As Spring Training continues and the Chicago Cubs pare down their roster to the final 25 heading to the under-construction Wrigley Field come Opening Night, Andy took the last week to preview all five teams in the National League Central Division. For projected rosters, performance, and final standings, please read the following:
- 1st place – St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
- 2nd place – Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74)
- 3rd place – Chicago Cubs (84-78)
- 4th place – Milwaukee Brewers (78-84)
- 5th place – Cincinnati Reds (77-85)
You will note that the “cellar dwellers” aren’t Astros-bad, and a hot streak here or there would significantly change the complexion of the division. That’s the built-in margin of error of 5-10 games either way, and note that only 13 games separate the first and last place teams in our projections. That’s why they play the games.
As for the Cubs, Andy’s prediction of 84 wins can be considered either conservative or optimistic, given that most folks are projecting somewhere between 80-85 wins. I guess since we’re World Series Dreaming, we are erring on the side of optimism here. The thing is, even last year, the wild card teams needed at least 88 wins to get into the postseason mix. The year before, the threshold was 90 wins. In the first year of the expanded wild card, it took 88 wins (yeah, it was the Cardinals again). It’s not easy to get to that threshold. That means even with the most optimistic of projections, the Cubs will need to sneak in an extra three wins, and maybe even five or six, to have a realistic chance of securing that second wild card spot. I know Anthony Rizzo said the goal was to win the division, but we’re going to be realistic here and say that it will happen later on. Of course, if Rizzo is right, I’m not gonna complain about it!
While we wait for the Cubs game to start (and the season, for that matter, if you’re reading this after the fact), let’s look at some reasons why the Cubs may be able to sneak in some wins…
When the Cubs surprised everyone and pissed off Tampa Bay (and possibly former not-bad-by-any-means manager Rick Renteria) by hiring Joe Maddon as their new manager, it signaled a shift from development towards actual contention. This isn’t to say Maddon is horrible with young players, as that was obviously not the case when he led the Rays to a sustained run of success before they sputtered last season before this offseason’s organizational shakeup. Players like and respect him, and in retrospect it’s not difficult to see why the Cubs went all-in on this hire.
The big thing we’re looking for from Maddon this year is some ingenuity between the foul lines. How will he use matchups? How will the lineup be constructed? Will players be receptive to the ever-changing lineup, bullpen duties, etc? How will he ensure player health (i.e. Jorge Soler‘s legs) and productivity throughout the season, particularly if he has to juggle a fifth-starter “platoon” (you can check out our conversation with Cubs Den on Twitter and on his blog) and a potential three-catcher rotation (it sounds unlikely, but you never know with these Cubs nowadays)? So many questions, but if anyone can answer these effectively, it would probably be Joe Maddon.
The guy already has a good deal of postseason experience, winning a World Series under Mike Scioscia with the Angels, getting to the dance in 2008 with the Rays and is knocking on the door with our Cubs now.
Let’s just say that his leadership keeps every key player healthy, maximizes lineup production and batter/pitcher matchups as well as defensive positioning. What is that worth? Most people say managers only swing the pendulum by one or two wins. But if enough runs are accumulated on offense and prevented on defense due to attention to detail…is that worth five or more wins? It’s not unreasonable to think about.
Depth and Versatility
I make jokes about the 512 middle infielders in the Cubs’ system right now (by the way, ranked first overall including by MLB.com’s Pipeline) but I’m only slightly exaggerating. There are numerous guys on the 40-man roster already, not to mention just waiting in the wings at Iowa and maybe even Tennessee, who can step in and minimize the production hit if Mike Olt struggles or if a regular gets hurt. Supersub Arismendy Alcantara can play pretty much anyway on the diamond (Joe Maddon has called him a new version of Ben Zobrist, but the bat’s not quite there yet), as can a number of other guys who are expected to make the team. This team is built to not descend into catastrophe in the event of a lengthy trip to the disabled list or a prolonged slump. The Cardinals and Pirates are built that way too, so this may not be a huge advantage, but it is something.
We’ve talked about the bullpen quite a bit because of the four main power arms in Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, as well as new guy Jason Motte. The lefty situation still has to be sorted out, but the five righties can be productive against either handedness. An effective bullpen can help the Cubs eke out more close victories than may be projected. Of course, the other teams in the division have pretty good bullpens, which is why we believe the Cubs will slot in at third place, but the pendulum of luck swings both ways. The starting rotation should help keep the bullpen rested as well, and given the abilities of all the relievers, Maddon has quite a luxury at the back end.
IF. Big IF. Not like “infielder” IF, but “if” IF. Because we have no guarantee that even the best of the best of the Cubs’ prospects will take the league by storm when they’re called up against, say, the Pirates in April.
Howeva! We can still be excited that the Cubs have one of the best collection of hitting prospects in recent memory. We can be thrilled that the Cubs front office realized that there was a scarcity of hitting and hoarded it. The IFs aren’t as big with guys who have been scouted well and developed well by the new Cubs Way. So if we dream a bit bigger and say that Kris Bryant hits 40 bombs, Javier Baez remembers how to make contact and hits a few dozen of his own, Kyle Hendricks pitches like Greg Maddux 2.0 (haha)…how many wins would that be worth?
The Established Guys
Even if the prospects bomb (they probably won’t), the Cubs lineup is anchored by guys who know how to grind out at-bats and get on base. Let’s say Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro play at All-Star caliber again; and let’s also remember that they’re NOT THAT OLD, which means they still have the potential to be better than they have been. This appears to be true for Castro, who has improved his defense every year and also is capable of double digit home run totals. We know that Jon Lester is likely to be solid-to-awesome, and so we just have to hope that Jake Arrieta‘s performance last year wasn’t a mirage (signs suggest that Arrieta’s awesomeness is sustainable). “Normal” production from Rizzo and Castro plus the new veterans gives us a floor for victories that we can build on, and let’s say that’s at 84 as Andy projected. How much more would “superstar” Rizzo and Castro produce? And that’s not even counting the other guys.
Not Selling Off, But Adding At the Deadline
Forgot this earlier, but just as a thought…over the first years of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, the Cubs have been major sellers at the deadline to replenish the farm system and establish high draft picks and pool money. Now, they are in clear win-mode (even if they don’t sell out to do it by, say, calling up a certain super prospect early) and they’ll be more likely to buy at the deadline. There’s another one or two wins there if Theo and Jed play their cards right, and based on previous trades as Cubs head honchos, they’ll probably do pretty well.
Pure Dumb Luck
Remember back a few years when the Baltimore Orioles won like 11 more games than they should have based on run differential? I had an argument with my friend, an Orioles fan, that they had a lot of things go right for them beyond what their talent level suggested, but that narrative applies to us Cubs fans in 2015 as well. If we were being objective, the Cubs are a third-place team (an improvement, mind you) but this isn’t a terrible failure since they’d likely finish over .500 this season. But if all of those things go right that we just talked about…
- Joe Maddon actually knows what he’s doing and maximizes matchups and production with managerial decisions;
- The prospects are as badass as we think they are;
- The veterans do their job, and then some;
- The bullpen and defense helps steal a few wins here or there;
- Whoever the Cubs trade for at the deadline kicks ass and takes names later;
…we suddenly find our 84-win Cubs team will have added a bunch of wins. Maybe it won’t be 11 like those 2012 O’s, but would that be out of the realm of possibility? If you’re dreaming of a World Series this year, you’d better hope that the Cubs err on the side of the improbable. All they need is a shot. Once in, anything can happen, as the Royals showed last October.