The last time the Chicago Cubs went into spring training without a realistic chance to win was back in 2014, a lifetime ago for fans who once wore the words “long-suffering” like a badge of honor.
While first-year President Jed Hoyer declared “every season is sacred and we’re going to compete this year” and second-year manager David Ross said “our talent level if through the roof,” the Cubs are going to have to prove it.
After a season in which the dugout chatter was on blast while the offense was on mute, seeing is believing.
The Cubs won the National League Central with a 34-26 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season but went 21-23 after getting off to a 13-3 start, then choked badly in a two-game sweep by the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field.
President Theo Epstein bolted with a year remaining on his contract, and Hoyer dealt ace Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres for Zach Davies and four low-level prospects in what most saw as a salary dump. Hoyer’s biggest stars — Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo — are all coming off poor performances and entering their walk years.
Only the most optimistic fan believes 2021 will end well, and on paper it looks a lot like a semi-rebuild.
“Retool, re-whatever, I don’t know those terms,” Ross said. “They’re not even on the radar for me. I don’t know what I’d categorize it as … but we’re going to go out there and try to win with the group we have, and I know Jed is committed to trying to win.”
As we enter the new norm of the post-Epstein Cubs era, here are four questions going into spring training.
1. Will Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras be involved in trade talks all season?
Hoyer’s first winter as Cubs president was rather uneventful, as evidenced by the late signings of Joc Pederson, Trevor Williams, Jake Marisnick and others to short-term deals. Hoyer also brought back Jake Arrieta on Friday.
But Hoyer’s first summer could be memorable, especially if potential free agents Bryant, Baez and Rizzo remain unsigned by the July 31 trade deadline.
When Epstein resigned in October, he left Hoyer with the unenviable task of trying to find a way to re-sign some of his stars with a pared-down budget. If that doesn’t work, Hoyer will have to see what he can get in a trade.
If all three remain with the Cubs and the team isn’t in contention in mid-July, Hoyer’s phone should be ringing off the hook — or vibrating off the table, to be more precise.
“Well, I think that’s my job, right?” Hoyer said last week in a teleconference. “I’ll have to make that call. I hope that’s not what it means at all. I hope we go out and these guys, we have a bunch of guys in last years, and I hope they play great and I hope that we’re leading the division or right there in the race and we’re looking to add in July. That’s the best-case scenario. … Obviously, there’s a middle ground that makes it hard, but like I said, that’s my job — to make that decision.
“But listen, I expect these guys to have big years. I think you can look at guys in walk years as a negative, or you can look at it as a positive. My personal experience with guys in walk years is really positive. I’ll use Dexter Fowler as an example. We had him in two different walk years and he was outstanding. There’s that edge a guy plays with when he knows that he’s a free agent. And I think we can benefit from that.”
2. Is the Cubs lineup guilty until proven innocent?
Most of the 2020 lineup returns, with the exception of Kyle Schwarber and part-time DH Victor Caratini. But only leadoff man Ian Happ and right fielder Jason Heyward had productive seasons at the plate.
The Cubs finished with a .220 average, the worst in team history, and hit .210 at Wrigley Field, the lowest in the ballpark’s history, with a paltry .354 slugging percentage in a bandbox park made for the long ball.
But wait! There’s more.
The Cubs managed to hit a combined .196 off left-handers, and in their 26 losses they batted .176 with 260 strikeouts in 805 at-bats, or about one strikeout for every three ABs. And in the first year of the designated hitter in the National League, Cubs DHs combined to hit .192 with five home runs in 198 at-bats. Compare that with the hitting of former pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who averaged .249 with four home runs in 79 at-bats per season during three years from 2006-08.
With the same basic cast, why should 2021 be any different?
“I don’t try to put too much stock in things that aren’t consistent over the last couple years,” Ross said. “Because these guys have got pretty good resumes and a lot of them had down years. The main focus is to clean up some of the areas where we feel like we can improve and it’s going to help us win, and let it play out with the group of guys that we have, because we have a really talented team as it stands.”
3. Can the Cubs win without power pitchers filling the rotation?
Cubs pitchers averaged 91.9 mph on fastball velocity in 2020, lowest in the majors and nearly 3 mph lower than the major-league-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.
Since then they traded Yu Darvish, whose fastball averaged 95-96 mph, while adding Zach Davies (88-89 mph), Travis Williams (91-92 mph) and Jake Arrieta (91-92 mph) to the returning duo of Kyle Hendricks (87-88 mph) and Alec Mills (90-91 mph).
In an era in which power arms rule, the Cubs are trending in the opposite direction.
“Listen, we’re not trying to corner the market on control-command guys,” Hoyer said before adding Arrieta on Friday. “I know it seems that way with us getting Zach Davies this winter and then adding Trevor Williams. Obviously, I love guys that throw 97, but I do think … our infrastructure has done really well with these guys and I think he’ll flourish this year.”
Hendricks and Davies have proved you don’t need to be a flame-thrower to succeed. Hendricks ranked 13th in the majors in ERA in 2020 at 2.88; Davies was 10th with a 2.73 ERA.
Mills threw a no-hitter without overpowering batters but needs to be more consistent. Arrieta must prove he can stay healthy and rebound from a disappointing three-year stint in Philadelphia. Williams, of course, desperately needs a turnaround season.
“Williams’ command is really excellent,” Hoyer said. “And so I think when you look at the success we’ve had with, like, obviously, Kyle Hendricks, but even a guy like Alec Mills, we’ve really been able to game-plan incredibly well with a guy like Trevor Williams. I mean, he’s 28 years old. He’s had success in our division and it’s a really good project for us to get him back to where he was.”
Pitching to contact means the Cubs defense will be tested often, but that’s not all bad. They were awarded the first team Gold Glove Award in 2020, and individual Gold Glove honors went to Baez and Rizzo, while Heyward, Contreras and Nico Hoerner were finalists, along with pitchers Hendricks and Mills.
4. Is Joc Pederson an underrated signing or just a Kyle Schwarber doppelganger?
One night in bed early this winter, Pederson decided he would be a Cub. “I turn to (my wife Kelsey) and I say, ‘Shoot — I figured it out,’” he wrote for the Players Tribune. “I’m gonna play for the Cubs.” Pederson texted with Hoyer the next morning, starting in motion the plan to sign a one-year deal for a guaranteed $7 million, with a mutual option for 2022.
The last time a Dodgers free-agent outfielder recruited the Cubs was in 2009, when Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal.
“As much as we courted him, I’ve never seen a player court us like he did,” business operations president Crane Kenney, then the team’s chairman, said of Bradley at the 2009 Cubs Convention. “He was scouting us in the third game of the division series, sitting in Los Angeles trying to figure out where he would play in our lineup, and he left himself, basically, with no escape clause.
“He was negotiating with us and really didn’t have a safety net. This is a guy who chose Chicago and the pressure and the limelight. I don’t think he expects to fail. He wants to be a Cub.”
That one didn’t end well. Bradley’s antics helped fuel a Cubs implosion, and he didn’t even last a full season before being sent home. Pederson won’t face the same pressure on a no-risk deal, and if he hits 30 home runs and plays an adequate left field it would be considered a steal.
“He’s cut his strikeout rate over the last few years and he also hits a high fastball really well, and that’s something we’ve struggled with as a team,” Hoyer said. “I think he’s a good fit for the ballpark and he does some things that our lineup hasn’t been great at.”
Pederson’s postseason production led Dodgers fans to label the month “Joctober.” That’s a tradition Cubs fans will gladly appropriate.