Could the Cubs win 90 games and still be sitting home in October?
The Cubs understood there would be no sneaking up on anyone or sneaking into the playoffs this year. There are no guarantees in a National League where so many teams are focused on either going all-in to win a World Series in 2016 — or writing off big-league seasons to build for the future, the way the Cubs and Houston Astros reconstructed their franchises.
Super Bowl 50 is over, which means attention will soon shift to pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona, where the Cubs will be hyped as a World Series favorite.
The Cubs don’t believe their window is closing — the way the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning — but there is still a sense of urgency to win now. The Cubs don’t have a move-the-needle star quite like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but they think they have the right mix of big personalities needed for a championship-caliber team.
“The dynamics of the National League this year will mean that it will take a lot of wins to make the playoffs,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know that.”
The Cubs committed more than $276 million to outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill, leading the majors in spending on free agents this winter, according to ESPN’s tracker.
Of the next 11 biggest spenders on that list, seven are NL teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals.
The Cubs also can’t dismiss the Pittsburgh Pirates, an exemplary small-market team coming off a 98-win season and their third consecutive playoff appearance. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood nothing could be taken for granted after the Mets swept the Cubs out of the NL Championship Series.
“There are many great teams — great, not just good — in the National League,” Epstein said during his state-of-the-team press conference in October. “The Cardinals aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t for a hundred years. They won 100 games. They have a pretty young core.
“Pittsburgh has had three outstanding seasons in a row and have the building blocks in place to be good for a really long time. The Giants are three-time World Series champs (since 2010) and I’m sure are going to add a number of key pieces this winter.
“The Dodgers are extremely talented and extremely rich. They’re not going anywhere. The Nationals’ window hasn’t necessarily ended at all. They’re still really, really good and I’m sure will bounce back.
“The Mets — if they can keep their rotation healthy and performing the way it is now — are going to be dangerous as can be for a long period of time.”
At the same time, FanGraphs projects the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves will be the three worst teams in the majors, forecasting between 91 and 95 losses, with negative run differentials ranging from -97 to -126.
FanGraphs also predicts the Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres will be bottom-third teams, finishing with around 86 losses this season.
“Obviously, you don’t want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN.com for a column headlined “The odd and troubling state of the National League.”
“But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it’s not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that’s out of line.”
So far, the Reds, Brewers and Phillies haven’t spent a penny on a major-league free agent this offseason. Combined, the Cubs will play the Reds and Brewers 38 times this season as those small-market teams try to follow the tanking blueprint and collect as many long-term assets as possible.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Since July, the Reds and Brewers have traded away Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind and Jean Segura.
The Cubs will have to capitalize on those big-league talent drains in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, knowing 97 wins was only good enough for third place in the Central last season.
“It’s an incredibly competitive landscape in the National League, and that motivates us,” Epstein said. “There are some years you can just sit back and say: ‘Ah, you know, there aren’t that many great opportunities to get better. Let’s take our chances. Let’s build a team that can win between 86 and 88 games and we’ll find ourselves in the wild-card mix and maybe we can improve during the course of the season and see where we (are at).’
“Now, with what’s going on in the National League, it’s a better approach (to) say: ‘Hey, in order to compete with teams just in our division — like the Cardinals and Pirates — we have to try to attain a really high standard. We have to put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to be great. So that we can win the division and not have to go through the coin flip of the wild-card game.’
“Certainly, we need to raise the bar as far as the type of team we want to build and the path to being a great club — not just a good club.”