St. Louis Cardinals against the National League: Chicago Cubs

Feb 22, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) gets ready to hit with Jason Heyward (22) during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 22, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) gets ready to hit with Jason Heyward (22) during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

After a 97-win campaign and the team’s first NLCS appearance since 2003, the Cubs will open 2016 as World Series favorites. The St. Louis Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs 19 times this year.

2015 Record: 97-65

Notable Departures: RP Fernando Rodney, RP Ryan Cook, RP Jason Motte, IF Emilio Bonifacio, IF Starlin Castro

Notable Newcomers: SP John Lackey, OF Jason Heyward, 2B Ben Zobrist

Against St. Louis in 2016: 3 games April 18-20 @STL, 3 games May 23-25 @STL, 3 games June 20-22 @CHC, 4 games August 11-14 @CHC, 3 games September 12-14 @STL, 3 games September 23-25 @CHC

The Outlook: 

What a difference a year can make in the baseball world. This time a year ago, there were expectations that the Cubs could be competitive, but many thought that they were a season away from playoff contention.

Now, Vegas has the Cubs as favorites to win the World Series in 2016, giving them 10-1 odds to win their first title in 108 years. Thanks to breakout playoff performances by several of their rookies, along with blockbuster off season moves made by GM Theo Epstein, the view amongst baseball analysts is that we might as well just go ahead and give the Cubs their rings right now.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that you have to prove yourself, day-in and day-out. Nobody wins a ring in January (or February), as much as “experts” like to try and hand them out. There are more than a handful of examples to choose from that prove that offseason “winners” may not live up to expectations once April rolls around and the game shifts back to being played in between the lines.

That isn’t to say that the Cubs are a bunch of nobodies or that they aren’t serious World Series contenders this season. It just means that offseason hype really isn’t anything more than that, hype.

Feb 22, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) looks on during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 22, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) looks on during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

Make no mistake, the Cubs have a very talented roster. They have the perfect manager in Joe Maddon for their unique situation. All of the pieces are there in Chicago. If they are ever going to win a World Series, this is the group that is going to do it.

With an outfield made up of Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Jorge Soler, they have a trio of five tool guys, minus Schwarber’s defensive ability in left field. Schwarber and Soler had huge 2015 postseason’s, but is that indicative of what’s to come in 2016, or is it a case of young, amped-up guys over-performing on a big stage?

Schwarber hit 16 home runs in 232 regular season at-bats a season ago. Obviously, that’s impressive. At the same time, though, he turned in just a .246 average with 77 strikeouts. Soler hit .474 in the postseason, but just .265 over 366 regular season at-bats with 120 strikeouts of his own.

Yes, both guys are very young and COULD evolve into Major League superstars. But, based off of those statistics, I’m not ready to anoint either guy as a perennial All Star quite yet.

We all know what Heyward is capable of, and that is virtually anything he wants to be on a baseball field. The arm, the defense, etc. are all great. He has a chance to do big things in Chicago. But, I could not help but notice the holes in his swing when he was with the Cardinals last year.

You better believe that whatever scouting report the Cardinals had on Heyward before last season is going to be way advanced after working with him for a year in St. Louis. Considering the fact that Heyward slashed just .236/.336/.462 with 29 strikeouts in 106 at-bats against the Cards from 2010-2014, I’d say they already had a pretty good beat on how to attack him before 2015.

Anything they may not have known entirely about attacking Heyward at the dish should now be crystal clear, and I look for Cardinal pitchers to attack those weaknesses relentlessly.

**UPDATE** This piece was published prior to Dexter Fowler re-signing with the Cubs. I see Fowler as the team’s fourth outfielder. He will start as a pinch runner/hitter option off the bench with the possibility of seeing starting duties again if Soler falters in right.

With the addition of Ben Zobrist this off season and the emergence of Addison Russell at short, the Cubs decided that three-time National League All Star Starlin Castro was expendable and shipped him off to the Yankees.

That Zobrist/Russell duo figures to be very good up the middle. Although Russell hit .242 with 149 strikeouts of his own last year, the 22-year-old committed just four errors in 210 chances a season ago for a .984 fielding percentage.

Zobrist might be the most valuable addition the Cubs made this offseason. He’s a switch hitter who can play anywhere on the field. He was instrumental in that World Series run the Royals made last year, after they picked him up near the trade deadline.

Kris Bryant is the new greatest player ever at third base for the Cubbies after winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2015. The .274/.368/.485 slash line looks pretty good for Bryant, as do the 26 home runs and 99 RBI.

But, the 199 strikeouts that he turned in a was the highest total of any National League hitter. The pattern that pitchers have been successful with against him is so simple that it blows my mind when pitchers try anything else. The formula is to hammer inside with fastballs, run the slider 3 inches off the plate.

Swing and a miss and a strikeout.

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However, the simple fact of the matter is that Bryant still turned in a 6.5 WAR value in 2015 despite the 199 strikeouts. Based on that statistic, he was the second most valuable player on the team behind Jake Arrieta, who posted a 7.3 WAR value. The Cubs would not have done what they did without Bryant’s contributions.

Anthony Rizzo may be the Cubs’ best player. He’s certainly a leader for the club over at first base.  His 31 home runs and 101 RBI last season were tops on the club in both categories. Rizzo struck out just 106 times (a low total for this unit) and managed to steal 17 bags in 2015.

Miguel Montero will be the club’s main catcher with David Ross backing him up in his last go-around at the big league level. The 32-year-old Montero was productive a year ago to the tune of 15 home runs and 54 RBI. But, again, he struck out 103 times in 347 at-bats. 

In all, Cubs batters struck out 1518 times last year. The second highest total was 1392 by the Houston Astros. At the same time, the Cubs drew the second-most walks in baseball with 567. They were 28th in team batting average and 15th in runs scored.

They won 97 games on the back of their pitching, and while there is certainly talent in the top three rotation spots in Chicago, there are question marks across the rest of their pitching staff.

I don’t need to go into a long list of stats to illustrate how dominant Jake Arrieta was in 2015. We all know what he did. He was absolutely phenomenal last year, and he deserves all the praise that he received.

But, how does throwing 248 innings between the regular season and playoffs affect a guy who had thrown no more than 156 2/3 innings in any season before 2015? Does he come out and put up Cy Young numbers again, or does he fall back towards the 4.52 career ERA that he had prior to last season?

Both Lester and Lackey were good last year, and being reunited in Chicago is probably nice for both guys. Each has the potential to put together top-of-the-rotation performances.

Apparently, the Cubs are going to have the best rotation in baseball, at least according to and their projected WAR values. I don’t think they are going to be a top-five unit, maybe not even top-ten. A lot of that is going to rest on the shoulders of back-end guys Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.

The back end of the Cubs bullpen figures to be pretty solid with Hector Rondon closing ballgames and Pedro Strop handling the eighth inning. I do get rather excited when Strop enters a game against St. Louis, though.

The Cubs could employ four former starters in Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard to handle long-relief and middle-innings duties. All four guys will see starter innings this spring, so there is the outside possibility that one makes the rotation and either Hammel or Hendricks ends up in the pen.

The Cubs will have long-relief scenarios locked down, it seems. How will they cover 6th and 7th innings situations with that combination of guys? They could shine in those roles, they could struggle. Only time will tell.

To summarize a rather long-winded post, the Cubs undoubtedly have young talent across their roster. But, I have questions about the maturity level in handling the lofty expectations. I have questions about how their list of youngsters respond to the grind of 162 games, and I wonder how productive the offense will be if they don’t get a handle on all the strikeouts.

I don’t think Arrieta sniffs a repeat of his magnificent 2015 performance, and I’m not sold on anything in that bullpen yet.

Basically, the Cubs are most certainly talking the talk. Soon, it will be time for them to walk the walk. It is going to be fascinating to watch what happens.

The Cardinals won 11 of 19 match ups a season ago against the Cubbies, although the 84-79 run differential shows how close the season series was.

The Cardinals are 53-36 against the Cubs at home since Busch III opened and just 35-46 at Wrigley over that same time period.

With all that taken into consideration, I am picking the Cardinals to win six of nine at home while winning just four of ten at Wrigley. That would add up to a 10-9 series win for the Redbirds, and could just be the difference in the Central race.

Neither the Cards or the Pirates are going away just because everybody thinks the Cubs are the biggest and the baddest on the block. It is going to be an absolute dog fight in that NL Central race, and each and every game that the team’s play against each other are going to be fantastic.

Whoever comes out on top in the head-to-head category amongst that trio is probably going to win the division.

Next: St. Louis Cardinals against the National League: Pittsburgh Pirates

Speculation time is almost over. Soon, it will be “put up or shut up” time, and the three goliath’s will get to go out and settle this thing between the lines.

I can’t wait.