Last season was a lot of fun for Cubs fans. From the day Jon Lester agreed to terms to the renewed energy of Spring Training to #WeAreGood to the Arrieta no-hitter and ensuing presser in a onesie all the way to beating the Cardinals in the playoffs. 2015 was full of highs for a group of Cubs expected to be better than the rebuilding brand who were around from 2012-2014, and they far surpassed any reasonable expectation that was had for them. Nobody predicted 97 wins and the 3rd best record in baseball.
In the end, they still fell short. It’s easy to maintain that the NLCS was way better than anyone had thought they’d achieve last season. The playoffs were a pretty good measure of success for last year’s team. But when a team gets as far as the Cubs did, it’s still hard to see them get Daniel Murphied out of the playoffs. It happens. There is, quite literally, nothing the Cubs could have done to stop what happened in to them in the NLCS. Wrong place. Wrong time. Against the wrong team. 2016 is about looking ahead. And things haven’t looked this good in Wrigleyville in a long, long time.
The Cubbies can absolutely crank the long ball. Their 171 team HRs last season were 4th most in MLB. This year, they should be even better. A full season of Kyle Schwarber will help boost that number a little higher than could have been dreamed with Chris Coghlan playing left field. Jorge Soler seemed to find his comfort zone (and consistent focus) in the playoffs. Kris Bryant is a year better and will probably not take a month to hit his first bomb this season. Even the “non-power” guys can provide a healthy dose of HRs. Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, and Addison Russell, among the regulars, can all provide 15-20 HRs each. As a team, nothing about them hitting 200 HRs this season should be a surprise. Everyone in the regular line-up, except for maybe Ben Zobrist, has the potential to go long any time they come up.
There’s something about a team who hits a lot of home runs and takes a lot of walks. Just as everyone in the regular line-up can go deep at any time, the Cubs also have a line-up who can take a walk and keep the order moving. The combination, of course, is runs. With the continued growth of all of the young hitters in the line-up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cubs improve upon their 9.1% walk rate, which was already tied 2nd in MLB, behind only the Dodgers (9.2%). The patience and walks were vital to the success of the offense last season after tying for 28th in batting average as a team. The walk rate helped the Cubs keep runners on base, even when they weren’t getting hits. To finish 28th in average, but still finish 12th in on-base is an accomplishment. It would be a surprise to see either of those numbers that low this season. And the walk rate being over 10% wouldn’t come as a big surprise.
If there is any place that the Cubs have improved over last season, it is in the depth department. As much as we all kind of liked him, there wouldn’t be any place for Johnathan Herrera on this year’s team. The Cubs have 4 legitimate starting outfielders for three spots. The 5th outfielder, Matt Szczur, is a versatile defender who can play all three spots. He may not be around the entire season, but at the outset he should be a commodity in lower scoring, defensive games while the weather is still cool. The infield will open the season a bit weak with Javier Baez starting on the DL, but when he returns the level of versatility and depth among the position players rises even further. The pitching staff was built in a similar fashion. Adam Warren is a starter without a rotation spot. Trevor Cahill is also a uniquely versatile pitcher, who excelled out of the pen late last season. There are a lot of interchangeable parts and replacements for guys who may be lost for stretches of the season. It will take more than 25 players for the Cubs to get where they want to go. Fortunately for them, they have ample reinforcements when the need arises.
For every one of the Cubs’ walks last season, there were roughly 2.68 strike outs. They went down on strikes 1518 times, which was 126 times more than the 2nd most in MLB (Astros), and 174 more than the next NL team (Nationals). There are some idiots who call home runs “rally killers”, but nothing kills a rally more than a runner on second with nobody out than a couple of guys who go down swinging. Even though the Cubs did address the contact rate this off-season, there is still plenty of swing and miss in this line-up. For all of the good things that this offense is going to do in 2016, they are still going to strike out a lot. It’s part of who they are. And it’s ok. Strike outs are not the worst thing in the world. But fewer of them wouldn’t hurt, either.
Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are both scary commodities for a contending team. First, Hendricks had issues going deeper into games. He, seemingly, would cruise into the 4th or 5th inning and absolutely lose it. Joe Maddon figured out when he was going to give up the farm and he’d go get him, but for a team who wasn’t as deep as this year’s team, that was a problem. And let’s not pretend he was the model of consistency. He wasn’t. He peaked at the right time, but Kyle Hendricks had a pretty up and down first full season. Jason Hammel was a dumpster fire in the second half of the season. His 2.86 first half ERA nearly doubled to 5.10 in the second. He did have a thigh injury that may have bothered him, but if that was the case, he should have taken time off. After the All-Star break, Jason Hammel was a liability. And he can’t be that again this season if the Cubs are going to go where they want to go.
2016 Is a Success If…
For this team, it’s about going onward and upward. This season will be a success if that continues. Upward is a World Series appearance. For a team who hasn’t had one of those since the end of World War II, that’s a good thing. Obviously, the goal is to win the whole thing. And this team is very capable of doing it. It’s impossible to predict who will or will not win a championship in April. There’s too much baseball to be played and there is too much variability to the playoffs. But this is a team who is built to win in both the regular season and the postseason. If they win a NL pennant, this is a successful season, even if they lose the World Series.
*I have a hunch that I’m going to get responses about that last line.*
2016 Is a Failure If…
For a team so built to win, with so much money invested, with so much perceived depth, missing the playoffs would be a failure. Anything can happen, of course. Players can under-perform. Players can miss time due to injury. Things outside of their control can happen, like other teams just out-performing them in the standings. All three can happen. But it would be hard to describe a non-playoff bound 2016 Cubs team as anything but a failure. It wouldn’t merit panic, but it would cast a shadow on the season.
This is a good baseball team. It is good enough to win it all. It has star power. It has pitching, power, defensive versatility, a viable DH option when it has to go to an AL ballpark…it has everything a team needs to win it all this year. Except luck. We honestly have no idea if the Cubs have that, yet. But every team who has won a championship, ever, has had some things go their way. The Cubs are going to need that, too. Last year, they made a lot of strides, caught some breaks, and rode a wave into the NLCS. This year, they can ride further. There is no reason why this team will not be better than last year’s team. A record doesn’t indicate how truly good a team is. It merely measures how good a team is in the standings against other teams that year. So they may lose a few more games. It should still be enough to win the division. And, hopefully, win the last game of the baseball season.