1. Starting pitching
Though the rotation got a major upgrade this offseason, in order for the Cubs to be successful this year, they are going to need reliable performances from a few of the other members of the starting staff as well. If Jon Lester can be the kind of pitcher he has been, this is an excellent start, but I think a large part of the Cubs success will come down to two other starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood. The first, Arrieta, is pretty obvious. He was downright marvelous in 2014. In 156.2 innings, he posted a WHIP of .989, a FIP of 2.26, and struck out 167 batters while walking only 41. When you compare his performance in Chicago to his in Baltimore, it’s as if you are looking at two different pitchers. The change in him has been remarkable. In order for the Cubs to experience success in 2015, he needs to keep pitching like he has been. Even with a slight dip in performance from what he produced last year, he’s possibly more of an anchor to the staff than Lester will be.
Along with him, the Cubs need Travis Wood to be more like the Travis Wood of 2013. Those numbers are truly impressive. In 200 innings he posted a WHIP of 1.145, a FIP of 3.89, and struck out 144 batters while walking 66. If you compare that to his performance last year, you’ll see a notable dip, but many think it can be attributed to decreased use of his slider. A return to the plan of attack that he used on the mound in 2012 and 2013 could yield much greater results.
2. Javier Baez
The potential is so great, but the performance he put forth during his debut last season was just a little bit scary. He struck out at an astronomical rate, and managed a very measly OBP. He is a power hitter, so it’s likely that he’s always going to post a fairly low OBP and strike out a lot, but he can’t do so at even close to the rate that he did in 2014 and expect to contribute to the Cubs in a positive way.
The key for him, I think, is that the Cubs organization displays patience. Whether it’s in letting him develop in the majors while accepting the problems at offense that that will cause, or being willing to return him to Iowa as this season begins, and let him work on making positive progress there. Either way, he is very, very young, and time is on his (and the Cubs’) side.
3. Be buyers in July
I still get a little bit giddy when I think about the Samardzija trade last July because of what it did for our farm system. Samardzija was always a favorite of mine while he was a Cub, but the return the Cubs got for him was pretty exciting. That said, I think one of the keys for the Cubs this season is to look at the trade deadline as a time to add to the big league club, rather than the minor league system. While it is fun having the top ranked program in baseball, I’d like better to see them winning playoff games, and (dare I say it?) a World Series.
This July, in particular, I think they can be on the market for another starting pitcher. It’s hard to guess at who might be available when that time comes, but the trade deadline always proves to bring out some surprises. I’d love for the Cubs to target David Price this next offseason, but if the circumstances in Detroit are right, he could be available even before that.
4. Win road games in the division
This may seem sort of obvious, but the NL Central provides a significant challenge, namely because of the teams in St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Either of those teams pose a significant threat to being able to win the divisional crown in 2015, so if the Cubs are going to see the playoffs this year, they need to beat those teams in their home ballparks as much as possible. They can’t ease off on Milwaukee and Cincinnati either, so not allowing slides in the standings to happen while they are making road trips to those cities will be key.
5. Tune out hype
Because the Cubs have this streak of haplessness hanging over them every year, the desire for both local and national media to hype them tends to cycle around every few years. Most recently, the team of 2008 carried this on their shoulders, and I don’t need to remind any Cubs fan how those playoffs turned out. 2015 has set up to be possibly even more intense. The Sporting News and Back to the Future have already predicted it, but the hope (and expectation?) that the Cubs can win it all this year has done nothing but grow since last season ended. The prospects, the new manager, Jon Lester, etc. has caught the attention of the hype machine. For the players, I see this as being more damaging than productive. In order to have even moderate success this year, they need to block that out, and especially, as the season will inevitably bring struggles, they need to maintain focus on controlling their division, and letting the rest of baseball and the media worry about everything else.