Playing Pepper 2019: Chicago Cubs

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Chicago Cubs
95-68, second in NL Central, lost in Wild Card game
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

This whole “good Cubs” thing is getting kind of old for us Cardinal fans.  For three straight years, they’ve finished with October baseball while the Cardinals have sat at home and the year before that, the Cubs were the one ending St. Louis’s season.  So it’s not really surprising that many Redbird fans enjoyed the Cubs going from potential divisional champs to out of the playoffs in back-to-back days.  With no huge additions this winter, will October last longer for Chicago or are they seeing a closing window?  We have bloggers here to help us out with that!

Writer Site Twitter
Jacob Meisner Cubbies Crib JacobRMeisner
Josh Timmers Bleed Cubbie Blue Cubsminorswrap
David Miniel Cubbies Crib DavidAMiniel
Neil Finnell Chicago Cubs Online TheCCO

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Jacob: This has not been a successful offseason for the Chicago Cubs – but likely not for the reason you’d think. In my opinion, they do not need Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to win. But the winter began with high expectations and they’ve fallen flat. First, it was the team tendering Addison Russell a contract, despite the brutal domestic abuse allegations that netted him a 40-game suspension from the league. Then, it was reported that the team wants Harper, but can’t get ownership to pony up (which is certainly their prerogative). Now, we’re hearing more about ownership’s politics (they launched an aggressive campaign against Alderman Tom Tunney and the patriarch of the family had some abhorrent racially-motivated emails exposed recently) than baseball. This has been a disastrous offseason in terms of a fan perception standpoint – which comes as a shock given we’re in the middle of a Golden Age of Cubs baseball.

Josh: The last time the Cubs had a worse offseason than this was 1964 and Ken Hubbs died in plane crash.

The lack of offseason moves is disappointing, certainly. When the biggest offseason acquisition is Daniel Descalso, the fans aren’t going to be happy. Certainly the front office would argue that bringing Cole Hamels back for one year is an addition and yes, it was a good move. But Jesse Chavez, a guy who made it clear he wanted to stay, was lured away by the Rangers for a two-year, $8 million deal. Fans are upset over the new tight budget.

But that could be forgiven because the team that’s returning is still a strong contender. Even if they’ve lost ground to the rest of the NL Central, they may still be the division favorite. But a lot of fans are more upset about the way the front office has handled the Addison Russell domestic violence situation and the racist and bigoted comments by family patriarch Joe Ricketts. Yes, Joe has pretty much nothing to do with the Cubs, who are pretty much run by his son Tom with a little help from brother Todd and sister Laura. (Brother Pete is too busy as governor of Nebraska.) But the Cubs have done a lot in recent years to try to be a more inclusive organization and for these two things to go down is certainly a big step backwards.

The move to bring back Hamels was a good one, but every other move was a minor one. There isn’t a lot of room for the Cubs to add impact position players (although there would be if they had cut Russell and you make room for someone like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado) and the rotation seems set. But they certainly needed to add to the bullpen. Maybe they could have signed Craig Kimbrel, although I understand why they balked at his reported asking price. Maybe they still will as Kimbrel is unsigned as I write this. But I very much doubt it.

David: Compared to recent offseasons, it was rather lackluster but covered what needed to be filled. Obviously, the Cubs were tabbed as a front-runner for Bryce Harper which really put pressure on the front office to make something, anything happen. They lost Jesse Chavez to the Texas Rangers. I’d say probably the biggest loss over the offseason. That and trading away Tommy La Stella to the Angels. La Stella had been a reliable bat for Joe Maddon. Also, a clear fan favorite despite his problem with denying an assignment but this is a business and business led to Daniel Descalso coming in to assume the utility role. Of course, a couple of late additions to the bullpen to provide some depth. Right now it’s unclear when Brandon Morrow will be available to work with Pedro Strop being the clear favorite to handle the closer role until cleared. Even when he returns if they’re going to need to use multiple arms to close games. There’s honestly not much they could have done across the board other than addressing bullpen holes. You look at this roster and most of it consists of their 2016 World Series team. I mean, these guys went out and made believers out of their critics several years ago and will only improve. Look at Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber last season. Both men had their best campaigns to date. 

Neil: There are no two ways about it. The Cubs had a rough off-season. And most of that was off-the-field issues that had to drive the baseball ops department crazy. While adding to the payroll doesn’t usually translate to wins on the field, the way it was portrayed in the media that the baseball department was not given money to make changes by ownership played out poorly, at best, in public and with the fan base. The family then decided to ‘skip’ their annual session at the Cubs Convention. Those horrible emails from Joe Ricketts. The Addison Russell situation. And the partnership announced with Sinclair Media didn’t help the public perception whatsoever.

I really liked the front office picking up Cole Hamels’ option. And the changes to the coaching staff, despite the fact there will be another adjustment period for Joe Maddon and the players. The depth in the bullpen is adequate. Would have liked another proven late-inning arm or two in the pen. I did not like the Brandon Morrow signing at the time. And still don’t. The backend of the pen is questionable. With as good as the NL Central will likely be, it is imperative for the Cubs to win games they have leads late in. If the pen struggles and costs them wins early in the season, the PECOTA projection will become reality.

C70: The Cardinals/Cubs rivalry got a little spark this winter. Do you think we’ll see a more heated version of this rivalry this season?

Jacob: I’m sure we will. I’m still not sure why what transpired should be/is considered a spark, but that’s life in the 21st century, I suppose. (For the record, MOST cities are boring when compared to New York City, Chicago, LA, so I’m not sure what the big deal is in KB’s statement – which was made while he SPOKE TO PEOPLE FROM CHICAGO) – but I digress. We’ll see the Cardinals hungry to return to the postseason after two big-time moves in Andrew Miller and Paul Goldschmidt – especially given the Cubs’ lack of major upgrades this winter.

Josh: I try not to pay attention to those things. If the Cardinals feel they need bulletin board material to get pumped up for the season, then I think that’s a good sign for the Cubs. I know that the Cubs are the big bad bully of the NL Central these days and everyone in the division hates the Cubs family now since the team started winning. That’s on them. I like a nice, friendly rivalry, but I take a big step back when it stops being friendly. I hope the Cubs do so as well.

David: No matter where these guys are on the books or standings, fans are always buzzing when these two clubs match up. What Kris Bryant said during the Cubs Convention clearly added more fuel to the fire and was intended to make things more interesting moving forward. It’ll definitely have some bad blood with the Cubs looking to rebound after their early postseason exit and St. Louis wanting to get back to the top of the N.L. Central. Gotta give it to the Cardinals for making blockbuster moves this past offseason by acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and signing Andrew Miller. Will these two benches clear? I doubt it with Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler sitting as veteran leaders on both sides. Fowler and his family were included in Anthony’s wedding with Dexter’s oldest daughter being the flower girl. So, those two will manage to keep things cool. Unless Yadier shrugs him off. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Cardinals organization. 

Neil: Yes, the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry received a huge jolt this winter. With that said, some of the Cardinals’ players are hyper-sensitive to what mild-manner Kris Bryant said in a casual situation at the Cubs Convention. With the Cardinals seemingly having a real manager now and the additions of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller, plus a motivated Dexter Fowler and a very good to excellent rotation, they moved ahead of the Brewers and Cubs in the division. Right now, the Cardinals are the team to beat in what should be a very competitive NL Central.

C70: Is this the last year that Joe Maddon wears Cubbie blue?

Jacob: Yes, because Cubs fans, the front office and ownership are seemingly too blind to appreciate what’s in front of them. Look, I get the disappointment in how last season ended. The team literally quit hitting down the stretch and lost to the ROCKIES in the Wild Card game. There’s no good way to spin that. But Maddon has guided the Cubs to an average of 97 wins over the last four years. When was the last time that happened? Let me tell you: over a century ago.

Josh: I really have no idea. You would think that the team would want to keep him around, although there is an argument that players start to tune out even the best manager after a while. I think Madden has earned an extension, although the front office seems to want to keep their options open. If the Cubs make the World Series again in 2019, Madden will be back in 2020. Any less than that and it’s iffy, which puzzles me. 

David: Fans who are calling for Joe to be fired obviously don’t know the game of baseball and what he brings to the organization. Sure, Maddon has made some questionable calls since arriving but you have to look at the guys track record. He knows how to settle his guys down when things are getting rough. From themed travels, petting zoos, magicians, the list of Joe continues and will do so until the front office decides it’s time to move on. But personally, I don’t feel like 2019 will be his final year on the North Side. There’s plenty of work to be done and Maddon is focused on exactly that. What’s lying ahead of him and this club and that’s another great season of outstanding baseball. 

Neil: I certainly hope not. I really liked Maddon while he was in Tampa and always questioned why the Cubs (it is Cubs, not Cubbies … the days of the Cubbies and loveable losers are long gone) could not have a manager as good as him. He is, by far, the best manager the Cubs have had in my lifetime and will likely not be fully appreciated until he is gone and the managerial carousel ramps itself back up.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Jacob: I have no idea. I really don’t. Is Milwaukee the team that surged to the top of the division in 2018, despite EVERYONE saying they didn’t have the pieces to get the job done? Maybe. Will St. Louis break their postseason drought? Probably. For the Cubs, it comes down to two key aspects: a healthy, productive Kris Bryant and a bullpen that’s more question than answer. Oh, and a starting rotation that looks good on paper, but could go sideways pretty easily given its age.

Josh: The NL Central is going to be brutal this year. Having said that, I still think that the Cubs have enough talent to take the division. Pretty much everything that could go wrong in 2018 did and they still won 95 games. A full season of Hamels and a healthy Yu Darvish (and the reports on his health have been excellent as I write this) means the Cubs have the best starting rotation in the division by a mile. They still have a team with productive hitters at every position. (Well, except maybe Heyward in RF. But his glove is still very good.) Javier Baez emerged last year and now is nearly as productive as he is entertaining.

Having said that, the NL Central is insanely talented outside of Pittsburgh. If someone said that the Cubs would finish third behind the Cardinals and Brewers, I wouldn’t really put up much of an argument. It would surprise me if the Reds won the division, but it wouldn’t shock me. They’re much better as well. And while I said that everything went wrong last year, a lifetime of being a Cubs fan has taught me that just when you think nothing else can go wrong, something does.

The Cubs are still the team to beat in the NL Central, but the Brewers proved last year that they can be beaten. So I’m predicting a terrific division race in 2019 between three or four teams.

David: Last year wasn’t necessarily a surprise considering how well the Milwaukee Brewers played the year prior. It definitely made things more interesting and encouraged the Cardinals to make something happen once the season wrapped, going back to the Goldschmidt trade and Miller signing. There are predictions out there tabbing the Cubs near the bottom of the division, behind the Pirates and Reds. Cincinnati, of course, made some noise of their own by picking up two veteran bats from the Dodgers. But as I’ve said time and time again, Theo Epstein’s vision remains alive which means the Cubs will compete. This season will set the tone for what is to come in the future. That’s for sure. If the bullpen can maintain leads and offense doesn’t find themselves in deep slumps like last season, there’s no reason why the Cubs can’t at least clinch a Wild Card spot. Again, it comes down to consistency issues that haunted them last season. 

Neil: There are so many factors. The Cubs could just as easily win the division as finish in last place. There are a ton of ifs surrounding a majority of the players expected to be on the Opening Day roster. And most of the questions are performance-based and not just health related. The Cubs have the talent to win 92 games this year, which is the number of victories I think it will take for the division crown. It is imperative this team gets off to a good start with players like Kris Bryant, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Ian Happ and Yu Darvish having an excellent first six weeks in order to quiet those concerns. Optimistic outlook … 92 wins and another division crown. The everything-goes-wrong prediction … 80-82 and Maddon is let go in June.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Jacob: Can the offense produce for 162 games? The answer – go out and perform.

Josh: The biggest question is the bullpen. I guess health would be the other question, but there’s little answer to that other than more depth and the front office has made it clear that there’s no money in the budget for added depth. Or for more bullpen arms. There are some guys in the minor leagues such as Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Dakota Mekkes who could provide help in the pen, but all three have big question marks . Maybe the one guy who could help is Alex Lange, who has a fifty curve and was a first-round pick in 2017. The Cubs really don’t want to convert him to a reliever at this point, but they may not have much choice.

If the starting rotation can stay healthy, that frees up Mike Montgomery for the pen, even if he doesn’t like it there much. But that would help some too.

David: Referring to the previous question would have to be consistency issues throughout the roster. From the starting rotation to the batting order, to the bullpen. Not everything is going to be perfect. However, the rest of the division is out for blood and it could definitely spell the end of a postseason run if these problems are not addressed early on. Last season, Cubs starters struggled by allowing opposing teams to score within the first three innings of play. That puts some pressure on not only your bats but the bullpen as well and with Morrow out, you can’t afford to have that happen for the second season in a row. So, it comes down to how the starting rotation sets the tone. It all starts with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Mike Montgomery. Whoever Joe pens in as the starting pitcher, it’s up to them to start off strong. That starts with spring training and making the proper adjustments needed to be successful on the mound. 

Neil: The offense. The Cubs must score more runs in order to take the pressure off the pitching staff. The Cubs must get back to 2016 version of run-differential baseball. And on a consistent basis, just not once or twice a week. The starting staff and bullpen have to get to the point where not every game is going to be lost if they give up two-three runs. The Cubs have to have Bryant, Contreras, Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber perform to expectations while not having regressions from Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Jacob: Win or lose, high or low, hearing Pat Hughes or Len Kasper calling Chicago Cubs baseball from beautiful and historic Wrigley Field is all I need to be happy in this world. 

Josh: Ooh, that’s a good question. I don’t think there is a more entertaining player in MLB than Javier Baez right now. Everything he does he does with flair. He may not be the best player in the game (although he’s not as far off as he used to be), but I defy anyone to name a player who is more fun.

Beyond Javy, I’m a big minor league guy and it always brings joy to my heart to see guys come up from the minors. Unfortunately, the Cubs farm system is pretty barren right now. But last year a guy like David Bote came out of nowhere and provided probably the best moment of the season, that walk-off grand slam against the Nationals on Sunday Night Baseball. Bote wasn’t considered much of a prospect, but he managed to make it anyway. Trent Giambrone is a clone of Bote who is currently in the minors. I’d love to see him do a sequel in 2019.

Finally, and this sounds corny, I find joy in just being a part of the Cubs family. Yes, there are jerks in every fanbase and there are some Cubs fans that I’d rather not associate with. But for the most part, being part of a community like Cubs fans gives me a real sense of home.

David: Just them being on the field. I’ve been on this ride for as long as I can remember and it has always been a pleasure. No matter where they were in the standings or how badly they were being beaten. I tune in and look forward to every game, every season. There’s nothing better than hearing Pat Hughes announce, “Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air!” over the radio or swapping to whatever channel the Cubs are on to see Len Kasper and J.D. handling the television broadcast of the game. There’s just something about this game, better yet, this team. Whether it’s a 4 game winning streak or 7 game skid, I’m on board until this ship we call a planet goes up in smoke. I bleed Chicago Cubs baseball. But having another World Series parade before snow falls would be nice. 

Neil: Beating the Cardinals and Brewers as often as possible and winning the NL Central for the third time in four seasons with a fifth straight trip to the post season.

Appreciate these guys venturing into enemy territory and giving us the low down about the baby bears.  It’s shaping up to be a battle between the two rivals yet again!

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