Dan Straily

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.