The Chicago Cubs finally saw returns on their rebuild in a big way last season, as the club won 97 games and made it to the NLCS, only to get swept by the New York Mets. The progress the Cubs made over the last three seasons has been outstanding, and it must feel great to be a Cubs fan once again. Winning now is expected, and Chicago is the World Series favorites this spring thanks to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer assembling a great blend of youth and veterans.
Depth Chart (as of 3/8)
C: Miguel Montero
1B: Anthony Rizzo
2B: Ben Zobrist
SS: Addison Russell
3B: Kris Bryant
LF: Kyle Schwarber
CF: Dexter Fowler
RF: Jason Heyward
SP: Jake Arrieta
SP: Jon Lester
SP: John Lackey
SP: Jason Hammel
SP: Kyle Hendricks
CL: Hector Rondon
New Faces: Aaron Brooks, Rex Brothers, Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Edgar Olmos, CJ Riefenhauser, Adam Warren, Ben Zobrist
Departures: Quintin Berry, Starlin Castro, Chris Coghlan, Chris Denorfia, Dan Haren, Tommy Hunter, Austin Jackson, Yoervis Medina, Jason Motte, Fernando Rodney, Rafael Soriano, Jacob Turner
Position Battles: The Chicago Cubs are set with both their lineup and rotation, but spots should be up for grabs in the bullpen and on the bench. Clayton Richard and Neil Ramirez should battle it out for one of the final pen spots, and Adam Warren could challenge Hendricks for the fifth spot in the rotation – although the Cubs seem content with what they’ve got. Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella, and Arismendy Alcantara will be among the players to compete for a bench spot, depending on what Joe Maddon decides to do with Ben Zobrist. Chicago seemed to have tons of position battles each Spring Training, but there’s not much to see here in 2016.
Injury Concerns: Addison Russell is healthy after a hamstring injury derailed his rookie season and he spent time recovering at a rehabilitation program. Starlin Castro isn’t around, so if Russell does go down, responsibility would fall on 23-year-old Javier Baez, who’s expected to be a super-sub this season. Reliever Zac Rosscup, who made 33 appearances with a 4.39 ERA in 2015, will start the season on the 60-day DL with left shoulder inflammation, but he wasn’t expected to be a major contributor. The Cubs starters are in great shape, as all made 30+ starts in 2015, and there are plenty of options should one of them go down during Spring Training. Health, at this moment, isn’t a big issue for the Cubs.
Underrated Asset: The Cubs lineup is absolutely loaded, but the cherry on the sundae was re-signing outfielder Dexter Fowler.
The 29-year-old doesn’t have a great arm but has the habit of making spectacular plays while covering a lot of ground. Offensively, he offers plenty of upside and is what teams look for in a leadoff hitter. He’s got power, speed, and can get on base. In 2015, he just missed out on the 20/20 club, totaling 17 home runs and 20 stolen bases, while scoring 102 runs with a .346 OBP. He’ll set the table for the power behind him. He won’t capture the most headlines, but he’s an important cog in the Cubs machine, and they’re lucky the Orioles fumbled signing him.
Ben Zobrist is also a hell of an asset given his versatility, but at this point, it’s hard to call him underrated.
Can Chicago live up to the pressure of being World Series favorites?
Chicago has been the laughing stock of MLB for years, and last year they surprised everybody being successful as they were. They’ve got the right manager in Maddon, a filthy rotation, and an extremely deep lineup. More on the question below.
Best Case Scenario: The rotation stays healthy and becomes the most dominant group in the league. Arrieta repeats as a Cy Young winner, Lester wins 20 games himself, and Lackey, Hendriks, and Hammel eat innings while giving the Cubs quality starts.
On offense, Chicago scores the most runs in the league, as the kid Cubs take the next step in becoming elite players. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber both launch 30-35 home runs, on top of Rizzo’s 35-40. Chicago becomes the top slugging team in the league, only unlike the Toronto Blue Jays their group is young and controllable.
With the league’s best pitching and offense, the Cubs post the best record in the league, which leads to them winning their first World Series since 1908.
Worst Case Scenario: Arrieta doesn’t repeat his masterful 2015 campaign and regresses into an average pitcher. Lackey and/or Lester get hurt, and the Cubs are stuck with Cahill and Travis Wood starting way too many games.
The kid Cubs don’t take the next step, as Schwarber, Bryant, and Baez all have sophomore slumps, which takes the wind right out of the sails of the lineup.
The Cubs make the playoffs, but succumb to the pressure and lose in embarrassing fashion.
Realistic Prediction: It’s hard not to be on the Cubs bandwagon given the talent assembled. The club doesn’t really possess any glaring weaknesses, don’t have many health problems and are still super young.
Calling for them to win the World Series may be premature, but they’re certainly on the right track. I think Chicago will make the World series in 2016, and if they don’t win it, they’ll be right back at it in 2017 and beyond. It’s a great time to be a Cubs fan.