Look, I don't blame anyone in Chicago for getting excited about baseball this week. It's been 20 degrees every day since early October. We're getting our third ice storm of the year this week.
If you want to put all your eggs into the baseball-starts-this-week basket, go right ahead. There are probably worse ways to spend winter's last leg than living vicariously through 15-pitch outings and ranking non-roster invitees based on their baserunning skills.
With that said, any professional sports pre-season is objectively torture; the Cubs' first home game is still eight weeks away. Pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday, and the first game isn't for 10 days *after* that. There's a LOT of time between now and then to hammer the same half-dozen narratives into the ground. What narratives, you wonder? Glad you asked! Let's dive in:
1. *whispers* Are ... are the Cubs good?
It's an admittedly odd question for a team coming off 95 wins and like, maybe two roster changes. Here's a team with the 2nd-highest payroll in baseball this season, still working with a core group that won a World Series only two seasons ago. And yet - are we sure they're good? PECOTA isn't. Any projection system that claims Javy Baez is a bad defender deserves a fair bit of skepticism, sure, but PECOTA's concerns with the Cubs isn't totally unfounded. The NL Central got much, much better this offseason - the Cubs will probably need to get close to, if not above, the 90-win threshold to win the division. They'll need to be significantly better in-division than they were last year (41-36), and it'll be against much tougher competition. That's a tall task.
2. How many ifs are too many ifs?
One of the most fascinating things about this Cubs team is just how much of their season balances on 'ifs'. Not every team is like this - the Yankees *are* going to hit a billion home runs, and the Marlins *are* going to lose 90+ games. The Cubs, on the other hand, are a team littered with 'ifs'. Think about it - the Cubs probably reach their ceiling:
- IF Kris Bryant bounces back to his MVP-caliber self
- IF Javy Baez is truly an above-league-average hitter (2018 was the first time he put up a wRC+ over 100)
- IF Kyle Schwarber can bounce back from one of the unclutch seasons of all time
- IF Yu Darvish can return to form and be a reliable #2 starter
- IF Jon Lester can be '15 Cubs Lester (5.0 fWAR) than '16-'17-'18 Cubs Lester (combined 8.7 fWAR)
- IF running back most of the same bullpen they had last season turns out differently
Now, obviously all of these don't need to happen in conjunction - but they'll probably need, what, 4 of these to hit? That's a big ask, and it's not even taking into account the production they'll get from Jason Heyward, what to do when Addison Russell inevitably returns, and how good their bench really is. Every team is going into Spring Training with a handful of questions that need answering, but it feels like the Cubs are on the high end of that scale.
3. grumble grumble grumble why didn't they fix the bullpen?
Unless you are the worst and root for the Yankees, odds are you probably aren't that crazy about your team's bullpen currently. Pedro Strop has been great for the Cubs, but in an age when you need two or three power guys at the backend, are you really comfortable with a 33-year-old closer who was in the 43rd percentile for fastball velocity last season and has seen his K% decline each of the last 4 years? In theory, getting a healthy Brandon Morrow back helps a whole bunch. In reality, Morrow is 34, coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery and has never appeared in more than 60 games once during his 12-year career.
Brad Brach was a nice pickup, and the projections are pretty bullish on him this year. Steve Cishek is a good piece. Carl Edwards Jr. has The Stuff, but he also walked over 5 batters per nine innings last year. If you squint hard enough, there's a blueprint there. Still, if the Cubs aren't buyers in the bullpen market come late-July, something probably went seriously wrong.
4. Did you hear Kris Bryant is back?! Kris Bryant is back! That's going to change the entire offense, right?
The funny thing about the Cubs' pursuit of Bryce Harper was that they ALREADY have an MVP-caliber, organizational cornerstone from Las Vegas that rakes and has terrific hair. Do you really need 2? (yes)
For all of the bemoaning around Bryant's 2018 season, he still put up a 125 wRC+. In 100 injury-plagued games last year, Bryant was still 25% better than a league-average hitter. Here's where the Cubs have finished leaguewide in wRC+ during all 4 of Bryant's seasons:
2015: 18th (96)
2016: T-3rd (106)
2017: 9th (101)
2018: 12th (100)
It's not surprising that the Cubs' best finish happens to coincide with Bryant's MVP season. At the risk of oversimplifying things, it's not totally inaccurate to think that as Bryant goes, so does the Cubs' offense. PECOTA has him slashing .272/.376/.473 with 23 homers this year, while FanGraphs' projections mark him at roughly 40% better than league average. Adding a 5-6 win player to the middle of the order never hurts, but history says that the Cubs need Bryant to be fantastic if they have real postseason aspirations. Maybe the emergence of Sluggin' Javy Baez mitigates some of those concerns, but again, see Question #2.
5. Sooooooooooo what's the deal with Joe Maddon?
Maddon, for all his clever soundbites and fan-friendly quirks, finds himself in an oddly precarious position for someone who very recently brought one of baseball's most high-profile teams their first championship in one hundred years. It's World-Series-or-Bust on the North Side, and while that's probably not fair to Maddon, he knew what he was getting into. Now, he's working on a one-year contract while rumors of front office discontent swirl. The (to put it kindly) unceremonious exit of hitting coach Chili Davis, who blamed his departure on Those Damn Millennials instead of That Damn Below Average Offense, reflected poorly on Maddon's grip on the clubhouse. Maddon's always had bench coaches, but Mark Loretta's hiring is just another reminder that the tea leaves are there if you want to read them. Is Maddon out next fall regardless? Would a tight NLCS loss keep him around? It's pretty wild that the Cubs' manager is on the hot seat after 4 straight years of postseason berths and a World Series title to boot, yet here we are.
6. Where do we go after Cubs games now that the Taco Bell is closed?