When the Chicago Cubs went down to the Los Angeles Dodgers in October with barely a whimper in the NLCS, there were many questions that needed to be answered. Two starters would be needed, along with almost a complete overhaul of the bullpen. With Yu Darvish inking a contract on Saturdaya��finishing a successful winter shopping spreea��the Cubs look primed for a return to the World Series.
It was never about the starting lineup. It was all about the pitching. And that they managed to fill in the holes without sacrificing one of their young assets makes the redo that much sweeter. An added bonus was the structure of the contract that allowed the Cubs to stay below the luxury tax threshold.
Before the offseason, Darvish was never even thought to be a possibility for the team. Both he and Jake Arrieta were supposed to be far out of reach money-wise for the Cubs. Instead, you are now theoretically trading Arrieta for Darvish. With Arrieta losing a mile or two off of his fastball and not pitching as far into games, Darvish gives the Cubs a bit of an edge. If he can be less generous with his tipping in the future, this was a fine get for the Cubs.
Early in free-agency, they tapped Tyler Chatwood to be their fifth starter. With great numbers outside of Colorado, he might be a steal. Add in Brandon Morrow coming off a dominant season with the Dodgers as the new closer, with Steve Cishek backing him up, and the Cubs filled the major holes that left them short in 2017.
They still have Carl Edwards Jr, Pedro Strop, and Brian Duensing leftover. And if Justin Wilson can deliver on what he was advertised as when they acquired him from Detroit, the pitching staff looks formidable on paper. Bullpens are volatile and you never know what you’re getting from year-to-year, of course. But the added depth gives them much-needed protection.
With Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and JosA� Quintana already on board, the Cubs have one of the best starting staffs in baseball with the addition of Darvish and Chatwood. And pitching is not even the club’s strong suit.
You can say they have the deepest and most talented lineup of bats in baseball. They finished fourth last year in runs scored without one player having a career-year. A few of the teams that will be competing with them in October benefited from multiple players exceeding expectations.
In the National League, the Dodgers had three such players in Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor and Alex Wood. Bellinger was just a rookie, so we don’t know his level yet. But it’s unlikely he will match last year. Taylor came out of nowhere. And even though most experts don’t care about win-loss records anymore, Wood is not likely to repeat 16-3.
In New York, the Mecca of everything sports; the Yankees are already being blown up as the next best thing in baseball. With the addition of Giancarlo Stanton to an already potent lineup, expectations are through the roof. Aaron Judge slammed 52 homers as a rookie and he was still seven behind Stanton last year. Bet your house those two won’t combine for 109 in 2018 or anything close. Eighty will be a reach.
The Yanks are looking good. But I think they exceeded expectations last year and are not quite ready for prime time just yet.
The Houston Astros have a dynamic team and added Gerrit Cole to the mix in the rotation. But I don’t love their bullpen, and nobody repeats as World Series champions.
In the NL, Washington has a nice team. And if they sign Jake Arrieta, they will be a tough playoff match-up. But a rookie manager in Davy Martinez makes the climb more difficult.
That’s why the Cubs look like the team to beat right now. Their lineup is ripe with young players ready to explode, though still not even in their prime. Anthony Rizzo is one of the most reliable players in baseball. Kris Bryant is Kris Bryant. Last year was a down year for him, and he still killed it.
Addison Russell had domestic issues along with a bit of an injury bug in 2017, but he’s as good at short as anyone in baseball. He’s also an excellent clutch hitter, which he proved again last year in the playoffs. He is due to finally hit his stride at the plate. Javy BA?ez had his best year as a pro. But he still swings at terrible pitches and lacks discipline at the plate. Yet his numbers weren’t crazy. He can do so much more.
And that’s where the new hitting coach comes in.
Chili Davis comes from Boston with a reputation as one of the best in the game. Along with Russell and BA?ez, overpaid right fielder Jason Heyward will be a special project of his. If he can get him to produce, not only will the Cubs be scary good, but his reputation will be solidified.
Willson Contreras was on pace for a possible MVP season last year before an injury put him on the shelf. The reason I don’t think he’s due for some regression is because he has hit since he came up in 2016. He’s also getting better behind the plate and has an arm that keeps base runners from straying.
Kyle Schwarber was a disappointment last year. He didn’t hit close to his weight during the first half. And possibly because of that, he is now carrying quite a bit less on his frame. You wouldn’t recognize him. The Babe Ruth body look-alike now looks beach ready.
He was ticked off with his season and wants to prove everybody wrong. There were rumors he was on the block, but fortunately the Cubs held on. Look for a big year at the plate and improvement in the field.
The Cubs first-round draft pick, Albert Almora, killed lefties last year and started hitting righties later in the season when Joe Maddon let him play. He should get more opportunities this year. But the Cubs still have Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist and Tommy La Stella on the bench. There are teams that don’t have one reserve that is as dangerous at the plate as they are.
Issues can arise during the season, of course. On paper doesn’t mean everything will be perfect on the field. Baseball is a funny game in that being the best team doesn’t mean you’re going to win the title. It’s not basketball.
But if you want to feel good about what you accomplished in the offseason, the Cubs brass can pat themselves on the back. They built the best team in baseball. Now all they have to do is prove it on the field.