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The story of the Cubs has changed quite a bit in the last 365 days. A year ago at this time, projectors estimated the club would make great strides in 2015, improving from an 89-loss 2014 and perhaps even challenging Cincinnati and Milwaukee for third place in the competitive NL Central. Many believed 2016 would be the year the up-and-coming major league squad would arrive. But one season—and an NLCS berth—later, it’s harder to find anyone not picking the Cubs to make the postseason.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield unveiled the top portion of his team rankings heading into the 2016 season Tuesday. The publication’s senior writer stuck to the script and picked the Cubs as his No. 1 team.
Most intriguing player: Jason Heyward’s big contract and move to center field puts him in the spotlight. Heyward seems to have grown comfortable with the kind of player he is, so the fear that he may try to do much and struggle is probably overblown. In fact, I wonder if Joe Maddon puts him in the leadoff spot since there isn’t another obvious candidate. Maddon could run out a lineup of Heyward, [Ben] Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell. There’s power, there’s OBP, there’s left-right balance, there’s youth, there are MVP candidates, there are no easy at-bats for opposing pitchers. Good luck, National League.
The final word: Barring a long list of injuries, the Cubs look like a powerhouse. They’re loaded with depth and versatility in both position players and starting pitching. Unlike the 2015 Nationals, they also have the right manager to make sure there’s no coasting on hype or clubhouse issues that incinerate the team. Considering I think the Pirates and Cardinals fall back a bit this year, the Cubs win the tough NL Central pretty easily. Then comes the postseason …
Many of the shortcomings of the 2015 squad were addressed this offseason, as the club improved its outfield defense with the acquisition of Heyward and added necessary pitching depth with John Lackey, Adam Warren and a slew of bullpen arms. The hope entering this season has shifted from surpassing the division’s bottom dwellers to being the last team standing.
(Photo by David Banks/Getty)
In the last week, Buster Olney and ESPN have broken down their top 10 unit rankings for major league clubs. The Cubs found themselves in the top five in five of the six lists, and were ranked the best infield in baseball. On Tuesday, the publication released its top 10 clubs heading into the season. Given the lofty spots the organization earned on previous lists, it should come as no surprise that ESPN ranked the North Siders as the best team in the game. Here’s what they had to say:
The addition of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist makes the Cubs even better and deeper, both at the plate and in the field, and they also added a reliable rotation plow horse in John Lackey. Their greatest challenge might be doing everything they can to win the National League Central over the course of the long season, because they’ve witnessed first-hand how a great team like the Pittsburgh Pirates can be reduced to a one-night-stand wild-card game and subsequently eliminated.
The Cubs are the early pick here to take another step forward this year and do something they haven’t done since 1908: win the World Series.
In 2016, the Cubs return some of the best players in baseball, including NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and two-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo. The club will also open up the campaign expecting a full season of action out of Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler—a trio of 2015 rookies. Add defending NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon to the mix, coupled with a 2015 NLCS run, and there are plenty reasons to expect the Cubs to be playing meaningful October baseball in 2016.
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
With a bevy of young superstars and a strong group of valuable backups to spell the starters or play the matchups, the Cubs outfield looks like one of the game’s best on paper. Buster Olney and ESPN agree, as they placed the Cubs second overall in their outfield team unit rankings, revealed Thursday. Here’s some of what they had to say:
The Cubs felt sure enough about Jason Heyward — particularly his defense — to agree to spend $184 million to sign him, and they’re confident left fielder Kyle Schwarber will continue to be a high-impact hitter, with his short swing, power and intense approach.
They’re not quite sure what to make of Jorge Soler, which is why they’ve been reluctant to move him to date for less than what could turn out to be equal value. After playing well in a small sample in 2014, Soler struggled in 2015, especially in chilly conditions and on defense. Chris Coghlan provides depth in the outfield, and starting second baseman Ben Zobrist could always move out there as well.
As of right now, it appears Schwarber, Heyward and Soler will go left to right across the outfield, as well as make some noise in the top half of the batting order. Schwarber debuted as a rookie in 2015 and proved to be a big bat, hitting 16 homers in 232 at-bats. Newcomer Heyward is one of the game’s best defensive outfielders, and though he has made his living in right field for the majority of his six-year MLB career, his athleticism could make for a seamless transition to center. Soler is a bit more of a wild card, but the 23-year-old has never given anyone a reason to think his raw power won’t translate into game action.
Of course, the knock on the group is defense, especially in the corners. But the hard working Schwarber informed the media Wednesday that he has spent a lot of time working on his outfield defense this offseason. And Soler demonstrated that runners should think twice before trying to take an extra base on his arm in right.
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Anthony Rizzo was top five in NL MVP voting in 2015, and Kris Bryant claimed Rookie of the Year honors. Addison Russell established himself as top-tier defensive player with a promising bat, while newcomer and two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist brings World Series experience and a veteran presence. When you put all of them together in one infield, it’s easy to see why the Cubs are getting so much attention.
Buster Olney and members of the ESPN staff released their top 10 MLB infields on Wednesday, and it should come as no surprise the Cubs were ranked No. 1. With a combination of youth, athleticism, leadership and an overall high level of must-see playmaking abilities, it’s hard to argue that lofty ranking. Here’s some of what they had to say:
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo finished 10th in the National League MVP voting in 2014, and fourth last year. Third baseman Kris Bryant was the NL Rookie of the Year, after reaching base 230 times in his first 151 big league games. Addison Russell and the Cubs thrived after he took over at shortstop and established a more consistent defensive presence at the most important infield position.
And during the winter, the Cubs added the cherry on top of what appears to be the best and most well-rounded infield in the majors, signing Ben Zobrist to play second base.
Rizzo and Bryant ranked in the top 11 in WAR, home runs, RBI and on-base percentage in the National League last year. Between both middle-infield positions, Russell’s 19 defensive runs saved was sixth in the NL. Zobrist is fresh off a World Series win with with the Royals and had another solid 2015 at the plate, posting a .359 on-base percentage to go along with a top 20 walk rate and a top 10 strikeout rate among all MLB hitters who qualified.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
ESPN continued its team unit rankings Tuesday, moving on to major league bullpens. And if the site’s estimations are any indication of how the 2016 season will play out, the Cubs and their fans should be quite pleased. The North Side organization came in at No. 5 on the list, tops among National League teams.
The bulk of the ninth inning work for the Cubs last season was done by Hector Rondon, who had 30 saves, but seven different relievers registered saves. The Cubs should again have bullpen depth, with holdovers Pedro Strop (81 strikeouts in 68 innings), Trevor Cahill, Justin Grimm, Travis Wood and Neil Ramirez and newcomers Adam Warren and Rex Brothers. Teams like the Yankees might have more dynamic options at the back end, but the Cubs might have more depth than any other team in baseball.
Much like the 2015 starters—as noted in yesterday’s post—advanced metrics rank the Cubs relievers quite favorably compared to their NL counterparts. The Cubs bullpen finished the year with a 5.0 WAR, according to fangraphs.com, tops in the league and fourth in all of baseball. Manager Joe Maddon didn’t plug players into specific roles, but more often favored matchups, even in the latter stages of games. The ‘pen’s 3.38 ERA and 1.23 WHIP were both good for fourth best in the NL. The sheer quantity of arms at Maddon’s disposal entering the season will benefit the club as they will have a deep pool of talent to choose from.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Yes, we’re still three months out from the Cubs’ home opener, and there are a few pieces that could be added by clubs through free agency or with a preseason deal. At the same time, organizations’ 2016 rosters are looking more and more complete by the day, which allows for some speculation to take place.
On Monday, Buster Olney and ESPN kicked off their annual team unit rankings, beginning with the top 10 rotations in baseball. The Cubs came in fourth on the list, with an estimated—if not unsurprising—rotation of 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel.
Arrieta was baseball’s best pitcher for the last three months of the 2015 regular season, before he seemed to finally tire in the postseason. While Lester did not conquer his throwing issues to bases, he and catcher David Ross seemed to figure out a way to mitigate the effect of that problem. And before you assign regression to the 37-year-old Lackey, keep in mind that he has had freakish consistency with his average fastball velocity.
Anyone surprised with how high the Cubs were ranked might want to think again. According to fangraphs.com, Cubs starters led baseball with a 19.2 fWAR, and had a 1.11 WHIP and a .230 opponent batting average—also tops in the game. Their 3.36 ERA was good for third in the bigs. Adding to their case, the Cubs signed Lackey and his 3.6 WAR from 2015 this offseason and did not lose any major personnel from last year’s rotation. They also retained swingmen Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. With a strong front three and added depth at the back end to account for injuries or underperformance, the Cubs could easily replicate their 2015 on the bump.
Javier Baez could be a key to the Cubs’ future success. (Photo by Stephen Green)
In an attempt to forecast how well each major league organization will do over the next five-years, ESPN Insiders Jim Bowden, Keith Law and Buster Olney created the preseason MLB Future Power Rankings. The trio ranked each club in the following five categories: the quality of the current big league roster, the quality of the farm system, the team’s finances, a team’s management, and the mobility of the current roster or the current age and contract status of the team.
With the best minor league system in the game and a number of key veteran offseason additions, the Cubs find themselves at No. 3 in the rankings. The team jumped up one spot from when these rankings were last compiled on Oct. 31. Here’s what ESPN had to say about the Cubs.
Majors: 17 points (30 being the best score)
Minors: 30 points
Finance: 23 points
Management: 29 points
Mobility: 23 points
To date, Theo Epstein’s plan is playing out very well. Now the Cubs need prospects such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez to make a successful jump to the next level. They also need to grab one of the elite starters on next winter’s free-agent market, such as Jordan Zimmermann or David Price. — Buster Olney
How will the Cubs configure their middle infield over the next few seasons? For now, Javier Baez is the front-runner at second base, with Starlin Castro at shortstop, but when shortstop prospect Addison Russell is major league-ready, he’ll end up beating out one of them, which could cause multiple players to shift positions. It could even mean third-base prospect Kris Bryant has to play a corner-outfield spot. — Jim Bowden
Bryant should be the Cubs’ Opening Day third baseman, but he’ll probably be brought up by late April and is my pick to win NL Rookie of the Year. If it’s not him, it could just as easily be right fielder Jorge Soler. — Keith Law
(Photo by Stephen Green)
With the official beginning of Spring Training just days away, ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield has been unveiling his preseason MLB team rankings. On Wednesday, he named the Cubs No. 13 on his list, predicting the club would finish with an 84-78 record.
I‘m just the messenger: Just pointing out that [Jon] Lester had a 4.82 ERA in 2012 and 3.75 in 2013. Yes, big 2014, new league, no DH and more cutters instead of four-seamers and he could be even better. But you never know. He may not be as good as he was last year. And then there’s Jake Arrieta, former faded prospect turned rotation anchor. He looks like the real deal but … again … you never know. Hey, I’m trying. I like the Cubs! I have them ranked 13th!
The final word: If I had more guts I’d predict them to win the division, but they have two strong clubs ahead of them and even the Brewers or Reds are capable of 90 wins. The Cubs are still sorting a few things out and waiting for some of the young guys to mature. Sometimes, teams do break through right away; if [Kris] Bryant and Jorge Soler are 3-4 win players as rookies and Lester and Arrieta throw 400-plus innings of great baseball, the Cubs could be the big surprise of 2015.
Schoenfield said he expects second baseman Javier Baez and infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara to have better seasons than they had in 2014, and he likes the potential Anthony Rizzo/Kris Bryant combination in the middle of the order. Though Kyle Hendricks was stellar in his 2014 stint, Schoenfield said he expects the young right-hander to regress slightly.
Even with the Reds and Brewers coming in at Nos. 24 and 22, respectively, the Cardinals and Pirates have not yet been named and are therefore in Schoenfield’s top six for 2015, making the NL Central a tough division on paper.
Keith Law ranked Addison Russell the No. 4 prospect in baseball. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
A day after ESPN Insider Keith Law named the Cubs the top farm system in baseball, the analyst handed the organization another compliment Thursday, naming four Cubs to his top 100 prospects., including two in the top five.
As has become the consensus for the last six months, Law anointed third baseman Kris Bryant his No. 1 prospect in the game. Joining him on the list were Addison Russell (No. 4), Jorge Soler (No. 14) and Kyle Schwarber (No. 90).
After hitting .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a minors-best 43 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2014, Bryant received multiple minor league player of the year awards. Even though he was selected just 18 months ago as the second-overall pick of the 2013 draft, the slugger has quickly ascended the minor league ranks, and is primed to make his major league debut this year. Law ranked Bryant his No. 15 prospect prior to 2014. Here is what he thinks about the third baseman’s future:
Bryant’s swing is very balanced, with a wide setup and good use of his lower half to generate power. While there were concerns when he was an amateur that his bat speed might not catch up to major league velocity, he really has had no problem with better stuff in the pros, probably because his eye is so good and his swing is very short from load to contact. He’s a good enough athlete to be able to handle third base, although he’d probably be better defensively in right field with his plus arm and fewer quick-reaction plays to challenge him. Wherever he ends up, he has 30-homer, .400 OBP potential, and should challenge for MVP awards once he has a few years in the majors.
Though Russell’s name may be a little newer to Cubs fans, he has been hovering around the top ranks of prospect lists for a while now. Law ranked the muscular Russell No. 3 on this list last year when he was a member of the Athletics organization. A July trade brought the highly touted prospect into the Cubs system, and while a hamstring tear shortened his 2014, the shortstop still manged to hit .295 with a .350 on-base percentage and demonstrated a little more power to his game.
Russell is a true shortstop with one of the best pure hit tools in the minors, both of which are a function of his outstanding hands, which are strong enough to produce hard contact yet smooth enough that he makes difficult plays look easy at short, whether it’s a tough ground ball or a quick transfer on a 4-6-3 double-play turn. His swing did get a little longer in 2014, producing more power but also more ground ball contact, as he would get on top of balls he didn’t square up. Russell always will face questions about his position because he’s not a runner, but his footwork is more than adequate, and he has the hands and arm to be above-average there. Shortstops with the potential to hit .300-plus with double-digit homers are rare commodities — Troy Tulowitzki was the only major leaguer to do it in 2014 — which makes Russell’s skill set extremely valuable.
Cubs fans got a glimpse of Soler at the major league level in 2014, as the power-hitting outfielder spent 24 games on the big league stage. He demonstrated his exciting tools early on, slugging five home runs, driving in 20 and posting a .292/.330/.573 line. Many expect Soler to start the season as the Cubs’ Opening Day right fielder.
Soler has gotten much stronger since he first signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs in 2012, retaining much of his athleticism but losing some running speed as he bulked up. He always had enormous power thanks to very rapid hand acceleration and a beautiful, rotational swing with long extension through contact. He has a right fielder’s arm and the ability to be an average or better defender there, but for now his routes are a bit suspect and he’ll need more work out there to avoid being the new Domonic Brown. Soler wasn’t patient in the majors, but he had been so in the minors, and I expect that skill to return as he gains experience in the majors and stops trying to recreate what he did in those first five games. He projects as a 25-30 homer guy who hits .270-280 with a solid OBP and, we hope, average defense, which would make him maybe the Cubs’ third- or fourth-best hitter in their suddenly loaded lineup.
Though Law doesn’t see Schwarber as an everyday catcher, the Cubs appear a lot more confident, having worked with the 2014 first-round pick extensively behind the plate this offseason. Regardless, the big sell on the catcher/outfielder is his bat, which helped Schwarber power through Short-Season Boise and Single-A Kane County before finishing in High-A in 2014. He hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 homers and 18 doubles in his first professional year.
He has a chance to end up with a plus hit tool and plus power, showing much better plate discipline this summer than he did as an amateur, although his front side can get soft and he can be vulnerable to soft stuff away because his typical swing is so hard. If he hits .280 or so with a strong OBP and 25-30 homers, he’ll be a good everyday player even if he ends up as a bad left fielder, and the Cubs certainly believe he has a chance to exceed even those marks.
Kris Bryant heads what Keith Law calls the best system in baseball. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
In July, ESPN prospect expert Keith Law raved about the Cubs’ system, naming it the best in the game at that point. He went so far as to say, “This has to be the most loaded the Cubs’ farm has been in at least 30 years.”
That feeling has continued to resonate with Law, who again named the Cubs’ farm system the best in baseball heading into the 2015 season.
1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs’ draft strategy under the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime has been to grab a polished hitter in the first round and load up on arms later. That, along with the trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel that netted two more top hitting prospects, has produced a system that’s full of hitting prospects but still a bit light on the pitching side. The first wave of bats reached the majors in the middle of 2014, with more coming this year, but there won’t be enough at-bats for Javier Baez and Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo … and that’s not even everyone who might end up pushing for playing time. The Cubs are in prime position to flip a young hitter for a pitcher or even to swing a bigger deal, especially if they want to try to set themselves up to win the NL Central in 2016. There are young starting pitching prospects here to like, led by 20-year-old Duane Underwood, but they’re all a few years away.
Law ranked the Cubs the No. 4 system at this time in 2014, No. 5 in 2013, and No. 20 in 2012—mere months after Epstein and Hoyer took over.
Law will unveil his top 100 prospects on Thursday and list his top 10 prospects for each club on Friday.