Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2015 Pre-Season Profile: Chicago Cubs

There may not have been a more talked about team this offseason than the Chicago Cubs.  Will all the publicity and attention get them any closer to ending the most infamous drought in professional sports?

Last Season
73-89, 5th in NL Central

Under new manager Rick Renteria, the Cubs had their best season since 2010, which just means they didn't lose 90+ games.  It was definitely a transition year as some of the current stars were shipped out to bring in fresh talent and make room for the budding superstars Theo Epstein has been stockpiling in the farm system.  A lot of youngsters saw their first big league action in 2014 and more will see the field in 2015.

2015 Additions / Subtractions

The remodeling of this year's team officially started when the Cubs started trading last season, shipping off players like Jeff Samardzija and Darwin Barney.  Then came the offseason everyone has been talking about.  Jon Lester brings instant credibility to a rotation needing a leader after Samardzija (Lester's now former Athletic teammate actually) was dealt.  Lester is a proven leader and winner at all levels.  Complementary pieces like Dexter Fowler to hold the fort in centerfield and Miguel Montero to handle the pitching staff also improved the club, but there was one move that is going to make all the difference in the long run.  Rick Renteria did a great job managing the team last year, but the Cubs couldn't pass up the opportunity presented to them.  Joe Maddon has long been considered one of, if not the, best manager in baseball.  What he did with the low-budget, overachieving Rays year after year was amazing to watch.  Now he will be leading a team full of talent that also has a budget to go fill needs instead of trading away their stars just as they hit their prime.  If the Cubs win a World Series in the next 5 years or so, it will be because of Joe Maddon.

Most Important Hitter
Javier Baez

Outside of a few proven big leaguers, the Cubs will be letting some young prospects get their feet wet and have some on-the-job training this year.  Eventually, some of these prospects will need to turn into superstars for the Cubs to reach the heights they want to see.  The first they are counting on announcing his presence is Javier Baez.  Baez was considered one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball last season when he was given a 52 game run in Chicago.  Scouts said he hit like Manny Ramirez, but played middle infield (which is why many say the Cubs hired Manny Ramirez to help coach their AAA team last year).  He greatly underwhelmed in 2014, hitting just .169 with 9 home runs in his short stint.  Baez is obviously their second baseman of the future, but it is telling when the team trades for Tommy La Stella from Atlanta in the offseason to have an insurance policy in case Baez falls flat on his face again.  The Cubs want to be patient, but also want to start winning.  How quickly Javier Baez develops may determine how quickly the Cubs become a team to be recognized.

Most Important Pitcher
Jake Arrieta

When the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel mid-season last year, many wondered where the quality would come from their starting pitching.  Quickly, Jake Arrieta emerged out of nowhere to be the ace of the staff.  Now with Jon Lester taking the top spot in the rotation, the Cubs are counting on Arrieta to continue his new-found success and be the solid number two starter every rotation needs.

Player to Watch
Addison Russell

It is hard to pick just one player to watch on such a young and talented team.  Jorge Soler, Cubs #3 prospect and #23 in all of baseball, is expected to start in rightfield on Opening Day, and Kris Bryant, Cubs #1 prospect and #2 in all of baseball, is putting together a Spring Training that will have people rioting if he is not the starting third baseman to start the season.  Many people already know these names and the success they are expected to have (if not, look them up ... especially Bryant).  The situation that will be most interesting to watch is what the Cubs decide to do with shortstop prospect Addison Russell.  The centerpiece of the Jeff Samardzija trade last season, Russell came over from Oakland and instantly became the Cubs' #2 prospect, only bested by Kris Bryant.  He is also the 5th best prospect in all of baseball and scheduled to be ready to make his big league debut this season.  He is obviously in the future plans of the Cubs.  The question is when and how.  If we hit mid-season, and Javier Baez still isn't working out at second base, look for Addison Russell to make his big league debut at second.  If not, don't be surprised if Starlin Castro starts to be talked about in trade rumors in June or July, no matter what their record is, to make room for this phenom and future superstar.

3rd in NL Central

With all the moves and all the buzz surrounding the Cubs, you start to wonder if it is all hype or not.  Looking at what they have done and where it appears they are going, I am starting to buy in to what they are selling.  They have a collection of possibly the best young talent in all of baseball with possibly the best manager leading them.  I see them making a significant jump forward this year.  They won't challenge for a playoff spot this year, but a strong start could have people speculating about a playoff run as late as the All Star Break.  The Cubs aren't trying to win this year, but look out for them being perennial championship contenders within the next 5 seasons.

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