Playing Pepper 2016: Chicago Cubs

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Chicago Cubs
97-65, third in the NL Central, lost in the NLCS
Last year’s Pepper

The apocalypse isn’t here yet, but it’s starting to feel like you can see it from here.

The first postseason meeting between the Cubs and the Cardinals didn’t go the way that regular readers of this blog wanted it to go, then the Cubs went out and took the best hitter and pitcher from the 2015 Redbirds.  All but conceded at least a trip to the World Series by many observers, it’s tough to argue with their favored status in the division.  I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little queasy.

There’s a good number of folks that are enjoying this change in fortune, though, and we’re talking to them today.  Josh Timmers is making his first Pepper appearance, coming to us from the SB Nation site Bleed Cubbie Blue where he’s associate editor.  You’ll find Josh on Twitter @Cubsminorswrap.  Next up is another Pepper rookie, co-editor David Miniel from Fansided’s Cubbies Crib.  David’s Twitter handle is @DavidAMiniel.  Completing our first-timers, we’ve got Neil Finnell from Chicago Cubs Online.  You can follow him on Twitter @TheCCO.

Then we get to the veterans.  Rob Harris has joined us for the fifth straight year (not including his turn in the Postseason Pepper last October) from his site Blue Batting Helmet.  Follow Rob on Twitter @rlincolnharris.  Ryan Maloney from Prose and Ivy is taking his second straight turn in the cage.  @proseandivy is also his Twitter locale.

C70: What are your thoughts about the team’s offseason?  Did they do what they needed to do?

BCB: They had a very good offseason. They should be the favorites in the NL in 2016, so yeah, they did what they had to do.

CC: I’d have to say that the past two seasons, or offseasons, really set the tone for what’s to come over the next decade or so. Yes, Theo Epstein made the first move by trading for Anthony Rizzo, but he was only one piece to this giant puzzle that is nearly complete. Going out and finding another manager with postseason experience and a great track record when it comes to working with young talent and molding them into All-Stars was fantastic. And, of course, bringing in Jon Lester was a plus despite the pick-off issues. After the bottom half of the rotation showed some inconsistency throughout the year, making the decision to go after a veteran like John Lackey is probably my favorite signing out of the group. Which should come across as a shock to most considering the fact that Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward followed soon after. So overall, it was a great winter for the Chicago Cubs.

CCO: The Cubs obviously made the headlines with the moves the front office made. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had a game plan and executed it. The front office realizes a lot went right for the team on the field last year and set out to add depth to the roster in order to keep injuries and underperformance from derailing the season.

The Cubs had to add pitching and did with John Lackey and Adam Warren, re-signing Trevor Cahill and retaining Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. The utility pitchers are going to play a big role for this year’s team. If there are minor injuries to the staff this year, there is enough depth to keep the season from going south. And a healthy Neil Ramirez will have a huge impact on the backend of the pen.

Jason Heyward was the big off-season signing. And I like the idea of him in center field. Moving Heyward to center is a safe gamble, he’s athletic enough to handle the position. If Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler make the improvements necessary on defense, Heyward will look much better defensively with the position switch. I am curious to see how the Cubs handle the fifth outfielder spot. Heyward should shift to right late in games and a defense-first centerfielder is what Joe Maddon needs on his bench.

I think Ben Zobrist is going to make the biggest impact on the team of the four free agents the Cubs signed this winter. Zobrist getting on base will give the middle of the order (Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward) more opportunities.

The lack of a leadoff hitter and the outfield defense are big question marks going into Spring Training. Yes the Cubs did what they needed to this off-season and there is room and resources to make in-season adjustments.

BBH: A+. Signing Ben Zobrist was a good move, but signing John Lackey and especially Jason Heyward gave me chills. This team is going for it, and I couldn’t be any happier about that.

PI: We will find out if the Chicago Cubs did what they needed to do in October. If the streak is over (notice I did not say curse) and the run of beautiful Cubs seasons without a World Series victory comes to and end then yes they did what they need to do – for 2016. Now the reason I say beautiful Cubs seasons without a World Series victory is because I understand it is about the journey and not the destination. Granted – this has been one LONG journey – but still it could come down to the fact that they only did what they needed to do for us to get one step closer to clinching a World Series, only not for 2016, but maybe 2017, or 2018, etc.

It is hard to believe they aren’t on the right path considering they had a 97 win campaign in 2015 and they signed Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. Adding that type of talent to the strong young core they already had can only help things. The young talent has a full season under their belts (essentially) and Heyward, Zobrist and Lackey only make the rotation and lineup stronger. Do the Cardinals always find a way to compete? Are the Mets going to be dangerous once again? Do the Giants find a way into the World Series lately any time the year ends in an even number? Could the Nationals wake up and be the team they are supposed to be on paper? All ‘yes’. So there’s no guarantee of anything. But I am a fan with high hopes and great expectations for what Maddon can do with this roster in 2016. I feel they’ve done what they needed to do. I only hope its enough.

C70: Is anything less than a World Series berth a disappointment and, if so, how strange is it to be saying that?

BCB: I can’t hold the Cubs to that high standard. The playoffs are too random. I’d be happy with just making the World Series. But pretty much every season for Cubs fans since 1908 has been a disappointment on some level, so it’s all relative.

CC: When it comes to a World Series berth, I think most Cubs fans were just happy reaching the N.L. Wild Card. Before 2015, the Cubs were pretty much the laughing stock of the National League since 2008. Since then, they became the sellers instead of buyers, trading talent to postseason hopeful teams while battling it with whoever was at the bottom of the N.L. Central. Some say that our World Series was defeating the Cardinals in the Divisional Series, which I can somewhat agree with, but it didn’t win them their first World Series title in over 100 years. It’s kind of like the Chicago Bears defeating the Green Bay Packers during the regular season. The Cardinals just so happen to be the Packers of our division. As far as being disappointed, all us fans could do was stand and applaud this team that took out two of the best teams in all of baseball. So there’s not disappointment there, only hope. More hope than usual.

CCO: No, I think the season would be a disappointment if the Cubs do not make the playoffs. The goal is to win the division and avoid the Wild Card Game. Once in the tournament anything is possible. So many things have to go right, along with a little bit of luck, for a team to make it to the World Series, much less win one. The more times the Cubs are in the playoffs, the better the chances the ultimate goal will be reached.

For the first time since I’ve been following the team, the Cubs have a direction and sticking to a plan while building a farm system and developing talent. That is what’s strange for me to say.

BBH: I’ll go so far as to say that until this front office wins the World Series, they haven’t accomplished anything. And since I’ve waited all my life–literally–to see this happen, it’s not strange at all. It’s finally “This Year” for me and all of the other Cubs fans.

PI: Ha! Yes anything less than a World Series appearance is a disappointment. The point is to always improve and get closer to the title than you were the year before. One could argue winning just one game in the NLCS would be an improvement over last year – but really – getting out of the NLCS and back to a World Series is the real progress Cubs fans are looking for. And once we’re there – man they better win it all because if not, with over a 100 years as the track record leading up to it – no one wants to see it go any longer and true disappointment or heartbreak would be making it to the World Series and walking away with only a Series berth at that point.

C70: We all expect Jake Arrieta to return at least somewhat to earth this season. What does his year look like to you?

BCB: I still think he’ll be one of the top 5 pitchers in the NL. He won’t be as good as he was the 2nd half, but unless he gets injured, he should be very good.

CC: Jake Arrieta. There’s not much you can really say about last season, but wow. Cubs fans knew how good he was becoming after 2014, I just don’t think we were expecting him to beat out both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw to win N.L. Cy Young honors. What really concerned us is how he performed after shutting out the Pirates to advance to the next round. He wasn’t hitting his spots, was falling behind and didn’t look like the same guy who turned in one of the greatest seasons in franchise history by a Cubs pitcher. But he’s human and other guys, for example, Kershaw and Greinke have had their weak moments in the playoffs as well.

Do I think he’ll decline in 2016? It’s hard to say really but I think the worst is behind him. He’s finding his groove, appears to be very comfortable with the Cubs and trusts the young guys behind him to back him up whenever a ball is in play. And that’s the great thing about it. We all know a contract extension is coming soon even though he’s under team control for a bit. But he has a group of young players that will continue to grow with him over the years. Those are bonds that are tough to break and it will only make them stronger as a unit. Will he come back and win his second consecutive Cy Young? It won’t be easy, but I think he can do it.

CCO: It’s really been overlooked how good Jake Arrieta has been with the Cubs. So many are viewing him as a one-year wonder and that’s not the case. Because the Cubs were a last place team and so bad in 2013 and in the first half of the 2014 season, Arrieta did not get the attention he deserved.

Arrieta was 10-5 in 25 starts in 2014 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 2.26 FIP. Arrieta gave up 46 runs, 44 earned, on 114 hits with 41 walks and 167 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings. And since the trade with the Orioles, Arrieta is 36-13 in 67 starts with a 2.26 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 2.62 FIP.

In no way do I think Arrieta will pitch like he did after the break last season, but a performance similar to 2014 with six to eight more starts is realistic for him this year.

BBH: He’ll be solid. I think of him as a real-life version of Cuba Gooding’s character in Jerry Maguire. It’s weird that Glenn Frey–may he rest in peace–was the owner of the team in that movie. Anyway, Jake’s going to help lead the Cubs to victory this year, and the team will then have no choice but to Show Him The Money.

PI: Jake Arrieta is so much fun to watch. I went to Citi Field and saw his start in the NLCS back in October and he just seemed to be completely out of gas. I’m glad the club has a plan to try and save his brilliance and spread it out more evenly this year knowing that he is capable of giving the club such greatness and I don’t expect another Cy Young award. However, I do expect his to perform in a way that its once again clear that he is true ace of the rotation, not Lester. Hopefully Lester performs to the point where that debate is worth having though because if it does then we are looking at one heck of a season!

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BCB: Jorge Soler is the most likely player to break out. Addison Russell could hit a lot better than he did last year too.

CC: When it comes which player I think will make the greatest stride this year, I’d have to go with Addison Russell. He was another huge piece that Epstein acquired from the Oakland Athletics just two years ago and he’s already the starting shortstop for the Cubs following Starlin Castro‘s departure. It’s his primary position and he proved to be very comfortable when Castro was demoted to the bench. Going out there and playing second base shows how determined he is to help bring this club a World Series. He didn’t have to do it when asked by management, but he did it and performed exceptionally well. I’m sure people are curious to why I didn’t pick Kris Bryant and I’ll answer that with, we know what kind of monster he is in both the batter’s box and on the field as a defender. Jorge Soler still has some kinks to work on and Kyle Schwarber will be switching between left field and catcher, so that’s why I’m rolling with Russell.

CCO: I’m going to go off the board a little. Instead of one player, I think there are two players that will make big strides this season, one offensively and one defensively.

Addison Russell showed over the last two-plus months of the season and in the playoffs that he is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Russell was a difference maker for the Cubs in the field all season, but especially after he moved to shortstop. Russell made Kris Bryant and the entire infield better. Russell is a special player and this year his bat starts catching up with his glove. Russell got more and more comfortable at the plate as the season progressed. Being able to work with Ben Zobrist is going to pay big dividends for the 22-year old.

Kyle Schwarber has been labeled as a liability in the field due to the really bad performance in the field against the Mets. Schwarber was serviceable last year in left field after he was recalled. Schwarber is very athletic and has worked on improving his outfield defense this winter. Working this spring with Dave Martinez should at least elevate him defensively to Matt Holliday status. And if he can make the right adjustments at the plate he could provide a lot of value in left field to the Cubs this season.

BBH: Hard to say with all of the young talent they have, but I continue to believe that Jorge Soler will be the ultimate breakout player for this team. He was the lone offensive bright spot in the NLCS last year, and he’s going to be somebody you’ll notice before the year’s over.

PI: Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. If those two guys step up their game then this team is going to be even more dangerous than predicted. Schwarber needs to get more consistent in the field and I would simply expect Russell to step up his game with a full season in 2016. Working with Zobrist as a double play combo may elevate his game in the field and with how he performed last season that should scare opposing clubs. Schwarber just as good at the plate but better in the field and an improved Addison Russell in the field and at the plate? I’m already feeling bad for opposing clubs just thinking of the prospect.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BCB: The Cubs should win the division with around 95 wins. That’s 2 fewer than last year.

CC: As I mentioned before, the Cubs haven’t been to the postseason since the 2008 campaign. They won the division that year and it’s also the last time since they clinched the N.L. Central as well. But with the pieces they added over the offseason and the talent they already have on this roster, I think both the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates need to be concerned. Now there’s a third team in the mix that will give them a run for their money and it’s not just going to be one or two years either. They are dangerous from the lead-off spot down to the bottom of the order and their bullpen is working with a solid one-two punch being Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. Not to mention the starting rotation, Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hendricks and the fifth spot which will more than likely end up going to Hammel pending any trades between now and Opening Day. So, I’m going to say they’ll have one of the top two records in baseball and claim their fourth N.L. Central title.

CCO: I’ve been asked this quite a bit and while the Cubs are the overwhelming popular pick to win the NL Central, I think the Cardinals and Pirates are being discounted way too much. The Cardinals are actually better on paper than they were at the end of last year. And the Pirates are an excellent team that has two very good pitching prospects in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon that will make an impact this season.

The Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates are very, very good and as long as all three are not derailed by injuries, it should be a race all season.

I think it’s going to take at least 95 victories to win the NL Central. So for the Cubs, I will go with a 95-67 record.

BBH: I picked them to win the division and the World Series last year, so my crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear, as the Beastie Boys once said. But I’ll go with 99 wins and a division title, to start with.

PI: The Cubs will finish with 97 wins and finish first in the NL Central.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

BCB: I grew up in Wisconsin, so beating the Brewers is always a special treat. But c’mon. It’s the Cardinals. The Cardinals have defined excellence for so long that beating them is satisfying even beyond the rivalry. I think the Cubs will do very well against the Cardinals this year. I think the Cards are in for a (relatively) rough season in 2016, although they should still be battling for the second wild card.

CC: Last but not least, I’m going to have to say the Cardinals. Again, they are the Green Bay Packers of the National League and no matter how banged up they are, they always manage to put together one of the best teams in the division. There’s no doubt that the N.L. Central is one of the toughest, if not THE toughest divisions in the entire league which proves that you need to know what you’re doing if you’re working for one of the four teams other than St. Louis. Like Green Bay, I have nothing but respect for the Cardinals and their history, but at the end of the day, love it whenever the Cubs claim victory over their longtime rival. It’s always a battle each season, but Chicago’s fight is going to get stronger starting in 2016 with Heyward leading the charge in the outfield. With that being said, Go Cubs Go.

CCO: The Cardinals have always been the team to beat in the Cubs’ division, even when the Cubs, Cardinals and Mets were all in the same division, it was always the Cardinals … followed closely by the Metropolitans.

Lifelong Cubs’ fans stay away from making predictions and should until the ultimate goal is reached. The Cubs definitely have the attention of the Cardinals and their fan base and those games should be epic this year.

BBH: The division is–and always will be–the Cubs and Cardinals, with three other teams thrown in to round things out. I grew up in Cardinals Country in central Illinois, so I understand that. The Cards are also steamed that Heyward left, so perhaps the games will mean a little more this season. They already mean so much to begin with, so it will really be something to see when that happens.

PI: I enjoy watching the Cubs defeat Milwaukee the most. Ryan Braun and his history as a cheater in the game rubs me the wrong way as does cheating overall. The Cardinals are the easy answer here but as long as Braun is in Milwaukee, I say bring on the Brewers and let’s get a ‘W’ every single time. I don’t think we’ll land a win every time, but it will be pretty darn close. 5 days to the first Spring Training game if this thing goes up on Feb 26! The winter has been way too long! I’m ready for 2016 Cubs baseball. ‘Let’s Go!’

My thanks to everyone who took the time for this one.  While they are all great guys, I hope they’ll forgive me for still hoping the Cubs can be the Cubs and find a way not to win!

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