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 2016 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs haven’t had this much hype coming into a season in a while. The 2015 campaign saw the debuts of highly-touted prospects Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber, the continued excellence of Anthony Rizzo, historically great pitching from Jake Arrieta, and a career year from Hector Rondon. Their season ended with a disappointing 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Mets in the NLCS, but a busy offseason has many picking the Cubs to represent the National League in the 2016 World Series.
Business started on December 4, when the Cubs inked starter John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal. That the club only needed to commit two years to the 37-year-old hurler – who has heaps of postseason experience – is a huge win. The next week, Ben Zobrist signed with the Cubs on a four-year, $56 million deal. Three days after that, Jason Heyward decided to join the Cubs on an eight-year, $184 million contract.
The most interesting signing of the offseason may not have been Heyward, however. Dexter Fowler chose the Cubs on a one-year, $13 million pact after things fell through with the Orioles, as it had been reported that the veteran outfielder was in agreement on a three-year, $35 million deal. But Fowler wanted an opt-out clause and the Orioles wanted him to, in essence, pay them for the draft pick they would forfeit in signing him. So the Cubs called and the rest is history.
FanGraphs projects the Cubs to have the best offense in the National League, averaging 4.61 runs per game. The projections also call for the Cubs to have the third-best pitching staff in the NL at 3.75 runs per game. Adding Zobrist, Heyward, and Fowler to an offense that scored 689 runs last year will certainly help. And, of course, Lackey will pitch in for a team that allowed only 608 runs this past season.
The Cubs have a wealth of talent, so they aren’t pinning their hopes on any one player living up to and exceeding expectations. That being said, Arrieta will be the straw that stirs the drink. He edged out Zack Greinke for the National League Cy Young Award, finishing with a 22-6 record, a 1.77 ERA, and a 236/48 K/BB ratio over 229 innings. Arrieta, Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw in 2014 are the only pitchers to post a 1.77 ERA or lower since the 2001 season, to put in perspective how good the right-hander was. Arrieta floundered in the majors between 2010-13 with the Orioles after consistently ranking as one of their top prospects, but found immediate success upon joining the Cubs in the second half of the ’13 campaign. Isn’t much of a stretch to believe he can continue being exactly as dominant as he was in 2015.
Bryant joined Arrieta in the hardware department, earning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. While he led the league with 199 strikeouts, he made up for it by hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs, 99 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases. He lived up to the tremendous amount of hype surrounding him entering the season, as Baseball America billed him as the game’s top prospect. While Josh Donaldson was the standard-bearer at third base last year, deservingly so, it may be Bryant who does so for the foreseeable future.
Rizzo will reprise his role as one of the game’s most unheralded players again in 2016, coming off a season in which he hit .278/.387/.512 with 31 home runs, 101 RBI, 94 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases. First base is often thought of a position for slow, one-dimensional sluggers, but Rizzo truly does it all. Plus, he’s durable, accruing 160 games played in two of his last three seasons.
In the outfield, Heyward is emblematic of the old school versus new school schism. The old school undervalues him because, outside of 2012, he hasn’t hit for much power. In fact, he slugged for a meager .384 in 2014. The new school probably overvalues him because he grades out very highly with defensive metrics, which has him 122 runs above average since 2010, according to Baseball Reference. The Cubs, one of baseball’s most forward-thinking teams, obviously buys into his defensive wizardry, otherwise the eight-year contract would have never come to fruition. In a typical year, Heyward is good for double-digit home runs, 25-30 doubles, and 20 stolen bases, which is quite valuable to have in a lineup, particularly with the power bats surrounding him.
To avoid combing one-by-one through the likely 25-man roster, we’ll stop with Rondon. The 28-year-old closer flew under the radar, saving 30 games with a 1.67 ERA and a 69/15 K/BB ratio in 70 innings. Among qualified relievers, only four were better in the ERA department and only Aroldis Chapman (1.63, 33 saves) closed out more games. While he averages about a strikeout per inning, Rondon doesn’t have the dominant swing-and-miss stuff of Chapman, Ken Giles, or Wade Davis, but the Cubs feel very comfortable when they take a lead into the ninth inning.
What do the Cubs need to do to ensure success in 2016?
- Arrieta and Bryant follow up on award-winning performances in 2015 with more of the same
- Fowler, Rizzo, and Bryant continue to put pressure on opposing pitchers with base running, as the trio combined for 50 stolen bases last year
- Rondon continues to handle closing opportunities with ease
- Jon Lester repeats last year’s performance in which he posted a 3.34 ERA over 32 starts
Prediction: 97-65, first place in the NL Central