Cubs

Fantasy Baseball Preview: 2016 Chicago Cubs

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Fantasy Baseball Preview: 2016 Chicago Cubs

It's been a while since the Cubs have been a powerhouse in fantasy baseball, but they should be exactly that in 2016.

For the first time since 2008, the Cubs figure to have nearly every position player worth owning plus a handful of quality starting and relief pitchers.

Thanks to the additions of Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist plus the re-signing of Dexter Fowler, the Cubs are probably the most fantasy-relevant team in the league.

Let's break it down by position:

Catchers

Given that Kyle Schwarber qualifies as catcher, this is actually a position of strength for the Cubs in fantasy. Catchers typically don't have great fantasy production, but if Schwarber is going to spend the lion's share of his playing time in left field and not taking a beating behind the plate, he suddenly is one of the top fantasy catchers on the board, behind maybe only Buster Posey. Getting Schwarber's power production from a catcher's spot is clutch and qualifies him as even a fourth or fifth round pick, despite his low average.

[RELATED - How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016]

Beyond Schwarber, Miguel Montero is an OK option as your fantasy catcher, but he's averaged just 416 at-bats over the last three seasons with a low .240 average and .702 OPS. He supplies some power and decent RBI totals given his lack of ABs, but he hardly scores any runs and figures to be hitting low in the Cubs' order this year.

Infielders

Anthony Rizzo is a bonafide Top 10 fantasy pick, and may even be worth a Top 5 pick depending on how you value him. He's an extremely valuable hitter who provides production in every fantasy category and may have a .300 season in his near future. He is entering his prime and with this loaded Cubs lineup, the sky is the limit in terms of fantasy numbers, but be a bit wary about his health - he was hit with 30 pitches last year and one fastball in the wrong spot could mean missed time.

However, don't get caught up in Rizzo's 17 stolen bases last year. He caught a lot of teams by surprise with his willingness to run and when the league realized his aggressiveness on the basepaths, he stole just five bases over the final three months of the season. Expect 10-12 steals as his ceiling this year.

Kris Bryant is a budding superstar who, like Rizzo, provides production in every category and only figures to improve in his second season. Third base is surprisingly shallow in fantasy and Bryant has 40-homer upside even as early as 2016. Expect excellent power numbers, runs, walks, a decent average and even 10-15 steals.

As he ages, Zobrist has become a bit less valuable in the fantasy realm, but his main asset has always been positional verstatility - Zobrist qualifies at second base and outfield in 2016. He only stole three bases last season, but that was likely the result of a knee injury that included a DL stint early in the year. Zobrist should provide double digit steals and homers with pretty good run and RBI totals hitting at the top of a powerhouse lineup.

[RELATED - No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs]

Addison Russell is one of my favorite sleepers for this season. He may be hitting ninth for most of the season, limiting at-bats and RBI totals, but he should contribute plenty of runs hitting in front of the heart of the order. Russell also has plenty of pop in his bat and it wouldn't be shocking to see him hit 20 homers this season. His arrow is pointing way up and this may be the last fantasy draft you'll get any sort of bargain on Russell.

Javy Baez isn't a projected starter at any position, but Joe Maddon will assuredly find ways to get him at-bats, playing all over the field. That positional versatility helps make Baez fantasy relevant, as does his power. For those two reasons alone, it's worth taking a flier on Baez late in your drafts.

Outfielders

Fowler turned in a fantastic 2015 season and if he can stay healthy, you can expect more of the same in 2016. He should be the leadoff hitter in an awesome lineup and 100 runs seems like a guarantee if he avoids the DL. Throw in 15 homers, 20 steals and a good OBP and that's a quality fantasy player despite an average that may not top .260

Heyward is a better real-life player than fantasy option, but he has more power potential and could be a 20-20 option this season. He figures to post solid run and RBI totals in this lineup and could add a decent average, too.

Schwarber is a solid outfield option, but his value really comes at the catcher position in fantasy. Jorge Soler's playing time was probably impacted the most with Fowler's re-arrival. Unless there's a major injury, it might be hard for Soler to reach 450 at-bats and thus be fantasy-relevent, depsite his power potential.

Starting pitchers

Jake Arrieta is a stud and you could easily make the case he's a first-round pick in 2016. Don't expect him to post a full season ERA under 1.00 like he did in his historic second half, but Arrieta is one of the elite pitchers in the league and could very easily post an ERA in the low 2.00s with a WHIP below 1.00 and a strikeout rate above 9 K/9. With the lineup around him and a solid bullpen behind him, Arrieta could again post 20+ wins. There is some injury concern given Arrieta's huge jump in innings last season, but he's in great physical shape and it's not a real concern.

Jon Lester is a great buy-low option in fantasy. After experiencing a dead-arm period in spring training and enduring a transition period with a new team in a new league, Lester posted a 6.23 ERA in April. But from that point forward, he had a 2.99 ERA and averaged a strikeout an inning. Expect more of the post-April Lester in 2016.

Lackey posted the best ERA of his career last season (2.77) and at age 37, it wouldn't be wise to expect another sub-3.00 ERA. But Lackey should be a solid contributor in strikeouts, wins and quality starts.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks figure to round out the Cubs' rotation and while both are solid pitchers, they each come with inherent risk. Hammel has struggled in the second half throughout his entire career and if either he or Hendricks struggle, the Cubs have several options waiting to step into the rotation. With the risk attached, there are better fantasy options available than Hammel and Hendricks.

Relief pitchers

Hector Rondon is a borderline elite closer after posting 30 saves with a 1.67 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 2015. He even added six wins. The only things that truly kept him from being one of the top fantasy closers in the game was that he actually lost the ninth-inning role for a period during the season and he also averaged less than a strikeout an inning (69 Ks in 70 IP). It may be a stretch to see Rondon net a sub-2.00 ERA again, but he is a great bet for at least 30 saves and very well could lead the majors in the category given the Cubs are expected to be among the league leaders in victories.

Beyond Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm are probably the most enticing fantasy options in the Cubs bullpen, especially in leagues where holds are a category.

Strop is next in line for saves if anything happens to Rondon in that role. Even if he's only the eighth-inning guy, Strop should be a stud, as he recorded 28 holds and three saves in that role last season while striking out 81 batters in 68 innings with a 2.91 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Those numbers are a great projection for 2016.

Grimm, meanwhile, had 15 holds and a sub-2.00 ERA (1.99) while ranking among the league leaders in K/9. He only pitched 49.2 innings because of a forearm issue that delayed his start to the season, but he should be in line for more work in 2016. Don't expect another sparkling ERA, but Grimm has the stuff to keep his K/9 rate high and may still wind up with an ERA under 3.00.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”