The 2015 Chicago Cubs played the unexpected underdog, winning more games than fans anticipated while competing farther into the fall than analysts predicted. The 2016 Cubs will play a different game, embracing the target that comes with being proclaimed National League favorites after bolstering a roster that was already on the come. The team is buying into Joe Maddon’s “embrace the target” slogan; it’s a strategy that only comes from an uncommon manager. Most coaches downplay expectations, creating an “us against the world” mentality but Maddon cares as little for traditional managerial speeches as he does for old-timey baseball tactics.
In Joe Maddon’s world, pitchers bat eighth, babe-in-the-woods rookies start meaningful games, veteran starters get quick hooks and infielders are sometimes cast outfielders. An excellent bench of hitters will allow the reigning NL Manager of the Year to tinker with literally hundreds of different lineups this summer and the likely starting lineup (below) will be among the best in baseball.
- Dexter Fowler, CF
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Ben Zobrist, 2B
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Kyle Schwarber, LF
- Miguel Montero, C
- Addison Russell, SS
Cubs’ hitters–the guys above along with reserves like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez–will put up plenty of crooked numbers in 2016. Last year was Joe’s “is batting the pitcher eighth worth a few wins?” test season. What baseball norm can he fiddle with this summer? Perhaps it’s time for Maddon to go with a six-man starting rotation.
The shocker of the Cubs’ offseason was the $184 million Theo Epstein handed over to defensive wizard Jason Heyward. Cubs’ brass convinced Heyward to take less money to play for a major contender. Or was the morale boosting return of Dexter Fowler to the leadoff spot the big surprise? Maybe the signing of Ben Zobrist as a veteran presence and sure-handed second baseman will make the biggest difference. These additions, along with burgeoning stars Kris Bryant (NL Rookie of the Year), Anthony Rizzo (fourth runner-up for NL MVP), homerun addict Kyle Schwarber and uber talent Addison Russell, will give Cubs’ pitchers plenty of early leads. That reality is all the more reason for Joe Maddon to give each pitcher extra rest between starts without sacrificing many wins. Even Adam Warren, the presumed sixth rotation arm, will give up fewer runs than his team scores for him on a daily basis. The 2015 Cubs scored 689 runs while allowing 608 of them1. Expect the 2016 ratio to be even more favorable to the North Side crew.
The Cubs’ starting arms–Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel, Hendricks and Warren–have talent. Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young Award last season, Jon Lester is a two-time award winner himself and John Lackey is coming off his best ERA season ever. Expect Jason Hammel to be the rotation X-factor. He struggled to pitch deep into games last season while battling some injuries but reports out of Cubs’ camp suggest he’s looking strong and refreshed. The backend arms–Hendricks and Warren–that round out the staff don’t have Arrieta swagger. Yet. Kyle Hendricks is only twenty-five and, unfortunately, pitched like the fifth starter he was last season. The glimmer of hope? His September of 2015 was much improved from earlier in the spring and summer. The right-hander credits a simple adjustment2: “I got back into my mechanics and was hitting more spots, and got more called strikes…” If he stays close to pitching coach Chris Bosio this season, Hendricks should improve upon his 3.95 ERA of a season ago. Adam Warren rounds out this potential six-man rotation. Warren is the wild card of the bunch, traded this past offseason for once promising Cub-turned-Yankee, Starlin Castro. If he has trade-for-Castro talent than surely he can be more than a middle reliever. All of those arms, backed by some powerful bats, deserve a chance to go seven innings every six games, don’t you think?
A six-man rotation is unorthodox but the 2016 Chicago Cubs are primed for some unconventionalism. Joe Maddon blends gut feelings with hard numbers better than most skippers while commanding the respect of both his players and his bosses. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have proven themselves to be exploitive baseball executives–even the smallest market inefficiencies are worth exploring. If Maddon, Epstein and Hoyer believe an extra rotation starter will reduce the probability of injury, the Cubs brain trust may be willing to sacrifice a couple of wins for the greater good. Rob Arthur, of FiveThirtyEight3, suggests there is “a potentially meaningful drop in injury risk” when more days of rest are added between starts. In a season with playoff expectations and World Series hype, expect the Cubs to do whatever it takes to earn the target they’ve embraced so well.
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