When you’re the World Series favorites but haven’t won a championship in 107 years, the narrative for your season can only go one of two ways: complete joy or utter heartbreak.
Chicago Cubs fans have endured heartbreak much more than joy over the past century, but their veteran front office has set out to avoid any pitfalls coming off a 97-win season, which ended in a National League Championship Series sweep at the hands of the New York Mets. There’s unfinished business for them, and their whole plight this offseason has been to ensure they have another chance come October.
“Once you reach a point where you have a pretty good team, you approach the offseason in two ways,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said the day after they were eliminated last year. “One is looking for ways to get better. And the second is trying to anticipate everything that could go wrong which will get in the way of you being really good again the next year or even better the next year.”
So where can it go wrong? It will be a question that continues to be examined throughout spring training.
Realistically, it would take several injuries or sophomore slumps for the Cubs not to score enough runs over the course of 162 games. There’s just too much talent and depth. Javier Baez and Chris Coghlan are backups. That says a lot about their starting eight. The Cubs are loaded from top to bottom with MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo anchoring the middle of the lineup, along with reigning NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant.
The Cubs' biggest weakness on offense last season was putting the ball in play at crucial times. They believe a year of experience for their young players along with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist will address that problem. So barring the injuries or a complete lack of on-base percentage -- remember Dexter Fowler isn’t here -- the Cubs' offense should survive any slumps.
The issue that more realistically could derail their season comes on the mound. The Cubs don’t have a bullpen like the world champion Kansas City Royals or a starting staff like the runner-up Mets. Make no mistake, their pitching is very good, but it’s possible they still have a few depth issues, especially if Jake Arrieta has any problems after his huge workload or John Lackey shows his age (37) or Jason Hammel picks up where he left off at the end of last season. Are we making a case for things to go wrong? Yes. But that’s what the front office did all offseason.
The addition of Adam Warren could be as big a key as any player picked up this past winter. If a starter goes down and Warren makes a seamless transition into the rotation, he’ll be worth every bit of the three-time All-Star (Starlin Castro) the Cubs traded to get him.
After Warren, it’s a mixture of former-starters-turned-relievers and minor leaguers who didn’t impress last year tasked with backing up the starting staff. Simply put, worst-case scenarios don’t bode well for any team when it comes to the starting rotation, and that includes the Cubs.
As for the bullpen, it’s hard to know all the roles in front of closer Hector Rondon. At this moment, he’s the most reliable arm as he begins his third season as the closer. We can’t know for sure whether Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard and others will repeat the success they had last season. There’s a body of work for a few of those players, but not many, and it's not a big enough sample size to be assured of their consistency.
As much as the Cubs did this past offseason, they didn’t bring in the top arms either through free agency or trades. They brought in good pitchers who might have success, but if the season doesn’t turn out the way the predictors are saying, it will be on the mound where things most likely will have gone wrong.
There’s one other issue the Cubs face: their history. Whether the curse is real or imagined, the facts state they’ve gone to the postseason in back-to-back years only once since making it three straight times from 1906-1908. Nearly every good season has been followed by lofty projections and eventually despair in September or October. Maybe it’s the pressure of the championship drought or maybe it’s just all a big coincidence. Either way, the Cubs believe the character in their clubhouse combined with their dynamic manager will be the difference in bucking history.
It’s hard to see this team failing as miserably as some of those past ones, but then again, it was hard to see those teams coming up short at the time, as well. These are the Cubs, after all, so asking where it can all go wrong usually elicits a response of "everywhere." Their lovable losing history is part of their narrative, but that doesn’t mean it has to define their 2016 season. At some point the drought will end. Right?