Fans of the northside baseball club–the ones still paying attention anyway–are getting excited. Well… perhaps excited is a bit much. Somewhat intrigued? Mildly interested? Anyway, things are changing in the Wrigleyville neighborhood for the better.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer finally deemed Javier Baez ready for big league action in early August and then called up Jorge Soler later that month. By the time the Chicago Cubs concluded yet another losing season, fans got a sneak peak at the future. Baez, the shortstop with a Gary Sheffield like swing, responded to his promotion with three home runs in his first two games. Not too shabby. And while his sub .200 batting average impressed no one, Baez’s power and stolen base prowess has analysts and fans awaiting next spring. Cuban native Jorge Soler outperformed Baez in his short time with the big club. With a nearly .300 batting average, 5 home runs, 20 RBIs and half-a-dozen walks, the 6’4″, 215 pound outfielder proved to be major league ready. These small sample sizes are enough to drum up hope for a team that has made an annual tradition of bottom-basement N.L. Central finishes. What we’ve seen on the field, and heard away from it, tells us the flags are finally blowing in the right direction for the Cubs and their fans.
The Chicago Cubs, and the place they call home, will look wildly different next year. Young stars1 will litter Wrigley Field, a ballpark that will have a video board for the first time in its 100 year history2. Gone will be many of the journeymen that have bandaged together the major league roster in recent years–Luis Valbuena, Justin Ruggiano, Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney. And a transformation of the historic ballpark will be well underway. The recent ground breaking on an estimated $575 million renovation3 of Wrigley Field, and the surrounding land, finally makes that a certainty. A new team and a refined ballpark will begin the march towards Wrigley Field’s bi-centennial together. There is no telling how Epstein and Hoyer will shape the 2015 roster but it might look something like this:
- Catcher: Wellington Castillo
- First Baseman: Anthony Rizzo
- Second Baseman: Javier Baez
- Shortstop: Starlin Castro
- Third Baseman: Kris Bryant
- Outfielders: Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Junior Lake
- Starting Pitchers (in the mix): J. Arrieta, K. Hendricks, J. Turner, T. Wood, E. Jackson, D. Beeler, D. Straily
While much of the infield and outfield can be penciled in, there is no telling how the starting staff will take shape. There are a lot of options, many of which remain unproven. Jake Arrieta, at 28 years old, had a breakout season with a 2.53 ERA. He was dominate and strong, and is ready for more success–and more wins–in 2015. He had the statistics we expected from Travis Wood, who struggled with a 5.03 ERA last season. Wood might get another chance but, with a crew of youngsters waiting in the wings, he could be trade bait come July. Guess who has 2 years and $22 million left on his contract? Edwin Jackson’s deal assures him a spot in the rotation while his plus-6 ERA should guarantee him a spot in the bullpen, if that. Unless the Cubs land an ace–James Shields, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer—in free agency, the rotation will be filled out by mostly unproven mid-20 year old arms. Kyle Hendricks did enough this summer to earn a shot while Jacob Turner, Dallas Beeler and Dan Straily will battle throughout spring training for roster spots with the big club. If the pitching staff is a question mark, the lineup is surely the team’s exclamation point.
Offensive options are plentiful in the Cubs’ organization and the best-of-the-best are major league ready now. While Kris Bryant might stay in Iowa for a few weeks in 2015 due to contractual reasons, he’ll be with the team for the bulk of the season. With Bryant, Rizzo, Castro and Soler on the field, the Cubs’ lineup card will force opponents to take notice for the first time in a long time. Anthony Rizzo–32 homeruns, 78 RBI–and Starlin Castro–.777 OPS, 65 RBI–are the veterans of the bunch. The rest of the young core will have their growing pains but, because of their “slow cook” through the minors, their slumps will be abbreviated. What if someone falters the way Felix Pie, Hee-Sop Choi and Josh Vitters did? Waiting in the wings are Albert Almora (outfield), Kyle Schwarber (catcher), Addison Russell (shortstop) and others. The stockpiling of offensive talent ensures that the Cubs will no longer hang their hopes on one or two unproven prospects. What a novel approach.
All along the way, Theo Esptein, Jed Hoyer and even Tom Ricketts himself promised us that on-field decisions will be made for baseball reasons. Young bats would not be promoted by Cubs’ marketers or business leaders and unready arms would stay in the minors until they prove otherwise. The end of 2014 has put this maxim somewhat in question. The late season promotions of Jorge Soler and Javier Baez could be seen as a way to bring back a fan base that no longer frequents Wrigley Field in droves. In a recent presentation to season ticket holders, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations sounded more salesman than baseball guy4. “Our goal in 2015 is to win the National League Central.” Strong words that will surely wake up a dormant fan base. Judging by the number of people getting called off the season ticket waiting list, it feels like the organization is seeking more guaranteed revenue streams. Maybe it is about the money. Perhaps it really is a mature talent pool ready to win. Most likely it’s a mixture of the two and that’s fine with me. The Cubs are ready to compete; their fans are ready to pay attention if they do.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports