Chicago Cubs: 2015-2016 Offseason Report Card

AP

AP

Acquisitions

When Wade Davis flipped his glove in the air to celebrate the first Kansas City Royals World Series championship since 1985, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had some areas worth addressing on the Cubs’ roster to ensure a deeper playoff run in 2016:

  • An experienced “stopper” and number three starter behind Arrieta and Lester.
  • Greater depth on the offensive side.
  • A starting outfielder signed long-term.

The “stopper” might have been the most significant need for the Cubs who, after losing Games 1 and 2 against the Mets with Lester and Arrieta on the mound, placed their Game 3 hopes entirely on the shoulders of Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks is a talented young pitcher whose 2015 season, in which he went 8-7 and posted a 3.4 WAR and 3.25 xFIP in 180 innings, was deceptively good, but there was no indication he could be the guy to slow down the Mets.

Cubs fans swooned over the idea of reuniting David Price with Maddon and giving the Cubs a third ace next to Arrieta and Lester, but with two competent aces already leading a very good starting rotation, dishing out $216 million for Price would have been excessive and, above all else, unnecessary. Especially with the free agent pitching market boasting names like Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy, Mike Leake and Samardzija – all legitimate number threes.

After flirting with Samardzija briefly, the Cubs decided to bring in John Lackey, a 37-year-old veteran who experienced a renaissance of his own with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. He posted a 2.77 ERA and 3.30 strikeout-to-walk rate across 218 innings, resulting in a 3.6 WAR, his highest since 2007.

More notable for Lackey is his playoff history. In 23 starts, he’s gone 8-5 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.217 WHIP in 127 1/3 innings. He was on the mound on the winning end in the deciding games of the 2002 and 2013 World Series’, and shut the Cubs out in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS by allowing just two hits across 7 1/3 innings. For a two-year, $32 million commitment, Lackey’s October pedigree might just make him the x-factor and “stopper” the Cubs need.

The Cubs were far from done, and still needed to address some depth issues on the bench. In 2015, the Cubs were beyond fortunate to avoid long-term injuries to Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Miguel Montero, only losing Jorge Soler for roughly a month during the season. And while having Chris Coghlan as an option in right while Soler was out, Coghlan struggled mightily against left-handed pitching, giving the Cubs a gaping hole in the lineup in those situations for that interim time period.

An in-house remedy to this problem already exists in Javier Baez, who cut his strikeout rate by six percent in Triple-A Iowa and slashed an impressive .289/.325/.408 in 24 MLB games, despite the small sample size. Baez has spent some time in center field during winter ball, and adding that to his ability to play second, third and short effectively could make him a unique power threat as a utility player.

But Baez’s role – and future – with the Cubs has always been clouded by one large question mark. His value is through the roof and may not have a role on the 25-man roster, so he could become a trade chip down the road. The Cubs needed something more long-term and reliable.

Enter Ben Zobrist, the 35-year-old superutility man from Eureka, Illinois and former Joe Maddon protégé with the Tampa Bay Rays. Zobrist was one of the most sought-after free agents on the market, because of his versatility; last season between Oakland and Kansas City saw Zobrist spending time at second base, third base, left field and right, and playing them all rather well. The Mets, Nationals, Cardinals and Giants all emerged as possible landing spots for him.

But on December 8, the Cubs swooped in and signed him to a four-year, $56 million deal, less than other offers. “I wanted to play for this team, wanted to play again for Joe Maddon and wanted to win a championship as a Chicago Cub. That’s my one goals the next four years — bring the World Series trophy back to Chicago,” he said in his introduction with the team.

Cubs fans – including yours truly – were guilty of fantasizing over the likes of David Price and Evan Longoria “following” Maddon after he came to the Cubs in 2014, but considering the needs of the organization, Ben Zobrist just might have been the best option of the lot.

The Cubs had one more hole to fill, and that was in center field. Dexter Fowler did a fine job as the club’s primary center fielder and leadoff man in 2015; he ranked second on the Cubs (20th in all of baseball) with a 4.08 P/PA, and slashed .250/.346/.411 en route to a career-high 3.2 WAR. But because of this success, and entering his age-30 season, he was likely going to be valued higher than his worth, and the Cubs were wise to look elsewhere, as likable as Fowler was among the fanbase.

A lot of different options and ideas arose as to who could play center for the Cubs in 2016 and beyond. These ranged from staying in-house with the unproven Baez, to trading for someone like Charlie Blackmon, to signing the likes of Alex Gordon or Jason Heyward. But Heyward’s price tag seemed far too lofty for the Cubs, considering he would be just 26 at the start of the 2016 season and still carried the potential to be a superstar.

Soon, the Heyward sweepstakes became a bidding war between the rival Cubs and Cardinals, until the Nationals and “mystery team” Angels entered the picture at the last minute. With some clever negotiating, Epstein and Hoyer sold Heyward on the Cubs to the tune of eight years and $184 million – an AAV of $23.125 million, and less than the $200+ million offered by the Cards and Nats. The additional value, however, comes from two opt-outs that kick in after contract years three and four, which could place him back on the market as early as 2018.

Heyward was the big “get” for the Cubs this offseason. His 6.0 WAR and 121 wRC+ in 2015 were the second highest of his career in each category, and he ranked fifth in all of baseball with a 2.12 range factor per nine innings. His 20.2 UZR ranked second in all of baseball behind Kevin Kiermaier, and with historically high on-base percentages and his proven ability to hit 20 home runs in a season gives the Cubs another superstar for at least the next three years.

Lackey, Zobrist and Heyward were the three big name signings for the Cubs entering 2016, but they also strengthened the bullpen by bringing back Trevor Cahill (who reportedly turned down a better deal from the rival Pirates) and trading for underrated Yankees swingman Adam Warren.

One Response

  1. Michael Rice

    When Baez came back to he big leagues, he struck out 24 times in 8o plate appearances. If he gets 600 plate appearances, that would average out to 180 strikeouts. Yeah, big improvement.

    Also, he hit one homer in those 80 regular season plate appearances. So, now we have a guy who will hit .285 with 9 or 10 homers and whiff 180 times.

    Excuse me if I don’t faint with excitement.

    Look, I hope the kid pans out. I have nothing against him. This hyperbole over his “improvement” is asinine, though.

    Reply

Leave a Reply