2015 Chicago Cubs: How much better?


Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart the baseball player didn’t have the same career as Jimmy Stewart the actor. A utilityman, Stewart played every position but pitcher in a 10-year career. He came up with the Cubs as a middle infielder, and debuted in 1963. His first at-bat was against Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (Stewart flew out) in a 16-3 loss; his first hit was a double a week later off Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in an 8-0 loss. Stewart did most of his playing over the next two years, hitting .253 with 49 walks in 1964 (415 at-bats) and .223 with 13 steals in ’65 (282 at-bats). After that, he never got more than 221 at-bats in a season. He hit .253 with four homers, four steals and 24 RBIs in 221 at-bats for the ’69 Reds, and then .267 with five steals in 105 at-bats (in 101 games) for the ’70 pennant-winning Reds. Stewart went hitless in four postseason at-bats. After 1971, Stewart was included in the eight-player Joe Morgan-Lee May trade and was sent to the Astros, where he played his final two seasons. He died in 2012 at age 73. Career numbers: .237 average, 336 hits, 8 homers, 38 steals, 112 RBIs, .611 OPS, 71 OPS+, .969 fielding percentage, -1.2 WAR.

On deck: How many home runs can Kris Bryant hit in a full major-league season? We won’t know until 2016, because it’s likely Bryant will start this season in the minor leagues. Bryant hit 43 of them there last year — 22 in Class AA and 21 in AAA –and slugged .661, or a just a tad less than his .666 career percentage. Bryant wasn’t called up last year not because he wasn’t ready, but because the Cubs weren’t. By delaying his major-league debut into the 2015 season, the Cubs can extend their control of Bryant from free agency for an extra season (the Astros, who took pitcher Mark Appel No. 1 ahead of Bryant in the 2013 draft, have no such worries). By the time Bryant is a free agent, he’s likely to command Miguel Cabrera money, only a half-decade earlier. Because not only is there a possibility Bryant will be the best hitter in baseball by then, there’s a likelihood of it.

Trivia: Ernie Banks is one of 13 players to have won consecutive MVP awards, at least one for every position. There’s even one player to have done it twice. Name them. Answer below.

What he said: Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson: “Would I like to start? Yes. If I don’t start am I going to go around and throw a temper tantrum? No, because if I don’t start I feel like it’s something I didn’t do to allow myself to be in that position.” What he meant: “Well, that and the $13 million they’re paying me for my 6.33 ERA.”

Outlook: The Cubs have lost 286 games in Theo Epstein’s three seasons in charge, 464 over the last five years. That’s almost 93 per season since Lou Piniella got out in the middle of the first one. It sounds like he left at the right time.

The Cubs have finished fifth for five straight seasons, the first three in a six-team division, and they’re on their third manager in three years and fourth in the last five.

But for the Houston Astros, who twice saved them from last-place finishes before switching leagues, the Cubs have been the worst team in baseball over the last half a decade.

But the last few years haven’t been wasted. The Cubs invested heavily in position players under Epstein’s tenure — drafting Bryant No. 2 in 2013, catcher Kyle Schwarber (.344/.428/.634 in three low-level 2014 stops) No. 4 in 2014 and center fielder Albert Almora (.294 minor-league average with woeful plate discipline) No. 6 in 2012. Now that power and offense are a precious commodity, the Cubs can deliberate while rivals panic.

The Cubs were 26th in MLB in runs scored last year, but they won’t be again, not with Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo and, either this summer or next, Schwarber.

The Cubs were 21st in ERA last year, and they won’t be again, but they won’t be as improved on the mound as they are at the plate. Partly, that’s because they don’t have as far to go, but also because most of their best prospects — with the exception of oft-injured C.J. Edwards (a 1.86 ERA in just 237 innings over three seasons), courtesy of the Matt Garza trade, and oft-wild Pierce Johnson (2.68 ERA and 103 walks in 232 innings) — are position players.

It’s not if the Cubs will be better, but how much and how soon. And how soon will they contend and/or win big? That’s harder to answer with certainty, but the Cubs will need a better outfield, balance in their rotation, more depth in their bullpen, and, most critically, improved plate discipline. Most of the Cubs’ young players — Bryant excepted — can better tell Waveland Ave. from Addison Street than they can a ball from a strike.

A year ago Baez fanned 95 times in 213 at-bats; Mark Reynolds’ single-season record of 223 is in jeopardy if Baez plays enough, although Tommy La Stella, very much Baez’s opposite (lots of discipline, little power), is around to make sure he doesn’t, like the starter who gets pulled from the rotation as he closes in on 20 losses.

Arismendy Alcantara fanned 93 times in 278 at-bats, and Almora has walked just 33 times in 946 minor-league plate appearances, or about bi-monthly.

And Jorge Soler fanned 24 times in a productive 89 at-bats (14 extra-base hits) last year; but his discipline issues in the minors were away from the plate. He earned a five-game suspension in 2013 when he carried a bat toward an opposing team’s dugout during an altercation. Soler served his suspension and played without incident through two injury-marred seasons.

It seems fitting that the bleachers are being reconstructed at Wrigley Field. When they’re finished, the team won’t be far behind.

Trivia answer: The 13 players to have won consecutive MVPs, by position — First base: Albert Pujols, Cards (2008-09); Frank Thomas, White Sox (1993-94); Jimmy Foxx, Athletics (1932-33); second base: Joe Morgan, Reds (1975-76); shortstop: Banks, Cubs (1958-59); third base: Mike Schmidt, Phillies (1980-81); Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (2012-13); left field: Barry Bonds, Pirates (1992), Giants (1993, 2001-04); center field: Mickey Mantle, Yankees (1956-57); Dale Murphy, Braves (1982-83); right field: Roger Maris, Yankees (1960-61); catcher: Yogi Berra, Yankees (1954-55); pitcher: Hal Newhouser, Tigers (1944-45).

Team song: Bob Dylan: New Morning

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