After a brief and mild winter the Chicago Cubs full squad returned to Mesa, AZ last week to commence spring training and with it, another season in their quest for a World Series title that has eluded them for the last century and counting. Of all the squads that have come and gone since then, perhaps none have been better poised to lift the hardware over their heads in the crisp, November air. None have been as “hyped” as well.
Expectations are sky-high entering 2016, as they should be. Fresh off a turnaround season that saw the Cubs float from last place to the NLCS, there will be no sneaking up on teams this year. 2016 is the year that was circled in pen when Theo Epstein was signed back on October 12, 2011. ‘This is the year’, ‘The time is now’, and ‘Embrace the target’ are the mantras (old and new) that the Cubs will live by this season. While some will say pegging the Cubs as the favorites on paper is detrimental to the team’s success, I would ask “what choice does one have with a roster like this?”
The Cubs return an incredible young core led first baseman and MVP candidate, Anthony Rizzo. He is flanked by Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, phenom shortstop: Addison Russell, and the one man wrecking crew that is Kyle Schwarber. Throw in the best right fielder in the game; the newly acquired Jason Heyward and World Series Champion/two-time All Star second baseman Ben Zobrist and it is clear why the prognosticators have chosen the Cubs as the favorites (and we haven’t even discussed the pitching yet). This team amazingly got better without having to give up any of it’s highly-rated but largely unproven talent (the lone casualties being Starlin Castro and Chris Coghlan, who while solid contributors were not long term answers for this squad moving forward).
As if the off-season hadn’t been kind enough to the North-Siders with the additions of Heyward, Zobrist, and starting pitcher John Lackey (on an incredibly affordable deal), the Cubs welcomed Dexter Fowler back last week on what is essentially a one year deal. Media reports had linked Fowler to the Orioles and many Cubs players thought that a deal had been finalized but Fowler had remained in contact with Cubs and ultimately wanted to be here with this team, even if he left money on the table to do so. The rich definitely get richer as the Cubs lineup will now be a veritable murderer’s row looking something like this on any given day:
- CF Dexter Fowler
- 2B Ben Zobrist
- 1B Anthony Rizzo
- 3B Kris Bryant
- C Kyle Schwarber
- RF Jason Heyward
- LF Jorge Soler
- SS Addison Russell
It’s not as if the talent ends there either with Miguel Montero still likely to resume the starting catcher’s role and Javy Baez waiting in the wings as a super utility player capable of filling in at a number of positions both infield and out. Depth is a wonderful thing to have, as any big league skipper will tell you. The grind of a season coupled with a rash of injuries can sink a team faster than you think making the Cubs’ focus on redundancy and utility a needed insurance policy that any team with championship aspirations should carry.
The depth isn’t limited to position players either as, unlike last year, the Cubs have great depth and multiple, quality starters led by Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Jon Lester and John Lackey round out a top three that look to be as formidable as any in the National League save the NY Mets. Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks look to be in line for the final rotation spots but will need to prove it this year after somewhat rough outings in the second half and playoffs of 2015. In the event that they stumble, the Cubs added insurance in the form of resigning Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill, both former starters turned bullpen long men. They added Adam Warren in the Castro trade with the Yankees who could compete for the fifth of sixth spot, provided his value isn’t better served in the pen. They also acquired Aaron Brooks from Oakland in the Coghlan tried which freed up money to sign Fowler and netted another potential spot starter/bullpen arm who will most likely start the year in Triple-A.
The team, as is, appears set with the season a little over a month from starting but one has learned to expect the unexpected from this Cubs’ front office. Still, there is one thing that should not be unexpected and that is for this club to get every team’s best shot on the field, hence Maddon’s acceptance of the hype in his theme for this season: “Embrace the Target”.
“I’m really a big believer in running towards the fire instead of away from it,” Maddon said. “I want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everyone speaking so glowingly of us.”
He steered a young and inexperienced club through rough seas in his first year but this season it will be mostly uncharted waters. Here’s hoping to churn that hype into a calm and steady wake as the SS Cub sets sail.