Cubs

5 spring training storylines you're going to be real sick of in a month

5 spring training storylines you're going to be real sick of in a month

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?

No, seriously.

Rob Manfred apologizes for tone-deaf comment about World Series trophy

Rob Manfred apologizes for tone-deaf comment about World Series trophy

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made a tone-deaf comment over the weekend, and he apologized for it on Tuesday.

In an interview with ESPN, Manfred defended his decision not to punish Astros players for their involvement in Houston’s sign stealing scandal. Although MLB suspended (now former) Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow and fined the club $5 million, players received immunity in the case. 

Some — like Cubs starter Yu Darvish — have called for Manfred to strip the Astros of their 2017 championship.

"The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act,” Manfred told ESPN’s Karl Ravech. “People will always know that something was different about the 2017 season, and whether we made that decision right or wrong, we undertook a thorough investigation, and had the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty."

Lol.

It’s one thing to let the Astros off with a mere slap on the wrist but degrading the value of a championship trophy — one which all players strive to secure one day — was purely ignorant by Manfred. 

RELATED: Jon Lester crushes Rob Manfred for devaluing World Series trophy 'quite significantly'

There was a more tactful way for Manfred to respond to the lack of punishment. He told Ravech the MLB Players Association likely would've filed grievances, had the league disciplined the players. That defense may not have totally sufficed, but it's far more reasonable than Manfred's piece of metal comment.

Yes, Manfred was looking to make a rhetorical point. But seemingly everyone in baseball is pissed at the lack of punishment for the Astros. Rather than put out the fire, Manfred and MLB have only doused it with kerosene. 

Cubs Talk Podcast: Do the Cubs still have a shot at the division?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Do the Cubs still have a shot at the division?

Despite a disappointing offseason the Cubs still have a competitive team for the 2020 season. David Kaplan and an NBCS Chicago Cubs content team roundtable of Jeff Nelson, Tim Stebbins and Danny Rockett discuss how they see this team performing in 2020 and the subtle jabs at former manager Joe Maddon.

(1:30) - Where is the excitement level for the 2020 season

(4:14) - Cubs might perform better than expected this year

(9:09) - Theo Epstein telling managerial candidates Cubs will take a step back in 2020

(14:00) - Cubs still have to reset this year financially

(17:20) - Theo vs. Joe

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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