The Cubs infield you see on Opening Day probably has a shelf life of about two weeks. That is when, barring setbacks at Triple-A Iowa, we'll see the everyday introduction of Kris Bryant and Javier Baez to the the starting lineup. Much has been made of Chicago's decision to start Bryant off in the minors. His agent, Scott Boras, has condemned the move on every media outlet that would give him airtime. Organizationally though, it makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't anybody sacrifice two weeks of a player's youth for another full year of a player's prime? Even Bryant's massacring of Spring Training pitching (.425 BA, 9 HR, 15 RBI) didn't force Epstein to think more with his heart than his head. They will start the season with Mike Olt at third. Bryant's similarly exiled counterpart, Baez, did not have a particularly great March camp (.173 BA, 20 K in 52 AB). However, he has done pretty much all he can at the Minor League level. Even if he's struggling, Baez provides the Cubs with a significant upgrade over Arismendy Alcantara or Tommy La Stella. That's enough though about people that aren't on the team yet. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is looking to build off his stellar 2014. Rizzo posted a career highs in OBP (.386), slugging (.527), and overall OPs (.913) with 32 home runs. The 25 year old also made his first All-Star team. While Rizzo is clearly in the club's future plans, the same can't be steadfastly said about their other infield All-Star, shortstop Starlin Castro. Though the 25 year old rebounded from a below standard 2013, speculation surrounding his departure via trade has been not so secret. Plenty of clubs would love to have his services, especially the two New York ones, and the Cubs would like to be out from under his $61 million deal that runs to 2019. If Castro is dealt, Addison Russell, acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade last year and the fifth best prospect in baseball, will get his much deserved call-up. As if you haven't caught on yet, the Cubs farm system is LOADED. The catching duties will be handled by the biggest offensive pick up from this winter, former Diamondback Miguel Montero. Montero was a steadying hand on a bad Arizona team last year. Though he's turned the page into his thirties, he can still drive the ball for extra bases. His arrival also allows last year's catcher, Wellington Castillo, to become a valuable trade chip as 2014 1st rounder Kyle Schwarber is less than a season away.
The infield and pitching have got the majority of the publicity but don't sleep on the Cubs outfield. Jorge Soler will man right field in 2015 after an impressive September call-up a season ago. The Cuban signed a 9 year, $30 million contract before last year and hit .292 with 5 homers and 20 RBI in his 22 game debut. The new center fielder is Dexter Fowler. He came over from Houston in a trade for Luis Valbuena and gives the Cubs an every day man in the middle of the outfield. The Cubs tried as many as six different bodies in center last year and none stuck for more than a month. Fowler fits the Epstein model of baseball with his patience and high baseball IQ. The Opening Day left fielder will be Chris Coghlan. The 29 year old had his best season (.283 BA, 9 HR, 41 RBI) since he won NL Rookie of the Year in 2009. Coghlan's main strength is his versatility as he can play both corner outfield spots and even some second or third base in a pinch. The outfield bench is strong too. If it wasn't for Bryant, the spring for the Cubs would have belonged to Matt Szczur. The former Villanova Wildcat hit a pair of doubles, triples, and five home runs in 47 Spring Training at-bats and finished with a .362/.423/.809 line. Junior Lake, a starter on Opening Day last year, is also in the mix with boom or bust power. And of course the Cubs have a prospect, Albert Almora, who could be in line for a September call-up.
Before the general public even knew the name Kris Bryant, the Cubs made national news with the signing of former Red Sox and A's ace Jon Lester. Lester inked a 6 year, $155 million deal with his former GM and instantly gave a Cubs rotation much needed legitimacy. The Lester signing was shortly after the Cubs made their first big splash when they pried manager Joe Maddon away from the Rays. The two of them will be vital to the Cubs' success in 2015, and beyond. Slotted behind Lester was one of the big surprises of the 2014 season, Jake Arrieta. Once a top prospect with the Orioles, he was an afterthought in his 2013 trade to Chicago. The North Side has rejuvenated the right hander's career and after an impressive cameo in 2013, he put forth a solid 2014 campaign. He went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.99 WHIP and placed ninth in the Cy Young voting. Jason Hammel started off strong last year for the Cubs (2.95 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 104/23 K/BB) before his season fell apart as part of the Oakland A's late season collapse (4.26 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 54/21 K/BB). Hammel rejoins Chicago on a 2 year, $20 million deal with hopes of putting those two and a half months behind him. The fourth starter is southpaw Travis Wood. After an All-Star selection in 2013, Wood had a brutal 2014. His ERA skyrocketed to 5.03 and his WHIP leaped to 1.53 after posting figures 3.11 and 1.14 respectively in 2013. If there was any silver lining to be found about Wood's season, it was his hitting. His 3 HR and 10 RBI finished second to only Silver Slugger and World Series MVP winner Madison Bumgarner among National League hurlers. The fifth starter is sophomore Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks finished seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting despite pitching just 80 innings. However, in those 80 frames he was able to create quite a buzz. He went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA, numbers he should be able to at least somewhat replicate facing the bottom half of what National League rotations have to offer. The Cubs still also have the pitcher formerly known as Edwin Jackson on the roster. I say that because you can't really call what he did last year pitching. Theo Epstein must be counting the days until the end of 2016, when Jackson's contract runs out.
What may keep the Cubs from advancing into the upper echelon of baseball is their bullpen. Hector Rondon returns as closer after a 29 save 2014. He is far from a proven commodity but should get enough rope to hang himself because the rest of the bullpen is pretty lousy. Jason Motte is not the same pitcher after returning from Tommy John surgery and several back ailments. Pedro Strop is viable in the 6th and 7th but becomes a powder keg in the later frames. Neil Ramirez was a bright spot last year, but it remains to be seen what role he'll play in Joe Maddon's bullpen scheme. The left handed options are Phil Coke, Drake Britton, or former starter Tsuyoshi Wada. Coke is far from his prime, Britton is inexperienced, and Wada has never pitched out of the pen in the States. It is always tough to predict what a bullpen will do from year to year. It just looks bad when there aren't any set roles outside of the ninth inning and a whole lot of inexperience.
For the first time since 2015, the patrons of Wrigley Field will be witnesses to a winning team. Joe Maddon will get more out of this group of players than Rick Renteria could even have dreamed of doing. The mid-April arrivals of Kris Bryant and Javier Baez will make waves and move merchandise. Jon Lester provides the Cubs with their first legitimate Cy Young candidate since Mark Prior and Kerry Wood's arms fell off. The transition from the basement to the throne isn't done in one winter, even though some writers have convinced both themselves and many others that the Cubs are due for one of the two Wild Card spots in the National League. I am just going to end this Cubs edition of 30 Teams In Under 30 Days with a phrase that these poor folks have been hearing for over a century. Wait until next year.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #26 (UP 13)
PREDICTED RECORD: 85-77
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Jon Lester (starting pitcher), Kris Bryant (third baseman), Starlin Castro (shortstop)
Trevor Utley loved the city of Chicago but couldn't get over the obsession around Old Style Beer. It is bascially canned sewage.
Image Credit: Cubs logo (sportslogos.net)