3. Chicago Cubs (83-79)
I don’t think any other team other than the San Diego Padres received as much attention for their offseason moves as the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs had the worst three-year period in franchise history, having lost 200 games and finishing in last place each season. Cubs fans were patient, however (well, as patient as fans of a franchise that hasn’t won a title in over a century can be), with Theo Epstein leading the team.
Epstein, along with general manager Jed Hoyer, had a plan. The team was blown up from the minor league system to the bloated contracts. It hurt, but in the end the team drafted some very talented prospects (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Hendricks), freed themselves up from a lot of bad contracts and went the international route to get a lot of talent (Jorge Soler).
Then, when it looked as if some of the talent was ready to take off, the Cubs went out this winter and made some veteran signings to really ratchet up the hope on the North side of Chicago. They also took advantage of some fortune.
It started when Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract. When he became a free agent, Epstein swooped in and signed him, even though they already had Rick Renteria.
I felt bad for Renteria, who did a great job with the young prospects, but Maddon is one of the top minds in baseball and the Cubs had an opportunity they could not pass up.
Player-wise, the Cubs landed the most sought-after free agent pitcher in MLB, Jon Lester. Yes, Max Scherzer had the biggest deal, but the money was so high not many teams could be involved. Lester was the one who was most attainable.
The Cubs also added Jason Hamel, who pitched well for them before getting traded last Fourth of July. That strengthened the starting rotation with Jake Arrieta, Hendricks and most likely Travis Wood.
The Cubs also addressed their catching slot, trading for Miguel Montero and signing David Ross. Both are excellent catchers who are great in framing pitches.
Epstein also went and traded for center fielder Dexter Fowler. He improves the outfield defense and he improves the top of the batting order.
The new-look Chicago Cubs have fans so excited that some are thinking Central Division champions. Even All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo has hope, predicting a title.
"“It’s [winning the NL Central] going to happen this year,” Rizzo said at a Cubs caravan stop at Jacob Beidler Elementary School in Chicago. “It’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play and we’re going to win the NL Central, you can quote me on that. We should be the team, with all due respect to every other team, we’re going to do some things this year. That’s what we’re going to put our sights on and we’re not going to accept anything else.”"
I’m not sure about winning the Central this year, but the Cubs are poised to greatly improve.
Rizzo, along with fellow All-Star Starlin Castro, will have to be examples for the youngsters. Castro is already a three-time All-Star before reaching the age of 25.
One of the keys to the Cubs meeting expectations may be Javier Baez. He is very talented, but after a strong start, he struggled. He struck out 95 times in 213 at-bats. Baez will have to shorten that swing if he is to see time at second base in Wrigley Field.
The fans and all of baseball are waiting for the premiere of the Kris Bryant Show. Even though he had some video game numbers in the minors (.325/.438/.661, 43 home runs and 110 RBI in 492 at-bats), the baseball world may have to wait a bit. He is not expected to make the roster until later in the season, when his free agent clock moves forward a year.
The Chicago Cubs will depend on a lot of young players. There are quite a few veterans there, though, who will help those youngsters acclimate themselves to the big leagues. They might not win the division or get a Wild Card, but they will battle for both for awhile, and Wrigley Field will be home to some excitement once again.
Now the saying “Wait till next year” may be the right thing to say. Harry Carey, Ron Santo and now Ernie Banks will look down and love how the Cubs will advance.
Next: 2. St. Louis Cardinals