Chicago Cubs v San Francisco Giants

Springtime Storylines: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: 102 years and counting…

The Big Question: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Since that victory, two World Wars have been fought, women have gained the right to vote, radio and television have both been invented, the NFL, NHL and NBA have been formed, and 18 U.S. presidents have been elected. You’ve probably heard all of this before. Point is, it’s been a long, long time.

Most professional sports franchises wouldn’t survive over 100 years without a championship, let alone be flourishing. But the Cubs have packed Wrigley Field on a daily (and nightly) basis since the ‘90s and they operate quite comfortably under one of the top total payrolls in the major leagues. Heck, the team sold for a whopping $845 million in the summer of 2009.

So what’s wrong? And will the 2011 edition of the Cubbies be able to finally shed that “lovable losers” label?

The 25-man roster this season is far from mediocre and actually borders on being pretty darn good. Aramis Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, but he still has some pop and most teams can’t claim a third baseman with his kind of power potential. Alfonso Soriano might be overpaid, but he’ll rake on the right days and was decently productive last season under renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Even outfielder Kosuke Fukudome carries value with his typically high on-base percentages.

The list of quality baseball players goes on, and it gets even better when you hit the pitching staff. Ryan Dempster drew Cy Young Award votes in 2008 and has averaged 189 strikeouts per year for the past three seasons. Carlos Zambrano looked like the Big Z of old at the end of 2010, Matt Garza should greatly enjoy his move from the ever-tough American League East to the far less demanding National League Central, and Randy Wells was better than your run-of-the-mill innings eater last year.

If 24-year-old starter Andrew Cashner pans out the way scouts think he might, that’s a solid five-man group in a league that has no designated hitter and most of the sport’s smaller payrolls.

The Cubs don’t lack talent and they have the money to make big moves at any turn. But Chicago has been fielding good teams off and on for a full century and the Northsiders have not been able to accomplish Major League Baseball’s ultimate goal in the modern era. For that to change now in 2011, the Cubs’ veterans must stay healthy and the Cubs’ youngsters must progress. That might sound simple, but it’s the exact sort of thing that the franchise has struggled with for the previous 102 years.

So what else is going on?

  • Mike Quade wasn’t a sexy manager pick for what is usually a high profile job. The former Triple-A Iowa skipper had his interim tag removed at the end of the 2010 season after leading the Cubs to a surprising 23-14 finish in the wake Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement. He’s off to a smooth start record-wise and all reports were good from camp this spring, but the Cubs always seem to attract drama and Quade is going to have to guide his first major league team through a suddenly more dangerous Central division.
  • The story of Starlin Castro is just beginning, and Chapter One was fantastic. The young Dominican shortstop had more hits than Ike Davis, Andres Torres, Justin Upton, Scott Rolen and Brett Gardner last season as a 20-year-old rookie. Castro is probably never going to hit for much power and he has miles to go as a base-stealer, but he has already opened many eyes around the league at a wildly young age.
  • Former Cubs starter Kerry Wood is back in town. The veteran right-hander gave new life to his career last season as a late-innings reliever in New York, fanning 31 batters and allowing only two runs in 26 pinstriped frames. He took an inexpensive contract to return to the organization that brought him up and should act as a reliable setup man behind closer Carlos Marmol, who made a bunch of noise of his own last year with a major league record 15.99 K/9.

So how are they gonna do?

The Reds won the division last year with a young offense and will be challenging for the top spot again. The Brewers added two potential aces in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and slugger Prince Fielder is entering a contract year. The rival Cardinals will also be heavily involved in what should be a summer-long race. If the Cubs are going to win the division crown or play themselves into the hunt for the wild card, it might take 90 wins. And they’re just barely capable of that.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.