It’s so nice to see Dexter Fowler in the lineup for the Cubs, Randall Delgado might disagree. Hot sauce!
I’ve been on this Earth for 33 years, and for the better part of my time here I have been a Cubs fan, so disappointment comes with the territory. With that disappointment comes hope that is usually misguided, and a catch phrase of “wait till next year” drives that misguided optimism year after year. The National narrative doesn’t help things with a constant “don’t worry, the Cubs will screw it up because they’re the Cubs” refrain. That repetitive opinion starts to creep into our subconscious; maybe all those experts are right, nothing good ever happens. It was even evident last year during what I can say was honestly the most enjoyable baseball season of my life, there was doubt. A daily rollercoaster of emotions based on whether or not the Cubs won. What did the Giants do? Look out for the Nationals, they’re getting hot. The Diamondbacks are making a run; did you see the schedule down the stretch? Its typical pennant race behavior which I totally get, but something about last year changed my views on hope, it made me realize something important and fun… it’s real.
I got into a number of discussions last year on the inter-webs about this very thing and it was startling how many people, good baseball people, hoped that other teams would take care of the Cubs’ business for them. In the past I would be right there with them, but the leadership group of this organization, the players, and their overall attitude towards winning, and competing made it very clear to me that I no longer had to worry about that. This Cubs team was going to leave everything on the field and for the most part the opponent couldn’t keep up. It was never more obvious than during that four game series against the Giants at home. We all thought that Hector Rondon and a rare bout of wildness was going to derail the game, and the season, it was over. Then it wasn’t, Rondon wiggled off the hook, and the Cubs pounded the Giants right out of the wild card lead into an October without playoff baseball.
A postseason of Cardinals’ devil magic followed. 2016 was full of horrible losses to the Cardinals, it was impossible to ignore those losses heading into the NLDS. The reason for most losses was the dreaded Cardinals’ devil magic because it was more fun to talk about that then talk about how the Cardinals made their own breaks or came up with a clutch hit or two. Things went wrong in Game One for the Cubs as worries of the unbreakable Cardinals, and the “too young to be here” Cubs were coming to fruition. Then Javier Baez massacred a mistake from John Lackey en route to Dingerpalooza 2015 taking place at Wrigley…. Hello NLCS!
I would say that a large number of people converted over to less fatalistic thinking as the season came to a close against the Mets. The Cubs were getting beat by the Mets because the Mets were a good team, and the Cubs couldn’t get out of their own way. I was pretty excited to see a lot of fans recognize what was going on; it wasn’t the Cubs blowing an opportunity as only the Cubs could do. It was the Cubs just losing a game and losing a series in the infancy of their window of opportunity to win a World Series.
So now the Cubs are on the brink of starting the 2016 season with the highest expectations possible. The organization identified needs heading into the off-season and sent a powerful message to this fan base and the rest of baseball that they are not going anywhere by bringing in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey. The players have clearly bought into what Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, and Jed Hoyer are selling. I suppose it’s okay that some fans are still overcome with worry when they see the Cubs as World Series favorites. I’m just glad that the players taking the field are embracing it, and ready to win a World Series, not because of any curse or because of the losing History, but because they expect to.
The bullpen is a tricky thing, from year to year guys come and go, and every once in a while a team boasts a dominant bullpen relatively out of nowhere. Off-season acquisitions, and power arms marinating on the farm are usually catalysts for such success, but injuries, and unforeseen ineffectiveness can derail the pen quickly. Given the large number of variables that go into predicting the success of a bullpen it’s usually an exercise in futility, but here goes… The Cubs’ bullpen has a chance to be dominant (They all do! You’re screaming), well, let’s just look at the options, shall we?
The Cubs have a solid core group of guys coming back this year, which could point to a reasonable amount of success in 2016. I base this mostly on the fact that the Cubs had the 8th best bullpen ERA in the Majors last year, and names like Brian Schlitter, Rafael Soriano, Edwin Jackson (wasn’t too terrible in this role), Gonzalez Germen, and Phil Coke were members of said pen. To be fair, guys like Trevor Cahill, and Travis Wood exceeded expectations in rather unfamiliar bullpen roles last year, and it wouldn’t be crazy to think that they will come back down to Earth a bit. The fact remains though, the best arms out of that Cubs pen are back this year, and there really is no reason to expect a significant drop in performance. Let’s break down the possible bullpen roles, yes, despite the crazy competition that will be taking place this spring.
Closer – Hector Rondon
Set up – Pedro Strop
Set up – Justin Grimm
Middle Relief – Adam Warren (acquisition) (Rotation Chance)
Middle Relief – Rex Brothers (acquisition)
Middle Relief – Neil Ramirez
Long Relief – Travis Wood
Long Relief – Trevor Cahill (Rotation chance)
On paper… on paper, that looks pretty darn good, and obviously as I write this I’m using the most optimistic thoughts as possible. A big key here is the health of Neil Ramirez, he was outstanding in 2014, and parts of 2015 when he wasn’t battling back from injuries, a healthy Ramirez goes a long way towards a great 2016. Adam Warren proves to be an upgrade over guys that the Cubs had to turn to last year in tough spots, like Jason Motte (again, ignore the injuries for the sake of this conversation). There is also a chance that Warren will have an opportunity to win a rotation spot, but guys with flexibility are all the rage for Joe Maddon. Rex Brothers, who was dominate in 2013, and struggled mightily in 2014, looks to bounce back, and if he does proves to be another rather large upgrade. Young arms like Carl Edwards Jr., Duane Underwood Jr., and Pierce Johnson could also make an impact in the Cubs pen this year despite being starters while working their way through the organization, save for Edwards Jr. last year.
The talent pool is better than last year, and the depth is better as well, those two things put the Cubs in a good spot to start the spring. If injuries pop up, like they absolutely will, the Cubs are in a better position to handle them, and still might have a few new additions that could surprise during camp, and win a job.
It’s only May 6th, feeling okay? This series has been a roller coaster of emotions, and tonight we can all breathe a little easier as the Cubs just barely hung on to beat the Cardinals 6-5. Both teams scored in alternating innings until the eighth when they both pushed across a run. Jon Lester didn’t do himself any favors as he made an error which led to an unearned run, which was not the only unearned run of the night. The Cardinals got two more after a two out error by Addison Russell, but Lester battled all night. The newest ace of the Cubs was able to work through seven strong innings before watching the bullpen shut the door, I wouldn’t say they slammed it, they shut it quietly. Nice to be out from under that losing streak, and the Cubs can now go for the split tomorrow afternoon.
At the Plate:
- Chris Coghlan was plugged into the two hole tonight, he did his job by getting on base, he didn’t have any hits but he walked twice.
- Anthony Rizzo is hunting down the MVP, he was 2-for-4 with his fifth dinger of the year, three RBI’s, and a run scored.
- Kris Bryant continues to produce, he was 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI, and two runs scored.
- Jorge Soler seems to be coming out of his slump, he was 2-for-4 with an RBI in the win.
- Dexter Fowler, Starlin Castro, David Ross, and Addison Russell all chipped in with a hit.
On the Mound:
- Jon Lester was gritty tonight, he worked seven innings, giving up four runs, one earned, on seven hits while walking two, and striking out six.
- Pedro Strop had another shaky outing, he worked one inning, giving up one run on one hit while walking one.
- Hector Rondon walked the tightrope as well, he worked a scoreless ninth for his sixth save of the year. He surrendered one hit while walking one, and getting one huge strikeout.
Just a few short days after Kris Bryant was called up, it appears Addison Russell will be as well. Jon Heyman had the initial news after the Cubs game, and Patrick Mooney said that he was hearing the same things. We do not have an official confirmation, but if this is happening then the Cubs are going for it this year, the time is now, wow.