Heading into the season, I knew the Chicago Cubs were going to be one of the most improved teams in baseball. With an influx in young talent like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell coming to Wrigley, they had to improve on their 73-win season in 2014.
However, I never would have predicted the success the Cubs have had this season.
The third best record in baseball (97 wins). The most road wins in baseball (48). A legit shot at winning three out of four of the major awards (Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year).
There weren’t many people that thought this Cubs team could accomplish all of those things.
Yes, I was optimistic, but teams as young as the Cubs don’t perform that well that fast. It’s one reason I didn’t blog about the Cubs this summer – I was waiting for them to hit the wall at some point after the All-Star break. Instead, they went 50-24 with six wins streaks of five games or more.
So how did they reach this level of success this season? Well, there were several reasons.
• Joe Madden was the perfect manager for this team. Madden kept created a fun atmosphere in the clubhouse (what other manager creates a pajama night and zoo day?) and trusted the youngsters to get the job done. Not many managers would have relied on some many young players, but he wasn’t afraid to do so. Snagging him away from Tampa Bay was a brilliant move by the Cubs front office.
• Signing Jon Lester to a massive deal in free agency was a solid move to stabilize the young rotation, but the Cubs wouldn’t be where they are now without Jake Arrieta. A 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 236 strikeouts don’t even tell the whole story of his dominance.
Arrieta set a baseball record with a 0.75 ERA in the second half. Think about that for a minute. He didn’t just have the best ERA in the second half this year or in the past 10 years. He had the best second-half ERA EVER!
In any other year, Arrieta would be a shoe-in for the Cy Young. The fact that it is real a toss-up between him and Zack Greinke shows how brilliant a season the Dodgers starter had this year (19-3, 1.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP).
• Most predicted Kris Bryant would have a strong rookie season when he came up. However, the quick success of Russell and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber were equally as important.
Russell was better defensively than he was at the plate, but his 3.4 WAR was the sixth-best among shortstops in baseball.
Schwarber was a late call-up, but he hit 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games. Not bad for a player that many experts said the Cubs reached for in the 2014 draft.
Of course, Bryant was every bit as good as advertised, hitting .275 with a .369 OBP, 26 homers, 99 RBIs, 87 runs and 13 stolen bases. I am going to enjoy watching him in a Cubs uniform for years to come.
• Perhaps the biggest key, though, was the Cubs confidence in themselves. I wasn’t a big fan at first of their #WeAreGood hashtag the official Cubs account and the players used on social media, but it worked for them. They genuinely believed they were better than everyone else, and they played like it.
With young teams like the Cubs, you always worry they will go through prolonged slumps at times and struggle to rebound. But sometimes, young squads are also too naïve to realize they aren’t supposed to be this good this soon. That’s where the Cubs are now. They don’t know any better and that’s what could make them so dangerous in the playoffs.
So do I think this is the year? Well, let’s go through the predictions.
• Houston over New York Yankees
The Astros are basically the AL version of the Cubs – potential Cy Young (Dallas Keuchel), Rookie of the Year (Carlos Correa) and Manager of the Year (A.J. Hinch) winners, and a young, confident squad. It worries me that Keuchel is pitching on short rest for the first time in his career, but as long as his control is strong, he can get the win.
• Chicago over Pittsburgh
It really is a shame this is a one-game playoff instead of a best-of-five series. If the Cubs had anyone but Arrieta on the mound, I’d be worried. But I’m confident he can dominate the Pirates again and put Chicago into the Divisional Series.
• Toronto over Texas
Toronto’s offense is just too good to be taken down by the Rangers pitching
• Kansas City over Houston
I see this going five games, but in the end, the Royals’ bullpen gives them the advantage.
• Los Angeles over New York Mets
I don’t see how the Mets can beat a team with Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in a short series.
• Chicago over St. Louis
Come on, do you really think I’m going to pick the Cardinals to beat the Cubs?
League Championship Series
• Toronto over Kansas City
This has the potential to be a fun back-and-forth series. In the end, the possibility of David Price pitching three times (two starts and one relief appearance) gives the Blue Jays the edge.
• Chicago over Los Angeles
Going to be a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. However, the Dodgers’ bullpen is crap and I like Joe Madden to out manage Don Mattingly late in games.
Chicago over Toronto in five games
• I tried to be realistic. I really did. I can’t help myself, though.
Am I setting myself up for colossal? Probably, but I don’t care. I’m a homer dammit, and I refuse to pick against my team this year!