|With Lester aboard, the Cubs have the pitching to complement their hitting (NESN)|
The long-suffering Cubs are coming off their fifth consecutive fifth-place finish and 106th straight season without a World Series championship (but who's counting). Even so, 2014 was an encouraging year for the beleaguered Cubbies. Franchise centerpieces Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro enjoyed bounce back years, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks made promising debuts, and Jake Arrieta was one of the National League's best pitchers on a per-inning basis. Chicago ranked second in the Senior Circuit in long balls, and Kris Bryant hasn't even arrived yet. Imagine how many bombs they'll hit when he does and with Soler and Javier Baez playing every day.
Entering the fourth year of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's rebuilding project, Chicago appears on the brink of contention. The major league roster finally has the talent ready to compete. Aided by Soler and Hendriks, the Cubs were actually a much better team in the second half last year despite trading away their two best pitchers (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in early July. Chicago went 31-28 after July 27th, winning one more game than the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants during that span.
It's no secret that Chicago has an abundance of young hitting talent, so the next logical step was to add quality arms this winter. The Cubs did so by re-signing Jason Hammel, who had a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts with them last year before being traded to Oakland, and swaying Jon Lester away from the Red Sox with a jaw-dropping six-year, $155 million offer that sent shockwaves throughout baseball. Chicago's new ace immediately improves a rotation that had the seventh-highest ERA in baseball last year. A vaunted big game pitcher and two-time World Series champion with Boston, Lester brings a furnished postseason track record to the Windy City as well.
Chicago also acquired arguably the game's best manager in Joe Maddon. Maddon, a two-time AL Manager of the year (2008 and 2011), helmed the Rays to five 90-win seasons between 2008 and 2013 (and 84 wins in 2009, the lone non-90 win season in that timeframe). More importantly, he has postseason experience, having managed four playoff teams in Tampa Bay including the 2008 American League champions. Unlike most of the Cubs, he's been to the World Series.
And while the Cubs didn't get the market's top catcher (Russell Martin, who went to the Blue Jays instead), they still got a good one by trading for Miguel Montero. A two-time All-Star, Montero was a four-win player in 2011 and 2012 and should remain productive at age 31. In addition to swinging a pretty solid stick, he also provides veteran leadership and experience behind the plate.
A busy offseason has prepared the Cubs for a competitive 2015 that could very well result in a playoff berth. Chicago will have its hands full with the St. Louis Cardinals, favorites to win the division for the third year in a row, but the rest of the division looks less than formidable. The Reds are rebuilding, the Pirates keep losing talent (i.e. Martin), and the Brewers haven't improved. The Cubs could easily finish second and ride a wild card berth all the way to World Series glory.
|Jose Abreu (pictured) and Chris Sale have help (GalleryHip)|
Don't expect the same issues to derail Chicago this year. The White Sox won't have the MLB's sixth-worst rotation ERA again after trading for Jeff Samardzija, one of the game's premier power pitchers. Paired with Chris Sale, Samardizja gives the Sox an outstanding left-right punch atop their rotation. Chicago also signed David Robertson, a shutdown closer and one of baseball's best relievers over the past four years. He solidifies the back end of a leaky bullpen that finished 2014 with the third-worst ERA in the majors.
The White Sox upgraded their offense as well, inking Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to bolster a lineup that was heavily dependent on Jose Abreu in 2014. LaRoche, a lock for 20 to 25 home runs when healthy, offsets the loss of Adam Dunn as the team's primary lefthanded power source. A former Gold Glove winner, LaRoche will also allow Abreu to DH a few times per week.
Cabrera figures to slide in behind leadoff man Adam Eaton, giving the team two quality table-setters for Abreu and LaRoche. With an OPS above .800 in three of the past four seasons, he's the kind of impact bat Chicago needs, and like LaRoche his power should play well at U.S. Cellular Field. Cabrera's also a switch-hitter, which helps keep Chicago's lineup balanced.
Like the Cubs, the White Sox seem to have an insurmountable foe in their division vis a vis the Detroit Tigers, winners of four straight AL Central crowns. They also must contend with the reigning AL pennant winners (though Kansas City will surely suffer from losing James Shields), and a solid Indians team. Even the Twins have improved. Accordingly, Chicago will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs coming out of such a competitive division, but I'd expect them to at least go .500. They're still a bit top-heavy (they're doomed if Abreu and/or Sale are lost for extended periods of time), but if their stars are healthy and perform then they'll have enough talent to make some noise.
Regardless of which side they stand on, Chicago baseball fans have plenty to be excited about. Both teams are much-improved and will be right in the thick of things, which hasn't been the case very often. Neither club has made the playoffs since 2008, but it wouldn't surprise me to see both playing next October.
An all-Chicago World Series might be a longshot, but at least there's a chance.