By Nate Johnson
Just like that, it’s over. The long run of the baseball season: spring training, 162 games, a play-in win over the Pirates, and the upending of the Cardinals in an authoritative four-game NLDS win. More ups than downs and some highest of highs. All culminating in a four-game sweep at the hands of the World Series-bound Mets, an anemic performance by the Cubs lineup, the ascension of New York second baseman Daniel Murphy to baseball god, and another round of “wait until next year” grumblings.
Watching various social media feeds in the aftermath of the Mets series, you would think that the Northside team was set for contraction. The future is dim, we’ve blown our only chance at winning it all, and it’s time to trade Kyle Schwarber.
The angst is understandable, if not a bit overblown. Certainly, we’ve all lived through Cubs disappointment. We’ve seen a Padres grounder through Leon Durham’s legs break our hopes. We’ve seen an Alex Gonzalez error crush our dreams. We’ve seen Will Clark single-handedly end the postseason for the Cubs.
Unlike the last few playoff teams, though, there is reason to believe that this year’s model is truly built for sustained success and not another six-year playoff drought. Although this team was supposedly a year ahead of schedule, first-year manager Joe Maddon did not simply catch lightning in a bottle. This team played solid, winning baseball and, for once, “wait until next year” really should ring true.
With so much young talent in the mix, next year’s roster should bear a strong resemblance to the team we last saw on the field. Team management has already discussed the need to address starting pitching depth and the addition of at least one upper-tier arm is expected. The retirement of Dan Haren and the addition of a second starter would most likely push Kyle Hendricks into the fifth spot and could leave Jason Hammel as the odd man out, despite the team’s announcement that he would return in 2016.
Despite having four positional rookies start during the playoffs, the minor league coffers are not dry. Having promoted presumptive National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, impact shortstop Addison Russell, and power phenom Schwarber, the Cubs farm system is still universally ranked in the top five of baseball, which should keep the prospect pipeline in motion. There might not be another immediate-impact call-up in the near future, but outfielder Billy McKinney and shortstop Gleyber Torres (another middle infielder!) made the mid-season top 75 MLB prospect list.
Center fielder Dexter Fowler, having joined the team as a free agent this past offseason on a one-year deal, has probably played himself into a long-term deal elsewhere. With a strong bounce back after losing his starting job to Russell, shortstop-turned-second baseman Starlin Castro might have revitalized trade interest across the league, which would help relieve the glut of middle infielders on the roster.
Schwarber’s development (or lack thereof) going forward will help determine the role of starting catcher Miguel Montero. With elder statesman David Ross returning for one more season, Montero could offer value as a trade chip if Schwarber can grow into a full-time spot behind the plate.
The personality of the team should remain untouched, as Maddon’s entire coaching staff has been invited back and, barring someone like bench coach Dave Martinez being wooed away with a managerial position, should return for 2016.
This was not an all-in season, as demonstrated by team brass to mostly stand pat at the trade deadline and not mortgage the future for a quick fix. This was the development of a young team on the cusp of very special things. We’ve been fortunate to have a front-row seat for the first phase, and there’s a very real chance that it’ll only get better from here.