Expectations soar as Cubs try to end title drought
CHICAGO — The last time the Chicago Cubs faced expectations this high, the Model T was hitting the market.
The Cubs look about as loaded as any team after a 97-win season that catapulted them to the National League Championship Series and sparked hope among their long-suffering fans that a championship drought dating to 1908 just might be in its final stages.
Nothing that has happened since Dexter Fowler got called out on strikes to end Game 4 against the New York Mets has dimmed that.
All the Cubs did was add to a roster that already mixed solid veterans and one of the best young cores. They did it without sacrificing any of their prized prospects. And as an added bonus, they took two key players from NL Central rival St. Louis.
They signed star outfielder Jason Heyward and starter John Lackey away from the Cardinals while adding infielder Ben Zobrist and pitcher Adam Warren. Not a bad haul for a team that already boasted NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, not to mention Manager of the Year Joe Maddon.
Here are some things to look for as pitchers and catchers report to camp in Mesa, Arizona, on Friday:
CONTRACT TALK: For all they accomplished in the offseason, one important item remains on the Cubs' to-do list — a contract extension for president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. The architect of the Cubs' turnaround, he is entering the final season of the five-year deal he signed when he left Boston following the 2011 season.
Epstein has said that the players' contracts were a higher priority than his. And chairman Tom Ricketts said at the team's annual fan convention in January there is "no holdup, there's no drama" and that "generally we're on the same page."
SWITCH TO CENTER: A three-time Gold Glove winner, Heyward just might be the best defensive right fielder in baseball. He just won't be seeing as much time there.
The Cubs are counting on Heyward making a smooth switch to center to replace Fowler and help compensate for some of the shortcomings of Kyle Schwarber (16 homers in 69 games last season) in left and Jorge Soler in right. That will be a bit of an adjustment for someone who has made 751 of his 781 starts in right.
ARRIETA'S ENCORE: The Cubs are banking on big things from Arrietta. It will be difficult to approach what he did last year.
The right-hander turns 30 in March and is coming off a season in which he led the majors in wins with a 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA. He went 11-0 with a 0.41 ERA in his final 12 starts and shut out Pittsburgh in the wild-card game. But he tailed off against St. Louis and New York in the playoffs.
He also threw 229 innings during the regular season, which easily surpassed his previous high of 156 2-3 for Chicago in 2014.
CATCHER OR LEFT FIELDER?: One of the bigger long-term questions surrounding the Cubs is whether Schwarber will ultimately be a left fielder or catcher.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's a catcher," catching and strategy coach Mike Borzello said. "I'm not letting that go until Joe or Theo says he's not catching."
Bench coach Dave Martinez countered: "I am the outfield coach — and I want Schwarber in the outfield."
Schwarber worked hard on his outfield defense over the winter after making 15 starts at catcher and 36 in left as a rookie. And his progress in left will be a more important story line this spring than whether he should be catching, with veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross behind the plate.
ARMED AND READY: With the addition of Lackey behind Arrietta and Lester, the back end of the rotation is looking deep. The Cubs hope Jason Hammel performs more like the pitcher who posted a 2.89 ERA in his first 16 starts before being hampered the rest of the way by a knee injury. Assuming he does, that leaves Warren (3.29 ERA in 43 appearances — 17 starts — for the New York Yankees last season) and Kyle Hendricks competing for the fifth spot, with Clayton Richard possibly in the mix.
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