This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.
Today we look at the Cubs, whose many years of rebuilding are close to coming to fruition. The signing of free agent Jon Lester to a $155 million contract was their announcement to the world that this is the year they’ll be competing.
Projected Lineup: CF Dexter Fowler*, 2B Arismendy Alcantara, RF Jorge Soler, 1B Anthony Rizzo, SS Starlin Castro, 3B Kris Bryant, C Miguel Montero*, LF Matt Szczur
Projected Rotation: LHP Jon Lester*, RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Jason Hammel*, RHP Kyle Hendricks, LHP Travis Wood
* new additions
There’s a different feeling in Chicago this year, even before any wins or losses are tallied.
All the stars seem to be aligned to indicate that a new era has begun: A new manager in Joe Maddon, a new ace starter in Jon Lester, and the ever-enduring prophecy on the back of everyone’s mind: The proclamation in Back to the Future, Part II that 2015 will be the year that the Cubs finally win the World Series.
Joe Maddon will be the most important factor in the prophecy being realized. He’s the type of manager the Cubs need right now. He likes to tinker. He won’t bat a struggling Javier Baez in the 2-hole every day. He won’t be afraid to bench Starlin Castro for his mental lapses on defense.
So why shouldn’t this be the Cubs’ year?
Let’s take a look at all the traditional attributes of a World Series-caliber team, and you tell me if the Cubs don’t fit the bill.
Young hitters on the cusp of breakout seasons: check.
If baseball crowned a champion based only on potential, the Cubs would be running away with the title. The Cubs are saturated with young talent, and if even one or two of these guys perform to the level at which they’re capable, that’ll go a long way towards igniting the offense.
Keep in mind that the Cubs have already enjoyed a breakout season from young Anthony Rizzo, who clubbed 32 home runs and finished third in the National League with a .913 OPS last season.
Rizzo is their star hitter, and the rest of the offense is structured around him. This is important, because it means they don’t need to put pressure on the other young guys to carry the offense, but rather to be Rizzo’s supporting cast. Much like the movie Grease, in which Frenchy, Jan and Marty Maraschino were all members of the “Pink Ladies”, but Rizzo was the ringleader who called all the shots.
So from whom can we expect to see a breakout year in 2015? Keep an eye on Jorge Soler, the 23-year-old outfielder from Cuba who enjoyed a short stint with the Cubs last year, but still has his rookie status intact. His power is well chronicled, and while home runs will be a big part of his game, he’s a more dynamic hitter than he gets credit for. He displays patience at the plate, which will be a huge weapon for him once he’s able to harness it fully. Soler reached base at a .383 clip throughout his minor league career, and if he could approach that mark in the majors, it would really help stabilize what has chronically been a very free-swinging lineup.
He also has a cannon for an arm, which has inspired comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero. So just take a second and imagine a 23-year-old Vladdy hitting in the middle of this Cubs lineup. Scared yet?
Kris Bryant is another young hitter who appears ready to terrorize big league pitching. After leading the minor leagues with 43 home runs a year ago, he reported to Major League Spring Training and picked up right where he left off, hitting for an otherworldly 1.652 OPS and easily leading the Cactus League with nine home runs. There is literally nothing else Bryant can do to prove he’s ready for the show.
Bryant will start the year in Triple-A, but the Cubs will likely call him up to the majors within the first month of the season. And once he’s up, he won’t be going back down.
Frontline starters: check.
We know about Jon Lester. But what went slightly under the radar last season was the emergence of Jake Arrieta. A once-prized pitching prospect with the Orioles, he finally figured something out last year, posting a 2.53 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP.
There are reasons to believe his breakout was not a fluke: most notably, he learned to pitch for the ground ball last season. A seemingly simple thing, but you have to realize that a few extra ground balls can drastically reduce the number of homers and extra base hits a pitcher gives up. Arrieta’s home run percentage was a mere 0.8% last year, down from his career rate of 2.5%. Extra base hits? Down to 4.7%, from a career mark of 7.3%.
Arrieta also recently decided he’s Mariano Rivera, and started using the cutter as his primary pitch. This enables him to pitch away from right-handed hitters, further reducing the amount of hard contact against him. The effect of this shows up in his splits: righties managed just a .520 OPS against him last season.
Shutdown bullpen: check.
Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. None of these guys are household names, but soon this trio will be as well known as the legendary Royals’ troupe of Herrera/Davis/Holland. R-S-R will be the new H-D-H. And who knows—maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see the two trios go toe to toe with each other in this year’s World Series.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Cubs certainly could make the playoffs, but it’ll be a trek to get there. The trials of the season can get to a lot of young players, and these kids need to prove they can make it for the long haul.
I’m a believer though.
Projected Finish: 94-68, First place in NL Central, World Series Champions