Back to the Future – Cubs Aim to Move from Competitive to Contenders

It has been over 100 years since the Cubs won a World Series, but the past few years have been some of the most trying.  After the honeymoon period of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was over, patience was wearing thin, and Cubs fans began to feel the all too familiar doubt creep in.

All these ‘prospects’ in the minors were hard to see when the big club was losing 90 games.  Twitter makes tracking stats easy, but video and games are scarce on the internet.  A cell phone video here or there would capture what it could, but was limited at best.  The cameras at ballparks and on TV cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to bring that beautiful HD image to living rooms.  No matter what Apple or Samsung say, they can not compare.  Last year, the prospects finally made it to AAA Des Moines, Iowa — just a step away.  For the first time, in my memory, people from Chicago were coming to Des Moines to see baseball games, instead of the other way around.

The product on the field in Chicago was not terrible, but the product on the field in Principal Park was exciting.

The buzz was in the air for the first time since Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were prospects — or — making their annual re-hab appearance between towel throwing sessions.

Oh, I almost forgot. Manny Ramirez was in Des Moines for a brief time as well.

Bryant Soler Baez pre-game in Iowa Cubs Dugout (via bleachernation.com)

Bryant Soler Baez pre-game in Iowa Cubs Dugout (via bleachernation.com)

The current batch of prospects dealt with a hype level unfamiliar to Cubs fans.  Yes there was Ronny Cedeno, Corey Patterson, Felix Pie and Rich Hill.  But they did not all come up together.  Javy Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant led the way, but close behind were Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arietta.

The Cubs had elite prospects according to numerous outlets (such as Baseball Prospectus) not just Cubs fans or Cubs.com.  Alcantara had little fanfare when he was called up, but would stay in Chicago for the remainder of the season.  He tailed off a bit as the season went into the ‘dog days’ but played multiple positions. Including moving from second base to center field, and looked like a natural. He even made a few ‘Web Gems.’

Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arietta proved they deserved a spot in the big league rotation.

Javy Baez had the most fanfare, but much like in Iowa, he struggled making contact. But when he did make contact — oh boy.  It matched the hype, and the stories.

Jorge Soler came in with less fanfare, but was far more consistent than Baez, and with equally impressive power.

Kris Bryant has yet to leave Iowa, but will at some point in 2015.  Albert Almora — and now Addison Russell — have yet to make it to Iowa, but will likely begin the season as I-Cubs.

The talent is this close to coming together.

The Cubs just needed an ace. Oh, and another bat to be legitimate contenders.  Then, the off season happened. Joe Maddon suddenly became available.  The Cubs loved Rick Renteria, who surpassed expectation, and got a team of prospects and cast-offs to be competitive in every game. Competitive was a word missing for quite a while on the North Side.  But Rick felt the tough love and was let go in favor of Joe Maddon.  Joe Maddon who won a press conference better than anyone in the history of Chicago sports.  Every thing that Jay Cutler isn’t (likeable) — Joe Maddon is.  The last guy to drive an RV and talk about beer? Rod Beck. Who is still fondly remembered in Cubs memory — both Chicago and Iowa.  Joe Maddon is funny, charismatic, positive and original. Which quickly won over Cubs fans.  He is also very deep into the stats, which won over the Cubs front office.  He promised to compete for the playoffs in his first season.  He was an alluring figure for any free agent.  Free agents that would not have even thought about coming to Chicago, were now considering property values on Lake Shore Drive.

Cubs Fan reaction across America (http://chicagosuntimes.com/sports/twitter-reacts-to-cubs-getting-jon-lester/)

Cubs Fan reaction across America (http://chicagosuntimes.com/sports/twitter-reacts-to-cubs-getting-jon-lester/)

The Cubs needed a front line starter. An ace.

Jon Lester and Max Scherzer were the best available.  The sweepstakes for Jon Lester started with Chicago and Boston, who started with him last season before trading him to the A’s.  Several other teams would also join in along the way, most notably the Giants who were right across the bay from Lester.  The Jon Lester watch on twitter was as obsessively exciting as Anthony Rizzo watch a few years ago for Cubs fans.

Day after day the Cubs fans would find out “tomorrow” where Jon would be signing.  Ironically the fan base used to “waiting til next year” would “wait til tomorrow.”

Finally in the middle of the night (I believe it was about 12:30 am) Jon decided to take his talents to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs went from competitive, to contender. Their odds in Vegas are now among the best in baseball.  The excitement that had been brewing and brewing had now reached an absolute fever pitch in the Cubs kingdom.

In the annual Hoeyer-Epestein pitcher-rehabilitation-reclamation-project, the Cubs signed Jason Motte.  Another pitcher coming off major surgery with low-risk, high-reward potential.  This is, in-part, how the Cubs have built up their prospect depth. By signing guys off the ‘scrap heap’ and turning them into pitching pieces that playoff teams needed to make their push for October.  Heck, Jason Hammel was one, and now He’s back.  The Cubs traded Jeff Samardzja and Jason Hammel for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Straily and a player-to-be-named-later or cash. Russell was Billy Beane’s best A’s prospect. Motte should be a productive and veteran addition to a bullpen that needs it.   Hammel coming back helps to round out a crowded pool of potential starters behind Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arietta. That ‘pool’ includes Tsuyoshi Wada, Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Erik Jokisch and Jacob Turner.  The competition in spring training will be fun to watch.

1.  Jon Lester
2.  Jake Arietta
3.  Cole Hamels
4.  Kyle Hendricks
5.  Tsuyoshi Wada / Travis Wood

The other half of the battery also received an upgrade.  Former Diamondback Miguel Montero is now the Cubs starting catcher after a trade at the MLB Winter Meetings for two Low-A level pitching prospects.  John Baker, who had probably the brightest spot in the Cubs season, pitching in relief and getting the game winning run in a 15 inning marathon, was sadly let go.  Wellington Castillo is still on the roster, but there is a chance that he could be moved if the Cubs sign former Lester ‘personal-catcher’ David Ross.  Much like Rick Renteria, there is nothing wrong with Wellington, he just may not have a spot on this 2015 Chicago Cubs team.B4_WSaHCQAIxJlM  There is no sense in trying to finagle through waivers down to AAA Iowa because he’s a major league talent.  Besides, Theo and Jed are capable of getting a prospect or two in return for a Castillo trade.  Montero is a 2 time all-star and Ross has a good track record with Jon Lester.  Not the sexiest of upgrades, but it makes the Cubs better in the positions that matters the most.

The only thing missing besides a David Ross? Another outfield bat.  The Cubs could use a veteran leader to platoon in the outfield.  Make no mistake, Anthony Rizzo is the leader of the team.  He was willing to go into the dugout last year, to stick up for a teammate.  But, every contender has the veteran(s) they rely on to get a hit in late innings, make the occasional start and/or provide the veteran presence needed to contend for Pennants.  Johnny Gomes has been the most often rumored addition, having also previously played with Jon Lester.  He too could be a great fit in Chicago.

The starting lineup is looking great, I’m not kidding, it really looks great. Kris Bryant will be a Chicago Cub at some point this season, but likely not on opening day. The Cubs are not in a rush to bring him up and lose a potential extra season of Bryant (a potential ‘prime’ season), even though he looks more than ready for the bigs (and has the prospect awards to back it up) than any other prospect.

1.  Chris Coghlan – LF
2.  Starlin Castro – SS
3.  Anthony Rizzo – 1B
4.  Kris Bryant – 3B
5.  Jorge Soler – RF
6.  Arismendy Alcantara – CF
7.  Miguel Montero – C
8.  Javy Baez – 2B
9.  Pitcher

Javy Baez is not a number 2 hitter.  He strikes out more often than he makes contact and hitting him second serves no purpose.  He could bat anywhere from 6 – 8 in the order.

Did Back to the Future have it right all along?

Did Back to the Future have it right all along?

He has to earn a better spot in the batting order.  He has the raw talent to do it but his notoriously slow starts can cost a contender if he’s placed to high in the order.  The Cubs can win, and win NOW.  A batting average of .163 is not what you want at the top of the lineup.  Coghlan and Alcantara can bat anywhere in the lineup but seem destined to split time leading off.  Neither guy really moved the needle as far as hype but are the center pieces in a championship run.  They are the table setters for Rizzo, Bryant, and Soler.  The batting order could be in a state of flux but most of the guys can bat in a number of different spots.  It’s a great problem to have when your #8 hitter is too good to be a #8 hitter.

So far it has been an exciting off season for Cubs fans.  Finally no more rebuilding! They’re now shaping a roster to contend!  Competitiveness has been replaced by contention.  90 wins will replace 90 losses.  Crazier things have happened in baseball and if there is one team that deserves something crazy to go their way, it’s the Cubs.  Hopefully the loveable losers will finally break through and give the Blackhawks a run for their money in terms of a Chicago dynasty.

Maybe Back to the Future 2 will be right after all?