Monday, March 28, 2016

2016: Could This Be the Year for the Cubs?

As I do each spring, I write a piece on my Cubbies and their long search for a World Series title (108 years and counting) or even a National League pennant (71 years and counting). This year, however, the experts say that all the stars are aligned. In other words, the Cubs have the best team on paper and are favorites to go all the way.

That's because the rebuilding program under team president Theo Epstein has been a fabulous success. Last year, the team won 97 games and made it to the NLCS where, of course, they flopped against the Mets. In the off season, they added right fielder Jason Hayward, pitcher John Lester, and second baseman Ben Zobrist. There is optimism everywhere even though their won-lost record in Spring Training has been less than stellar.

Let's take a look at their roster, which brims with youth, potential and versatility..

The infield looks rock solid with Anthony Rizzo at first base, last year's rookie of the year Kris Bryant at third, slick fielding Addison Russell entering his second season, at short and Ben Zobrist at second backed up by Javier Baez, who can also fill in all over the infield and outfield if needed (as can Zobrist). Baez still has superstar potential if he can cut down his strike outs and crack the starting lineup.

In the outfield, there is Hayward in right. He is the best defensive right fielder in the game and appears to have pushed Jorge Soler to the bench at least temporarily. Soler, like Baez, has superstar potential, but must improve his outfield defense plus show he can hit consistently over a full season. Look for him to platoon in left with Kyle Schwarber, who has a great bat but is still learning to hit against lefties. Schwarber may also work on his catching abilities and catch Jason Hammel. Back in center is Dexter Fowler, who had a fine season last year in terms of getting on base and scoring. I look for Hayward to have one of his best offensive years. Finally, there is Albert Almora, a former number one draft pick starting in Triple AAA. He is great defensively and impressed this spring while playing with the Cubs. Look for him to come up at the end of the season and take over center field in 2017. The Cubs farm system is still one of the best though their top prospects have graduated to the majors. More are on the way.

Catching appears to be solid with Miguel Montero the everyday catcher with David Ross handling Lester. Schwarber will also be available occasionally behind the plate, and if that isn't enough, we have a fine prospect in Willson Contreras who will begin in triple AAA after winning a double AA batting title last season.

The rotation appears good headed by last year's Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta. Second in the rotation is John Lester, whose biggest weakness is a psychological problem in throwing to first base -or any other base for that matter. He should improve on last year's W-L performance. The rest of the rotation is filled out with Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, all of whom could turn in solid seasons especially backed up by a potent offensive lineup.

In the bullpen, we have depth and strength with closer Hector Rondon and setup man Pedro Strop. In addition, there is Travis Wood, Adam Warren (obtained from the Yankees for Starlin Castro), Jason Grimm, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and possibly Neil Ramirez if he can get his speed back up after injury problems last year. In addition, Wood, Cahill and Warren are swing men, which means they can start if necessary.

One of my biggest concerns with the additions of Zobrist and Hayward is the amount of playing time for Soler and Baez, both of whom have superstar potential. The additions were necessary, however, in order to improve contact and cut down on the high strikeout rate in the lineup last year.

Everywhere you look, there is youth, depth, and versatility not to mention the budding potential of Russell, Bryant, Baez, Schwarber, and Soler.

And, of course, there is manager Joe Maddon.

Of course, I don't predict anything with the Cubs having lived and died with this team since 1963. I well remember 1969, 1984 and 2003 when we "had it in the bag". But there is so much to be optimistic about not just this year but for the years to come.

Hopefully, it won't come down to a pick off throw by Lester when it's all on the line.