Shortly after the Cubs signed Yu Darvish two weekends ago, we started looking into whether this was the best rotation the Cubs have had during the Joe Maddon years, ultimately deciding that … yeah, that’s probably fair to say. It is, at a minimum, a fair opinion for anyone who has it.
But how about the team as a whole? Is this team as good as any Joe Maddon has had in his time with the Cubs? Can this roster, from one to twenty-five, stack up against the 103-game-winning, NL MVP-donning, 2016 World Series Champion Chicago Cubs? Well, it might not be so crazy to say yes.
At ESPN Chicago, Jesse Rogers shares a quote from owner Tom Ricketts, who says that this rotation is the strongest rotation he’s ever had heading into the season, and even Indians Manager Terry Francona seemed to echo that sentiment. And the lineup, well, let’s just say new reliever Steve Cishek is happy with the color of his uniform: “It’s ridiculous,” the righty said via ESPN. “Our lineup is stacked. I know it’s only live batting practice, but game situations can’t be fun facing those guys over and over and over again. It can be intimidating. … It’s definitely the best team I’ve been a part of.” Later, Kris Bryant joined the chorus, proclaiming that the team feels they’re ahead of where they were at this time last year and believes that they’re ready to take the next step into greatness, yet again.
But still … beating that 2016 team is going to be hard. Do you remember how good they were right out of the gate?
The Cubs began the season with a two-game sweep of the Angels on the road, before taking three of four in Arizona. They then returned home to sweep the Reds (classic) at Wrigley Field, starting the year off with eight wins in their first ten tries.
By the end of April, the Cubs had lost just five games (.773 winning percentage) and had outscored their opponents by a ridiculous 136 to 57. That’s absolutely bonkers. And how’s this for a #fact: the Cubs didn’t lose back-to-back games that season until a double header on May 11(!). Think about how difficult that is in this game. It took them 33 tries to lose two in a row. The 2018 team is crazy talented, but that’s a difficult feat to match.
If you remember back to that season, you might also recall that June (16-12) and July (12-14) weren’t quite as impressive, but even with those more mediocre stretches, the Cubs finished the first half nearly 20 games above .500 (53-35), and up 7.0 games in the NL Central. Could they be there by the All-Star break again this year? Yeah, I definitely think so. I might not bet on 20 games above .500 by then, but I’m still just feeling great about this team.
We already know that the rotation is among the strongest they’ve ever had, and aside from the absence of Dexter Fowler at the top of the order, I’m feeling really good about the offense. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras figure to anchor the lineup as the team’s three most consistent contributors. Guys like Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber feel like strong bets to outproduce their 2017 seasons (there’s a lot of untapped upside in those two), while Javy Baez, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ all could take take yet another next step forward at the plate.
And, sure, maybe you’re down on Jason Heyward and/or Ben Zobrist, but the former made improvements last season and has a new hitting coach to work with, while the latter has already accepted the fact that he’s about to become more of a complementary role player (which will not only minimize his chances in tough match-ups, but also optimizes his production with more opportunities against pitchers he’s better suited to face – while also keeping him more fresh).
Tommy La Stella is as good of a bench bat as you can reasonably want, and Chris Gimenez is not here for his offense (but hey, he can still hit lefties). So in the end, I don’t know about you, but with the right breaks (namely, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell breaking out), I think this Cubs offense can *easily* rival the 2016 team, if not surpass it.
And as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve left out the bullpen from this discussion, but that’s not because I don’t believe in it. In fact, like the lineup, I think it has a chance to be great (bullpens are just so much harder to project). That said, if Brian Duensing repeats his success from last season, if Justin Wilson shakes off a rough debut with the Cubs, if Carl Edwards continues to impress, and if Brandon Morrow is utilized properly … there’s no reason this group can’t be an absolute force, especially in the playoffs. And with a stabilizing arm like Pedro Strop locking down the eighth inning, plus given how good Steve Cishek was in Tampa Bay last year, I see no reason to believe this group can’t be truly excellent.
So will these Cubs rival the 2016 team? I say yes, I can see it. But what do you think?