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Exorcising the Demons - A Chicago Cubs preview

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A look ahead at the crosstown rivals

Opposites attract
Opposites attract
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

"Lovable losers" is a term that Chicago Cubs fans would probably prefer to never hear again. Unfortunately, there's only one way to really make it permanently go away.

The Cubs captured the NL Central crown in 2007 and 2008 thanks to a series of extremely aggressive acquisitions by former general manager Jim Hendry. While the organization had visions of ripping off a long run of success, it all came to a screeching halt after a roster that looked like it might be baseball's best won a disappointing 83 games in 2009. The Cubs sank further into the abyss, and Hendry was eventually fired during a 71-win season in 2011.

Despite the 91 losses, that year will stick out to Cubs fans as one of the most important in team history. On October 12, 2011, the Cubs made a move that would redefine the future of the franchise by hiring Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations. The "instant gratification" efforts of Hendry gave way to a commitment to building from within and starting from square one. Epstein immediately began gutting the roster and slashing financial commitments. What was the sixth-highest payroll in the major leagues in 2011 quickly slid all the way down to 23rd in 2014, despite the team's considerable revenue base.

Everything was going according to plan. The major league team lost 286 games from 2012-14 as the team built up a crop of young talent through trades and the amateur draft. Rooting for the Cubs during those seasons must have been a weird feeling, as the team put out a three-year stretch of hopeless baseball not seen by the franchise since the early 1960s. One could pull for the team's seemingly only two building blocks on the major league squad in Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, but almost everyone else was just an obvious stopgap or a holdover from the previous regime that would be expected to play no role on the next competitive Cubs team. Accordingly, normally sellout-quality attendance numbers dropped to levels not seen since before Sammy Sosa was chasing a home run record.

Epstein tested the patience of Cubs fans for three years, but in 2015, that patience is finally being rewarded.

With plenty of spending flexibility and an unbelievably deep corps of young talent knocking on the door of the big league club, the first significant offseason move the Cubs made was to bring in Joe Maddon to manage the team. The fit was ideal; Maddon had previous experience of overseeing the transformation of a young, losing team into a force to be reckoned with in Tampa Bay. His unique blend of experience, leadership, personality, and tactical brilliance made him the perfect man for the job.

The second big move came on Dec. 15 when free-agent lefty Jon Lester was signed to a six-year, $155 million contract to serve as the top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the rebuilt Cubs. Lester's taken a step back from his superb 2014, but he's still been very effective. Sure, he's unspeakably awful at hitting, even for a pitcher, and he's amusingly incapable of performing a basic pickoff move, but if he keeps up his high-quality pitching, the Cubs will be unlikely to complain.

The Cubs also made a move to bring back Jason Hammel to be a LAIM, but he's more closely resembled an ace thus far. So far, Hammel's strikeout and walk rates have both been career bests. The Cubs followed up that acquisition by trading for catcher Miguel Montero, who has been very strong in the power department and has provided excellent pitch framing that shows throughout the Cubs' rotation.

These offseason hits have joined a young and robust core that has the Cubs in the thick of playoff contention. The headliner of the young core is Rizzo, who is captain of the Cubs in all but title. The slugging 25-year-old first baseman is very dangerous because of his excellent command of the strike zone. Rizzo has more or less been replicating his breakout 2014 with the exception of an MLB-leading 17 beanballs that have further boosted his on-base percentage. At the other infield corner, hype train Kris Bryant is heading to his first All-Star game as a rookie. Bryant hits for power and draws loads of walks, but could stand to strike out a little less to cover for when his .371 BABIP comes back to earth. Before the season there was much hand-wringing over his defense at third, but for what its worth, the metrics don't hate him.

In the middle infield, Castro has fallen flat on his face for the second time in three years. Second baseman Addison Russell is very obviously the more qualified defensive shortstop, but speculation has been that Castro retains the position as a false signal to potential suitors for his services. Russell's defense has been good enough to make him a valuable player in spite of his struggles at the plate. He'll need to start making more contact if he wants to live up to the high hopes everyone has for him.

In the outfield, newly acquired center fielder Dexter Fowler hasn't been the source of OBP the Cubs have hoped for, but some other nice performances have helped compensate for that. One such performance is that of the resurgent Chris Coghlan, who has been a nice source of cheap value for the Cubs in left field thanks to his new views on hitting. In the other outfield corner, Jorge Soler has more or less been Avisail Garcia at the plate, only unlike Garcia, Soler is passable in the field. The Cubs have also received nice bench contributions from fourth outfielder Chris Denorfia during Soler's injury absence.

In aggregate, the Cubs' hitting hasn't been all that special, and the run prevention unit is what has them well-entrenched in the National League's second wild card slot. In addition to the performances of Lester, Hammel, and a good defense, Jake Arrieta has built on his 2014 breakout and has established himself as one of the National League's best pitchers. Arrieta owes much of his breakthrough to increased reliance on his slider, but his curveball might be his most successful offering; opponents have a 17 percent whiff rate against it and have slugged just .221.

Star-divide

Indeed, these Cubs are a team on the rise, as the Schierholtzes, Barneys, and Valbuenas of the purgatory years have given way to the cornerstones of the future. In the coming years, more big-ticket acquisitions (paging Dr. Price...) are likely to complement the current group of exciting young players as Epstein and company push for goals higher than a wild card berth. There's just one glaring, redbird-shaped problem: they'll have to do battle with baseball's best organization to get there. As good as the Cubs might become in the ensuing years, the presence of St. Louis means you can't simply become the NL Central's alpha dog by successfully following a sound process; you need a little luck, too. One might say that luck isn't this organization's strong suit. Another might say that it's just about due for some.

Predicted Record and Finish: 88-74, third place, NL Central

Probable Pitching Matchups

  • Friday July 10: Carlos Rodon vs. Kyle Hendricks
  • Saturday July 11: Chris Sale vs. Jon Lester
  • Sunday July 12: Jose Quintana vs. Jake Arrieta

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Dexter Fowler - CF

SP1. Jake Arrieta - RHP

2. Anthony Rizzo - 1B

SP2. Jon Lester - LHP

3. Kris Bryant - 3B

SP3. Jason Hammel - RHP

4. Jorge Soler - RF

SP4. Kyle Hendricks - RHP

5. Starlin Castro - SS

SP5. Clayton Richard - RHP

6. Miguel Montero - C

CL. Jason Motte - RHP

7. Chris Coghlan - LF

RP1. Hector Rondon - RHP

8. (Pitcher)

RP2. Pedro Strop - RHP

9. Addison Russell - 2B

RP3. Justin Grimm - RHP