By Matt Williams
Joe Maddon’s first spring training last year with the Cubs was filled with a lot of questions. Would Kris Bryant make the opening day roster? Who was going to step up to win the second base job? Could Jorge Soler stay healthy and live up to his potential? Who would become the fifth starter? Could these young Cubs actually compete in a crowded National League Central?
Maddon has no such questions this year as pitchers and catchers report Friday to Mesa, Ariz., and the Cubs start their quest to end a World Series drought dating to 1908.
The North Siders are coming off a trip to the NLCS in a postseason where they knocked off the St. Louis Cardinals in their first-ever playoff meeting. But these Cubs – armed with the reigning manager of the year in Maddon, the Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta and Rookie of the Year Bryant – are tabbed by many as favorites to win it all.
After adding Jon Lester last offseason, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made an even bigger free agency splash this past winter. The Cubs strengthened their outfield defense and lineup by landing Jason Heyward to an eight-year $184 million deal. Heyward was the primary target for general manager Jed Hoyer because he’s a Gold Glove defender, runs the bases well and can fit anywhere into their loaded lineup, though expect to see him leading off.
The Cubs had raided their division rival Cardinals just days before Heyward’s arrival, signing John Lackey to solidify their rotation behind Lester and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. After years of up and down production, the Cubs sent Starlin Castro to the Yankees for swingman Adam Warren, who will provide much needed depth to the rotation and could potentially push Kyle Hendricks for the fifth starter role. That trade came the same day as the signing of 2B Ben Zobrist, who is fresh off a World Series victory in Kansas City and was a favorite of Maddon’s during his tenure in Tampa due to his versatility on the field.
The Cubs depended on rookies Bryant, Soler, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber to help carry them to 97 wins. But how will that group fare as major league pitchers adjust to their strengths and weaknesses? All four faced adversity at some point last season, but Maddon is not concerned about season long slumps for his young core.
“The point is everybody knows us now,” Maddon told MLB.com at the Winter Meetings in December. “At least these guys have that veteran leadership from last year, so they know how to react to the moments a little bit better now. They are not going to get as wide-eyed or freaked out over an 0-for-7 or an 0-for-8, so that’s going to be beneficial.”
Arrieta, Lester and Lackey are penciled in to the top three rotation spots. It’s unlikely Arrieta will produce at the same level as 2015, but anywhere close would still make him a top five pitcher in baseball. Lester should put up similar numbers to 2015, while the Cubs hope Lackey can continue his late career resurgence.
That leaves Jason Hammel as a very solid No. 4. Before the all-star break last season, Hammel had a 2.84 ERA, holding hitters to a .211 average. After sustaining a hamstring injury in his last start before the break, Hammel was nowhere near that player, being yanked from five different starts before making it to the fifth inning. If Hammel can produce for an entire season, the Cubs could have the top rotation in baseball.
Filling out the 25
Sure Things: Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross; Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Tommy LaStella; Outfielders: Jorge Soler, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Chris Coghlan; Starters: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks; Bullpen: Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood.
The Final Spots: Assuming the Cubs go with 12 pitchers because of the ability of several bullpen arms to go multiple innings, that leaves the final two spots for bench bats. An easy choice is Javier Baez because of his plus power and the willingness to play any position asked. But if plate appearances are going to be limited for the young slugger, a trip back to AAA Iowa is not out of the question. Matt Szczur is a good fit because of his speed and ability to play any of the three outfield positions. A good spring could help 3B Christian Villanueva make the roster. Villanueva, who is out of minor league options, has a slick glove and could fill in at first or third. Other options are infielder Arismendy Alcantara and former Cub Matt Murton, who spent the past six seasons in Japan before re-signing with Chicago on a minor league contract.
Fangraphs projects the Cubs to finish with the best record in baseball at 94-68. The Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nev., had the Cubs at 89 wins, one below the San Francisco Giants. Our projection: 93-69.