For the first time in several years, we go into the Chicago Cubs 2015 season with hope that they might return to playoff contention.
See how many qualifiers I put in that sentence? "Hope." "Might."
Playoff contention is quite a jump from a team that's finished fifth each of the last five years and hasn't had a winning record since 2009.
This article is intended to sum up the changes that have happened (and will happen -- some won't even as of Opening Day) to the Cubs since we last saw them on a major-league field last September, and give you an idea of how it could all end up -- both looking positively and in an "OMG, what if everything goes wrong" way?
This year's Cubs are a completely revamped squad. Don't believe me? Here's a list of players who played at least one game for the big-league team in 2014 who are now gone from the organization: Luis Valbuena, Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney, Emilio Bonifacio, Justin Ruggiano, John Baker, Ryan Kalish, Eli Whiteside, Jeff Samardzija, Carlos Villanueva, Chris Rusin, Dan Straily, Wesley Wright, James Russell, Kyuji Fujikawa and Jose Veras.
Whew. That's 16 players -- one-third of the total of 48 who wore blue pinstripes in 2014.
Incoming (likely to make the 25-man Opening Night roster): Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Jason Motte, Tommy La Stella, Chris Denorfia...
... and, of course, the offseason's biggest acquisition (arguably, by any team): Jon Lester.
That's significant turnover, nearly a third of the 25-man since last August (the last time the 25-man limit was in effect). There are a couple of others in camp who could make the 25-man roster, including relievers Joseph Ortiz and Drake Britton and infielder Jonathan Herrera, although those men are likely headed to Triple-A Iowa.
Perhaps the biggest addition, though, is manager Joe Maddon, dropped into the Cubs' laps when he opted out of his Rays contract. The Rays accused the Cubs of tampering and the issue has not yet been settled, though Commissioner Rob Manfred stated at a late-February news conference in Phoenix that MLB "hoped" to get it resolved by Opening Day. You'd think that could be done considering that's nearly six months after the alleged tampering. If the Cubs are adjudged guilty, I'd guess they'll be fined and an A-ball lottery ticket heads Tampa's way.
Maddon's leadership qualities and quirky clubhouse fun have been well-documented and don't really need repeating here. He took a low-budget, small-market team that was constantly selling off stars to the postseason four of his last six years in Tampa and to the World Series once. Cubs fans would take that.
There aren't too many question marks left for this year's Cubs, actually. With injuries to Jacob Turner and Tsuyoshi Wada and inconsistent results from Felix Doubront, Travis Wood has likely nailed down the final rotation slot behind Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. Those four all had good-to-excellent years in 2014 and can match up with just about anyone. Wood had a very good 2013 (he made the All-Star team) and a bad 2014 and the Cubs are hoping he can get back somewhere close to that 2013 level. If so, he'd be a very good fifth starter.
And that leaves Edwin Jackson. The Cubs have 22 million reasons they don't want to let him go (that's how much is left on his contract this year and next), but he was horrific in 2014, having one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in Cubs history. The Cubs might be hoping to deal him before spring training ends, but that's an iffy proposition.
The Cubs' bullpen became much better as 2014 went by with the emergence of Hector Rondon as closer. Not only did he post 29 saves with only four blown saves, but he issued just 15 walks in 63⅓ innings and had seven saves in 10 pitches or fewer including a four-pitch gem against the Padres last May 24 in San Diego. What a refreshing change from the Carlos Marmol merry-go-round we were on for several years. Neil Ramirez and Pedro Strop turned into a fine seventh- and eight-inning tandem and the Cubs added Motte, a closer for a couple of Cardinals playoff teams, who will help set up and can close if Rondon falters.
There's a lot of buzz around the Cubs this spring. It's not every team that has an ESPN SportsCenter set located next to its practice fields on the first day of workouts:
Will the buzz be worth it? The eyes of baseball will be on the Cubs April 5, as they take part in the ESPN season opener against the Cardinals with Lester on the mound. What would have to happen for the Cubs to return to the postseason for the first time in seven years?
- Lester and the rest of the rotation will have to perform as advertised
- The bullpen will have to build on what they did the second half of 2014
- Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro will have to continue what they did in 2014 and perhaps take more steps forward
- The Cubs will need significant contributions from at least one of the veterans acquired: Fowler and Montero
- At least one of the young players -- Jorge Soler, Javier Baez or Kris Bryant -- will have to step up and become at least a productive regular
If most or all of those things happen, the Cubs could wind up playing in October. (They will anyway, as the last three regular-season games are in October. But you know what I mean.)
Could this all go wrong? Sure. Lester could be a bust. Arrieta could go back to his Oriole ways. The bullpen could be Marmolesque. Key players could get hurt. (Someone probably will, it happens every year.) Players could not live up to expectations and if the offense doesn't score enough, another under-.500 season could be in the books.
Let's talk about Bryant for a moment. He's demolishing spring-training pitching the way he destroyed Double-A and Triple-A in 2014. He'll almost certainly be assigned to Triple-A Iowa to start the season -- not because he doesn't deserve to be in the big leagues, but because the MLB/MLBPA agreement makes it better for the Cubs' team control of Bryant several years from now. We can argue, and have, over whether this is a good thing for baseball, but since it's in the CBA as of now and the players agreed to it, they have pretty much forfeited the right to complain about it until the next negotiation.
It's likely that Mike Olt, who's having a good spring, will hold down third base until Bryant makes his big-league debut.
So here's how I see 2015 unfoiding: I am not expecting the Cubs to make the postseason -- there are too many variables and too many things that could take the sunny optimism of spring training and make it go wrong as early as a gray, rainy April. One thing I'd really like to see is the Cubs getting off to a strong start. Here's the Cubs' record on May 15 each of the last three years:
2012: 15-21 2013: 17-23 2014: 13-27
Even if you're a good team it would be hard to dig out of holes like that. The 2012-14 Cubs weren't good teams, and that was partly by design during the rebuild. That rebuild continues, but with the hire of Maddon and signing of Lester, the Cubs clearly were indicating that 2015 could be the beginning of many years of contention. Getting to mid-May with a winning record would be a strong step in that direction.
In the end? I'll be happy if the young players developing take steps forward, the Cubs play well and are competitive and win games early (and late, too) and perhaps stick in the wild-card conversation -- which you can do just by playing slightly over .500 ball for most of the summer. This team can do that. They seem ticketed to win somewhere in the range of 83-87 games. That alone would be an accomplishment, the first winning season in six years. Who knows? With a bit of luck, maybe the playoffs can happen in 2015. That's what Rizzo is saying, anyway:
"Hey, that's what we expect and that's what we believe, and that's what we're going to do," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo says. "We're not going to accept anything else. If you don't start believing that now, what are you going to do? "If we are going to accept finishing in third place, then what are we playing the game for?"
Rizzo has stepped up as a team leader over the last year. Who knows? Maybe 2015 will be the year the Cubs surprise us and all of baseball.
This team preview will appear as part of SB Nation's overall MLB 2015 season preview.