CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs get to bask in the success of the last year as convention week kicks off with the Cubs Caravan followed by a weekend love-fest between players and fans at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. Spring training is around the corner, but first comes some reliving of a memorable 2015 -- including some fine work by the front office this winter.
Netting John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Adam Warren this offseason helps fortify a team with high hopes and one goal: breaking the franchise’s 108-year championship drought. The Cubs knocked on the door last season and now, armed with a few more veterans and a deeper roster, they’ll try to break it down.
One way to judge a team is by its weakest links. As last season began, spring invitee Jonathan Herrera was a main cog off the bench in the infield while journeyman Chris Denorfia was the extra guy in the outfield. Now the Cubs boast Chris Coghlan and Javier Baez as their “extras.” Warren will essentially take Edwin Jackson’s place as a potential sixth starter, which shows how much deeper the Cubs are now than they were a season ago.
That’s not to say those role players didn’t help last season. In fact, there’s no guarantee that Coghlan or Baez will be any better off the bench. But here’s the key, and the thing the Cubs have been stressing all offseason: This season they will be in better position to withstand a major injury or unexpected slump because manager Joe Maddon can insert players who would otherwise be starters -- or at least platoon players -- on other teams. In reality, Baez and Coghlan will probably get plenty of playing time, since "keeping guys fresh" isn’t just a cliché for Maddon; it’s a managerial style.
This time around that kind of thinking might apply to the starting staff as well. The Cubs already have Warren waiting in the wings and they’re probably not done adding arms -- especially if you look ahead to the July 31 trade deadline. If Jake Arrieta or Lackey’s workload can be reduced come September, the Cubs will take advantage. That wasn’t possible last season, as dipping into the minors for a reliable arm just wasn’t feasible. This year, they should be more prepared.
Finding a way to win more games was, of course, a goal of the front office in the past, but now it’s about keeping what they have and avoiding the pitfalls that lead to an unexpected losing season. As the Cubs have said this winter, there’s not a lot of work to be done with your frontline players when their names are Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, etc. Their talent is either going to get the Cubs where they want to go or it won’t, but if someone gets hurt or has some unexpected issues that affect his play, the front office wants to be as prepared as possible and have the right guy behind him to keep the train moving.
And it’s not like the Cubs don’t have any weaknesses. Let’s take a look at the winter checklist that Theo Epstein presented at the end of last season. Here is where the Cubs wanted to get better:
Outfield defense: Just the presence of Heyward alone should improve things, but probably not as much as if he were in right field and the Cubs employed a veteran in center. It’s telling that former center fielder Dexter Fowler is still available as a free agent but the Cubs chose to go in a different direction because they didn't trust his game under a long-term commitment. The right deal for Jorge Soler didn’t materialize, so Heyward will simply replace Fowler in center. Soler and Kyle Schwarber can’t get worse out there unless they don’t put in the work, so let’s say that the team has improved in the outfield but not by a huge leap -- unless Heyward wins a gold glove at a new position. That’s not out of the realm of possibility either.
Contact hitters: Here is where the Cubs hit a home run. Heyward brought runners home from third with fewer than two outs 54 percent of the time last year while advancing them from second to third with no outs 71 percent of the time. Zobrist was at 50 and 60 percent, respectively, in those categories. A reminder: The Cubs were the worst in the league at bringing home runners from third with less than two outs in 2015, accomplishing it only 41 percent of the time, so adding two contact guys will help. And anyone, like Zobrist, who walks more than he strikes out has a place on the Cubs. Heyward’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than 2-to-1 for his career so he fits as well. The Cubs will miss some of what both Fowler and a hot Starlin Castro brought to the table, but they were replaced by two reliable hitters who fill needs for the offense.
Starting pitching: Improving the rotation was easier said than done, as the Cubs rightly didn’t throw Powerball-type money at the top free-agent arms. Instead, they improved the middle of the rotation while adding depth in Warren. Will adding Lackey and moving Jason Hammel to No. 4 and Kyle Hendricks to No. 5 be enough? Can the Cubs find success in plucking Warren from the American League East as they did with Hammel, Arrieta, Lester and Lackey (via St. Louis)? Those names, along with Hendricks, are a reminder the Cubs haven’t drafted a starter who has made it to the big leagues under the current front office. It hasn’t been a big deal so far, but at some point -- to get the right value for a player -- the Cubs will need this to happen. Relying on older, expensive free agents isn’t a formula they'll want to use too often.
Catching: One surprise of the offseason came in November during the general manager meetings, when Epstein more than intimated Miguel Montero would be back after doing a solid job in his estimation. The GM had previously stated that he wanted to improve upon limiting the opponent’s running game, so there was some thought that the Cubs might make a move behind the plate. Perhaps Montero’s contract simply didn’t allow for that to happen or maybe Montero’s value with pitchers outweighed any deficiencies on defense. He would probably be the first to admit he had a rough year while battling a thumb injury in the second half, but he’s not without value. So even though the Cubs didn’t address this need externally, it’s a good bet it will be a topic come spring training.
Overall the Cubs executed Plan A this winter. It was the second offseason in a row in which they mostly accomplished what they wanted to do. And now they are reaping the benefits, as multiple players took less money to sign with the Cubs. Winning will do that. Meanwhile, their arch-rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, not only lost two key players to the Cubs, but they're also still under the dark cloud of the hacking scandal that came to light last summer. Stiff penalties are likely coming, continuing a downward trend for the Cardinals that started with the Cubs beating them in the playoffs. In any case -- penalties or not -- no one would be foolish enough to overlook St. Louis on the field. The Cardinals have been too good for too long.
So the Cubs have spent several months working to assure themselves of another successful season. This weekend they’ll get to enjoy the fruits of their labor along with a rabid fan base. Then it’s back to work. The championship drought can’t be broken in the winter months but dreams of ending it can feel real at this time of year. That will certainly be the case this weekend as 2016 has arrived and the Cubs are loaded for another crack at winning it all. This time they might just do it.