Wednesday, February 4, 2015
The Cubs Expectations Aren't Based in Reality
There has been a lot of buzz about the Chicago Cubs this offseason. The high profile additions of manager Joe Maddon and left handed pitcher Jon Lester will do that. Another reason for the optimism is the talented prospects the Cubs have. Expectations for the Cubs are sky high for an organization that hasn't won a World Series since 1908. Las Vegas has given the Cubs 14-1 odds to win the World Series, the same odds as that perennial winners like the Red Sox and Cardinals have. Maddon and Team President Theo Epstein expect the team to contend this year. Even first baseman Anthony Rizzo thinks that the Cubs are "World Series worthy."
Cubbie fans are set up for more disappointment if they think 2015 is going to be their year. This ball club has finished in last place the past five years. Last year's record of 73-89 was their best record in five years. Maddon will be the Cubs third manager in the Epstein era in four seasons. It took 88 wins for the Giants to win the last wild card spot last season. Even if everything goes right, are the Cubs going to be 15 games (or more) better than last year?
The NL Central is one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Going into the season, the Cardinals are clearly a better team. The Pirates were a playoff team last year. The Brewers were division leaders for five months of the season, until a September collapse. The Reds were plagued by injuries last year, but were a playoff team three out of the four previous seasons. That said, the Cubs aren't going to be a doormat anymore. I believe they will show some improvement, and possibly make a run at .500 this coming season. How do they compare with the rest of the division?
The Cubs traded for former Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero this offseason. Montero was an All Star replacement for Yadier Molina last season, but had a down year. Now 31, Montero may not be the same hitter he was from 2009 to 2012. He is a defensive upgrade from Wellington Castillo, but his offensive numbers weren't much different than Castillo's(except for OBP). Russell Martin departed the Pirates via free agency, but this division includes Molina, Jonathon Lucroy, and Devin Mesoraco. Cubs-4th best
Anthony Rizzo had a breakout season last year, making his first All Star team. Rizzo was second in the NL with 32 home runs and fourth in OBP. He is also a good defensive first baseman, and has emerged as one of the league's best at first. In the Central, only Joey Votto can compare to him. Votto is coming off a season in which he missed 100 games. When healthy, Votto is an on base machine that plays good defense. I think Votto has a comeback year this year, and will give him the benefit of the doubt. Cubs-2nd best
Javier Baez is the likely starter at second for the Cubs. He has a lot of power, but struck out 95 times in 213 big league at bats. Baez hit only .169 and is not a patient hitter. That said, Baez hit 37 home runs in the minors in 2013. If he can adjust to big league pitching, he has star potential. That said, he has a lot to prove. That's why the Cubs traded for Tommy La Stella as a back up plan. Right now, it is hard to place Baez ahead of any division rival at second. Brandon Phillips has been the division's best second baseman for years, but Neil Walker has probably overtaken him. Kolten Wong finished third in ROY voting, and could make a major leap forward this year. Even Scooter Gennett has to be considered better than Baez at this point. Cubs-5th best
It seems like Starlin Castro has been playing forever, but he will only be 25 this season. Castro has already made three All Star teams in that span. The Cubs also have Addison Russell waiting in the wings in the minors. The Cubs will hold on to Castro this year, but a trade or position switch could be in the future. Castro looks to be the second best shortstop to the Cardinals Jhonny Peralta. Cubs-2nd best
With the Cubs trade of Luis Valbuena, they have opened up third base for 2013 top pick Kris Bryant. Bryant crushed 43 home runs combined in Double A and Triple A. Chicago isn't sure if Bryant is going to be a third baseman or left fielder, but will likely start him at third this season. Maddon has experience with rookie third baseman, with Evan Longoria in 2008 with the Rays. This division also has All Stars Todd Frazier, Matt Carpenter, and Aramis Ramirez. Josh Harrison was also an All Star as an outfielder, but will replace Pedro Alvarez, who moves to first base. Ramirez is now 36, and posted his lowest OPS since 2010. Right now, it is hard to place Bryant. He has the talent to be the best third baseman in the league, but could also be the worst. Right now, I can only put him above Harrison, and he could move ahead of Ramirez. Cubs-4th best
Chris Coghlan took over as the team's left fielder, and had his best season since he won the 2009 Rookie of the Year. Coghlan has been up and down throughout his career, and have Junior Lake and Arismendy Alcantara as backup options. This is a weak spot for the Cubs, and their rivals are all better at this spot. Cubs-5th best
Alcantara was pegged at center, but the trade for Dexter Fowler changes those plans. Alcantara could be sent down for more seasoning, but will likely make some contributions to this year's team. Fowler gives the team a temporary fix and upgrade. Still, this division contains elite center fielders Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez. It also contains Billy Hamilton and the Cardinals duo of Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos. Hamilton is the fastest player in the league and plays great defense. He isn't that much of a hitter, and is caught stealing more than he should be. There is a big gap from McCutchen/Gomez and the rest. It's really a coinflip on this one. Cubs-tied for 3rd with STL and CIN
Of all the Cubs prospects to make their debut last year, Jorge Soler looked the best. The Cuban hit 5 home runs and .292 in 24 late season games. It could be a battle between Soler and Bryant for NL Rookie of the Year in 2015. This division includes established right fielders like Jason Heyward, Ryan Braun, and Jay Bruce. Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in baseball, and came over to St. Louis in an offseason trade. Braun is coming off a down year, and there are questions on how good the post-suspension Braun will be. Bruce has some questions surrounding him as well, due to injuries. Still, both of these two players have a track record that leads to expectations of a rebound. The Pirates also debuted a top prospect, Gregory Polanco last year. Soler looked more impressive than Polanco in 2015, with Polanco struggling in the big leagues. Cubs-4th best(could move up)
The addition of Jon Lester certainly improves the rotation. Lester split last year between the Red Sox and Athletics, and had one of his best seasons. Epstein's familiarity with him was a key factor in luring him to Chicago. While this is an exciting move for the team, Lester is just one pitcher. The team is relying on Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Liam Hendricks, and Edwin Jackson to complete it's rotation. Arrieta had a breakout season at age 28 last year, posting a 2.53 ERA. However, Arrieta only pitched 156.2 innings. Wood was an All Star in 2013, but his ERA ballooned to 5.03 last year. His rebound would give the Cubs a second lefty and a good middle of the rotation starter. Hammel returns after being traded away last year to Oakland. Hendricks pitched well in 13 starts after his call up last year, and has the edge over Jackson for the last spot.
The Cubs depth after Lester is questionable, and is clearly behind other teams in the division. The Cardinals have the best rotation in the division, led by Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. There are some questions with Michael Wacha's shoulder, Carlos Martinez's readiness, and even Wainwright's elbow. John Lackey returns for 2015, and the team also has young lefty Marco Gonzales and oft-injured Jaime Garcia as other rotation options. No other team can match the Cardinals pitching depth and quality.
The Reds also have a formidable rotation led by Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. They traded away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, but still have Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani in their rotation. The Pirates subtracted Edinson Volquez, but brought back AJ Burnett and retained Francisco Liriano. The biggest key for Pittsburgh's success is the development of Gerrit Cole. Cole has top of the rotation stuff, and could make a leap forward this season. Milwaukee traded away Yovani Gallardo to open room for Jimmy Nelson, but now are thin on depth. The Brewers have a rotation with solid, but not spectacular pitchers like Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta. I think that the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates rotation is clearly better than Chicago's right now. The Brewers have a more balanced rotation, but lacks the ace that the Cubs have. I would rank those two rotations about even. Cubs-tied for 4th with the Brewers
The Cubs went with Hector Rondon as their closer last year, and he saved 29 games. Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez were his primary set up relievers, and Jason Motte joins the team as a free agent. The Pirates have the most bullpen depth in the division, and have a good lefty/righty late inning combo with Tony Watson and Mark Melancon. The Reds are lacking bullpen depth, but have the division's best closer, Aroldis Chapman. Trevor Rosenthal had an up and down season for the Cardinals last year, but they also have good depth. Milwaukee is still working on their bullpen, with Jonathon Broxton and Jim Henderson being their internal closing options right now. There are talks of bringing back Francisco Rodriguez or trading for Jonathon Papelbon. Bullpens are usually one of the last things that teams figure out. Relievers can be inconsistent from year to year. The Cubs look to have more depth than in the past, but lack a shut down reliever like Chapman.
While the Cubs should be excited about their future, playoff and World Series talk is premature. I wouldn't expect the Back to the Future prediction about the Cubs winning the 2015 World Series to happen. It is unrealistic to think that all of their rookie stars are going to break out this year. This was a team 12th in runs scored last year, and 13th in runs allowed. The NL Central is a tough division with four other quality teams in it. Despite the optimism by Maddon and Rizzo, this team is likely at least a year away from serious playoff contention.