Playing Pepper 2017: Chicago Cubs

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Chicago Cubs
103-58, first in NL Central, won World Series
Last year’s Pepper

This truly is the darkest timeline.  A timeline where the Cubs–the CUBS–are World Series Champions.

Somehow the world stayed on its axis and we didn’t go hurtling toward the abyss (though your opinion of how things have gone the last few months might make you wish we had), so we have to come to terms with what this means and how good this team might be again.  Unsurprisingly, we’ve got a few folks that are very, VERY happy to talk about this phenomenon.  Check them out on their sites and Twitter and then read on if you are able to handle this.  (I’m not sure I am.)

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
David Miniel Cubbies Crib DavidAMiniel
Josh Timmers Bleed Cubbie Blue Cubsminorswrap
Rob Harris Blue Batting Helmet rlincolnharris
Neil Finnell TheCCO
Ryan Maloney Prose and Ivy proseandivy

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

CC: I’d say it was another successful offseason for this front-office. Considering the fact that they lost both their leadoff man (Dexter Fowler) and rental closer (Aroldis Chapman) to other teams, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer filled the gaps pretty well. And again, addressing the bullpen by claiming a few men off waivers and flipping Jorge Soler to Kansas City for Wade Davis was a huge move in our eyes. Soler never really blossomed under the Cubs organization and Chicago was obviously in the market for finding another man who can close games consistently. Not to take anything away from Hector Rondon. Rondon will likely continue his set-up role for Joe Maddon in 2017. And the obvious choice would be Fowler. Fowler set the tone for nearly every game he played in. But with Chicago having their eye on the future, I had a feeling Dexter was going to find a home elsewhere. We’re still thankful for what he has done for this organization and he’s still loved even though he’s in a Cardinal uniform for the next five years. 

BCB: The Cubs really didn’t have a lot to do over the winter, so it was a good offseason. They picked up the closer they needed in Wade Davis and did it by trading Jorge Soler, thus freeing up the outfield logjam a bit. They need more pitching depth and signing Koji Uehara and Brett Anderson is a good start, but I’d still like to see them get one more pitcher who could start. It would be nice to see Travis Wood return, but it sounds like he wants to go somewhere he is guaranteed to start.

BBH: The W flag remained flying over the centerfield scoreboard all winter long, and the red marquee still says “World Series champions” so yes, it was a beautiful offseason. I was sorry to see Jorge Soler get traded, but they got a pretty good return for him. And Dexter Fowler was a loss, but he’ll always be a hero in this town. If Brett Anderson can stay healthy–and I don’t like the chances of that–it will be a nice boost to the rotation. 

CCO: The Cubs had a very good off-season. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer addressed the team’s biggest need, pitching. The additions of Wade Davis and Koji Uehara should work extremely well in the backend of the pen with Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. If Davis is healthy, as he says he is, the Cubs upgraded the bullpen. I really like the addition of Eddie Butler and if Brett Anderson can give them at least 15 starts, the rotation has a chance to be as good as last season.

The addition of Jon Jay to pair with Albert Almora Jr. was and is a very good move. The Cubs will miss Dexter Fowler, to a certain extent especially at the top of the lineup. Defensively, the Cubs upgraded in center field. Fowler was pivotal to the Cubs winning The Series. He will not be able to match the same success away from the Cubs. But the team has more than enough talent to make up for his loss.

I would have liked for the front office to add a young, controllable starter, like Chris Archer. The cost was prohibitive but if there is a move I wished the Cubs would have made it would have been trading for Archer. With the Cubs, Archer would be a superstar instead of a very good starting pitcher on a second division team.

The Cubs were the best team in baseball last year and that has not changed. All in all, the team is better on paper going into Spring Training than they were a year ago.

PI: It was a great off-season for the team. How could it have gone otherwise? And yes, they did what they needed to do. They needed to throw a World Series Championship parade. They threw a World Series Championship parade. They needed to send the World Series Championship Trophy on a World Series Championship Trophy tour. They sent the World Series Championship Trophy on a World Series Championship Tour. They needed to celebrate their first World Championship in 108 years. They celebrated their first World Championship in 108 years with me and thousands of other Cubs fans at the greatest fan convention in sports – the Cubs Convention this past January. Oh – and they needed to replace Chapman which they did with Davis and they needed to replace Fowler which they’ve done with a stable of young talent potentially Schwarbomb leading off. Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo – how’s that for a first three to face for opposing pitchers every game? I like the sound of it, too.

C70: So, um, that World Series thing happened. Has it sunk in? What can this season do to not be some sort of letdown or does that even matter?

CC: Honestly, it still feels like a dream to me. Growing up and watching this team hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do, watching your friends celebrate their team winning a World Series title. I’ve personally gone over multiple scenarios in my head of what I would do if or when that day came. When it was time, I couldn’t help but cry my eyes out in my Father’s arms. His Dad handed down his love for this club down to me and I kept the legacy alive. When it comes to the future, we all know this team is built to contend year-after-year. They are so deep when it comes to talent. Not only on their 25-man roster with Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Heyward, Baez, Rizzo, etc., but they still have a top notch farm system that possesses some of the best minor league players in the game. There’s no way this club will ever let us fans down after what they did last year. 

BCB: It seems like nothing has changed and everything has changed. For the most part, my offseason has been the same—worrying about signings, trades, prospects, etc. for 2017. But every once in a while I’m like “Wow,” like when I look at my bobblehead of Kyle Schwarber holding the World Series trophy. Our relationship with other fans has changed too, as I no longer hear “1908” and “The Cubs will never win.” That part is nice. Cardinals fans are much quieter and don’t bring up baseball much. 

BBH: I frankly don’t care if the Cubs ever win again. I’m probably in the minority of Cubs fans on this, but a second one couldn’t be any sweeter than the first one was. I waited for 40 years to see it happen, and so many others never got to see it at all. The chalk mural on the outer walls at Wrigley Field in the days after they won was such a tremendous experience. And seeing the Commissioner’s trophy with my own eyes was pretty special, too. I visited Jack Brickhouse’s and Ernie Banks‘s graves, to share a moment with them and think about how much baseball and the Cubs mean to us all. How could it ever get better than that?

CCO: It will never get old to say, or in this case type, the Chicago Cubs are The World Series Champions. It is still a bit surreal but it has sunk in. This season does matter and anything less than a repeat of a NL Central title and a third straight trip to the postseason would be a disappointment. It is different now. No more wondering what it would feel like for the Cubs to win The World Series. Now it’s about building the legacy and this Cubs team going down in history as one of the best of all-time.

PI: That World Series championship ‘thing’ did happen and man – what a trip that was. Down 3-1 and we come back to tie 3-3, then nearly blow it – then use a rain delay of all things to collect ourselves with a speech from – of all people Jason Heyward – to put the team in the lead for good and close it out with two guys NOT named Aroldis Chapman. I mean – what?! It was a trip. I loved every minute of it. I woke my oldest kid up to watch the final outs and it was just perfect. So great. So great. It has sunk in but I didn’t expect it to go down like that. I don’t think anyone could have pictured the Cubs’ first championship in 108 years to finally happen in that fashion. This season – it’s so hard to repeat but we have so much of the team still and anything is possible. I love this team – they’re so fun to watch and root for. I’m hoping for a repeat and not some horrible movie sequel version like Major League 2 where success has gone to everyone’s heads and they aren’t they same lovable team they were in 2016. I’m not concerned that it will happen after listening to the team speak at the Convention, it would just be a shame if it did. This team gave fans the one thing they’ve been waiting to see from their Cubs so it’s too soon for a letdown – but who doesn’t want to see their team win again? I’d love to see it and maybe this time I’ll wake up my youngest child too.

C70: Who is most likely to repeat his year, Kris Bryant or Kyle Hendricks?

CC: This question is tough. Real quick, take Jake Arrieta for example. He dominated the 2015 campaign, hurled a no-hitter and flirted with history a few times along the way. We all had expectations that he was going to have a solid shot at repeating as a Cy Young winner. That was until he ran into a consistency issue after a fantastic start to the previous campaign. So, it’s hit or miss for Chicago’s young right-hander. There’s still a lot of faith in Kyle because of the fact that he has shown signs of improvement since he debuted in 2014. I’d have to say Bryant has the best shot at repeating when it comes down to the two. He’ll hit a little over 40 homers and drive in another 100 plus RBI this year. 

BCB: Bryant. Bryant is a once-in-a-generational talent who will be one of the first names you mention in 50 years when talking about baseball in the Teens. (After Mike Trout, of course.) Hendricks is a good story. He’s a smart pitcher who locates his pitches well and relies on his defense. But guys like that have no margin for error. If he slips just a little, he’ll be just an OK pitcher. 

BBH: Kris Bryant, for sure. He’s talented on a level that I’ve never seen before. We think of him as a slugger, and his home run in Game 5 of the WS rescued the Cubs’ season. But his baserunning led to two crucial runs in Game 7. They won by one run, so every run was crucial. But without either of those runs, the Cubs aren’t parading down Addison Street like they did in November.

CCO: Kris Bryant. For as good as the NL MVP was last season, an argument could be made that Anthony Rizzo was the Cubs most-important player. Bryant is still learning and has shown the ability to adjust quickly. If he is able to go back to hitting to all fields, and stay healthy, he will easily repeat the numbers he put up last year. I think Bryant is just getting started … which should scare the rest of the NL Central and all of baseball.

PI: Easily Kris Bryant. Winning the MVP isn’t even what I’m talking about. I just expect him to deliver with similar numbers. Feels to me there is more you can do to succeed as a batter than you can as a pitcher. Once you’ve let go of the ball as a pitcher, it is out of your hands. However, every pitch Bryant faces will be another opportunity to cash in on a pitcher’s mistake and put runs on the board. I would choose Bryant between the two.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

CC: One player people should look out for is Albert Almora. All eyes are going to be on center field and what he is going to be able to do in order to fill in Fowler’s shoes. Which are pretty big. Like I said before, Dexter had a huge impact on this team over the past two years, setting the tone and practically the outcome of every game. Almora hasn’t shown much power yet but he can make solid contact and he’s fast around the bases. Also, he’s smart. Look back at Game 7 of the World Series when he entered the game as a pinch-runner for Kyle Schwarber in extras. A routine fly ball that would force a runner to retreat and stay at first turned into a huge momentum shift when he read the fielder, tagged up, and took off for second base. That is something Joe Maddon is looking for. A young man who has the mindset of a veteran. And you can’t forget his diving play out in right field during the NLDS in San Francisco. 

BCB: I’m a huge fan of Albert Almora Jr., who may not hit much in his upcoming rookie year but showed in the playoffs last year what an incredible glove he has in the outfield. It will very difficult for any player to hit a double into the gap in right-center between Almora and Heyward in 2017. He’s also got terrific baseball intelligence. Almora taking second base in the tenth inning of game 7 on the Bryant fly out may just have been the play that won the Cubs the World Series. Other than that, I think every player on the Cubs is pretty “heralded” after last October. Being overrated is more of a problem. I think they’re singing folk songs in Indiana and southern Ohio about Schwarber. 

BBH: I don’t know that for sure. I’ve read good things about Eloy Jimenez, so I hope he turns out to be good. But I also called Brett Jackson‘s name out a few years ago, so what do I know?

CCO: When it comes to the Cubs it is hard to pick a player. The Cubs are so incredibly popular. Coming off a World Series title, the team now has more fans it did a year ago. Unheralded? Let’s go to the backend of the rotation and Mike Montgomery. I really like what I saw from him after he was acquired from the Mariners. If he listens to Chris Bosio, he has the stuff to be a big part of the Cubs rotation this season … and for a long time.

PI: I would say CJ Edwards. He contributed some great moments throughout 2016 and a defining moment in Game 7 so people will be expecting him to be one of the guys to keep the bullpen strong, especially without the crutch in Chapman. Davis will need to prove to be valuable in replacing Chapman, but without CJ doing his job, our bullpen will not sustain like it did in 2016. So I would keep an eye on CJ Edwards keeping his foot on the gas and having another strong campaign in 2017.

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

CC: Could you imagine their win total had Kyle Schwarber avoided that season-ending injury? Without Schwarber, they managed to win 103 games. On paper, they are still the best team in the National League Central. With all due respect to the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago still has the better lineup even with Fowler on the opposite end of the rivalry from here on out. Could they win over 100 games again? It’s possible. That all comes down to them wanting to prove to the rest of the league that they are, indeed, for real and not a flash in the pan. Their starting rotation is solid and may end up being better than what they had in 2015 and 2016. Epstein, again, went out and found another closer who can close games, and the slogan, “We Never Quit” is still alive and well. Just because they won the World Series doesn’t mean this club is going to stop fighting late in the game. I’m expecting another first place finish for the Cubs. Yet I’m still on the fence when it comes to the record. 

BCB: They’ll win the division easily again. I hate to predict 100 wins again because you should never count on 100 wins, so I’ll say 99 wins. 

BBH: 95-67, winning the division by 2 or 3 games. And I don’t know who’s in second or third place, either.

CCO: I predicted 95 wins a year ago and was eight short. I still believe it will take 95 victories to win the NL Central. So I will stick with a prediction of 95-67 for the Cubs and a second straight National League Central Division title. 

PI: 95-67 – first in the NL Central

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Cub and why?

CC: As far as my favorite Cub is concerned, that would be Ron Santo, hands down. The fact that he played a professional sport while battling diabetes just earned my respect right away. Admittedly, I was born in the late 80’s so I was unable to watch him play the game itself. But I grew up listening to stories of how great of a ballplayer he was despite his struggles with diabetes. I tip my hat to anyone who can or has done it. Another example, Jay Cutler. Not too many people like him because of his “attitude” but if you’re able to put on a uniform and step out onto a field game-after-game, year-after-year, in front of thousands of fans, putting your own health aside for a brief period of time? That’s the definition of a warrior. And hearing how much he loved this club by the way he did play-by-play with Pat Hughes for all those years up until he passed away. He was just an amazing human being. 

BCB: I grew up as a huge Ryne Sandberg fan—he was the superstar of my youth. I was very glad to see him at the White House along with the current players. 

BBH: If you had asked that a year ago, I would have said Andre Dawson. Watching him play in person was a sight to behold. And he was much loved in his six seasons in Chicago, too. But now I would put just about anyone on the 2016 team on a higher level, because they were the ones who got it done. But Kyle Schwarber is probably my favorite one on this team. When the word was out that he was ready to come back for the World Series–after missing the entire regular season–I was incredibly pumped up. Some were saying he wouldn’t have the timing he needed to hit effectively, but I knew he was up to it. The guy’s a hitter, first, last, and always. Never forget that he started the Series-winning rally with a single leading off the tenth inning of Game 7. That’s what he delivered to the team last year.

CCO: Ryne Sandberg. The ’84 Cubs were my favorite team before last season and Sandberg was the best player on that team. Sandberg was everything that was right with the game and still is. Sandberg worked extremely hard to be the player that he was. He respected the game and played it the right way his entire career. I came along after Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Sandberg was the first great Cubs player of my generation. I’m so glad he is back with the team. He will always be the first player I think of when I’m asked why I became a Cubs fan.

PI: Ryne Sandberg. Love the current team but like I told Ryne and other members of the 1984 team at one of the Q&A panel sessions back in January, there is just something about the guys you watched when you were a kid. When they were all just heroes running around on the field trying to win for you and all the other Cubs fans. Before money and contracts and all the business side of baseball became something you knew existed. Whenever I played a pickup game of baseball with friends as a kid I would play second base and pretend to be Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg was the guy that made me a Cubs fan and for that he will always be my favorite.

My thanks to all the guys that came over here and talked about the Cubs.  It was a long time coming and I know they enjoyed it.  I’m just hoping we don’t do it again next season!

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NL Central Standings

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Last updated: 10/06/2022