Chicago Cubs: 2016 Spring training preview
The first payoff of the long Chicago Cubs rebuild arrived exactly one year earlier than expected.
The 2015 Cubs -- fueled by the rapid development of a collection of young talent -- made a stunning run to 97 wins, a wild-card berth and the National League Championship series before running out of gas against the New York Mets.
Now the pressures and expectations are elevated for second-year manager Joe Maddon and his team.
The Cubs aren't expected to simply contend, they're projected as a National League Central and even World Series favorite.
Last year's standout newbies -- third baseman and NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber -- return with a valuable year of experience.
The Cubs also didn't stand pat. They hit the free agent market to fill starting pitching and the bullpen holes while bolstering their bats and defense.
They added right-hander John Lackey (13-10, 2.77 ERA); infielder Ben Zobrist, who moves over from World Series champion Kansas City; and right fielder Jason Heyward, a top defensive outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals who has three Gold Gloves.
It creates an intriguing mix with returning mainstays like first baseman Anthony Rizzo, catcher Miguel Montero and veteran starting pitchers Jake Arrieta (the 2015 Cy Young Award winner) and left-hander Jon Lester.
The worst-case scenario is a sophomore letdown by Bryant, Russell and Schwarber, an impact player called up last July who supplied 16 home runs plus five more in the postseason.
But Maddon, who guided the Cubs to a 24-game turnaround from 2015 and was named NL manager of the year, is noted for getting the most out of teams at Tampa Bay and last year in Chicago. He doesn't see any letdown.
"It's going to be an interesting spring training," Maddon recently told MLB.com. "We have highly accountable guys and they're self-motivated. That's a great place to start from."
Pitchers and catchers reported to the Cubs' training complex in Mesa, Ariz. on Saturday. Position players arrive a few days later.
Two of the newcomers -- Lackey and Heyward -- also represent a combined addition and subtraction because they came to the Cubs from NL Central rival St. Louis.
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: The starting lineup appears set for now with Heyward and Zobrist likely to land atop the order. The biggest battles might come for the No. 4 and 5 starting pitching slots with plenty of options for Maddon to choose from. There's also ample depth in the bullpen from middle to late relief along with options for spot starts.
ROOKIE WATCH: OF Albert Almora has been compared with young talents like Kris Bryant and has worked his way through the minor league ranks since a Rookie League debut in 2012. Last year at Double-A Tennessee, he hit .272 with 20 homers and 148 RBIs. He's considered a solid potential big league center fielder. -OF/2B Arismendy Alcantara has had stints with the parent club in each or the past two seasons, but the versatile Dominican has yet to stick. -C Willson Contreras has been invited to spring training after batting .333 in a full season at Double-A Tennessee and was ranked No. 2 catching prospect by Baseball America. But it'll be hard to crack a roster that includes Miguel Montero, backup David Ross and even Kyle Schwarber. Triple-A seems the likely destination for now.
COMEBACK TRAIL: LHP Jon Lester (11-12) won't have a delayed start to spring training this year and his presence through camp might be a springboard to a more consistent start and season. He started 0-2 and then had a run of six straight losses between June 3 and July 11. Lester still closed with 207 strikeouts this season, his fourth career 200 strikeout season and set a Cubs season record for strikeouts by a left-hander, eclipsing Ken Holtzman's 202 in 1970.
--LF/C Kyle Schwarber quickly rose from Class AA to the majors in 2015. Nominally a catcher, he was pressed into service in left field. He had 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games, including a "Schwarbomb" that landed atop the new right field video board. Schwarber also had five homers in the postseason, second most by any rookie in a playoff run. If this were the American League, he'd be a designated hitter. In the NL, he'll have to develop better play in left field -- a likely destination again.
--OF Jason Heyward, just 26 years old, starts his seventh pro season as one of the game's leading defensive outfielders and also claims a pretty good stick. He batted .293 with 13 homers, 60 RBIs and an .359 on-base percentage. The Cubs are expecting a lot after shelling out $184 million for the next eight seasons, the largest deal in team history.
--1B Anthony Rizzo finished behind Washington's Bryce Harper for NL most valuable player, but there was little question who was the Cubs' top performer day in and day out. Rizzo, a two-time All-Star, batted .278 for the season with 94 runs, 38 doubles, 31 homers, 101 RBIs, 78 walks and 17 stolen bases to become only the sixth left-handed hitter in major league history to reach those numbers in a season.
--2B Ben Zobrist, one of two position players brought in via free agency, is an downstate Illinois native who might also bring some Cardinals fans over from the dark side. At age 34, he brings a winning pedigree with World Series appearances in 2008 (Rays) and 2015 (Royals) and a career .265 average with 127 home runs, 567 RBIs and a .983 fielding percentage.
--RHP Jake Arrieta was only the fifth pitcher ever with at least 22 wins, no more than six losses and an ERA below 2.00 since the ERA became an official stat in 1913. Others included Sandy Koufax (1963), Denny McLain (1968), Ron Guidry (1978) and Dwight Gooden (1985). All are Cy Young Award winners. He had the most wins by a Cubs pitcher since Fergie Jenkins was 24-13 in 1971 and loved 20 straight quality starts, a team record.
--3B Kris Bryant topped all major league rookies in multiple offensive categories, including homers (26, tied), RBI (99), doubles (31) and runs (87) and ranked second in walks (77). In major league history, only one other player reached or surpassed those numbers in his rookie season: Boston's Ted Williams in 1939.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "See how far we've come within a very short period of time, understand the personal growth and the team growth that occurred, and also understand we go to spring training ... we can really just jump right on it. We know what we want to do and how we want to do it." -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon reflecting on the 2015 season and looking ahead.