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Chicago Cubs 2016 Preview and Prediction

Jake Arrieta

Jake Arrieta

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

Nobody expected the rebuilding Chicago Cubs to go from last place to the 2015 playoffs when the season started. But 2016? They’re not only expected to do it again, but according to some outlets, they’re also World Series favorites. Sensing an especially strong two-year window, given the status of contracts and last year’s success, the Cubs committed $275 million in free agency to upgrade a bad outfield (Jason Heyward), lengthen the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and create a semblance of a playoff rotation (John Lackey), among other things. “There was a real effort,” team president Theo Epstein says, “to go from good to great this winter and to capitalize on a moment in time.”

Rotation

Starting with the reigning NL Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta and continuing with a pair of 2013 championship Red Sox pitchers in Jon Lester and Lackey, the Cubs’ rotation was touted as one of the best in the league almost as soon as Lackey, 37, was signed to a relatively low-cost two-year deal ($32 million). It pushes Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks back to no more than the four and five slots, and the front office addressed last year’s depth issues by trading All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to the Yankees for potential starter Adam Warren and retaining swingmen Clayton Richard, Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill. As high as the potential upside might be, the depth remains enough of a concern that the Cubs continued to troll the trade market for starting pitching throughout the winter, and they are prepared to try again to add at the trade deadline. All of the top four starters also bear watching this year: Lackey for his age; Arrieta for the fact that he exceeded his previous career high in innings by 72 last year; Hammel for a 5.10 second-half ERA after a July knee injury; and Lester because of ongoing issues with throwing to first and controlling the running game.

Bullpen

The bullpen is set up to be a strength, and depending on what the back end of the rotation looks like early in the season, it could quickly grow into an eight-man crew again. Bringing his 27-outs-any-way-I-can-get-them approach from Tampa Bay, manager Joe Maddon is quick to pull a middle- or end-of-the rotation starter for a chance to take control of a game in the fourth or fifth inning. During the torrid stretch run, Maddon often paired Richard and Cahill in a left-right tandem to match up once through the opponent’s order, and the Cubs figure to have at least two such swingmen in the pen again this year. Their top three late-inning power arms are all back, including closer Hector Rondon, who responded to a brief demotion from the role in June to finish with a 0.96 ERA the rest of the season.

Middle Infield

Castro, the three-time All-Star shortstop, was the last of the big league players Epstein’s front office inherited four years ago. He’d already been bumped off short in August by rookie Addison Russell, a steady, sometimes spectacular fielder whom Maddon affectionately refers to as “no chrome” because he tends to make every play, but with little flash. The Cubs can afford to let him continue to develop at the bottom of the order after lengthening a potentially powerful lineup by adding long-coveted, top-of-the-order hitter Zobrist — the super utility player who was signed to be the primary second baseman.

Corners

The Cubs have one of the most powerful young sets of corner infielders in the game in Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, 24, at third and two-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo, 26, at first — the right-left combo the team builds its lineup around. The two All-Stars in 2015 combined for 57 homers, 155 walks, 200 RBIs and more than 12 wins above replacement. Both are under club control for six more seasons. Rizzo is one of the better defenders at first, while Bryant is a work in progress defensively who improved dramatically from early in the season — and who is versatile enough to have played all three outfield spots as a rookie.

Outfield

After passing on the top-priced pitchers on the free agent market, the Cubs built their offseason around the $184 million courtship of Heyward to upgrade their biggest defensive problem area. The best right fielder in the game agreed to open the season in center field, where he immediately helps improve the shaky corners manned by second-year players Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Heyward, 26, is uniquely young for a free agent, and the Cubs are betting the largest contract in franchise history that he can become an impact core player for a perennial contender — and possibly even reach some of his long-anticipated power potential as he enters his prime years. He could find his way back to right field quickly if the Cubs find the pitching they’re looking for in trade talks involving Soler — who raised his value with a 9-for-19 playoff run that included three home runs. Schwarber, who debuted barely a year after being drafted fourth overall in 2014 out of Indiana, showed more power with a compact, left-handed swing than anyone on the team over the second half and into the playoffs. The Cubs are forced to shoehorn the extremely raw catcher into left field to keep his bat in the lineup.

Catching

The Cubs have a two-time All-Star starting catcher, but you wouldn’t have known it much of last season. Miguel Montero admittedly struggled in a reduced role with David Ross assigned to Lester every fifth day and with the Cubs working in a third catcher early in the season (Welington Castillo) and late (Schwarber). A midseason thumb injury sidelined him for a month and lingered. So Montero, who still managed to produce his best OPS (.754) in three years, expects a bounce-back in his second year under Maddon and with a bolstered lineup. Most important, Montero and Ross were two of the better receivers in the league, according to various catching metrics, and both will be in their second seasons with a staff that returns every key member from a group that led the majors in strikeouts (1,431), ranked third in ERA (3.36) and fifth in fewest walks (407).

Bench

Javy Baez, already the team’s best defensive infielder overall, could be the key bench player by the time the season plays out. Team officials suggest the already versatile infielder could become a Zobrist-like super utility player, and he was assigned to play center field during winter ball. Ross might be the most important bench guy every five days; the strong-armed catcher liberally uses back picks and disguised pitchouts to compensate for Lester’s deficiencies in the running game. Chris Coghlan (five positions) and Tommy La Stella (two) give Maddon versatility.

Management

Epstein’s front office achieved contender status at least a year ahead of internal projections through the fruit of tanking three seasons and the 2015 big league development, en masse, of key rookies (Bryant, Russell, Schwarber and Soler). National League Manager of the Year Maddon’s sudden availability before last season helped make 2015 a 97-win perfect storm, with the nine-year veteran of young Rays teams pushing nearly every right button at nearly every right time — especially with the rookies. Epstein and Maddon have the Cubs in a position to project a strong window to contend, leading into an anticipated 2020 spike in TV-related revenues.

Final Analysis

The Cubs had remarkably good health last year (none of the five in the opening rotation went on the DL), and they are bracing for the likelihood that won’t happen in consecutive years. Depth is still an issue in areas, the bullpen could go either way, and sophomore seasons can be rough even for impressive rookies. But between their improvements and a less impressive winter for the rival Cardinals, the Cubs will be America’s Darlings, if not favorites for both the division and pennant.

Prediction: 1st NL Central (NLCS)

Lineup

CF Jason Heyward (L)

2B Ben Zobrist (S)

3B Kris Bryant (R)

1B Anthony Rizzo (L)

RF Jorge Soler (R)

LF Kyle Schwarber (L)

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C Miguel Montero (L)

SS Addison Russell (R)

Bench

C David Ross (R)

UTL Javy Baez (R)

UTL Chris Coghlan (L)

INF Tommy La Stella (L)

Rotation

RHP Jake Arrieta

LHP Jon Lester

RHP John Lackey

RHP Jason Hammel

RHP Kyle Hendricks

Bullpen

RHP Hector Rondon (closer)

RHP Pedro Strop

RHP Justin Grimm

LHP Clayton Richard

LHP Travis Wood

RHP Trevor Cahill

RHP Adam Warren

LHP Rex Brothers