On deck: Outfielder Billy McKinney was one of the other players the Cubs acquired for pitcher Jeff Samardzijia and Jason Hammel, as if shortstop Addison Russell wasn’t enough. McKinney might someday make it even better. The Cubs have a crowded major league outfield, which means McKinney will spend most of 2015 at AA and/or AAA. But like the hidden change jar that only you know where it is, he’s there if the Cubs need him. McKinney has a minor-league .366 on-base percentage and .289 average and a touch of power; he hit 11 homers in 2014. He’s still only 20 and has played center, but the Cubs are pointing him to a corner position.
2015 stat: The Cubs got double figures in home runs from every position in 2015: catcher (Miguel Montero 15), first base (Anthony Rizzo 31); second base (Starlin Castro 11); shortstop (Addison Russell 13); third base (Kris Bryant 26); left field (Chris Coghlan 16); center field (Dexter Fowler 17); right field (Jorge Soler 10). And 16 more from catcher-outfielder Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs have never had nine players hit double-figures in home runs. (The 1978 Cubs had only one player hit double figures in home runs: Dave Kingman with 28. Bobby Murcer hit 9, and no other Cubs hit more than 5. They hit 72 as a team, or just 26 more than MLB leader Jim Rice’s 46. The 1946 Cubs had no double-figure home run hitters, and had just 56 as a team, three by pitcher Claude Passeau. He tied for seventh on the team leaderboard, behind Phil Cavarettea and Bill Nicholson, who tied for high, so to speak, with 8.)
What he said: Donald Trump in a tweet on Cubs owner Tom Ricketts: “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” What he meant: “The Cubs are losers. Yuuuuuge losers.”
Outlook: Here’s something you don’t read every spring: The Cubs are the best team in baseball.
It’s only March, but it’s hard to remember the last time that was the case, even in spring training. Given that it’s probably been a century since true, anyone who could remember it probably can’t anymore.
The Cubs won 97 games last year and four of their first five in the playoffs before being swept by the Mets. No team that played as far into last fall improved as much as the Cubs in the offseason; no team was going to based on its youth, but the Cubs took a shortcut: they got better players, too.
Last year’s Cubs were just 16th in run scored and 12th in home runs and on-base percentage. They added Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, who do both, to their lineup; it doesn’t hurt that Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder.
The Cubs were third in baseball in ERA, but added free agent John Lackey, whose 2.77 ERA was best among Cardinals starters, the team which ranked first in ERA, four-tenths of a run better than the Cubs. How much more of a win-win could it be?
But the best team doesn’t always win, and more often doesn’t. The more teams in the playoffs, the more the postseason becomes like the NCAA tourney, where any seven seed can win.
The Cardinals won 100 games last year and exited in the first round, thanks to the Cubs. The Giants won 88 games and were a 9 seed, at best, in 2014; they beat the Nationals, who won eight more games in the season, in the first round.
In this century, only three times has the team which won the most games won the World Series, and all from the AL East: the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox (tied with Cleveland and St. Louis, respectively) and the 2009 Yankees.
The 2001 Mariners won 116 games, 21 more than the Yankees and lost in five in the ALCS; the 2006 Cardinals were 13th in wins with 83, but won a bad division and went 11-5 — a .688 winning percentage, or 173 points better than their regular season one — and won the World Series.
It used to be that MLB played a full season to determine the two best teams for the World Series; now it plays a full season for fantasy stats and to put 10 teams in the postseason. Entertainment makes money.
The team that’s won the most games is just 3-for-16 in winning the World Series since 2000, a batting average only pitchers and gamblers convinced the Cubs are due would love. And if those numbers don’t assuage a Cubs’ fans’ discontent, the Curse of the Billy Goat should do it.
But enough piling on the Cubs and their fans, who have had 110 years of history dumped on them, one slab of ignominy at a time. If there’s a reason the 2016 Cubs can’t win, it’s not identifiable in March.
They won 97 games last year, and that was with just half a season from Kyle Schwarber, who homered 16 times in the regular season and five more in the postseason. With a full season of Schwarber, the Cubs could hit 100 home runs in the middle of the order. How many runs will Zobrist, who’s averaged 81 walks a season since becoming a regular, score ahead of that.
The Cubs might be short a reliever, and perhaps another starter, but they have an able manager, a wily front office and assets to dangle. Javier Baez, a 23-year-old middle infielder who’s slugged .541 in the minors, has no place to play. On how many other teams would that be said?
The Cubs are where golfer Phil Mickelson was when he predicted multiple majors and Masters before he had even won one. The Cubs can see a future of many championships, if they can only win the first.
It seems presumptuous, like Hillary Clinton talking about running for her second term before winning number one.
And yet the Red Sox went 86 years without before 2004, then won two more before another decade was out. There’s precedent the Cubs can believe in. If the Curse of the Bambino fades, how can a billy goat’s endure?
The Cubs may win the World Series this year. Or not. But starting the season with their nucleus is a little like putting the garbage cans out daily in a new town where you don’t know the ordinances. One day, like the Cubs’ debt to their fans, they’ll be emptied.
Team Song: Sarah Vaughan: Stairway to the Stars