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2015 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Are they ready to contend?

It has been 106 years since the Cubs won a World Series championship — the longest title drought in North American professional sports — and they haven’t appeared in a Fall Classic since 1945.

Is this their year? Is it finally gonna happen?

Answering that would require predicting the unpredictable — MLB’s playoffs — but the 2015 Cubs could very well be in the conversation when October comes. From the starting lineup to the starting rotation to the much-talked-about farm system, there’s talent everywhere in this organization — an organization that has been built and rebuilt and rebuilt again.

Cubs president Theo Epstein has done this latest rebuild properly, amassing a pool of young, cost-controlled players who appear capable of feeding an extended run of success. Kris Bryant, pictured above, was ranked the game’s No. 1 prospect in late February by Baseball America after batting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI in 138 games last season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He should be up in the majors for good around mid-April. Five other Cubs prospects made Baseball America’s 2015 Top 100 — shortstop Addison Russell (No. 3 overall), outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 12), catcher Kyle Schwarber (No. 19), right-hander C.J. Edwards (No. 38), and outfielder Billy McKinney (No. 83). Schwarber and McKinney aren’t expected to contribute at the major league level this season, but the others should.

Soler, who signed a nine-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs in 2012 after defecting from Cuba, posted a .903 OPS with five home runs and 20 RBI over his first 24 games for Chicago in 2014. He will be the starting right fielder when the 2015 campaign kicks off on April 5, and the 23-year-old is already being trusted at cleanup.

Batting third in front of Soler will be 25-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who broke out last season with a .913 OPS and 32 home runs. One of Epstein’s first moves as Cubs president was acquiring Rizzo from the Padres, and Theo locked Rizzo up about a year-and-a-half after the trade to a team-friendly seven-year, $41 million contract extension with club options for 2020 and 2021. Epstein personally selected Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft when he was still the general manager of the Red Sox.

Bryant, Soler, and Rizzo should be the cornerstones of the Northsiders’ offense going forward and they’ll probably be plenty potent in their first year together at the major league level.

What else is going on?

  • Another potential offensive cornerstone is 22-year-old infielder Javier Baez, who was rated the the No. 5 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2014 season. He struck out 95 times in 52 games as a rookie, but Baez possesses rare bat speed and jaw-dropping minor league numbers. In 2013, he put up a .920 OPS, 37 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games between High-A and Double-A. The hope is that he can develop a little more plate discipline and settle in as the Cubs’ long-term second baseman.
  • Not satisfied with waiting for some of the internal options to grow, Epstein and Co. executed a pair of well-received trades over the winter that shored up holes at catcher and center field. Veteran backstop Miguel Montero, a two-time All-Star, was acquired from the Diamondbacks in December for right-handers Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley. Dynamic center fielder Dexter Fowler, a capable leadoff man, was picked up from the Astros in January for right-hander Dan Straily and third baseman Luis Valbuena.
  • The biggest offseason move for the Cubs was signing left-handed starter Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million free agent contract. That’s a ton of scratch for a 31-year-old pitcher, but the Cubbies print cash and they’ve been waiting to flaunt it. Lester registered a 2.46 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 220 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings last summer between the Red Sox and A’s. He’s the ace the Cubs needed. Following him in the rotation will be Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks. Arrieta is a former top prospect of the Orioles who became a post-hype darling in 2014 with the Cubs, producing a 2.53 ERA, 0.989 WHIP, and 167 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings. Hammel was traded away from the Cubs last July as part of the Jeff Samardzija deal and then re-signed this winter to a two-year, $18 million free agent contract. Hammel had a 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 108 2/3 innings last year for Chicago before struggling out in Oakland. It’s a sneaky-good group, and the Cubs have the chips to make in-season upgrades.
  • Joe Maddon worked miracles with young, low-budget teams in Tampa Bay and seems like the perfect manager to lead the Cubs into this new era of success. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract with Chicago last November after using an opt-out to escape the Rays following their big front office change.
  • Wrigley Field is in the first phase of a massive renovation that probably won’t be fully completed until 2019. The bleachers and brand new video boards were the main focus this offseason, and a combination of bad winter weather and structural issues caused predictable delays. The bleachers aren’t going to be finished until sometime in June, so there will be an eeriness in the outfield on Opening Night against the rival Cardinals and for the following eight-plus weeks. It’s a 101-year-old building, but anyone who has visited Wrigleyville knows that it’s worth preserving. Cubs fans are well-schooled in the virtue of patience.

Prediction: If everything goes right — Bryant becomes an instant star, Baez learns to lay off the junk, and shortstop Starlin Castro sharpens his game — the Cubs will be a factor in a deep divisional race. But they’re probably one more year away from making the big jump. This team finishes third in the National League Central and just out of the reach for the second National League Wild Card spot with 84 total wins.

New White Sox closer David Robertson is not worried about forearm soreness

David Robertson Getty
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While all involved are convinced it’s nothing serious, White Sox closer David Robertson told Dan Hayes of CSNChicago.com this afternoon that he has been dealing with some soreness in his forearm.

Robertson, who signed a four-year, $46 million deal with Chicago over the winter, hasn’t appeared in a game since Saturday and has allowed four runs on six hits, four walks, and a hit-by-pitch over just 4 2/3 innings this spring. However, he was able to make it through a bullpen session on Thursday.

“I felt pretty good,” Robertson said. “I just don’t want to push anything. That’s the big thing. I have a little soreness. It’s not bad. I don’t foresee a problem. I just don’t want to injure myself worse when I’ve got a week or two to get it right.

The hope is that Robertson will be able to pitch in back-to-back games before the end of spring training. It will be something to worry about if he’s still feeling sore a week from now, but he still has some time to get right.

Robertson took over the Yankees closer role from Mariano Rivera last season and posted a 3.08 ERA with 39 saves and a 96/23 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings.

White Sox tab Jeff Samardzija for Opening Day start

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White Sox manager Robin Ventura told Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday that right-hander Jeff Samardzija will get the club’s Opening Day start on April 6 in Kansas City.

Samardzija will face off against 23-year-old Royals right-hander Yordano Ventura, who was also given the official Opening Day nod on Wednesday.

Chris Sale would have been Chicago’s Opening Day starter, but he’s expected to miss the first week of the season due to an avulsion fracture in his right foot.

Samardzija was acquired from the Athletics in December as part of a six-player trade.

He posted a 2.99 ERA and 1.065 WHIP in 219 2/3 innings last year between the Cubs and A’s.

Video: Jose Abreu cranks first spring homer

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Jose Abreu “put it on the board” with this solo shot Tuesday off Rockies reliever Jairo Diaz …

That was Abreu’s first home run of the spring, but he’s batting .459 with a 1.124 OPS in 39 total Cactus League plate appearances. Abreu won 2014 American League Rookie of the Year honors and finished fourth in the 2014 American League MVP vote after hitting .317/.383/.581 with 36 homers and 107 RBI in 145 games.

Dodgers sign Cuban star Hector Olivera for $62.5 million

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After months of speculation and rumors about where Cuban star Hector Olivera would sign and for how much, the end result was pretty predictable: He’s going to the richest team in baseball for a whole bunch of money, signing with the Dodgers for six years and $62.5 million.

Olivera has struggled with injuries recently, but the 30-year-old infielder is projected as an impact bat and if healthy should be able to step into the Dodgers’ lineup very soon. He played mostly second base in Cuba, but there are some worries about the state of his elbow and Olivera would be a big middle infielder at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds.

He’s been a high-average right-handed hitter with good on-base skills and significant power in Cuba, although not on the same level as the raw power possessed by Jose Abreu or Yoenis Cespedes. Third baseman Juan Uribe’s job would seemingly be in the most jeopardy once Olivera is deemed ready and in terms of his 2016 position both Uribe and second baseman Howie Kendrick are impending free agents.

The rich get richer and the Dodgers’ new front office shows they’re just as willing as the old front office to make a big splash signing Cuban players.