For avid Chicago Cubs fans, this offseason may seem like a Christmas Eve from our childhood. We don’t know what lies ahead, but it’s probably really great. The 2014 team showed signs of life, the farm system is regarded by most experts as the best in baseball, and the team has serious bank to spend on free agents during an offseason where the market is strong with their biggest need, starting pitching. Oh yeah, and Joe Maddon, one of the most respected managers in baseball just signed on to helm the dugout at Wrigley for the next five years.
But the question isn’t about can the Cubs win 90 games if they sign Jon Lester and Max Scherzer and trade for Cole Hamels (if they did, 100 wins wouldn’t be out of the question) but rather could the Cubs as presently constituted go from 89 losses in 2014 to 90 wins in 2015?
It’s not as farfetched as it may seem. In 2013, two teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians rose 93 and 94 losses respectively in 2012 to 90 plus win seasons. The Cubs, 73-89 in 2014, could follow in their footsteps. Here’s how.
To go from 16 games under 18 over is a big leap, but the Cubs are almost halfway there already. Consider that the 2014 Cubs essentially had two seasons, the first quarter and the remaining 122 games. During the first quarter the Cubs were awful; they went 13-27 and the bullpen was a mess. They overhauled the bullpen at that point creating a trio, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon that were the Windy City equivalent of the Kansas City Royals deservedly ballyhooed late inning trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. From the forty game marker forward, the Cubs went 60-62 the rest of the way, essentially a .500 team.
The run differential of a 90 win team is roughly plus 80 runs. How from even money do the Cubs get to plus 80? It’s fairly simple: what they won’t do is as important as what they will. For instance, the 2015 Cubs are highly unlikely to give Edwin Jackson 27 starts if his E.R.A. resembles his 2014 mark of 6.33. Also the team won’t give Travis Wood 31 starts if his E.R.A is 5.03 again. Obviously if those two rotation slots turn into Jon Lester and another elite pitcher then major change can be expected but even if those two slots go to say Erik Jokisch and Felix Dubrount, two pitchers likely to pitch around an E.R.A of 4, it would likely improve run prevention by about 85 runs.
There should be substantial improvement on offense too. More than 1440 plate appearances won’t go to placeholders like Mike Olt, Darwin Barney, Emilio Bonafacio, Junior Lake, and Nate Schierholz, all of whom posted OBP of .320 or under and didn’t hit for power. Instead those at bats will mostly go to hot shot prospects like Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant. Since all three are regarded among the top prospects in baseball, expect substantial improvement. And there’s a wild card, Javier Baez belongs in both categories. He was a big minus offensively in 229 plate appearances in 2014, but his resume suggests that he could be a very big positive as early as 2015.
The 2015 Cubs are a team that are essentially at .500 and about to upgrade their offense substantially via homegrown prospects and if they just weed out the bad elements of their starting rotation and replaced them with league average performers, they are likely improve their run prevention by a large margin. So the Cubs may project as a 90 win ball club even without a big name free agent signing.
But as a fan, I’d like to see the Cubs first playoff game in seven years next October started by someone like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or Cole Hamels.