The Cubbies might have broken a century-plus-long drought a handful of seasons ago, but after the dismaying end of the Joe Maddon era that culminated in a meager third-place finish in the National League Central race, some Cub fans might feel as though that 2016 moment of jubilation happened just as long ago as the previous title, brought home in 1908.
Out is Maddon, a generational mind at manager who, along with front office moves such as trading Eloy Jimenez and then some for Jose Quintana, couldn’t keep the momentum the franchise built up in the middle of the decade.
As 2016 World Series hero David Ross returns to Wrigley Field in his first season as manager, there’s plenty of hope on the North Side in 2020. The lineup is largely in tact and still not too dissimilar from the 2016 offense, still led by the likes of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras, and the natural thought is Kyle Schwarber will benefit greatly with the ability to slide into the designated hitter role with 2020’s changed rules.
They still are without a true leadoff hitter, and the official departure of Ben Zobrist, who missed most of last season, and the Nicholas Castellanos era ending with his move to the Reds take away a bit. But Bryant is an MVP playing for a new deal and will be looking to improve his output for both his own and the team’s sake. Baez is as excellent an all-around player as you’ll find, and Contreras is at the point where he enters every season in the discussion for being the best catcher in baseball.
Rizzo is having some early back issues, something worth noting as the Cubs will be playing 60 games in 67 days. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. both had struggles at the plate one year ago that will need to improve if the Cubs want to contend in a crowded NL Central. With the trainwreck that is the Addison Russell era officially over, Nico Hoerner’s development at shortstop is even more vital.
Despite those few concerns, along with the curiosity that will come with another year added to Jason Heyward’s career, the lineup is pretty good. The undoubted wild card for the 2020 Cubs is an aging and inconsistent pitching staff.
Yu Darvish was the team’s prized free agent pickup before the 2018 season, a year that was shortened to eight starts because of injury. He was healthy last year and had a handful of gems that kept his earned run average a tick below 4.00, but inconsistency and a penchant for giving up ill-timed homers have given him room for improvement.
He and the crafty Kyle Hendricks, a soft-tossing righty from a bygone baseball era, will be the front of the rotation, with Quintana sliding in after them when he returns from a thumb injury. Jon Lester is seeing his value drop faster than a new Range Rover, but he’s only halfway through a six year, $155 million deal and will need to return to his World Series form or close to it. Tyler Chatwood and his documented control issues likely round out the rotation, although general manager Theo Epstein will be seeking an additional arm if the Cubs find themselves in the playoff hunt.
As questionable as the rotation is, it’s the better half of the pitching staff equation. Craig Kimbrel wasn’t even a shell of his All-Star self last year, posting a 6.57 ERA as he was supposed to be the go-to bullpen arm. Casey Sadler provides depth and gives the Cubs a pair of reliable righties along with Alec Mills, who surprised last season. But aside from that, there isn’t much in the ‘pen to be excited about coming out of summer camp.
The team’s recent slide probably has been a little over-dramatized, thanks to the sudden resurgence of the up-and-coming White Sox. They’re still contenders in their division, and likely the National League in general, but the vibe isn’t quite what it has been in years past.
Ross’ rejoining of the organization was relatively risky because he has no managerial experience, but he showed during his career he’s primed to excel in the role. He’s unquestionably the biggest offseason acquisition Epstein and company brought in. In terms of players, Sadler, a middle reliever, was the biggest splash they made in free agency.
It seems just as likely the Cubs win the division as it is they finish fourth. Aside from the Brewers and Cardinals, two playoff teams from a year ago, the Reds were the busiest team in baseball’s offseason and are America’s favorite sleeper this year. In a season as questionable as ever for baseball, one of the biggest questions is whether or not the Cubs still are contenders.