One off-season’s worth of moves won’t make anyone a contender.
A few free agents and trades may help you out, but it won’t get a team from worst-to-first. A flashy new hire at the managerial position won’t, either.
But combine those things with a team already loaded with potential breakout stars, and could also see three top prospects log significant big league time for the first time in their careers, and now you start to make a case.
Make that team the long-suffering perennial punching bag Chicago Cubs, and the pie is just too sweet not to take a bite.
Six months ago, the Cubs looked a lot like the Houston Astros; a team that’s finished in the bottom two of its division every year since 2010, but has spent its time cultivating a farm system that, in a few years, may be ready to lead this team to a postseason run.
Then, riding promising 2014 debuts of Jorge Soler (.292, five home runs, 20 RBIs in 24 games) and Javy Baez (seven homers in first month after call-up), the Cubs started making win-now moves. On October 31st, the Cubs went out and signed Joe Maddon to the skipper position just one week after Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The biggest move came on December 10th, when the team signed Jon Lester, the most sought-after free agent in baseball, to a six-year contract, and bookended the move with a trade for catcher Miguel Montero (72 RBIs in 2014) and the signing of centerfielder Dexter Fowler (.276/8 HR/35 RBI in 2014).
But as stated above, the off-season moves aren’t what makes this team contenders in 2015 — they’re merely pieces to a bigger puzzle that general manager Theo Epstein has put together years before anyone expected him to.
The Cubs have a lineup that is already loaded with promise. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is on some scouts’ watch lists for MVP candidate, as his power numbers have gone up each season he’s been in the bigs, reaching 32 in 2014.
Last season also saw the re-emergence of Starlin Castro’s batting average, which climbed back to .292 after a down year in 2013. Castro, along with Fowler and Montero, could provide a ton of veteran leadership in getting the younger bats of Baez and Soler to level out their hitting in a consistent way.
And the biggest shot in the arm for this offense may yet be on its way. Third baseman Kris Bryant, baseball’s number one prospect, hit a major league-best nine home runs in just 40 at bats this spring before being demoted as the club narrows their 25-man roster for Opening Day. Just when his call to the big leagues will come is unknown, but there are sure to be plenty of fireworks when it does happen.
Speaking of fireworks, Lester won’t be the only one causing them in the rotation this season for Chicago. Jake Arrieta’s breakout 2014 campaign (2.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP) earned him the second spot in the rotation for this season, and he could look to be a dark-horse candidate for the Cy Young. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks sits at the back of the rotation after a promising season of his own in which he compiled a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts.
Add into the mix the return of Jason Hammel and a bounce-back season from Travis Wood, who had a disaster year in 2014 after 200 innings and almost five wins above replacement the year before, and this is a pitching staff that won’t be a friendly presence on opposing schedules.
One of the most important aspects of the Cubs making the postseason, however, may be that they don’t all need to be stars. That’s thanks to Maddon, who led less capable Rays teams to the playoffs four times, including a World Series appearance in 2008 with a team that saw just three players hit 14 or more home runs, and its best starting pitcher finish with an ERA of 3.49.
None of this is to say that a playoff push is a done deal -- or even likely -- for the Cubs. This is a young team with a lot of learning left to do, and it plays in a division with two surefire playoff contenders, and one more team who could reasonably make a push. The Cubs will need to win a lot of tough games this season if they expect to contend.
But I’m a believer. I think this group of young studs, with their shiny new staff ace and their battle-tested new skipper, have earned all the hype surrounding them. They won’t break the World Series drought, but they will be well within reach of the playoffs come September. And if a team like this can get itself going late in the season, anything is possible.
Below are my playoff picks for the 2015 season. The Cubs face the Cardinals on ESPN Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Baseball’s back, folks. Let’s have some fun.