What’s going on on the north side of Chicago? This past week, they brought back their former pitcher Jason Hammel, traded two young right handed pitchers for catcher Miguel Montero of the Arizona Diamondbacks and then enticed the most sought after of the Free Agent pitchers, Jon Lester, to sign with them instead of returning to the Red Sox.
Theo Epstein, the former General Manager of the Red Sox, who left Boston to become President for Baseball Operations with the Chicago Cubs at the end of the Red Sox disastrous 2011 season, is entering the fourth year of a five year $18.5 million contract there. He has worked to build a strong farm system and focused on long term success. He made no promises of immediate success when he first came to Chicago but promised to work to ‘ ..get where we want to go, which is to a foundation of sustained success ‘ as he was quoted in the Cubs 2011 Spring Training Program.
There is no question the Cubs have progressed in his three years at the helm. The Cubs have been mired in fifth place in the competitive Central Division of the National League since before he arrived there. In his first year, they won just 61 games, the next year 66 and last year 73. In 2012, they finished 36 games out, in 2013, 31, and, in 2014, 17.
Epstein and his team, which includes Jed Hoyer, his General Manager, who he brought over from Boston where they built the team that won three World’s Championships this century, brought in Hammel, Lester and Montero to try to put the finishing touches on their long term plan.
Lester and Hammel will become two members of a starting rotation that will include Jake Arieta, a right hander who was 10-5 last year with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts, Travis Wood, who is a better left handed pitcher that his 8-13 record with a 5.03 ERA last year and Kyle Hendricks a 25 year old right hander who went 7-2 in 13 starts with a 2.46 ERA last year as a rookie. They also have Tsuyoshi Wada who, as a 33 year old rookie, was 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA.
Before being traded to Oakland last year, Hammel was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA and Lester was 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA between Boston and Oakland. With the addition of these two, the Cubs should have a solid rotation.
Closer Hector Rondon, was successful in 29 of 33 save attempts with an ERA of 2.42. The rest of the bullpen, including Blake Parker, who has relieved 67 times in the last two years, Pedro Strop, 65 appearances and a 2.21 ERA last year, Justin Grimm, a 26 year old right hander who was in 73 games, with a 5-2 record and 3.78 ERA and Neil Ramirez, a 25 year old right hander with a 1.44 ERA in 50 games, has excellent potential.
Montero played in 136 games at Arizona last year and hit .243. The infield is not set but has Anthony Rizzo, .286, 32 homers and 78 RBI’s, at first, Javier Baez, a shortstop, who, as a rookie, played 52 games and hit only .169, will either play second or short. Starlin Castro, who despite some problems, hit .292 with 14 homers and 65 RBI’s will probably start the season at short and Luis Valbuena, who hit .249 with 16 homers and 51 RBI’s at third.
Chris Coghlan, .283 in 125 games should be in left with Jorge Soler, a rookie, who played only 24 games last year but hit .292 with 5 homers and 24 RBI’s the favorite to be in right. Arismendy Alcantara, who came up in early July and played 48 of his 70 games in center while hitting only .205 but had 10 homers may be the center fielder but could move to second depending upon what happens with Castro and Baez. Ryan Sweeney, who only played in 77 games, due to injuries, and hit .251 is available for outfield duty, too.
New manager Joe Maddon who seems to get more out of young players than most managers has a good nucleus and, if his starting rotation stays healthy, should make the Cubs competitive. Playing in the National League Central with the Cardinals, Pirates, Reds and Brewers will make it difficult to make the playoffs but Epstein and Hoyer have come a long way in a short time with this team and the future looks brighter.
Lots of things are happening with the Cubs. The City of Mesa built them a brand new, state of the art, spring training complex which opened last year to replace Hohokam Field where they had been forever. Wrigley Field, which celebrated its 100th year last year is being renovated and Cubs fans are looking forward to a competitive team for the first time in a long while.
The Cubs have as good a fan base as any team in baseball, especially given their long drought. I think they’re going to like the way this team will perform for the old master Maddon but don’t look for a pennant right away.