Now that we’ve established that there are more moves on the way for the Chicago Cubs, though they may not be huge impact moves, let’s address the question after a flurry of activity this week: are the Cubs 2015 contenders now?
A couple caveats up front: the Cubs’ status as a contender is relative to the other teams in the NL Central and the National League – since the Cubs’ offseason isn’t over yet, neither is that of the other teams. If the Cardinals and Pirates make some huge moves, that’ll hurt the Cubs. Also, “contender” status depends on how you define that word. For me, it’s something short of “definite playoff team,” and something north of “definite sub-.500 team.”
That said, I think it’s pretty fair to call the Cubs 2015 “contenders” at this point.
The trajectory was already looking good late in the year before the Cubs added new manager Joe Maddon, and long before the Cubs added Lester/Montero/Hammel this week. It’s a young team with a bunch of intriguing impact talent on the doorstep – those are the kinds of teams that can surprise dramatically to the upside. Now having added some veteran talent? It’s look like a plausible .500 team on paper, with tons of upside. However you want to define it, I say that’s a contender.
Going by some of the early team projections at FanGraphs, the Cubs are looking like a contender that way, too. As Dave Cameron wrote after the Lester deal, the Cubs as currently constructed project as an 84-win team. No, 84 wins won’t get you to the playoffs, but an 84-win projection does make you look like a plausible contender, given the possibility of positive variance and/or midseason additions.
That second one is a big thing to remember about the 2015 Cubs: for the first time in years, if they’re hovering around .500 by midseason, not only will they not sell-off, they will look to add to the team.
You could also argue that the projections upon which Cameron relies are conservative with respect to a few items, including playing time for Kris Bryant (he’s given just 300 plate appearances) and the composition of the rotation (which is getting innings from, for example, Edwin Jackson).
Further, something to understand about pre-season projections: they tend to cluster around the mean. Even at 84 wins in Cameron’s piece on the projection, the Cubs have the fifth-best record in the NL, behind only the Nationals, Cardinals, Pirates and Dodgers. That’s a playoff team.
The long story short here: dispassionate projections currently place this team as an above-.500 club. That doesn’t mean it will actually happen, and it doesn’t mean the roster-construction process is over. But it does mean that, for the first time in years, the on-paper Cubs will enter Spring Training looking like plausible contenders – something the front office has indicated repeatedly that it plans to do in 2015.