We’re now moving on to the NL Central in our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2016 season, with a look at the Chicago Cubs, who finished in third place in the division last season.
The Cubs had their best season since 2008 last year, winning 97 games and earning the second Wild Card in the National League, eventually advancing to the National League Championship Series, in which they got swept by the Mets. In addition to the hiring of manager Joe Maddon, considered one of the best in the game, youth was the key to the Cubs’ success last season, led by rookie 3B Kris Bryant — who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award — and 1B Anthony Rizzo leading the way on offense. On the pitching side, SP Jake Arrieta had a breakout season that ended with him winning the league’s Cy Young Award. Not content with a 97-win season a year ago, the team was active this winter, signing three of the top free agents who were available: OF Jason Heyward, SP John Lackey and 2B Ben Zobrist. To make room for Zobrist at second base, they traded SS Starlin Castro to the Yankees for RP Adam Warren, allowing SS Addison Russell to play the position full-time this season after splitting time between second and shortstop in 2015.
The Cubs’ offense was a mixed bag, with their batting average near the bottom of the league, while their home run and RBI totals were in the top half of the National League. Rizzo led the way, with a .278 average, 31 home runs and 101 RBI while Bryant added a .275 average, 26 home runs and 99 RBI despite spending the first couple weeks of the season in the minors before being called up. C/OF Kyle Schwarber also showed some positive signs offensively in the 69 games he played at the major league level. Although he hit just .246, he smashed 16 home runs and 43 RBI in 232 at-bats. For his part, Arrieta led the pitching staff with a 22-6 record, a 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings. SP Jon Lester struggled some in his first season with the team, finishing the season in with a 3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings to go along with an 11-12 record.
The additions of Heyward and Zobrist should help the Cubs raise their low batting average from 2015 while also adding some power to an already-potent offense. Then when you factor in rookies like Bryant and, especially, Schwarber having more major league experience, they may also have improved offensive numbers in 2016, to help with the team’s run production. The defense should also be improved this season with Castro gone, as his 24 errors were the most on the team last season. The addition of Lackey to the starting rotation fills in the spot vacated by SP Dan Haren, who retired following last season, to bring a veteran starter who had a career-best 2.77 ERA with the Cardinals last season, along with 175 strikeouts while going 13-10 over 218 innings. If Lackey can put up similar numbers in 2016, it would provide a solid middle-of-the-rotation option behind Lester and Arrieta.
The NL Central was one of the best divisions in the majors last season, resulting in the Cubs finishing in third place despite a 97-65 record. With the signings the Cubs made in the offseason, they’re not just the favorites in the division now, but perhaps the favorites in the National League. Heyward and Lackey were both on the Cardinals last season, so their additions not only help the Cubs but also hurt the defending division champs. A 100-win season is not out of the question for the Cubs, which would be their first since 1935, who are likely the best team in the NL Central. They are also the favorites to win the World Series — something they, of course, haven’t done since 1908 — according to the Vegas odds.