The Chicago Cubs have become one of the up-and-coming teams in all of Major League Baseball. This being true, team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have sure gone through their share of managers. They made the decision to let go Mike Quade, who was the manager of the Cubs when they came in. They replaced him with Dale Sveum, a coach from the their Red Sox days. After two seasons, it was determined Sveum was not the right fit to run the team. Then, they brought in Rick Renteria, the original 1993 Florida Marlins player. After praising Renteria for the work he did with the 73-89 growing club last season, Epstein announced that Renteria too was getting let go. Of course, that was for the opportunity of a lifetime to have the most heralded manager in the game take over his club in Joe Maddon.
The Cubs have had a couple solid position players represent the foundation of their club. Starlin Castro (.292, 14, 65) was just 24 last season, as was 1B Anthony Rizzo (.286, 32, 78). Last year was the debut of highly touted middle infielder Javier Baez (.169, 9, 20, 95 Ks in 215 ABs), though it did not go as well as expected. Baez hit for some power but struck out way too much, perhaps a sign that he may need a little more seasoning in the minor leagues. He does have the power (37 HR in minors in 2013 and 32 HR between the Cubs and AAA Iowa last season). The same, however, could not be said about 22-year-old Cuban prospect Jorge Soler, who homered in his first at bat then managed to become just the third player in MLB history to have an extra base hit in each of his first 5 MLB games. In his 89 ABs last season for the Cubs, Soler hit .292, 5, 20 with an OPS of .903. 22 year old infielder Arismendy Alcantara also made his big league debut and hit .205 in 70 games playing both CF and 2B.
Bringing in Maddon as the manager sped up the expectations of this club for the 2015 season. Knowing this, Epstein signed LHP Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46, 220 Ks in just under 220 IP) to a 6-year, $155 million contact to be the team’s ace. After that, he made a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks to get C Miguel Montero (.243, 13, 72) followed by a deal with Houston to get CF Dexter Fowler (.276, 8, 35, 111 games). Then, they started to bring in complementary pieces. They signed RHP Jason Hammel (10-11, 3.49, 29 starts), C David Ross (.184, 7, 15) and RHP Jason Motte (29 games with SL after Tommy John surgery, 42 saves in 2012).
3B Kris Bryant is tearing the cover off the ball in Arizona, leading the Cactus League in homers. I am not playing into any of the stupid media fodder saying he will not make the opening day roster. If the Cubs want to win now, which the hiring of Maddon suggests, Bryant will be playing 3B opening day, where he belongs. Mike Olt (.333, 2 HRs so far in ST) is the other option.
LF will be a little interesting for the Cubs as Olt (.160, 12, 33) could play out there as well as Chris Coghlan (.283, 9, 41). Alcantara can be an option as well as Junior Lake (.211, 9, 25) and Matt Szczur (14-for-62, 2, 6). The lineup I would use for the Cubs is Fowler CF, Castro SS, Rizzo 1B, Soler RF, Bryant 3B, Montero C, Coghlan LF. The bench features Alcantara, Lake, Olt, Tommy La Stella (.251, 1, 31) and Welington Castillo (.237, 13, 46) who was the Cubs starting C last season. If a deal can be made, that clears the spot for Ross.
Lester and Hammel lead the rotation that includes Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.46, 13 starts), Jake Arrieta (10-5, 2.53, 25 starts) and either Travis Wood (8-13, 5.03, 31 starts) or Edwin Jackson (6-15, 6.33, 27 starts). Jackson is in the third year of a 4-year, $52 million deal he signed with the Cubs prior to the 2013 season. LHP Tsuyoshi Wada (4-4, 3.25, 13 starts) and Jacob Turner (6-11, 6.13, 28 games, 18 starts) have strong arms and could be options as swingmen between the rotation and the bullpen.
Ideally, the Cubs would like to see Motte claim the closer role with his experience. However, the Cubs have assembled a number of solid arms led by incumbent closer Hector Rondon (4-4, 2.42, 29 saves), Neil Ramirez (3-3, 1.44, 53 Ks in just under 44 IP), Pedro Strop (2-4, 2.21, 71 Ks in 61 IP) and Justin Grimm (5-2, 3.78, 70 Ks in 69 IP). LHP Felix Doubront (4-5, 5.54, 21 games, 14 starts with Boston and Chicago) was the lead option to be the lefty specialist. Now, it seems as if free agent LHP Phil Coke will get the job. Perhaps the last spot in the pen goes to a Jackson, Wood or Wada — whichever does not make the rotation. Daniel Bard is in camp, another former Boston pitcher; hopefully he can pitch better than his combined one inning, 20 earned run performance over seven appearances during the 2013 Puerto Rican League and 2014 Texas Rangers South Atlantic League seasons.
In addition to the young players that have been mentioned, keep an eye on pitchers C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, both of whom have swing-and-miss stuff and could see the big leagues before the season is over. SS Addison Russell and 2013 first-round draft pick OF Billy McKinney both came over in the Jeff Samardzija trade, with Russell more MLB ready. Unfortunately, there is not currently a spot in the Cubs infield, unless Baez continues to struggle at making contact. OF Albert Almora seems a little more seasoned than McKinney, though I think McKinney possesses the bigger upside.
Everybody on board with the Cubs agrees that the time is now. Epstein, Hoyer, Maddon, Lester and the people of Chicago want the time to be now. Is Soler ready to be a star? Are Bryant’s numbers going to carry over to the big leagues? Can Castro bounce back after a little bit of a down season? Is Rizzo the franchise player? If these questions can be answered, I think the Cubs can be a postseason team this year. Some may say this team is not ready. My question is why not? The Cubs brought in the best manager in baseball so they should be expected to win this year? If they don’t it’s a disappointment. I got the Cubs at 86-76, 2nd place in the NL Central division. Good enough to get into the playoffs as the second Wild Card. Vegas O/U is at 82 1/2.