By Nate Johnson
If anyone thinks that the Chicago Cubs were satisfied with their run to the National League Championship Series last season, the front office has quickly put those ideas to rest this winter. With a series of moves that both strengthen their own team and weaken certain divisional foes, the Cubs stand as the pre-season favorite going into the 2016 MLB season.
Over the course of the plan that team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have put into action, they have stressed that, while the focus of the team would be to develop from within, there would be money for free agents when the right players came along. It just so happened that three such players hit the market at the same time.
The biggest offseason move has been the signing of former Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward. Heyward comes into the fold in his prime (26 years old) with strong defensive credentials and upper echelon on-base and situational batting numbers. While the former Brave has never reached the power numbers he put up in his rookie year, he gives the Cubs an excellent block in center fielder.
It was of little surprise to most Cubs fans that infielder Ben Zobrist was courted strongly by the team. A former player under Joe Maddon in Tampa, the super-utility man fits the model that both Maddon and the front office love to have on the bench. Zobrist can play any position besides either end of the battery (most of his experience comes in the middle infield and the outfield corners) and gets on base at a healthy clip. With his 34th ranking in on-base percentage in 2015, the Cubs now have four of last year’s top forty finishers in OBP.
A major concern coming out of the season was the need for a strong number three starter after Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. In signing right-hander John Lackey (and Heyward) from the Cardinals, it not only solidifies the team’s rotation but takes away a starter from one of their most serious challengers in the league. Lackey, like Lester, brings extensive postseason experience, something lacking on last year’s playoff team. While not a top-level arm, Lackey brings a manageable contract and is only on the books for two years.
As always, when adding to the roster, cuts must be made. The deepest could well end up being the trade of long-time infielder Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees. Despite ups and downs over the course of his tenure with the Cubs, Castro showed strongest at the end of 2015 as he rebounded from a benching and the loss of the shortstop position to settle in at second base and make significant offensive contributions down the stretch. In return, pitcher Adam Warren joins the Cubs as a swingman, likely to see time both in the bullpen and making spot starts.
Between the progress made in the regular season and the moves made in the hot stove league, it’s looking more and more likely that the Cubs could surpass the success they experienced this year. They’re already slated by oddsmakers as the co-favorites to win the World Series, tied with the San Francisco Giants at 6-1. A foolish bet? Time will tell.