The days of making fun of the Chicago Cubs are over. No more “the Cubs will Cub” jokes. The Cubs might be the best team in baseball, not just this year but for the next several years. They have a great core of young players to build around and some stellar veterans to show them how it’s done. They have the reigning Cy Young Award winner and the reigning Rookie of the Year. They have an MVP-caliber hitter (maybe three). They have a ton of money to spend. They have the best manager in baseball and the best General Manager too. This is not good. I don’t like this at all.
After being perennial doormats for several years, the Cubs suddenly won 97 games last year. Everyone knew the Cubs were building a powerhouse team but nobody expected them to skyrocket to the top so quickly. The Cubs promoted their elite prospects to the majors and supported them with some shrewd additions of veteran players acquired from other teams. They also added Joe Maddon, previously the brilliant manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. The team quickly coalesced and shot up the standings, winning a Wild Card slot and defeating the Pirates and Cardinals in the playoffs before succumbing to the Mets just shy of a World Series berth.
They didn’t rest on their laurels this offseason. Instead they added three key new players that should help them win even more games this year.
The Cubs finally got tired of shortstop Starlin Castro’s antics and regressing performance. Castro was their starting shortstop for six seasons but ultimately failed to live up to the lofty expectations built up by his early success. He was a league average batter during that time but was very streaky. He seemed to have all the talent in the world but his attitude was lacking. He was lackadaisical, nonchalant and easily distracted during games, even walking around with his backed turned to the batter as the ball was being pitched. The emergence of Addison Russell made Castro expendable. Russell is an elite young shortstop stolen from the Athletics in a trade for Jeff Samardzija a couple years ago. The Cubs finally decided to ship Castro off to the Yankees for starting pitcher Adam Warren, a poor return for a guy considered a future star not long ago.
The Cubs traded veteran Chris Coghlan to the Athletics for young starting pitcher Aaron Brooks. Coghlan was a veteran outfielder/infielder who was remarkably productive for the Cubs in 2014 and 2015 after being a replacement level player for the Marlins from 2009-2013. For two years as a Cub, Coghlan delivered them 935 plate appearances of .800 OPS and 120 wRC+ offense (100 wRC+ is average). Coghlan could play multiple positions, having played 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, CF and RF as a Cub. Losing such a versatile player who could really hit seems like quite a loss and it was, but when you replace him with a guy like Jason Heyward it doesn’t hurt much.
The Cubs also lost some role players like outfielder Austin Jackson, former Red Chris Denorfia, retired starter Dan Haren and key reliever Jason Motte. None of those guys were members of the young core and they were all replaced with better options.
The Cubs’ biggest addition was outfielder Jason Heyward for eight years and $184 million. Still only 26 years old, Heyward is a premium defensive right fielder and excellent base runner. He is a well above average hitter as well (career 118 wRC+). He was an uber-elite prospect as a minor leaguer and reached the majors as a 20 year old (which is why he hit free agency as a 26 year old). He is 6’5″, 245 pounds with all five baseball tools being plus. Everyone expected him to become a superstar slugger and his 134 wRC+ as a 20 year old rookie seemed to assure he would. But he has never again matched or exceeded that rookie season at the plate. He is still young enough to take another step forward to superstardom. This is a guy who can hit for power and average, steal bases and play defense at a stellar level. Not only did the Cubs make a huge upgrade to their team by adding Heyward, they took him away from their arch-rival the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ben Zobrist was manager Joe Maddon’s favorite and most versatile player when both were in Tampa Bay. The Cubs gave Zobrist four years and $56 million to come to the north side of Chicago as their new second baseman. The nearly 35 year old veteran is known as the ultimate utility player because of his defensive versatility. He has played at least 8 games at every position on the field except pitcher and catcher. Usually a player gets labeled as a utility player because he is not good enough to be a starter, but this does not apply to Zobrist. He has played 1200 MLB games and has over 5000 PAs of 118 wRC+ hitting under his belt. Similar to Scott Rolen’s tenure with the young Reds playoff teams a few years ago, Zobrist was brought in to lead by example and show this young Cubs team how to win.
The Cubs hurt the Cardinals again by signing away starting pitcher John Lackey for two years and $32 million to be their new #3 starter. Lackey put up a very impressive 2.77 ERA last year for the Cardinals. His peripherals weren’t quite that good, so we should see some regression this season but he is still a big upgrade to the Cubs’ rotation. If you can add a near-guaranteed 200 innings from a proven veteran with 165 career wins and a 110 ERA+ on a team-friendly contract you have to consider that a good move.
The one who got away then came back
Dexter Fowler was a big reason why the Cubs played so well last year. He gave them 690 plate appearances of 110 wRC+ offense with 17 home runs and 20 steals while playing 156 games in center field. The Cubs gave him a $15 million Qualifying Offer after the season but he rejected it. He was linked to several teams in free agency and appeared to have signed a $32 million contract with the Orioles but backed out of that deal to return to the Cubs for “only” $13 million. Fowler will return to the leadoff position in the batting order for the Cubs and should once again be a key, veteran contributor.
Be sure to check out today’s articles here on Redleg Nation about the Cubs’ hitters and pitchers to see all the reasons why the Cubs are going to be a Reds menace for the next few years.
The Pecota projections from Baseball Prospectus predict the Cubs to win 94 games, which ties the Dodgers for the highest total for any team. They predict an 82% chance the Cubs will make the playoffs and a 12.3% chance they win the World Series, which is only very slightly less likely than the Dodgers’ odds. In my mind the Cubs are the best team going into the season. When I compare the Cubs’ to the Dodgers’ roster I think the Cubs are much better. Perhaps the Dodgers will have more money to spend for upgrades during the season, but if I were a betting man I would plunk my money down on the Cubs.
I see a young team in which most of the players could reasonably be expected to improve upon their already gaudy stats from last year. They won 97 games last year and I think they can do it again this year. They made it through the season last year relatively unscathed by injury. Maybe they won’t be so fortunate this year. The Cubs have depth on both sides of the ball and they have the resources (both trade chips and cash) to fill any holes that may arise due to injury or poor performance as the season unfolds.
My prediction: 101 Wins and the NL Central division championship, but they lose in the playoffs to a team with three top-flight ace starting pitchers. I think a full season from Bryant, Schwarber and Russell, the guys who were promoted during the season last year, combined with the additions of Heyward, Zobrist and Lackey will help the Cubs overcome a couple of injuries to win even more games than they did last year. Joe Maddon will guide the ship through whatever rough waters appear. The Cubs are built for regular season success more than playoff success because they don’t have the depth of elite pitching that the Mets, Nationals and Giants can confront them with. The Cubs will have a great season but they won’t win their first World Series since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt before World War I and even before the Titanic sank. They may do it while this young core is intact but it won’t be this year — I hope.