It would have been understandable, perhaps even commendable, for Cubs general manager Theo Epstein to stand pat with his deep young roster that made it to the 2015 National League Championship Series.
With exceptional rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell joining budding stars Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Jake Arrieta, Epstein could field a World Series contender this season by simply doing nothing.
Instead, he got better. And he did it at the expense of Chicago’s chief rivals, the defending NL Central champion Cardinals.
The Cubs are the consensus best team in baseball. They have the reigning Cy Young winner (Arrieta) and Rookie of the Year (Bryant). They’re young and rich, with a roster that is just entering its prime.
Equally important, they inflicted damage on the Cards. Chicago didn’t just spend money on a new pitcher and franchise player; it spent that money to steal the most valuable pitcher and hitter from last season away from their rivals.
Last year’s best pitcher, by wins above replacement (WAR), which is a measure of that player’s proven value above an average player?
That would be John Lackey, whose 5.7 WAR was almost two wins better than the pitcher behind him. He’s on the Cubs now.
Last year’s best position player, by WAR? That would be Jason Heyward, whose 6.5 WAR was almost three wins better than the player behind him. He’s on the Cubs now.
That’s a potential 12-game shift between the two, more than enough for Chicago to leapfrog St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals and Pirates, meanwhile, did little in the offseason to respond except get older.
Despite the chest-puffing in Wrigleyville, no one is handing the NL Central crown to the Cubs, much less the World Series. It’s only February. Pitchers and catchers are still a dozen days away from reporting for spring training.
Major League Baseball’s history is ripe with teams that looked invincible around the hot stove, only to fade in the field under the summer heat.
Remember that remarkable pitching staff that was going to propel Bryce Harper and the Nats to last year’s title? Washington didn’t even sniff the postseason. Nor did defending World Series champs San Francisco. Baseball throws curveballs at prognosticators with consistency.
Let’s take the point a step further. No prohibitive favorite going into spring training has won the World Series in recent memory.
If form holds, the Cubs, 2016 darlings by a wide margin, are destined for postseason disappointment. Indeed, would that really surprise you?
Chicago has the best team on the planet right now, but that means little until October. And, lest we remind you, October has not been kind to the Cubs for more than a century.
All that sets up a season that should be especially juicy for Midwest fans. The Cubs-Cards rivalry is the best in baseball right now. In the 2015 regular season, they played 19 times. Seven of those games were decided by a run, and two more were decided by two runs.
The Cubs then dismissed the Cards in the playoffs in a series that many thought signaled a changing of the guard.
Did it? The Cubs’ Epstein seemed to drive home that point with his offseason spending spree that also added veteran second-baseman, Ben Zobrist.
The rivalry is great, but there is something bigger at stake here. This is Chicago’s best chance to reach the World Series since 2003, when some fellow named Bartman reached over the railing to catch a foul ball. As you may recall, the Cubs were leading 3-0 and just five outs away from winning the NL championship.
Chicago is once again the favorite, something not unprecedented since that last World Series title in 1908, as curses and bad luck have intervened.
Cub fans should be excited. And more than just a little nervous.
It’s a long way to October.
Out of hibernation
It’s great to be hailed as the best MLB team going into Spring Training. That does not guarantee World Series success though, as a look back at the past seven years suggests.
Spring Training;Favorite Win World Series?