To some, the end of the most painful drought in all of sports has already begun. It’s been 108 long, embarrassing years since the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series. That’s not to say they haven’t been close. Everyone remembers the infamous Steve Bartman incident, and just last year they were a mere four wins away from facing the Kansas City Royals for the title of best team in baseball before they were unceremoniously swept from the NLCS by the New York Mets. That Cubs team had a strange combination of youth, power, skill, and just a dash of luck. A team that starts as many rookies or young players as they did rarely reaps the rewards of doing so in their first season together, and a backslide is almost certain for at least one or two of their sophomores. Many fans are thinking World Series or bust this year, but there is one HUGE question that needs answering before their championship dreams can be realized: have they even done enough to avoid a sophomore slump?
In the 2015 season, the Cubs were carried down the stretch by an all-time great performance by 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. No reasonable fan can expect him to post the greatest second-half ERA in consecutive years, so a “backslide” is almost certain from the unexpected ace at the front of the Cubs rotation. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Joe Maddon have already imposed an innings limit on Arrieta, as he openly admitted to arm fatigue at the end of the 2015 season. That alone should help with his performance late into the playoffs, but aside from Jon Lester, the Cubs had a lot of questions at the back end of their rotation.
While Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel aren’t slouches by any standards, their lack of experience and their inability to overpower hitters were huge weaknesses last season. The addition of veteran starter John Lackey not only helps their rotation by sliding both Hendricks and Hammel down a spot, but it also gives the Cubs a pitcher with a veteran pedigree who knows what it takes to win and should help young guys like Hendricks find their mojo late in the season.
The Cubs have been around for a LONG time which makes what unanimous Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant did in 2015 all the more impressive. He set records within the organization for rookies by hitting twenty-six home runs and plating ninety-nine runners. He’s played a huge role in leading the Cubs to ninety-seven wins and a big push in the playoffs, but so did rookies Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell. Now that there’s plenty of tape on these Cubs youngsters, it’s safe to say pitchers will adjust and we’ll see at least a slight drop in their numbers across the board.
I trust Maddon and company to help them make the necessary adjustments to help turn the tide on the slide, but these Cubs struck out at an alarming rate last season. The additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist give the team something that they didn’t have last year, however: table setters. Dexter Fowler did a great job at the front of the order, but was plagued by inconsistency. Having two guys hitting in the 1-2 slots of the order that are notorious for getting on base and have decent speed will take the pressure off of guys like Bryant and Schwarber and will help Anthony Rizzo continue his trend towards perennial MVP candidate. I’d look for big things out of the top of the Cubs order this year.
The additions of Heyward and Zobrist help beyond adding a couple of solid bats at the front of the order. They also give the Cubs even more of the versatility that Joe Maddon notoriously covets. Rookie Javier Baez has been working in CF, but look for Heyward to start the season there unless the Cubs happen to re-sign Dexter Fowler. If Baez shows great improvement there I think we’ll see a move at the trade deadline that involves shipping Jorge Soler to another team for another solid starter so Heyward can take his rightful place in right field. Having a full season of Addison Russell at shortstop will help things as well; I’ve said before that he deserved a Gold Glove nod last year (You can see my argument for that here).
All in all, I believe Theo and his front office staff have done enough to not only avoid a sophomore slump, but make a legitimate push towards the World Series. As always, I approach saying this with extremely cautious optimism. The Cubs were weirdly healthy for pretty much all of last season. Part of this can be attributed to youth, but you can’t expect them to be so lucky this year. Of course, this is all speculation as of right now; the only way to answer these questions is to see these Cubs in action. But the birds are starting to chirp, the sun is staying up later, and it’s starting to warm up outside, so I’ll say something I’ve been wanting to say for months now: let’s play some baseball.