MESA, Ariz. -- Optimism is usually found in abundance among Chicago Cubs fans during the spring, and 2016 will be no different. But this year there’s good reason for it: Their favorite team is stacked with young, talented players who last season were four wins shy of making the World Series for the first time since 1945 and eight wins from winning it all for the first time since 1908. It’s with that backdrop the Cubs begin their mission.
Reasons for optimism
The lineup is so deep that the starting shortstop and right fielder from the NLCS are backups at the moment. Among that group, they have at least three legitimate MVP candidates in 2015 fourth-place finisher Anthony Rizzo, Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and $184 million addition Jason Heyward. Heyward won’t be asked to hit home runs, but simply get on base, same with newcomer Ben Zobrist. Behind them come the sluggers, who can do damage with the long ball.
In the few games during the spring in which manager Joe Maddon played his regular lineup, they have lived up to all this hype. It’s one dangerous bat after another. They scored 15 against the Arizona Diamondbacks and came from behind in another contest that they were trailing 11-5. An eight-run fifth inning erased that deficit to the San Francisco Giants. There is no relief for an opposing pitcher.
“Even with the pitcher in the lineup we’re an AL lineup,” hurler Jon Lester said recently. “The thing that makes us unique is the switch hitters.”
Dexter Fowler and Zobrist will set the tone near the top along with Heyward. They'll feed sluggers Rizzo, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Even shortstop Addison Russell has sneaky gap and home-run power. It leaves Javier Baez to come off the bench -- not a bad option if there is an injury or two. Even Soler and Schwarber can’t play every night. One has to sit until he can be unleashed.
There might be a perception that pitching is a weakness because it came up short in the playoffs, but for 162 games last year the Cubs had the third best ERA in the National League and it wasn’t all because of Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. The bullpen ranked fourth in ERA and closer Hector Rondon had a very underrated season, compiling a 1.67 ERA to go along with a 1.00 WHIP which included a .212 batting average against. The Cubs recognized they ran out of depth in the playoffs and fortified by bringing in former World Series champion John Lackey and swingman Adam Warren.
They won 97 games last year playing up to five rookie position players throughout the season. Those five players now have some experience under their belts, and the front office added to the core with some costly acquisitions. The result is a team favored to get to the World Series and win it, but let’s start with games 1-162. There are more reasons why the Cubs will make the postseason than they won’t. In Chicago that alone is reason for optimism.
Reasons for pessimism
In 1985, the Cubs were coming off a glorious season in which second baseman Ryne Sandberg won the MVP, Rick Sutcliffe the Cy Young award and the team won 96 games. They came within one win of making it to the 1984 World Series but blew a 2-0 series lead to the San Diego Padres. By mid-year in 1985, four starting pitchers were on the disabled list and the season was lost as they finished with a 77-84 record. No one saw it coming.
That’s the kind of history the Cubs are facing, as they’ve reached the playoffs in back-to-back years just once since a run from 1906-1908. They did it in 2007 and 2008, but didn’t win a single playoff game out of six tries combined in those years. Of course, what happened a year ago let alone a decade or more has no bearing on what’s to happen this season -- just don’t try telling that to a Cubs fan.
Does anything sum up the Cubs' futile history better than the fact that Schwarber is the all-time postseason home run leader with five? Extra rounds of playoffs or not, this is a team that has existed since 1876. Setting all that aside, let’s only examine the tangible not the voodoo-related to the Cubs.
Arrieta is coming off a 90-inning increase from 2014 to 2015. That’s a warning sign, although no one is more physically fit than the Cubs righty. Still, he faded in the postseason. Can there be a carryover affect? Lackey’s age (37) will eventually catch up with him and even if both Arrieta and Lackey are healthy, can they repeat a 1.77 and 2.77 ERA, respectively? It’s questions like these -- mostly tied to heavy workloads -- that could persist in 2016. It even extends to the bullpen, where Pedro Strop has made 277 appearances over the last four seasons.
The Cubs seem to have enough depth to withstand any issues, but if Trevor Cahill or Travis Wood are thrust into starting roles it changes the dynamic of the entire pitching staff. After all, there are reasons why those players lost their starting gigs in the first place. The Cubs have bodies, but are they capable enough?
Most teams can’t assume bad health, but when it comes to the Cubs expecting the worst is an annual rite of summer. So if there is any reason for pessimism, it stems from a history of being let down; sometimes lightly and sometimes with a massive thud. See Steve Bartman for evidence of the latter. Only the massively unexpected could derail the Cubs in the regular season, although that has nothing to do with the playoffs. October has a whole other cursed feel to it. This Cubs team would like to buck the trend, but until they do some might say pessimism reigns in the fall as much as optimism does in the spring.