I wanted to get some inspiration before I wrote this piece, so I went back and read the first preview I wrote for TTFB, back in 2012. It sure was good for a laugh. Names like Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano were mentioned, and all are long gone from Wrigley Field. Names like Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo had “prospect” attached to them. And I said — rather prophetically — that asking the team to finish above .500 would be asking a lot. I must have been onto something in those days.
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It’s now three seasons later, which is a virtual eternity in baseball terms. In the first three years of the Theo Epstein era, the Cubs have taken the field above .500 on two occasions, back in the early days of the 2013 season. I wrote about how good it felt to be 1-0 after a win on opening day that season. In three years, that’s all I’ve got in the way of good memories.
Subjecting the longest-suffering and most star-crossed fan base in all of professional sports to a three-year diet of extreme losing felt like an exercise in sadism. And last May, I threw up my hands in disgust. But like Crash Davis in Bull Durham — who quit the game in one breath and asked his manager when he had to be at the ballpark with the next — I was back before I knew it. The game is a part of me, and I’d rather drink rat poison than root for any team besides the Cubs. There was no other choice than to endure that long, dark tunnel of losing.
But that’s all over now. The bleachers are gone, and so is Ernie Banks, and now it’s time to lose that third pillar of being a Cubs fan in the modern era: the “lovable losers” mindset. The only loveable losers anymore are those who want to keep using that term. The long-awaited dawn has finally arrived in Chicago.
The Cubs made their first real move back in November, when they hired their third manager of the Epstein era. Bringing in Joe Maddon signaled that the team was finally ready to win. They also hit the free agency market with abandon, signing Jon Lester to a long-term deal and bringing in his personal catcher David Ross for good measure. The Cubs also traded for Dexter Fowler to lead off and brought in Miguel Montero from Arizona. It was the kind of offseason we’ve been waiting to see for a long time.
The Cubs are built around Anthony Rizzo at first base and Starlin Castro at shortstop. The team has followed the lead Rizzo, who promised a division crown this year. Knocking the Cardinals off their perch atop the NL Central won’t be easy, but at least that goal has been articulated.
The Cubs will be carrying three catchers, at least for now, because Castillo was not traded after the Ross and Montero acquisitions. But three’s a crowd, especially behind the plate.
Mike Olt or Tommy LaStella will probably start the year at third base — more on that in a minute –and Javier Baez may resume playing second base, if he ever decides to start hitting the ball.
The Cubs outfield looks like it will be Fowler in center, Jorge Soler in left and Chris Coghlan in right. Ryan Sweeney and Matt Sczcur also figure to see some playing time, but carrying three catchers could also limit the Cubs options in the outfield.
The Lester signing was the talk of baseball in the offseason, and he gives the team instant postseason –and yes, World Series — experience. He’s the number-one starter, followed by Jake Arrieta in the two spot. Having watched Arrieta come within a Brandon Phillips double of a no-hitter last fall at Wrigley Field, I can say this guy’s for real. Following him is Jason Hammel, back for a return engagement with the team this year. The other starters include Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada and the much-maligned (especially by me) Edwin Jackson.
The bullpen has turned into a strong point, after the disaster that was Jose Veras left town. Hector Rondon emerged as a pretty reliable closer with 29 saves last year, and Jason Motte was brought in to add some experience to the group. Pedro Strop returns as the setup man, and Neal Ramirez is looking to bounce back from a triceps injury in 2014. And while I enjoy writing “failure limericks” with Brian Schlitter’s name after a bad performance, I’m hoping there won’t be very many to write this year.
Opening day lineup
Dexter Fowler CF
Starlin Castro SS
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Jorge Soler RF
Mike Olt 3B
Miguel Montero C
Chris Coghlan LF
Tommy LaStella 2B
Jon Lester P
When I was a young kid first getting into baseball in the late 1970s, I read a lot of books written by Matt Christopher. My favorite one of all was “The Kid Who Only Hit Homers” because, let’s face it, homers are cool. And in spring training this year, Kris Bryant has been the closest thing we’ll ever see to being that kid in real life. He’s hit nine homers already this spring, following on a monster season in the minor leagues last year. He earned a September call-up last year, and a spot on the Cubs’ roster on opening day, but he’ll be denied both because the front office is playing service time games. Agent Scott Boras has cried foul, but the reality is Olt should enjoy his three-week run as the Cubs third baseman, before Bryant makes his overdue debut in the majors. This guy will inspire poetry about his baseball prowess someday.
Prospects have been the Cubs’ calling card for the past three years, and they are starting to make their way to the majors at last. Baez earned plenty of derision from me last season because of his absurd strikeout ratio, and I have boldly predicted a stint back in triple-A for him at the start of this season. Arismendy Alcantra figures to get some more playing time this year, and Kyle Schwarber could end up as this year’s Kris Bryant, knocking at the door but being denied entry. And Albert Almora’s name has been kicking around, as well. And I almost forgot about Addison Russell, one of the top prospects in the game who’ll also be playing on Addison Street before you know it.
95-67, first in the NL Central. First and foremost, I’m a fan of this team. If you want expert professional analysis of where the Cubs will finish this season, look for it somewhere else. What I know is the wait is finally over, and the installation of what will probably be a hideous monstrosity out in the left-field bleachers will be the harbinger of other unfamiliar things in Wrigley Field, including the Commisioner’s Trophy that has yet to find its way to Wrigley Field.
As I knew would happen when the team embarked on its rebuilding program, many life-long Cubs fans didn’t live to see it bear fruit. Dennis Farina, Harold Ramis, Ernie Banks and untold numbers of fans I haven’t heard of met their maker without knowing the satisfaction that comes from winning a championship.
To paraphrase Jim Morrison, I want the World (Series) and I want it now. And to quote from Bruce Springsteen, I believe in the Promised Land. Laugh at me all you want, but I finally believe in it myself.