CHICAGO -- Finally, a Chicago Cubs question that doesn’t involve service time, Wrigley Field construction, rooftops, the hiring of their new manager or even the remains of their greatest player. It’s about time to ask the only question that matters:
Can the Cubs make the playoffs?
No baseball rebuild is complete until that happens. Once they’re playing in October, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer can sit back and know they’ve done a good job. Until then, it’s a work in progress.
An offseason guarantee by first baseman Anthony Rizzo is meaningless right now, as is a spending spree that snagged one of the top pitchers in the game. Remember, the Cubs traded away two of their top pitchers last season, as they did the year before. So in signing Jon Lester, they simply added what other potential playoff teams have: an ace. It doesn’t put them over the top; it simply puts them in the game.
A work in progress is also probably the best way to describe the season, which starts on the national stage Sunday night against the archrival St. Louis Cardinals. And that’s coming from the mouth of the manager, Joe Maddon.
“We’re going to have to put a lot of these pieces together, really encourage this method of play,” Maddon said of the first month of the year.
April is when divisions can be lost, not necessarily won. If the Cubs can survive it, they might have a chance. But Maddon has repeatedly said he’ll need this month in the regular season to evaluate and understand his team. Do you think Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle or Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is saying the same thing right now? At least Maddon is being honest because it might seem like he should be ready, based on six weeks of spring training. But March baseball simply doesn’t provide the high-leverage situations needed to really know your personnel.
“The chosen veterans are outstanding,” Maddon said. “That makes me totally excited. It’s a great blend.”
The veterans will have to carry the load while Maddon figures out what he has with his young players, including his bullpen. There are several predicting mechanisms that say the Cubs' pitching staff is an under-the-radar strength. There’s no reason to think it won’t be, except for the fact that this is baseball, and young players tend to take steps backward as much as forward sometimes.
“If you have a winning first month, that’s pretty sweet,” Maddon said.
Again, can you imagine Hurdle or Matheny getting away with an “if” right now? Their teams are ready-made for October while the Cubs are just getting their collective act together. It doesn’t take a baseball genius to see that. As for pure talent, maybe the Cubs -- if you include Kris Bryant -- are poised to take over the division. But talent alone doesn’t win championships. Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals.
The Cubs need to play together for a period of time while Maddon figures out how to max out his lineup and his defense. And no matter the versatility they have with a player like Arsimendy Alcantara, he’s still a question mark at the plate, while the Cubs are stuck with three catchers right now as well as a long reliever in Edwin Jackson who elicits no faith when he takes the mound. Add a lack of experience for young players and a pressure-filled atmosphere, and you can see why the Cubs might come up short.
Having said all that, there are scenarios that translate to October baseball. Most of them simply revolve around two things: the starting staff becomes one of the better ones in the league while Bryant and Jorge Soler turn an OK lineup into an immediate force to be reckoned with. If those two things happen, everything else could easily fall into place and the Cubs will vault to and past 85 wins.
No player in recent memory, this side of Mike Trout, has the “sure-thing” label attached to him more than Bryant. I’d be worried about the pressure of the moment getting to him, but he’s already shown the ability to play through it all -- most recently while the baseball world was descending on him in Mesa, Arizona, last month. He just kept right on hitting, as he has since the day the Cubs drafted him.
But one player can’t be the savior. There are question marks, not just pessimistic feelings, around the diamond. Besides at perhaps first base, you can make a legitimate argument that the Cubs have issues either on offense or defense at every other position. What will Mike Olt be at the plate? Is Starlin Castro’s defense going to hurt the Cubs in meaningful games? Can left field be nearly as productive as it was last year and will Dexter Fowler shed a negative defensive reputation? Even Soler is no sure thing, considering he’s never made it through the grind of a 162-game season, nor has he faced adjustments from the opposition yet.
Could we ask these questions of the Pirates and Cardinals? Perhaps. But most players on those teams, especially the Cardinals, have longer and more accomplished résumés. Still, those teams aren’t perfect, either, so a slip-up could open the door for the Cubs.
Maybe the best-case scenario that has the Cubs playing October baseball is simply the one in which the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs all advance to the postseason. On paper, the Cubs' major wild-card competition should come from San Diego, New York, Miami or possibly San Francisco, assuming both Los Angeles and Washington win their divisions. The Padres and Mets are hardly favorites, the Marlins are still growing like the Cubs and, well, it’s an odd year, so the Giants should recede, right?
And maybe that’s the compromise that has to be made between those who believe fully in the Cubs this season and those who think they’re a year away. Competing for the second wild card can’t be completely out of range. If it is, it means the Cubs are probably well below .500, which would be a major disappointment.
The most tangible thing that needs to happen on the field is the Cubs have to get on base more. They ranked 28th in that category last year while the worst playoff team ranked 18th. A jump of at least 10 spots is needed. They’re poised to make that leap with the additions of Fowler, Tommy La Stella and Miguel Montero, along with a full season of Soler and most of the year with Bryant. We can’t predict with 100 percent certainty that Bryant and Soler will help raise the team on-base percentage, but if the minors were any indication, they should hold their own. If the Cubs can jump all the way into the top 10 in on-base percentage, then we can start to think about a special season on offense.
Back to Bryant, as he is an X-factor of sorts. We can believe he'll make his debut and just go nuts at the plate -- but expecting it is another story. If he does produce at a high level, it would elevate the whole team. For the moment, a lot falls on Fowler’s shoulders. He’s in a free-agent year and can really set up the middle of the order if he’s getting on base about 37 percent of the time or more.
“That’s what I pride myself in,” Fowler said at the end of spring training. “It’s about passing that baton. We have guys behind me that can do some damage. Just trying to get more ducks on the pond.”
The bottom line is while the Pirates and Cardinals have figured things out about themselves, the Cubs are still doing exactly that, especially their new manager. The good news is that no one doubts Maddon will get there. It just might not be in enough time for a playoff run in 2015.
The Cubs will get near .500 but fall just short, winning 80 games. They’ll have their winning streaks and some weeks when the offense is stuck in neutral. All of it, every single inning, will benefit them for 2016 -- and beyond -- when the playoffs will be the floor, not the ceiling. This much you can be sure of: The Cubs will keep it interesting the whole way. They already have.
And if you miss any of it, just look up at the JumboTron to get a replay. It’s a whole new world at Wrigley Field. Now the players and their rock-star manager have to do their part. The rebuild is about to take the next step.