Last season, the Chicago Cubs lost 101 games, the first time in almost 50 years that the franchise surpassed the century mark in losses. This year, though, should be a much different story.
According to Baseball Prospectus' pre-season projections, the Cubs will win 78 games this year, a 17-win improvement over last year's total. Those projections obviously carry a significant amount of guesswork and have a high margin of error, but they're grounded in hard evidence. Furthermore, while playoff baseball at Wrigley still seems farfetched at this point, a number of low-risk offseason moves and the continued development of talented young players have the Cubs poised for a significant turnaround.
For one thing, the Cubs' pitching rotation is, at least on paper, surprisingly good this year. The team finished with the third-worst ERA in the National League last year, but has since brought in a number of dependable replacements to address that glaring problem.
Over the winter, the Cubs signed Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and former All-Star Edwin Jackson. Though those players are not among the game's best, they're all reliably decent — and even, at times, fairly good. That's especially the case with Jackson, who pitched a no-hitter two years ago for Arizona.
Those new hires join a rotation that already included the intimidating duo of Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. According to one projection from the stat experts at Fangraphs, the Cubs new-look rotation could be one of the ten best in the league this year, a revelation that was even a "big surprise" to the site's Dave Cameron.
Samardzija/Jackson/Garza give the team three guys who can miss bats at the front of the rotation, at least when Garza eventually gets healthy anyway, and the front office did a nice job assembling a collection of underrated guys to fill out the last few spots in the rotation over the winter. [Fangraphs]
The Cubs' lineup is far less encouraging, though it's not without promise. The offense boasts a dynamic young tandem of 23-year-olds in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro, who made his first All-Star Game appearance last year.
Rizzo is widely expected to become an All-Star-caliber player himself. Despite playing the first half of last year in the minors, he hit 15 home runs after being called up to the pros. Expectations are even higher now, and he's being hailed as the cornerstone of the franchise's rebuilding project.
Of course, the team could flop miserably. The Cubs scored the third-fewest runs in baseball last year, so even a big improvement there may not be enough to get the team out of the cellar.
Further, they're are deep in a rebuilding phase under new team president Theo Epstein. If the Cubs find themselves far from contention come mid-season, they could part out their better pieces for more talented prospects. Last year, they shipped staff ace Ryan Dempster to Texas at the trade deadline. Garza, if he returns to form, could go the same way this year, leaving a hole in what was supposed to be their biggest strength.
The Cubs almost certainly won't go from worst to first this year. However, they've quietly put together a team that is "headed in the right direction, with a vastly improved farm system and a promising young core in place," according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Chen.
And wouldn't you know it, on Monday the Cubs opened their season with a win.