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.

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

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USA TODAY

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

Joe Girardi won't be the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, perhaps because he has hopes of landing a gig in Chicago.

According to Fancred's Jon Heyman, Girardi was in the running for the Reds' managerial job (which went to former Cubs third-base coach David Bell this weekend) but pulled himself out, this after interviewing for but not getting the same position with the Texas Rangers. Heyman cites "industry speculation" that Girardi might want to remain a free agent so he can land the job of skipper in Chicago.

Heyman is of course not specific, listing a city with two major league teams, leaving this open for interpretation as either the Cubs or the White Sox.

Obviously Girardi has a history on the North Side. He had two stints there as a player, from 1989 to 1992 and again from 2000 to 2002. Joe Maddon has one year remaining on his contract, and Cubs president Theo Epstein said during his end-of-season press conference that the team has not had discussions with Maddon about an extension. After managing the New York Yankees to their most recent World Series championship in 2009, Girardi might again want a crack at managing a big-market contender.

But if Girardi is simply itching to get back to his home state — he was born in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern — perhaps he has the White Sox on his wish list, too. Rick Renteria has one year remaining on his current contract, as well, and should the rebuilding White Sox see all their young talent turn into the contender they've planned, the manager of such a team would be an attractive position to hold.

But just because folks believe Girardi wants to manage in Chicago doesn't mean there'd be mutual interest. Despite Epstein's comments that there have been no extension talks with Maddon, the president of baseball operations also backed his manager in that same press conference, refusing to blame Maddon for the team's "broken" offense down the stretch last month. And Rick Hahn and the rest of White Sox brass heap frequent praise on the job Renteria has done in his two years, describing him as an important part of player development and of establishing a culture hoped to spread throughout the organization.

Plus, it's worth mentioning that Girardi's decade-long tenure in the Bronx came to an end amid suggestion that he was unable to connect with his young players. It's unknown how much of a realistic concern that would be for any team thinking about hiring him. But the recently fired Chili Davis believed that very issue was part of the reason his time as the Cubs' hitting coach came to an end. And there are few teams out there younger than the White Sox.

Again, it's just speculation for now. But if for some reason one or both Chicago teams don't hand out new contracts to their current managers, perhaps Girardi would be interested in an opening on either side of town.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.