Playing Pepper 2020: Chicago Cubs

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Chicago Cubs
84-78, third in NL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

You aren’t going to find many Cardinal fans that will shed tears over the Cubs missing the playoffs in 2019, especially if it is actually an indication that the expected great Cubs dynasty isn’t going to quite pan out.  However, is Chicago really down for the count?  Or do we underestimate those northern rivals at our peril?  We’ve got some folks that actually enjoy watching Cubs game today to talk about what this coming season looks like.

Blogger Site Twitter
Josh Timmers Bleed Cubbie Blue Cubsminorswrap
Neil Finnell Chicago Cubs Online TheCCO
David Miniel Cubbies Crib DavidAMiniel
Jacob Misener Cubbies Crib JacobRMisener

C70: From the outside looking in, it feels like a bit of turmoil around the Cubs. A possibly unpopular move to pay TV, rumors around trading Kris Bryant, and a team that hasn’t added much to last year due to payroll tax considerations. Is it as chaotic as it might appear?

Josh: I don’t know that the turmoil is inside the Cubs, although I do know the fan base is unhappy. The Marquee Network thing will be fine if they strike a deal with Comcast by Opening Day. The Cubs themselves don’t seem very worried, so that may just be the fans who worry about what happened in LA. That was a very different situation where one cable company owned the network, rather than the team itself owning the network, so they had different incentives. I will say that the Marquee Network looks like it will have a lot of content that Cubs fans will enjoy if they get a chance to see it.

Kris Bryant’s grievance hearing (or lack thereof) has prevented any kind of trade this winter and it certainly seems at this point that Bryant will be with the Cubs on Opening Day. Maybe one day the grievance will be heard, but I’m not counting on it. (Obviously, Josh responded before Bryant’s loss on the grievance was announced.)

The Cubs position this winter has been clear—there is no more room in the budget to add salary. Whether that’s just an excuse or not, I can’t say. The fans are unhappy about it, but It doesn’t seem likely to change. They’ll go into 2020 with mostly the same team they had at the end of 2019. It will be up to Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner to provide the reinforcements.

Neil: The Cubs had another bad off-season. Depending on your point of view, the third really poor winter in a row. It’s the lack of planning and reactionary decisions by the front office, since the parade, that has bothered me. The lack of inactivity is due to one bad decision after another by the front office. If Theo and Jed would have planned and spent better, both in terms of contracts and prospect currency, the Cubs would not be in the position they are right now. It was difficult seeing players like Nick Castellanos and Pedro Strop sign elsewhere. But it was the reason why that created so much frustration. Trading Kris Bryant would be the cherry on the top of list of incredibly poor decisions by the front office. Teams like the Cubs should be looking to acquire players like Bryant, not trade them away.

I don’t know if chaotic is the right word to describe what is going on with the Cubs. That might be a little too dramatic. Disappointing and/or frustrating might sum up the feeling around the Cubs with the season just around the corner.

David: Deep down, we all knew the rumors involving Kris Bryant and other pieces of this young core were going to emerge if new contracts were not discussed and or agreed upon. Honestly, it’s just a sample of what is to come in the future if this front-office doesn’t figure out who they want to keep and build around. Both Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber were two other names who were tossed in the rumor mill, stirring the pot for fans of this organization and around the league, questioning Theo Epstein and the Ricketts family. Entering the offseason, the Cubs still had some talented position players on their roster, so going out and finding bullpen help was an absolute must. As far as the Marquee Sports Network is concerned; there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out how you’re going to watch your favorite baseball team when you live within the market. Still, to this day, several major cable companies (not to be confused with streaming services — Hulu/YouTube, etc.) have yet to reach an agreement with the network itself and there’s no timetable either. So, you could definitely label this past offseason as a chaotic mess. 

Jacob: It sure felt that way all offseason. I think rather than chaotic, I’d label everything you mentioned as frustrating. For decades, the Cubs have built a global brand centered around accessibility, largely through WGN. Now, more than half of Chicagoland can’t watch the games this season due to the rocky rollout of Marquee Network. The Kris Bryant rumors have faded (at least for the time being) and most of the fanbase seems to buy in to the impact David Ross will have on the existing core of players. Time will tell, but this was one of those offseasons where you felt like it was something coming at you every single day. 

C70: Javy Baez is a couple of years from free agency but seems to be in line for a contract extension. Is he the current “face of the franchise” in your opinion?

Josh: Yes. Not much more to say about that other than I expect him to sign a long-term extension this year and he will likely be the face of the franchise for years to come.

Neil: Javy has become the face of the franchise. No doubt. Even though he is coming off a down season at the plate and missing the last month of the season due to injuries, he is arguably the most exciting player in the league not named Mike Trout.  Javy has to bounce back from last year and put together another MVP-type season in order for the Cubs to have any shot of competing in the division. Anthony Rizzo is still the ‘Captain’ but El Mago is the face of the Cubs.

David: Obviously, both Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are two men up for brand new contracts that could bring in a ton of money. However, the chances of Chicago retaining both men may not be in the cards unless they’re willing to accept different figures that wouldn’t surpass money that Christian Yelich and the Brewers have agreed upon. Some have questioned Bryant’s consistently level due to injuries but he’s still a valuable bat you want to have in that lineup. As for Baez, he’s got the flair on defense and is capable of hitting 30/100+ a season. It’s tough to choose between the two but Javier may have an edge over Bryant when it comes to receiving an extension and made the face of the franchise without a doubt.

Jacob: Personally, Anthony Rizzo is the face of the franchise – but Baez is the best player. He’s among one of the best talents in the game and brings an excitement that’s unmatched. If the Cubs want to extend him, they’d better get it done before the season because I think his price tag is set to skyrocket after the year he’s about to have.

C70: How do you think things will be different with David Ross at the helm rather than Joe Maddon? Was that a move you were on board with?

Josh: I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the team needed to move on from Maddon after two straight years of late-season collapses. I can’t say that they were Maddon’s fault, but sometimes a team just tunes out a manager no matter how good he is. Sometimes a team just needs a different voice.

I have no idea how different Ross will be from Maddon because Ross has never managed before. Or even coached. I wasn’t really in favor of hiring Ross because I believe that a major league manager should have experience managing in the minors or being a major league bench coach before he takes over a team. It’s the recent trend to hire former players with no experience and I suspect a big reason is because front offices figure that an inexperienced manager will do exactly what they’re told by the front office and not argue that it’s not the way he’s done it in the past. I don’t think that’s the only reason the Cubs moved from Maddon to Ross, but I can’t discount it. My other quibble with Ross is that he’s very close to some of the veteran players on the team. Maybe that will be a positive, but it’s going to be hard for Ross to treat Anthony Rizzo, for example, as another player and not as a friend.

I will say that some of my concerns were eased when the team hired Andy Green to be Ross’s bench coach. Green did a solid job managing a bad Padres team and having him in the dugout balances out a lot of Ross’s potential negatives. So it may all work out in the end. The truth is, no one really knows what makes a good manager. We can spot a bad one, but the difference between a great one and just an average one is elusive.

Neil: Joe Maddon is the best manager the Cubs have ever had. I was a huge Maddon fan when he was in Tampa and couldn’t believe it when the Cubs actually landed him. And finally had a real manager. I did not like the way the front office handled the situation. If they knew he wasn’t going to be back, it would have been better to let him go last year. Not spend the money/commitment on Craig Kimbrel and start the transition. But the opposite was done. I think it is a mistake that Maddon is no longer with the Cubs. One that I hope I’m wrong about.

David Ross should provide a much more structured, old school, atmosphere than Maddon did. Apparently structure is what the players needed but did not get under Maddon. I’m concerned about the in-game decisions. If the Cubs get off to a good start, Ross will quiet those that question the Cubs’ decision to let Maddon leave. If the Cubs struggle, which is highly likely, those that once cheered on ‘Grandpa Rossy’ will quickly turn on him.

David: Personally, I was on board for either Joe Girardi or David Ross to takeover. Girardi given the managerial experience and Ross based on his connection with the players that are on the roster on top of learning from Joe Maddon as a player. It would have been nice to see Girardi return home. A Peoria, Illinois-native, which is a little under three hours from Chicago and made his big league debut with the Cubs in ’89, having two stints with the team. But of course, again, coming back to Rossy and the bond that was formed with most of these current Cubs players. Despite entering his first year as a big-league skipper, chemistry alone could help carry this team through the season and beyond. Seeing Maddon leave was very heartbreaking tho. He and his family showed nothing but love and respect for the city of Chicago and have continued to do so even though they have moved on to Los Angeles. The Maddons will always have a home here. 

Jacob: Joe Maddon was the right man for the job in 2015. Without him, we’re still clinging to ‘Next Year’ and all the promise it holds. That all being said – he can be the most important manager in franchise history and David Ross can be the perfect fit for this group. A new message was needed – one that’s centered more around tough love and accountability rather than the easy-going manner of Maddon’s clubhouse.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Josh: The Cubs could finish anywhere between first and fourth again. The NL Central is a tough division and the Cubs did nothing to improve themselves this winter. However, the team did underperform last year and just a return to health and better luck could mean they win 95 games. But with more bad luck and injuries, fourth place and a losing record isn’t out of the question. I’ll split the difference and predict the Cubs will be a Wild Card team in 2020.

Neil: I’m not on board with the PECOTA predictions. There are simply too many questions with the team. The rotation is a major concern. The bullpen is rather scary on paper and the depth, well …

If everything goes the Cubs way, they could challenge the Cardinals for the division. Unfortunately, I see the Cubs as a fourth place team looking up at the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers.

David: This season is definitely going to be a test. Milwaukee came up and dethroned Chicago then St. Louis bounced back with some offseason moves of their own, taking back the throne. This time around, Cincinnati is pushing to make an impact of their own, building their roster over the years and signing Pedro Strop/Nicholas Castellanos. Even without these two, the Reds gave Chicago fits last season and could very well be a problem. I firmly believe that the National League Central is one of the toughest divisions in the league today and will only get better given the past few offseasons. It’s only a matter of time until the Pirates come around but they may be a few years out. At the end of the day, the Cubs can and will contend for the division crown. At worst, third place but more than capable of reclaiming the Central. 

Jacob: It probably sounds like a cop-out but this team could finish anywhere from first to fourth. For me personally, it all comes down to the pitching. Besides Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, the rotation has a lot of question marks. The bullpen is nothing but question marks. Sure, there’s a ton of potential there – but it could go south and be a headache just as easily. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re looking at a third straight year where the NL Central comes down to the final weeks of the season.

C70: What’s the main topic Cubs fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Josh: Cub fans are mostly talking about the issues you mentioned—no spending this winter, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and the Marquee Network. They’re also talking about the continuing renovations in and around Wrigley Field, but that doesn’t really have much impact beyond people going to the games.

Probably the biggest thing about the Cubs that no one is talking about, not even Cubs fans, is that the team has completely revamped their approach to player development, especially for pitchers. It’s not a secret among Cubs fans that the Epstein front office has not drafted (or signed out of Latin America) and developed a single quality pitcher in their time in Chicago. The front office has brought in several new people with a different approach, using newer ideas in relation to technology, training and biomechanics. A lot has been made about how the Astros can fix pitchers from other organizations by employing a different approach. The Cubs hope to use similar techniques to improve their own pitching staff.

Neil: This is difficult to answer. After all, this is the Cubs you are asking about. The team that other fanbases simply cannot stand. The Cubs are, and will always be, one of the most popular teams in baseball, if not in all of professional sports. And they stay in the headlines.

Who will be at second base on Opening Day is one of the questions of the spring David Ross and the front office have to find an answer to. I have always liked Jason Kipnis. But Nico Hoerner is one of the Cubs’ prospects that appears to have a good career ahead of him. I wouldn’t mind Kipnis to start the season and allow Hoerner to get time at Triple-A Iowa before he is called up, for hopefully, the remainder of the season.

David: Breakout season by Albert Almora Jr. Dexter Fowler‘s departure left a massive hole in this lineup not only in center field but the lead-off spot as well. Almora’s defense has always been there but his offensive production has been shaky since his debut. Heading into March 6, he’s swinging a hot bat, hitting .444 with two homers and six RBI so he appears to be seeing the ball better than ever which is very exciting to see. There’s a ton of positive upside with Almora who made a veteran baserunning decision in Game 7 of the World Series. So, while others are buzzing over the typical superstars, us Cubs fans are excitedly watching Almora improve at the dish, hopefully, balancing out his production across the board.

Jacob: Simple. Can I watch the Cubs this year? Marquee Network launched last month under the shadow of a completely bungled rollout, including a lack of carriage deals with some of the biggest providers in Chicagoland, namely Comcast. Talks between Sinclair (which operates Marquee) and YouTube TV have reportedly cratered and Dish Network doesn’t seem to see the value in RSNs. There are going to be a lot of people who can’t watch this team play this season unless the Cubs do an about-face and start closing some deals ASAP.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Josh: Hopefully another Cubs World Series title, but more realistically, I always look forward to seeing guys come up through the minors and make an impact in the majors. I’d like to see if Hoerner and Happ can fix the Cubs problems at second base and center field. I’d like to see if Yu Darvish can build off his terrific 2019 second half and become a Cy Young Award candidate. And I’d love to see Baez make the few adjustments he needs to make to go from being a very good player to one of the very best players in the majors. I can’t say any of those things will happen, but I look forward to finding out.

Neil: I wish I could have a better feeling about the season. But I don’t. I really like the idea of Kris Bryant hitting leadoff followed by Anthony Rizzo in the two-hole. I question what the rest of the lineup will look like. But it will be interesting to see if those two can jump on pitchers early in games. Besides Bryzzo at the top of the lineup, it will be great just having baseball back and listening to Pat Hughes on a daily basis. 

David: Again, the competition within this division is exciting in itself and should motivate these young players to go out and continue to give their absolute best every game. It’s all about maintaining their identity with a new manager because they still possess some of the top rising talents in the league. Take away the conversations of their contracts expiring, a fresh skipper, and they’re still as dangerous as it comes when they’re firing on all cylinders. It’s rather difficult to cool them off once they have found their groove and we’re hoping Bryant is able to get things going from the lead-off spot in the lineup. 

Jacob: I’m looking forward to, at least early in the year, having an answer atop the order. Since 2016, Maddon tried to mix and match in the leadoff spot – to disastrous results. Kris Bryant is exactly the type of guy to fill that void and I think he turns in the best year of his career setting the table for guys like Rizzo and Baez.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cubs3223.582 -
Cardinals2725.5193.5
Reds2828.5004.5
Brewers2727.5004.5
Pirates1639.29116.0

Last updated: 09/23/2020

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