Chicago Cubs v San Francisco Giants

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


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.

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar
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Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.

Astros top Royals in Game 1 of ALDS

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, left, celebrates with teammate Luis Valbuena after scoring a run during the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After shutting out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday, the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. Road teams are now 4-0 to begin the 2015 postseason.

The Astros grabbed an early 3-0 lead against Yordano Ventura through two innings. Chris Young took over for the Royals after a 47-minute rain delay and was very effective for the most part, allowing just a solo homer to George Springer over four innings while striking out seven batters. Colby Rasmus, who homered in the Wild Card game, took Ryan Madson deep in the eighth inning to give the Astros’ bullpen some extra breathing room.

Collin McHugh stayed in after the rain delay and ended up tossing six innings while allowing just four hits and one walk. Kendrys Morales did all the damage against him with a pair of solo homers. He’s the first Royals player to hit two home runs in a postseason game since George Brett in the 1985 ALCS.

The Royals’ offense showed some signs of life in the bottom of the eighth inning with back-to-back two-out hits against Will Harris, but Oliver Perez got Eric Hosmer to foul out to end the threat. Luke Gregerson tossed a scoreless ninth inning to finish off the victory.

Consistent with their identity during the regular season, the Astros won despite striking out 14 times. The same goes for the Royals, as they struck out just four times. Despite putting the ball into play more often, the Kansas City lineup wasn’t able to muster anything aside from the home runs by Morales.

Game 2 of the ALDS will begin Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET. Scott Kazmir will pitch for the Astros and Johnny Cueto will get the ball for the Royals.

George Springer homers to extend Astros’ lead over Royals

Houston Astros' George Springer (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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After Kendrys Morales brought the Royals within one run in the bottom of the fourth inning with his second solo home run of the game, George Springer took Chris Young deep in the top of the fifth to extend the Astros’ lead to 4-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS.

According to Statcast, the ball traveled an estimated 422 feet and left Springer’s bat at 109 mph. Royals fans are happy it was just a solo home run. It could have been worse, as Jose Altuve singled to lead off the fifth inning before being thrown out trying to steal second base during Springer’s at-bat.

The Royals will try to answer as we move to the bottom of the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.