Fairy Tales seem to end in a similar fashion–conflict resolved, happiness acquired, vague conclusion indicating permanence of victory. Real life is rarely this way. Take for instance the parallel misery of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Decades of failure stacked upon each other, lined with mishaps and blunders that hold more to their franchise legends than the players themselves.
Then in 2003, the devastation hit a breaking point. Baseball was on the verge of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, undoubtedly quenching the flames of iniquity for at least one of the two long suffering nations. Then came the backbreaking defeat. So what happened next? Both teams seemed to recover well. Chicago won one more game in 2004 than they did the previous year, but failed to make the playoffs. Boston, of course, fared a little better. They slayed their proverbial dragon and rode off into the sunset. The culture of the Boston Red Sox had changed. They were now winners. There would be a generation of Red Sox fans anointed with only knowing that victorious ride westward, never knowing the struggle that beset those who came before. The Cubs, however, re-entered the wilderness.
April 23, 2014. Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary game. I had skipped out on work to attend the festivities. My ticket was purchased months in advance, with steep fees attached, because my understanding was that the game would be sold out quickly. As I came to learn the following day, an attorney I worked for was able to drive up to the park and buy a ticket at the window thirty minutes before game time. My overpriced ticket was in the upper deck on the shadow-drenched third base side. In April, this likely means hypothermia, and I was not appropriately dressed. Neither was my old friend Jordan, whom I had found wandering the concourse.
We sat together and watched the pregame fanfare, in restrained awe of the Cubs and Bears legends that had lined the infield. The most ear-bleedingly loud ovation, as expected, was for Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub made his way out to the field, soaking in the reception from his beloved Cubs faithful. When the applause cooled, I turned to Jordan and said “man, it’s going to be a dark day when we lose Ernie.” There was a sudden sobriety that came over his face, and I remember it more than the actual pregame ceremony itself. It was a look now understanding that the man who embodied everything about the team we love, was not going to be around forever.
As the subsequent year played out, the Cubs lost that game and many others, but had a glimmer of hope that something good was about to happen. The suffering, especially in those last few years of ceaseless shortcomings, might be nearing an end. As the Cubs were eliminated from playoff contention, the warm feeling stayed with us. It may have been the last time we watch our team flounder for years to come. They were losers, but they were our losers. The joke had played on repeat for the entirety of my time as a Cubs fan, and I had come to embrace the idea that the Cubs were essentially jesters in the MLB court. Even our true mascot, Ernie Banks, was ever-optimistic, carrying with him a light-heartedness that helped us all shrug off the maddening pain of another lost season. He was what made real Cubs fans great–an enduring hope that tomorrow gives another chance to grab the brass ring.
Then we lost Ernie Banks. Something dug deeply into the hearts of our people. Ernie never saw his beloved Cubs win it all. Perhaps we take sports too seriously in this country. After all, at the end of the day, it is just a game. But the grand illusion of sports is the attachment to something in a manner that parallels that in a family. We bond over sports and treasure the heroes like relics of our own flesh and blood. So when Ernie Banks passed away this past winter, the manifestation of Jordan’s sober expression came to be. The Cubs could no longer be a joke. The losing was tolerated in the name of progress, and at times we had resigned to acquiesce to the humor because we had nothing to retaliate. When Ernie Banks passed away, that blissful chorus of belief that our team would finally see the promised land seemed to fade.
In a way, the fact we will never see tears running down Mr. Cub’s face as his team finally breaks the “curse” kind of cheapens the fantasy of winning. He, after all, was just like us frustrated but hopeful kids who were too young to remember 1984 but old enough to still ache from 2004. He knew the past. He was the past. Something great was on the horizon. But in heartwrenching parallel to Moses in Deuteronomy 34, he never experienced the promised land for himself, only viewing it from afar.
The hype for the 2015 team had snowballed to an avalanche of tumbling betting odds and absurdist projections. The Back to the Future references filled every possible source of Cubs bloggery. The offseason can be a brutal mistress, in this way. Some media outlets went so big on the Cubs as to call them World Series favorites, or at least picking them to win. It isn’t too often that a team gets this treatment after winning 73 games. The Cubs are a darling story, though. Just as I over-romanticized them above, the baseball world has done the same. Despite our best efforts to quantify and project, baseball remains largely mysterious in its ability to throw out classical or Sabermetric logic. Case in point–find me someone who honestly predicted a Giants-Royals World Series, and that it would come down to the final out of a seventh game. That is largely what makes baseball so attractive, to me at least. I love statistics and their attempt to dissect the game to a submolecular level. I drown in metrics just like anyone else here at Banished to the Pen. Baseball just seems to love tossing intangible lines of code into our complex algorithms. So when I see Sporting News pick the Cubs to win the World Series, I don’t overreact. Heck, I’ve personally picked Washington to win it all every year since 2012. It’s a logical choice, but thanks to a few troublemakers I like to call the Giants and the Cardinals, it just hasn’t come to pass.
So what is so damn special about the 2015 Chicago Cubs? What makes them any different from the teams that won 61, 66, and 73 games over the last few years? How could Joe Maddon succeed where Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella have failed? Why is it okay that Starlin Castro has now had five managers in his career? What makes Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant any different from Corey Patterson and Felix Pie? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the 40-miles per hour prevailing southwest wind.
The circumstances that brought Joe Maddon to the North Side can be perceived as odd and maybe even a bit nefarious, but no less, he is here. The strangely inevitable unity of Theo Epstein and his new manager came about at a time when the Cubs were preparing to make their longest stride toward fielding a competitive team. The ivory-coiffed, thick-rimmed man from Hazelton, Pennsylvania, stoked the embers of expectation at his press conference. There was an air of change around Wrigley Field, as if something big was taking place. Of course, us Cubs fans are used to managerial press conference fanfare. After leading the Giants to the brink of their first title in decades, Dusty Baker took the helm in hopes of being the man to exorcise the “curse.” After the Cubs finished last in 2006, Baker’s contract was not renewed. The team moved on to Lou Piniella, who in recent years had been at the helm of Seattle teams that had brushes with postseason greatness. In his first two seasons, Piniella led the Cubs to their first back-to-back postseason appearances since 1906-1908. For those keeping score, that’s a century, but you knew we love thinking in those quantities. Each division title only led to a first round sweep, which was especially heartbreaking in 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games, the most since winning 98 in 1945. The Cubs eventually broke Lou Piniella. He left the team rather abruptly toward the end of the 2010 season, leading to a series of managers like Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, and Ricky Renteria, each of which brought different attitudes and philosophies to a team now languishing to everlasting fifth place.
What Maddon brings to the table is an apparent confidence that others have lacked or only tried to project. There is an earnestness to Maddon’s eccentricities, and it seemed to play well in Tampa Bay. The first and most apparent issue up front is his lack of National League experience. While this writer believes we are in the twilight of pitchers with batting averages, it is still a reality, at least for now. The strategy involved with NL ball has always appealed to me, even before I became a Cubs fan, but I don’t make a living trying to survive late-inning rallies debating the consequences of pinch hitting for my pitcher. Men like Bruce Bochy live for these types of decisions, but I suppose having Madison Bumgarner in October makes things a little easier. For Maddon, his tendencies will be magnified quickly. The Chicago media is not going to allow much grace for him, but to this point he seems right at home with the pressure. Maddon has been kind of hypocritical when it comes to his managerial tendencies. Take for example–bunting. As FanGraphs pointed out last summer, the Rays led all of baseball in non-pitcher bunts, despite Maddon’s claim that the bunt is “an overrated play.” With bunting gaining worldwide acclaim in the postseason thanks to Ned Yost’s termite-like Royals offense, the juxtaposition of Maddon’s belief and approach will be on display in 2015. In 2014, seven teams stole more bases than the Cubs even attempted. That was for good reason, however. It isn’t easy to call for a steal when capability isn’t there. Emilio Bonifacio led the team in both steals (14) and caughts (6) and he only played 69 games for the team. Tampa Bay, with what would appear to be a better opportunity for steals, actually attempted fewer than the Cubs last year. Their success rate was higher, however, if only by about .08.
Maddon’s tendencies toward in-game management were quanitifed last October by Beyond the Box Score. He is well-known as a man who has fun with his lineups, and never shies away from tweaking finite details to give his team any kind of perceived advantage. Is that not what a manager should do? Truth be told, it worked out well for the Rays, who became a perennial contender in the fight club that is the American League East. In each of Maddon’s last six seasons in Tampa Bay, the Rays ranked no lower than third in the American League in terms of in-game defensive subs. This can be due to the supply of Swiss Army knife-types to which their front office seemed to gravitate. The young squad Maddon inherits in Chicago seems to be stacked full of hypothetical shortstops, eager to make a mark wherever they are given an opportunity. Javier Baez and Addison Russell are rather raw talents waiting to be molded into what will likely be something other than their primary position. In this, Maddon has assets to toy with in the coming years. Additionally, the Kris Bryant situation will cause an even thicker jam in the infield, but having a flood of talent is always a good problem to have. Bryant may move to the outfield, and Baez/Russell may find their place on either side of Castro. It’s in Maddon’s hands now, and it would appear as if the Cubs have been developing a team for Maddon long before he arrived.
So suddenly we have a world-class manager with an attitude echoing the coolest dad you know. He’s inheriting a team of young talent that is aching to ravage the National League. The average age of a Chicago Cub is 27.7 years young, the sixth youngest team in baseball. Why is this particularly relevant? After all, players are able to peak at different times. Take for instance the ages of Kansas City (29.2, third oldest) and San Francisco (29.8, oldest). Catch my drift? I suppose I can un-spin this stat by mentioning that the Orioles and Angels are only slightly older than the Cubs, and they won their respective divisions. Still, the inexperience of the Cubs has to be taken into account when glorifying their much-heralded talents. Bringing on a World Series Champion like Jon Lester might help the clubhouse in terms of relatable experience, but fielding a true winner on the North Side will take more than pep talks. The pressure that will come with success can break a man, and in baseball, a hiccup of insecurity could prove fatal. You might be a Cubs fan if that sentence made you think of Alex Gonzalez, 2003 NLCS game six.
Still, opportunity is always better than the lack thereof. If you make the playoffs, you have a chance. Kansas City proved that last year. Maybe there’s a level of innocence and ignorance that can help a young team, and perhaps having a manager who is cool and collected like Maddon could turn those into confidence. Surely that is the task that is indebted to him in 2015.
This past offseason was a masterwork by the TheoJed hivemind. The first thing that came to mind when they acquired Miguel Montero was that his pitch framing artistry could help Jake Arrieta finally finish off one of those no-hitters he tends to start every night. Fangraphs dropped a great article when the Cubs acquired Montero in December. Toward the bottom, a few GIFs show the value of Montero’s ironclad form in comparison to then-catcher Welington Castillo. Still, the two-time all-star is going to have heightened expectations in terms of offensive production. Montero got on base 39% of the time in 2012, then faded from that figure after receiving his new deal in Arizona. The Cubs will pay the remainder of his $40 million contract over the next three years, and it won’t be just for his ability to deceive umpires. If the Cubs weren’t pushing Castillo out the door with the Montero signing, they also picked up David Ross, former coworker of their shiniest new toy, Jon Lester. Ross, a twelve-year veteran, was likely picked up just for his previous chemistry with Lester. That’s fine, as Montero caught 131 games last year, so carrying the primary backstop role in Chicago won’t be an issue. Castillo will likely be traded before Opening Day, which is now only a mere week away.
Dexter Fowler joins the Cubs as their probable leadoff man. His .366 career on-base percentage can pay huge dividends for a team otherwise stacked with young power. His defense in center field has never been stellar, but picking up Fowler may be a good gamble with him entering a contract year. Arismendy Alcantara is still a positive force in the outfield, but Fowler’s offensive consistency could lead to a utility role for Alcantara. The good news for Alcantara is his wide skill set. Fowler is a lock to start at CF, but Arismendy should get the Opening Day nod at 2B assuming Baez spends a little time in Iowa to refine his headstrong offensive approach. As for Dexter Fowler, he has been a top-10 center fielder in terms of weighted runs created since he entered the league. The difference in why he is not as well known as most, if not all of the names above him, is his sincere lack of power. Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones–these are household names and perennial MVP candidates because they have a pretty solid power tool that Fowler lacks.
On either side of Fowler will be Chris Coghlan and Jorge Soler, Bryant-pocalypse pending. Soler burst on to the MLB scene last year with a display of power that suddenly ignited a legitimate hope in the future of the team. With a shade under 100 plate appearances last year, Soler held an on-base plus slugging average of .903. While the sample size is far too small to fully evaluate the six-foot-four Cuban still managed eight doubles, five home runs and a triple to go along with six walks. Not bad for his first shot in the big leagues. As is often the problem with power guys, Soler has a problem with strikeouts. In 47 opportunities seeing a two-strike count, Soler struck out 24 times. Specifically in full-count situations, Soler struck out nine times as opposed to three walks and one hit. It is difficult to assume his 97-at-bat statistics will hold up over a season, but I can only assume time spent with Manny Ramirez will be beneficial to his K-rate. I see no reason Soler isn’t the full-time right fielder from April 5 ‘til the wheels fall off. Coghlan is a different story. It should be a telling truth when a former Rookie of the Year becomes a placeholder in a few short years, but sadly Chris Coghlan has become just that. 2014 saw a rebirth of his career, with a sure-that’s-nice kind of offensive season. Most importantly, he stayed healthy. Now entering his age-30 season, his fate will likely become that of a utility outfielder in the very near future, but another injury-free and productive season could land him on a team with a thinner outfield to continue his career as a starter. That being said, Coghlan is the Opening Day left fielder, meaning the Cubs outfield as a unit presents good offensive potential, but poses a liability defensively.
The infield. Deep breath. I promised myself I wouldn’t overreact here. I haven’t been a kid in quite some time, but I remember sleepless nights on Christmas Eve. Just knowing that all of the excitement was coming in mere hours kept my heart racing to the point I didn’t sleep at all. Well this past Christmas I woke up at 10am and read Jurassic Park until the basketball games began. The excitement I held for that morning has drifted on to other things. As I sit in my living room, one week from Opening Day, I have all of that childlike giddiness again. Even though it makes total sense to hold down a genuine monster like Kris Bryant in order to save service time, my eager little heart waits impatiently for his arrival. At some point very early in the season, the starting infield will be Bryant-Castro-Alcantara/Baez-Rizzo. Be still, my heart. There is no telling how Bryant will fare in MLB. His absurd power numbers in spring training are just that, absurd but spring training. In essence, this projected infield is only a hologram of potential.
Starlin Castro rebounded nicely in 2014, recovering from a season when he hit .245 and struck out 129 times. The team did not take any risks in September, shutting him down for a month of pointless games with a nagging ankle sprain. Aside from that, Castro has played a remarkably healthy career. 2014 was his first full season not leading the league in official at-bats. He ranks 16th in active defensive games at shortstop. Sure he’s going into his sixth season, that sounds fair enough. Remember–he’s only 25. The errors were a hot topic early in his career, but that tends to come with the territory when you lead the league in defensive chances at your position. He stands 154 hits away from 1,000 in his career, a feat that seems reasonable for this season. The question awkwardly looming over Castro at this point is how long he will remain a Cub. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to get rid of a three-time all-star who gets on base regularly, but the pipeline is full of shortstop prospects, and if given a chance, the seat Castro has held for a long time could start to get warm.
Anthony Rizzo has begun to settle in to his role. Last season, he swapped leads with Giancarlo Stanton atop the NL home run standings. He has taken the face of the organization torch from Castro, who didn’t seem to want it anyway. Rizzo, a longtime crush of Theo Epstien and Jed Hoyer, brought a sense of stability to the rebuilding project. Last year, he hit a career-high 32 home runs, drove in 78 and lowered his strikeout total on his way to becoming one of the new class of premier bats in all of baseball. Isn’t that what you want out of your first baseman?
Arismendy Alcantara has always been a surprise. The first of which was his home run in the 2013 Futures Game during the All-Star break. In that blast, he burst onto the stage. Last year saw his full arrival as a Swiss-Army type that his new manager is sure to love. As I mentioned earlier, Alcantara’s versatility gives him an advantage in terms of playing time. Likely the team’s Opening Day second baseman, he will likely see quite a few innings in the outfield, especially given Joe Maddon’s love of defensive substitutions. Mike Olt gets the call Opening Day at third base unless Maddon & Co. shock the baseball world. While Olt has not lived up to the expectations he had in the Rangers’ system a few years back, his raw power is still a factor in keeping him on a roster. In all likelihood, Olt will be tossed to the bench the very second that Kris Bryant is… *ahem* …“ready.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the acquisition of Tommy LaStella. His rookie campaign went decent enough in Atlanta. The 26-year-old batted .251 and struck out 40 times. Nothing remarkable, but for a rookie, it wasn’t terrible. He should make the 25-man roster and get reps as a fifth infielder. The Cubs got him from the Braves in exchange for Arodys Vizcaino, who the Cubs previously acquired from Atlanta as part of a trade that sent Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves.
Which brings us to the loneliest job in sports. Last year, Jake Arrieta emerged as a legitimate ace. His starts became must-see television, as repeatedly he would keep bats silent late into his games. O’s fans, if you’re still with me, time to change the channel.
In 2012, his last full year in Baltimore, Arrieta finished with a 6.20 earned run average, 1.369 walks+hits per inning pitched, and 3.11 strikeouts per walk.
In 2014, his first season in Chicago, Arrieta finished with a 2.53 ERA, .989 WHIP, and 4.07 Ks per walk.
In a word–wowzers. Isn’t that what you want out of a Scott Feldman trade? Arrieta’s meteoric rise on to Cy Young ballots is a welcome surprise after the unpleasantness that has been the Edwin Jackson experiment. What’s even better for Arrieta in 2015, is that his responsibility will be relegated to the second slot in the rotation.
Jon Lester’s last game was a classic and a slap in the face to critics of the Wild Card “play-in” Game. Of course, as the story goes, Oakland lost to the eventual American League Champions, but Lester had earned himself the paycheck he was given this winter. Six years, one hundred fifty five million dollars. That is what the Cubs committed to the two-time World Series Champion. Money be damned–the Cubs got their man. Pro athletes tend to see 29-30 as the mountaintop. The swift decline in velocity is, of course, a worry when giving a 31 year old pitcher a six year deal. Assuming Lester doesn’t develop some kind of witchcraft-summoning knuckleball at 35, this contract is likely to overstay its welcome.
However, in the early years of the deal, the Cubs are ripe for contention. Above all else, Lester brings a swagger and a confidence that comes along with winning in the postseason, an asset guys like Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks could use if October came calling. Lester hit his contract year right, notching over 200 strikeouts for the first time since 2010. When I read in the BP Annual that he did not throw over to first once in 2014, I considered watching every pitch of his starts to confirm this absurd concept. Then I noticed he only walked 48 batters last year, which is pretty bonkers the more I think about it. Could it just be overzealous contract year stats, or is this what Jon Lester is becoming? His WHIP in 2014 dropped to 1.102, by far the best of his career. This goes along with pitching more innings than in any previous season. After Oakland fell flat on its face right after the trade deadline, Lester was a stable force that kept the A’s in the playoff hunt. While 2015 may not necessarily be the Cubs’ year, its pretty clear that even if Lester begins to regress, he will still be an asset to a title contending team.
After Lester and Arrieta, the pitching rotation will be some combination of Travis Wood, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Tsuyoshi Wada and Edwin Jackson. Each possesses qualities desired in a starter, but none seem to have genuine breakout appeal.
Wood dropped off the table after a stellar 2013. His home runs are still entertaining, but once the NL (shh) adopts the designated hitter, he will only have his pitching. His command was less than ideal, allowing nearly four walks a game last year. Batters fared quite well against the lefty, crossing the plate five times per game last year.
Hendricks is a different story. In all fairness, he’s nowhere near the weakest link in the rotation competition. He was given an opportunity toward the end of last year and did pretty well for himself. A 2.46 ERA in 13 starts is a sample size just big enough to bite. Hendricks should be considered a lock for the rotation, and should slide in behind veteran Jason Hammel.
At the trade deadline, the Cubs shipped Hammel (along with Jeff Samardzija) to Oakland for a package that included uber-prospect Addison Russell. In the offseason, the Cubs brought Hammel back, this time on a three-year deal. Much like Lester, Hammel experienced a 2014 full of career bests. In his time with the Cubs, the righty flirted with a 1.00 WHIP and matched his career best rate of 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
The probable odd men out are Wada and Jackson, for different reasons. Wada has pitched very little this spring while he nurses a nagging groin injury. His lack of experience doesn’t help either. Wada only pitched 69.1 innings last year, but was rather effective. His 3 strikeouts per walk were a welcome surprise when he did pitch, but there just wasn’t enough to really see if he was worth even the $12 million the Cubs spent over three years.
As for Jackson. Ugh. I wanted him to succeed. I really did. I’ve been a fan of his, but probably for the wrong reason. Over his entire career, Edwin Jackson has been essentially the most average pitcher on the planet. His numbers have always fluttered around the league median. He’s never really had exceptional stuff, he’s just been luckier at times. Weird fact about the German-born Jackson–his debut was on his twentieth birthday. The Cubs are his eighth team in twelve years, and by all accounts he will find a new home somewhere between today and the start of the 2017 season. He will have a long career in the game because he’s a true innings eater. On a rebuilding team, he helps get through the season. There’s something so necessary about pitchers like that. His average full season sees Jackson toss 194 innings. For those keeping score at home, that’s nearly 1,600 innings pitched. Not bad for a man who is the Major League manifestation of the word “okay.” Jackson is likely banished to the pen (couldn’t resist), is optioned to Iowa, or the Cubs find a trade that sees them eat a great deal of the remaining $26 million he is owed.
The Cubs’ bullpen has been a disaster in recent years. I suppose it’s easy to stress over your own team’s late inning stumbles, but it just seems like the bad outweighed the good until very recent. The closer slot appears to be Hector Rondon’s to lose, and for good reason. His 9 Ks per nine innings seemed to lock it down in late 2014. What the Cubs need desperately is consistency at the position. The team has struggled to find a true closer since the Carlos Marmol era. The only real competition for Rondon seems to be Jason Motte, but his spring has been pretty much disastrous. The Cubs are taking a chance on Motte, who hasn’t really recovered from a 2013 season lost to Tommy John surgery. Pedro Strop came over with Jake Arrieta from Baltimore, and has seen adequate success of his own. He saw career bests in strikeouts and WHIP, and overall his time in Chicago has been overwhelmingly the best time of his young career. In terms of the best kill rate in the pen, Neil Ramirez is the top dog for guys with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Ramirez was stellar in his opportunity last year, boasting 53 punchouts over 43.2 innings. He gave up six hits per nine innings, but gave up only seven earned runs all year.
What remains to be seen is how this young team comes together under the pressure that the press and a number of omens have presented. The rebuilding appears to be over. Now, it gets difficult. There’s a difficulty in becoming a contender. For us fans, it’s the understanding that now these games actually matter. Individual losses hurt. Failures are magnified. If the Cubs are to cross into the promised land where the other long-suffering franchises now dwell, they must navigate the wicked waters of the powerful National League. Washington, Los Angeles and St. Louis never seem to fall away from power, and San Francisco will probably win it all next year anyway.
It won’t be easy exorcising the ghosts of 70 years without a pennant, but then again baseball was never meant to be easy. Those who take the quick way to the top are demonized. All of the pain, all of the anguish from seasons lost and seasons nearly won, will only make the land of milk and honey that much sweeter when we get there. This team is not the best in baseball, but it has a chance to do something special. Like always, we the faithful continue to wait with hearts dancing for our fairy tale ending. A day we have longed for all our lives. A day that will surely come.
More of Michael’s work can be found at Low Outside Curve.Next post: The 2015 Washington Nationals In a Box
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