There are dozens of Cubs previews out there, but as far as I can google, none that are set to a soundtrack of Mountain Goats songs. John Darnielle was on Effectively Wild’s Cubs preview this week, so here is a Cubs season preview set to the sounds of the Mountain Goats (Full disclosure: some song connections more tenuous than others).

LADRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013.568 (7)103 (8)88 (2)97 (22)43 (4)23 (9)-6 (20)240 (2)
2014.580 (4)111 (2)91 (4)109 (25)25 (9)-8 (23)-1 (18)246 (1)
2015.568 (6)106 (3)86 (3)104 (25)-2 (17)1 (17)-15 (26)302 (1)

 

WOKE UP NEW

The morning when I woke up without you for the first time I felt free and I felt lonely and I felt scared

This season is waking up “new” in multiple ways. The Cubs enter the season as favorites in the National League, with the highest projected win totals the team has had in the better part of a decade, they “won the offseason” without jeopardizing future payroll commitments, and have a stable of young position players unrivaled in today’s MLB.

But, also, the offseason trade of Starlin Castro sent off the longest tenured member of the Cubs. Traded to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren, this is the first opening day since 2010 where Starlin Castro would not be on the roster (and even in 2010, Castro got the call-up mid-season). Castro’s consistent presence provided some sort of comfort during the rebuilding years, but after a down first half and the signing of Ben Zobrist, Castro was deemed expendable. Godspeed Starlin.

I got ready for the future to arrive.

HEEL TURN

In some ways, the Cubs took the first steps this offseason towards being the new heels of Major League Baseball. Where it used to be that end-of-career players would take less salary to play for winning teams, Theo Epstein was able to lure three top free agents to the Cubs at perhaps less salary then they otherwise could have gotten. While Zobrist and Lackey might be receiving their final big payday, the prize of the offseason, Jason Heyward, is only 26 (one day older than Anthony Rizzo).

Granted, Heyward’s contract is structured as such that he will be paid large sums his first three seasons (2016: $15M, 2017: $21.5M, 2018: $21.5M; with a $20M signing bonus paid out between 2024-2027, per Cot’s Contracts), at which point he will have the opportunity to exercise one of two opt-outs in his contract.

While other teams might have offered more than the $184 million that Heyward could get from the Cubs, other teams probably did not offer as much money in the first 3 years, nor did they offer the opt-outs that would allow Heyward to test free agency again while he’s still in his prime.

Making these moves puts the Cubs on the heel-turn route as soon as next season. You’re the team that’s good already, wins championships, AND sign major free agents (including Noted Asshole John Lackey)? Be ready to move from the general cuddliness of the Old Cubs to relishing in the jeers that come with being the New Cubs.

(Side note: This Bryzzo mock advertisement for MLB.com is sure to be one of the things that will push the Cubs along the Heel path)

BLUE JAYS AND CARDINALS

New sheen over everything, when you open your mouth to sing

Baseballs travel farther when you watch them fly, apples fatten on the tree when you walk by

While the title to this Mountain Goats song references two teams that the Cubs hope to vanquish over the course of the season and playoffs, the Cubs do hope to watch a good number of baseballs fly this year. PECOTA projects 5 Cubs to have 20 homer seasons (Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler), with two having at least 15 (Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist), and finally two more to hit 10+ (Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero).

Do you want to hear more about how Donald Trump could be president, or do you want to watch the Cubs hit some dingers? DINGERS!

THIS YEAR

I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me

Bullpens can be volatile, and could be the downfall of a team, the 2016 Cubs are no different. Baseball Prospectus sees declines from a bulk of the Cubs bullpen.

 

 2015: ERA/FIP/DRA/WARP2016 ERA/FIP/DRA/WARP
Justin Grimm1.99 / 3.14 / 3.53 / 0.73.64 / 3.69 / 4.22 / 0.4
Pedro Strop2.91 / 3.19 / 2.67 / 1.63.34 / 3.43 / 3.90 / 0.5
Hector Rondon1.67 / 2.70 / 3.18 / 1.33.44 / 3.38 / 4.00 / 0.6
Adam Warren3.29 / 3.56 / 3.40 / 2.44.03 / 4.04 / 4.65 / 0.9

These things can be fixed on the fly, of course, and the Cubs are well positioned to do it – with a stable of prospects who can be dealt, and a knack for finding low-cost pitchers who can fill in on short notice (last year Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, Jason Motte, and Fernando Rodney all fit this bill at different times).

RICHES AND WONDERS

It grows all fat and friendly, we have surplus if we need it,

We hold on as hard as we can, our knuckles white

The Cubs have been able to build the 2016 organization, from the 25-man roster to the bottom of the minors, without trading any of the top young talent that they have spent the last 4 seasons accumulating. Some of those players have emerged as Major Leaguers of course (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler), and the club has taken a natural tumble from the top spot that they occupied on many lists pre-2015, but the Cubs still have a minor league system from which they can promote players likely to produce in the bigs, or trade to fill areas of need. While the Cubs are not a consensus top 10 farm system anymore, they have depth, and interesting players, in the low minors who have additional upside.

It’s good that the Cubs have stockpiled until now though, as they are losing their top 2 draft picks (and, in a way, 3 draft picks since they re-signed Dexter Fowler and they would have gotten one back since he got the qualifying offer).

Cubs farm system rankings pre-2016 season

Keith Law (ESPN): 4

Jim Callis (MLB.com): 4

Baseball Prospectus: 12

KATOH (Fangraphs): 17

Baseball America: 20

THE SIGN

Under the pale moon where I see a lot of stars

“No, it’s not Cubs in Five, cuz the Cubs have broken my heart. Sammy Sosa looks like a guy who has stock in Creatine, people. And I’m not saying this just cuz I’m here but I’m for the Giants, which I’ve been arguing with my friend Peter about cuz we’re from Southern California and you’re supposed to be real territorial, but I just can’t support an American League team in the World Series.

And also for a while there the Giants had Benito Santiago in as catcher, and you know, he’s an ex-Cub, that’s how you know they’re doomed to lose. You know about the ex-Cubs Factor, right? The more former Cubs you have the worse of a chance you have in the World Series. So sorry, you guys are screwed! There are zero ex-Cubs on the Angels. The Angels are, like, a bunch of animatronic guys.

Anyway, this is a song by some people from Sweden.”

Mountain Goats intro to “The Sign” at the Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, October 23, 2002.

Cubs observers will be looking for many signs this season: signs of decline from John Lackey and Ben Zobrist, signs of regression from Jake Arrieta, signs of improved defense from Kyle Schwarber (at any position), signs from the third base coach, sponsorship signs in the outfield, sign-language interpreters, signatures on contracts.

But really, I just felt like I needed to include this quote from John Darnielle somewhere.

CUBS IN FIVE

And the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league

Every time the Mountain Goats play in Chicago, people of all levels of inebriation will yell for the band to play this song. It is an old fan favorite (and, full disclosure: my gateway song to the Mountain Goats, who are now among my favorite bands), but often misinterpreted. People like hearing the name of their favorite sportsball team in a song, so this is understandable, but the song itself is about things that will never happen. John has explained this at many shows: this is about all of these unlikely things (intelligent life on the moon, Canterbury Tales on the best seller list, etc.) that would have to happen in order for the singer to love this other particular person ever again.

But, the Tampa Bay Bucs did make it all the way to the top one time. Anything can happen.

Give me 96 wins for the Cubs. They are my NL pennant pick. They are my World Series pick. This is not different from most other years where I pick the Cubs to win it all (not unlike John Darnielle), but this year I might believe it juuuuuust a little more.
 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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