply unclear just how high they’ve ascended up to this year, and how high they will ascend by season’s end. One thing that should be a certainty is that they play hard and are playing their best baseball as the season wears on. That and any mid-season additions that the front office makes could be the difference between playing in October or firing up “Price Watch 2015” about a month early.