Last year around Opening Day, I tackled this same article. As is often the case, some of the picks turned out well (Second Wild Card! Kris Bryant for ROY!) and some of them...not so much (Zac Rosscup the LOOGY! Starlin will be better!).
With the 2016 season upon us, I'd like to continue this annual tradition with a look at ten items that I expect to see this year. I'll try to avoid patently obvious, untestable predictions ("Joe Maddon will do something cool and unpredictable on an off day!!") so that we can revisit this article in November and smile/laugh/cry about what we said today.
1. Addison Russell is going to make the leap.
But Russell wasn't a star in 2015. He's going to be a star in 2016. I've predicted Russell to post a .275/.345/.450 line with 20 homers, 20 steals, and an incredible +20 UZR at shortstop, good for 5.5 WAR. So why am I predicting such a massive breakout?
Two reasons. First, Russell's defense is already incredible. In 2015, Russell's UZR of 7.3 at second base was second best in baseball. Even more incredibly, in just 471.1 innings at shortstop, Russell posted the ninth best UZR (6.1). His UZR/150 among shortstops with at least 400 innings? First, ahead of Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons. His UZR/150 among second basemen with at least 400 innings? Second. Russell's elite defensive profile gives him an extremely high floor.
Second, I'm extraordinarily optimistic about his offensive profile. At the end of the 2014 season, I slapped a 70 grade on Russell's bat and a 60 grade on his power. His body should yield above-average power, but much more importantly, his hand-eye coordination and quick, smooth swing plane should lead to an elite hit tool. This isn't just wishful thinking: in the first half last year, Russell hit .226/.296/.354, largely stunted by a 31.1% K%. But in the second half? Russell hit for a league-average .259/.318/.427 thanks to cutting that strikeout rate to 25.8%. Even more encouraging, his hard-hit rate exploded from 23.8% in the first half to 30.2% in the second half. While a 30.2% hard-hit rate is only about league-average, it showed that Russell adjusted quickly to Major League pitching and suggests that his offensive profile offers plenty of growth potential.
When you factor in that Russell has basically no pressure to perform offensively this year, the storm is nearly too perfect.
2. David Ross will rediscover his power stroke in his farewell season.
This isn't exactly the most aggressive pick. Ross hasn't been a plus offensive player since 2012, but he has a .193 career Isolated Power ("ISO") and he posted an ISO of at least .163 every year from 2009-14 before cratering to .075 last year. Ross has a career HR/FB rate of 14.6%. Last year? A hilariously low, Theriot-esque 2.1%.
Ross will probably only hit 5-7 homers given his limited plate appearances, but after just one dinger last year, that'll be a nice improvement.
3. Dylan Cease will end the year as the Cubs top pitching prospect...and their top prospect overall.
The first part of this prediction isn't all that controversial: although the pitching depth has improved dramatically in recent years, the Cubs lack an elite prospect arm with the strong-but-imperfect Duane Underwood leading the way. Cease is poised to step into that top prospect role a full year removed from Tommy John surgery.
But the top overall prospect in the system? That's a stretch, right? Perhaps yes but I think it's going to happen. Cease has a legitimate #1 starter ceiling, even if he has only a minute chance of reaching it. He's already made massive improvements to his mechanics. If you'd like to feel squeamish, here's video of Cease pitching in high school. I can't even watch the full video it's so painful. But by the end of last year? See for yourself. The delivery is smooth and repeatable, and the stress that was formerly borne entirely by his elbow has been redistributed throughout his body. Add in the arsenal -- a fastball that routinely sits at or north of 95, a curveball that looks like an average-or-better offering, and a changeup that at least figures to be usable in the future -- and we're talking about a potential front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. There are never more than a handful or so of those in the game at any time.
This is probably my most ambitious pick of this article, especially given the presence of top prospects Gleyber Torres and Willson Contreras as well as breakout candidates Eloy Jimenez, Eddy Julio Martinez, and Ian Happ. But I'm a huge believer in Cease. We'll see!
4. Jason Heyward will reach the 20 homer threshold for the second time in his career.
Heyward is a very good hitter who has shown tremendous ability to adapt his offensive game based on what is expected of him. He hit for plenty of power in 2012. Then, when the Cardinals asked him to consistently put the ball in play in 2015, he upped his groundball rate in a huge way and drove up his BABIP, yielding a five-year high on-base percentage.
The Cubs? The Cubs like power. I think that they'll encourage Heyward to rediscover his power stroke while continuing to request that he work counts and see pitches. It'll be very interesting to see how/if he reinvents himself again.
5. Kyle Hendricks will remind folks, yet again, that elite pitches lead to excellent results, regardless of whether they are fastballs, breaking balls, or, in his case, changeups.
Hendricks had the 11th most valuable changeup in 2015 according to Fangraphs, ranking ahead of both Carlos Martinez and Felix Hernandez. His fastball and curveball were both slightly above average while his cutter rated as a serious liability, but his changeup is so good that it's reasonable to expect strong improvement from Hendricks' ERA given the presence of this elite pitch and the sizable gap between his 2015 ERA (3.95) and FIP (3.36), driven in part because of his poor strand rate.
Hendricks is a really good pitcher, even if it isn't in the classic Jake Arrieta mold.
6. Dexter Fowler will produce a season more in line with his career norms...and that will be a disappointment.
I came to really enjoy watching Dex play last year and I'm glad he's back. Additionally, he is nearly a perfect fit for this roster right now. The club has a pair of exciting center field prospects in need of additional seasoning in Albert Almora and Eddy Julio Martinez and Fowler's return gives the club an additional year to gather data on the pair. Fowler has some power, but his primary attributes are his on-base ability (.363 career OBP compared to .346 last year) and his speed, great fits for a team loaded with power in need of guys on the basepaths to drive in. While the metrics continue to despise his work in center, his defense was plenty effective in 2015 and it should be the same in 2016. Unfortunately, he averaged just 126 games per year from 2012-14, so he's likely to have a stint or two on the disabled list this year. I have him pegged for just 1.0 WAR over 450 plate appearances following a year in which he posted a career-best 3.2 WAR. That drop will be a bummer, though as noted above, his skillset will be disproportionately valuable to the 2016 Cubs compared to other teams.
7. For the first time since 2005, the Cubs will have two players hit at least 30 home runs...and just for good measure, they'll have a third, too.
In 2005, Aramis Ramirez clubbed 31 home runs, but Derrek Lee stole the show, bashing 46 bombs en route to an MVP-caliber season. The year before, the "wait, how in the world did this team miss the playoffs?" 2004 Cubs had an incredible four players hit 30+ homers with Moises Alou (39), Ramirez (36), Sammy Sosa (35), and Lee (32), the last time the team had at least three players accomplish the feat.
This year, I think that Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will have fun battling it out for the team home run lead with Rizzo narrowly emerging victorious (37-34). The third bash brother? None other than Chicago Cubs franchise playoff career home run leader Kyle Schwarber (30). It's going to be a fun year of young power for the Cubs.
(Just in case you're a masochist, the 2004 Cubs also got at least 15 homers from Corey Patterson (24), Michael Barrett (16), and Todd Walker (15).)
8. Pedro Strop will play the role of 2015 Neil Ramirez.
In 2014, Ramirez emerged as a key member of the Cubs bullpen posting a strikeout rate of nearly 11 K/9, struggling a bit with walks, but limiting damage thanks to a strand rate of nearly 82% en route to 0.8 WAR in just 43.2 innings. Unfortunately for Ramirez, elbow troubles limited him to just 14 innings in 2015. Fortunately for the Cubs, the emergence of Justin Grimm and converted starter Travis Wood rendered Ramirez's absence an afterthought as the 2015 bullpen was a strength of the 97-win juggernaut.
In 2016, Strop is nearly guaranteed to suffer an injury. Over the past four seasons, he has made a staggering 277 appearances (69.25 per year). I haven't performed any advanced injury projection analysis, but the combination of my head and my gut tells me that Strop is going to miss some time in 2016, perhaps something north of half of the season. However, the bullpen is loaded with plus arms -- think Grimm, Hector Rondon, Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill -- and at least a couple will emerge as forces this year, rendering Strop's loss much less damaging.
Strop was even better in the second half of last season than he was in the first half, so there's a solid argument to be made that Strop will actually improve in 2016, taking the closer's job from Rondon in the event of an injury (given his injury-riddled past) and continuing to strike out 10+ batter per nine innings. Here's hoping for continued production from Strop.
9. The Cubs' top draft pick -- No. 104 overall -- will not be a top-15 prospect in the system at this time next year.
It's not quite all ponies and rainbows for the Cubs. Just mostly.
The impact of this winter's spending spree will be felt most prominently in June when the Cubs largely sit out the interesting portion of the draft. There's a chance that the club will add an impact Cuban prospect like Lazaro Armenteros or Norge Ruiz, but the odds are that this summer's amateur acquisition period will be a less-than-impactful one for the Cubs. Oh well.
10. The Cubs will post a 97-65 record again...but in 2016, that will be the best record in all of baseball.
The juiciest one of all! Look, the 2016 Cubs are loaded, but as I always like to remind my brother, nothing is inevitable. The 2015 Nationals were also loaded: they got an MVP season from Bryce Harper, yet they were nowhere to be found come October.
Winning is hard, even if a team is eminently talented. But the combination of Joe Maddon, hungry young players, and the right veterans will propel the Cubs to the top of the regular season standings. After that, it's anyone's guess (I picked the Cubs to reach the National League Championship Series before falling to the Mets and their stable of aces again...but playoff picks are goofy in baseball).
It's going to be a fun ride getting there. Let's play ball!