For the first time in several years, we go into the Chicago Cubs 2015 season with hope that they might return to playoff contention.
That "hope" was exceeded beyond most of our dreams. The Cubs won 97 games. They won the wild-card game and beat the rival Cardinals in a playoff series. They swept three major postseason awards.
But the ultimate prize remained out of reach. The sweep by the Mets in the NLCS was a blow, but not a crushing one. It felt bad, but oddly not as bad as some previous playoff defeats, because I think we all knew this was, in the 40-year-old words of Jackson Browne, "the fitful dreams of some greater awakening."
Now, as we stand on the brink of the 2016 baseball season, it's time for those dreams to come true.
A year ago, I posted a list of 16 players from the 2014 Cubs who were gone from the organization for 2015. Even though the Cubs have now "graduated" a strong base from the farm system of players such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, there's still more to come from that system (Albert Almora, Gleyber Torres, others) and the team has not stood pat. 22 players who suited up for the Cubs in 2015 (and trust me, you don't want me to list them, but you can see them all here) were no longer in the organization as spring training 2016 began.
The Cubs made three significant free-agent additions in the offseason: Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. All three filled holes that needed to be addressed: outfield defense, a solid infielder and a rotation slot. The last, especially, was needed, as the bottom of the Cubs' rotation didn't match up well with the Mets in the championship series. Now, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are the No. 4 and No. 5 starters, each moving "down" a spot in the hierarchy. Both have pitched extremely well in camp and if they can keep up that performance, the Cubs could have the best No. 4 and No. 5 starters in baseball.
And that's after teams have to go through Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Lackey as the top three. No one expects Arrieta to repeat his 2015 season, which was the best by any Cubs starter since the deadball era. Even coming close to that would be great, and Arrieta will have his innings limited to some extent. He said he was "gassed" after the wild-card game and it showed in less-than-stellar outings against the Cardinals and Mets. The 248⅔ innings Jake threw combined between the regular season and the postseason in 2015 was 30 more than he'd thrown in any previous year. At age 30 and almost literally "in the best shape of his life":
... Jake should be fine if he throws somewhat fewer innings than he did in 2015.
Lester, meanwhile, had a productive 2015 season, though not quite up to the previous year split between Boston and Oakland (4.6 bWAR in 2014, 3.1 in 2015). His fielding "yips" are well-known and we don't have to go over those again. If Lester can prevent baserunners the way he did in 2014 (and he wasn't too far off that in 2015, with a 1.122 WHIP compared to 1.102 in 2014), he'll be just fine.
It's a statement as to how solid this Cubs team is that there's really only one bullpen spot open. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren, Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill have seven slots nailed down. It's now up to the Cubs whether they think Neil Ramirez is ready to return, or if they'll select another pitcher (no one else in camp has impressed much) or go with an extra position player.
Meanwhile, with Heyward and Zobrist joining a lineup that produced 689 runs, the team's highest total since 2009, it's even possible that the Cubs could score 800 runs, a level they have reached just twice since 1970 (1998 and 2008). Last year's rookies (Bryant, Schwarber, Russell and Soler) have not only a year's experience, but postseason experience to give them a base to build on. Caveat: other teams' pitchers will make adjustments to those four. Then it'll be up to the Cubs hitters to re-adjust. I have confidence they will do so.
With the surprise re-signing of Dexter Fowler:
Soler and Schwarber are likely going to platoon in left field, with Schwarber also catching some games to give Miguel Montero a break. Joe Maddon is an expert at moving players around to different positions and likes his bench to be versatile, so expect him to find enough playing time for everyone. Having Javier Baez on the bench helps, too; Baez can play all the infield positions and has played center field and left field in spring training. Sometimes that's gone well. Other times it hasn't. Fortunately, Baez is a fifth or sixth outfielder, just a backup to the backups.
I shouldn't fail to mention team leaders here. Anthony Rizzo is the senior Cub in terms of service. This is his fifth season in blue pinstripes and he's the emotional leader on the field, not to mention his MVP-type production at the plate and good defense. Leadership in another way is provided by backup catcher David Ross. We all know Ross can't hit, but he plays solid defense and the clubhouse looks up to him for his World Series experience and veteran leadership. "Veteran" was taken literally by his teammates. Ross turned 39 a couple of weeks ago and the players, led by Rizzo and Bryant, nicknamed him "Grandpa" and got him a motorized scooter:
David Ross on his grandpa scooter https://t.co/cLt3S39DZo— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) March 7, 2016
This is all part of the fun that Maddon wants his players to have, while still focusing on preparation. Maddon told me at Cactus League media day that he doesn't want his players coming in to games thinking, "We're playing the Cardinals today, it's going to be tough." Instead, he wants them to focus on their own routine -- coming in for the day, perhaps grabbing coffee, going to watch video, doing their normal workouts. Maddon thinks that kind of mental preparation works better, and I agree. Of course, Maddon's "never let the pressure exceed the pleasure" mantra is something everyone can live by, as is the saying on this T-shirt created for Maddon's "Respect 90" charity:
I think I'll get one of those for myself. (A portion of the money for the shirt goes to Maddon's foundation).
And thus I circle back to the hope and expectation for this year's team, much higher than it was a year ago. Joe Maddon is, I believe, the perfect manager for such a team. He understands exactly what's at stake and has created the theme "Embrace The Target" for this year's club, something we can all be advised to do no matter what our profession. If the Cubs do fall short of their "target" this year, it won't be because of poor leadership. They've got the best in the business in Maddon, in my view, and that can only help raise the players' games.
One week from today, it all begins in Anaheim. You ready?
This team preview will appear as part of SB Nation's overall MLB 2016 season preview.