After three years of rebuilding the farm system at the expense of the major league roster — and big-league results — the Cubs are back in the hunt for the first time in team president Theo Epstein’s regime. Not “all in,” not “selling out” for 2015, says Epstein, who makes clear the focus is still on a sustained competitive window. But several players said in September they expected to compete in ’15, and the front office bolstered the expectations with a $250 million holiday shopping spree that included one of the top managers in the game, Joe Maddon, and new $155 million ace Jon Lester. Since those two additions, the Las Vegas odds on a Cubs championship went from 50-1 to 10-1.
Even before the Cubs landed their top free-agent target in Lester, they seemed to strike gold at the front of the rotation with Jake Arrieta, the righthander with exceptional stuff who finally had a breakout season in ’14. By bringing back effective veteran Jason Hammel as a free agent a few months after trading him to Oakland, and installing 2014 rookie success Kyle Hendricks into the top four, the Cubs have a rotation to build on — and, along the way, might have eliminated the need to rely on free-agent bust Edwin Jackson (the NL’s worst starter the past two seasons). Arrieta still hasn’t thrown more than 176.2 innings — his total last year between a minor league rehab stint and 25 big-league starts — in a season at any level, and Hendricks has all of 13 big-league starts to his name. But in Lester, the front office believes it has not only a reliable, durable No. 1 but also a focused, driven tone-setter who can show others the way to play playoff-caliber baseball.
What the front office believes Lester can do for the young guys in the rotation it hopes Jason Motte can do in the short term for a group of young, back-end bullpen arms. The former NL saves leader and World Series winner in St. Louis appears to be at full strength following 2013 Tommy John surgery. Motte joins a crew that includes power-armed, young back-end righthanders Hector Rondon (the de facto closer in a pen without a labeled ninth-inning guy), Neil Ramirez (1.44 ERA as a rookie) and Pedro Strop (2.21 ERA). For all the inherent volatility of bullpens, the front office considers this the deepest and most talented pen it’s had since taking over. After losing their top lefty relievers to a trade and a non-tender decision, the Cubs could have two lefties fall to the pen from the spring rotation mix. Also, southpaw Joe Ortiz, a 5'7" strike-thrower, is an intriguing waiver pickup who could serve as a matchup specialist.
The Cubs front office has spent three years stockpiling and hoarding shortstops, from three-time All-Star Starlin Castro to Addison Russell, a top-five MLB prospect acquired in July from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija/Hammel deal. Second baseman Javier Baez is a converted top shortstop prospect who has the best power on the projected Opening Day roster — along with one of the most vicious, strikeout-prone swings in baseball. Defensively, Baez is a downgrade, at least in the short term, from departed Gold Glover Darwin Barney. The Cubs have the potential for the most prolific keystone tandem in the league, or a strikeout-filled work in progress that requires plugging in some of the alternatives in the system.
Slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, already a patient hitter, matured into an All-Star run-producer with a more aggressive approach in the zone that led to the No. 2 homer total in the NL. He also dramatically improved his performance against lefthanders (including a .421 OBP) in an impressive bounce-back after struggling much of his first full season in the big leagues a year earlier. But the Cubs’ corner guy under the biggest spotlight is not expected to be on the roster until around the first of May (for service-time reasons) — top prospect Kris Bryant, the third baseman who led pro baseball with 43 homers in his first full season out of college. The trade of Luis Valbuena for center fielder Dexter Fowler gives Mike Olt another shot at winning the starting job. Olt struggled mightily at the plate last season and even if he turns it around, he’s likely just a placeholder until Bryant arrives.
Fowler’s arrival from Houston not only gives the Cubs a solid glove in center, it also gives them the leadoff option they have lacked in recent seasons. Right fielder Jorge Soler was impressive enough in a month-long debut to enter 2015 on a short list of Rookie of the Year candidates, assuming he can reverse a three-year trend of landing on the DL. And left fielder Chris Coghlan, a minor league free agent a year ago, capitalized on increased playing time as the season wore on, producing his best season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2009. He’s earned a big place in the Cubs’ plans this year.
The Welington Castillo era ended before it had much of a chance to gain steam as the physically gifted starter didn’t hit well enough, stay healthy enough or improve his receiving skills (framing, etc.) enough to keep his job. After the front office finished second to the Blue Jays in their pursuit of top free-agent catcher Russell Martin, the Cubs turned their focus toward trading for their next choice — All-Star Miguel Montero. The front office considers Montero another clubhouse-presence acquisition, and he’s under contract for the next three seasons. He’s also the kind of left-handed bat they coveted to help balance a lineup in which most of the top-rated young hitters coming through the system are right-handed.
Backup catcher David Ross serves not only as an accessory to the Lester signing — as Lester’s favored catcher in Boston — but also as a clubhouse glue-guy the brass emphasized over the winter. Arismendy Alcantara, another intriguing prospect, already has been a regular starter at two positions. He could be Maddon’s jack-of-all-trades or he could end up stealing starts away from either Baez at second or Olt at third. The Cubs also traded for second baseman Tommy La Stella for his low-strikeout, strong-on-base skills that the roster lacks. Ryan Sweeney and Chris Denorfia provide several platoon options in the outfield for a bench that should only improve with the arrival this year of Bryant — and other projected cornerstone players behind him.
A year after firing hand-picked manager Dale Sveum and casting the first big doubt on whether the magic in Boston could translate to the Cubs, Epstein pounced when he got the chance to hire Maddon. It required mistreating sitting manager Rick Renteria, leaving him to twist in the wind before firing him with two years left on his contract. But from a sheer baseball/business standpoint, Maddon was universally seen as the right manager at the right time for the Cubs’ process — a motivator, innovator and communicator who consistently did more with less in Tampa Bay for nine years.
Conventional wisdom among believers in Epstein’s rebuilding plan had the first year of competitive traction coming in 2016, but a strong player development year for the organization’s top prospects in 2014 moved up the timeline. A .500 season is probably a reasonable expectation for the pivot-point year of a process transitioning into the buildup phase. The only thing for sure is that the clock is ticking again on the pursuit of a title — and on Epstein’s plan to start producing results on the field.
2015 Prediction: 4th in NL Central
CF Dexter Fowler (S) Fowler is a dynamic player when healthy because of his ability to get on base and hit the occasional homer.
LF Chris Coghlan (L) Best season since winning ’09 Rookie of the Year included .317/.371/.489 leading off an inning.
SS Starlin Castro (R) At 24, has as many career All-Star selections (three) as Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins.
1B Anthony Rizzo (L) All-Star was third in NL with .913 OPS last year; even better vs. LHP: .300, .421 OBP, .928 OPS.
RF Jorge Soler (R) Tailed off after blistering start but .903 OPS in 24-game debut; Rookie of the Year in ’15?
C Miguel Montero (L) Cubs plan to ease workload some after MLB-leading 516 games caught last four years.
2B Javier Baez (R) Struck out 225 times in 156 combined games at Class AAA (130) and major leagues (95) in 2014.
3B Mike Olt (R) Trade of Luis Valbuena offers another shot to start, but production must improve with Kris Bryant looming.
C David Ross (R) Veteran should catch Lester’s starts (as he did in Boston) and see time vs. lefthanders.
UT Arismendy Alcantara (S) Versatility could make him Maddon’s new Ben Zobrist, playing all over the diamond.
2B Tommy La Stella (L) Cubs brass coveted him for on-base skills in minors for years before November trade.
OF Ryan Sweeney (L) Played only 147 games last two years because of injuries; career .290 hitter with men on base.
OF Chris Denorfia (R) Veteran struggled last year with the Padres and Mariners, hitting .230 with three HRs in 330 ABs.
LH Jon Lester Quality frontline lefthander has won at least 15 games in six of the last seven seasons.
RH Jake Arrieta His 2.53 ERA would have ranked sixth in NL if he had pitched 5.1 more innings to qualify.
RH Jason Hammel Coming off career year fueled by renewed health, rapport with pitching coach Chris Bosio.
RH Kyle Hendricks Hitters not so smart vs. Dartmouth grad with men on (.216) or in scoring position (.232).
LH Travis Wood At crossroads after huge decline (5.03 ERA) in ’14 following All-Star season in ’13 (3.16).
RH Hector Rondon (Closer) 2013 Rule 5 Draft pick grew into closer in ‘14, dominated second half (0.62, 18 saves).
RH Jason Motte Tommy John grad looked close to former closer self by end of last season.
RH Neil Ramirez Cubs’ top rookie last year (1.44 ERA) gets chance to increase role, workload.
RH Pedro Strop One-time Cubs closer candidate thrives in eighth inning (2.52 ERA career; 1.52 last year).
RH Justin Grimm Former starter made successful switch to relief after ‘13 trade to Cubs.
RH Edwin Jackson Worst starter in baseball in 2013-14 has two years, $26 million left on a brutal contract.
LH Tsuyoshi Wada Japanese veteran especially tough on lefties (.184); will compete for fifth starter job.
Beyond the Box Score
No seats for the bums The ballpark more famous for its bleachers than any other will open the season on Sunday night national TV against rival St. Louis — without the iconic bleachers in either left or right fields. Unforeseen problems with a water main and record cold weather has conspired to delay the $375 million renovation work, forcing the Cubs to make contingency plans for relocating bleacher season-ticket holders. Between the work stoppages and other delays, the left and center field bleachers are tentatively scheduled to open on May 11 with the right field section looking at an early June time frame. The bleachers needed to be removed to allow for new structural support both in left and right fields for new video boards and signage.
My kind of interview Because Joe Maddon already was on his annual cross-country trip in the 43-foot RV he calls “Cousin Eddie” when the Cubs tried to beat the market to set up an interview, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer agreed to intercept him on his route. Maddon found an RV park on a beach near Pensacola, Fla., and waited for the execs to drive in from the nearest airport they could find. Most of the “interview” was done in lawn chairs, on the beach behind the RV, along with Maddon’s wife, Jaye, and a bunch of cold beers. “It was really cool,” Epstein says. It turned out pretty cool for Maddon, too. After five 90-win seasons with the Rays — then promises of a Cubs’ World Series during his first Chicago media conference — Maddon gets more resources, more expectations and more scrutiny than he’s had in almost 40 years in the game.
Tenement on wheels Within a day or two of Maddon’s hiring, “Cousin Eddie” pulled into Mesa, Ariz., where Maddon’s kids live, where the Cubs train and where the RV sat the rest of the winter — not far from where Maddon will reside in it during spring training. It’s nicer than any condo or hotel room, he says.
On the hunt With $155 million in guaranteed money on the table from the Cubs, $168 million in potential guaranteed money from the Giants and the heartstrings tugging from Boston despite far less money, Jon Lester found his way to Chicago by going deep into the woods. To shoot something. “I went duck hunting in the morning and then deer hunting in the afternoon,” he said. “I had to clear my brain a little and get back to neutral before we could make a decision.” The next day he accepted the Cubs’ offer.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Kyle Schwarber, C
The Cubs felt sure he would hit when they took the lefty slugger fourth overall in June out of Indiana, and he did a lot of that at three levels throughout the summer. But nobody knew if he could improve enough behind the plate to become a big-league catcher and avoid the move to an outfield corner that many scouts project. Cubs officials, however, believe in Schwarber’s makeup even more than his bat — a focused, driven player whose passion they view as a future clubhouse force. They sent him to Mesa during instructional league to work solely on catching skills with Cubs minor league coordinator Tim Cossins. If he succeeds, his value as a hitter soars.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Kris Bryant, 3B (23) Less than two years out of college, the 2013 No. 2 overall pick was an Arizona Fall League MVP (in ‘13) and led all of professional baseball with 43 homers last year.
2. Addison Russell, SS (21) Some say the centerpiece of last July’s trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s is the best shortstop in an organization loaded with them.
3. Jorge Soler, OF (23) Prior to his 24-game big-league debut, Soler had an incredible slash line of .340/.432/.700 at three minor league levels in 2014, with 40 extra-base hits in 62 games.
4. Kyle Schwarber, C (22) Hitting .344 with 18 homers in 72 games overall, Schwarber earned Player of the Week honors in three different leagues during his 11-week professional debut.
5. C.J. Edwards, RHP (23) After the Cubs forced a long, cautious rehab for a bout of April shoulder inflammation, the tall, thin, hard-throwing Edwards finished strong at Double-A.
6. Albert Almora, CF (20) Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs (No. 6 overall in 2012) salvaged a strong finish after a slow start at Double-A.
7. Pierce Johnson, RHP (23) Hamstring and calf injuries disrupted his Double-A season, and control issues didn’t help.
8. Billy McKinney, OF (20) The “other” prospect in the Samardzija/Hammel trade is a bona fide center fielder and lefty hitter with on-base skills.
9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP (20) In his first season after signing as a $1.6 million free agent, the Taiwanese prospect was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
10. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (22) Seems likely to get to the majors with another team because of a lack of defensive versatility and a 25-year-old All-Star at first for the Cubs.