Chicago Cubs' Biggest Storylines to Follow at the Start of 2015
While the weather certainly doesn't feel like it, the Cubs are set to open their season against the Cardinals on Sunday night in the first MLB game of the year. With the new season getting underway, a new era of Cubs baseball will be ushered in.
As the Cubs push for their first playoff berth since 2008, there are going to be many things at play. Here are the five biggest storylines to follow as the North Side of Chicago gears up for a longer baseball season than usual in 2015.
5. Anthony Rizzo's Emergence as a Leader
With so much buzz in other areas of spring camp, Anthony Rizzo has been overshadowed leading up to the season. That's hard to believe, considering he hit 32 home runs and finished 10th in NL MVP voting last year. However, Rizzo's leadership, not his numbers, will be even more important going forward.
Even though he's just 25 years old, Rizzo has emerged as the unquestioned leader of this club. His confidence has been infectious since the middle of last season, when he appeared to pick up some swagger.
One particular incident involved Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman throwing up and in on several Cubs hitters. Rizzo stood up for his teammates and got into it with Chapman. He eventually confronted him near the Reds dugout and the benches cleared.
Obviously, the Cubs don't want their players doing this every game, but Rizzo showed he's going to have his teammates' backs no matter what, and that goes a long way in the clubhouse.
Then came the guarantee.
Before spring training got underway this offseason, Rizzo told reporters that the Cubs would win the division because they were the best team. This caused waves, but neither he nor the Cubs have backed off the claim since then.
Moving forward in 2015, look for Rizzo to take on an even greater role as a leader of this team. He seems to be entering his prime on the field, so this could be a special year for the Cubs first baseman.
4. Jon Lester's Performance
Jon Lester had it all in Boston. His family was used to living there. He had pitched all but a couple of months of his career there. The Red Sox seemed to be putting together a competitive team. Yet, Lester chose to come to Chicago.
While the Cubs offered more money, Lester also thought he could win in Chicago, and that helped get him to the Windy City. Now, he has to live up to his six-year, $155 million contract. The truth is that nobody can live up a contract of that size. Just ask the Cubs about Alfonso Soriano.
That doesn't mean he can't help the Cubs win a World Series in the near future, though. With some questions in the back end of the rotation, Lester will have to be stellar most of the time for the Cubs to compete in 2015.
Like Rizzo, though, he can provide some value by being a leader in the clubhouse. Even in spring training, most of the young pitchers in the organization watched Lester and noted his routine. That's why Lester is so much more than an ace to this club.
That being said, he will have to lead by example if the Cubs want to make the playoffs. He has the chance to set the tone for the entire season Opening Night.
3. The Hype
In the past, Cubs fans have gotten overly excited, but never like this. This time it's different, though. There are numerous reasons for fans to be genuinely excited.
Finally, the team has made some offseason moves, and many around the league expect the lovable losers to do a whole lot more winning in 2015.
The key to the hype is for the Cubs' young players to tune it out. They will collectively go through their ups and downs, but they need to stay levelheaded. With a manager like Joe Maddon, who has experience with young teams, it seems like a good bet they should stay even-keeled.
How the young players on this team respond to the hype and the peaks and valleys of this season will determine where it finishes in the standings. If the young players can handle the pressure like seasoned veterans, they should be playing baseball in October.
2. Opening Night
Normally there's not a chance you could look at one game and say it's a storyline for the entire season, but Opening Night at Wrigley Field will be exactly that. This is actually going to be one of the most monumental games in Cubs history because of what it represents.
On Opening Night, the Cubs will be entering an era that many think will result in a World Series victory. There's no reason that shouldn't be the case. This team has money, an ace and the best farm system in baseball.
Symbolically, Opening Night will move the Cubs into winning mode. That doesn't mean they're going to be a great team this year, but it means it's the first game in quite some time that Cubs fans feel will actually be meaningful.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that they're playing the division-rival Cardinals.
If everything goes right, including on Opening Night, they might just find themselves watching meaningful games in August and September as well.
1. Kris Bryant's Arrival
When everyone thought the hype for Kris Bryant couldn't get any higher, he went out and hit nine home runs while hitting .425 in 40 spring at-bats. He became the topic of national discussion, as many believe he merited making the Opening Day roster.
Of course he deserves to make the Opening Day roster, but keeping him down for at least nine games to start the season will gain the Cubs an extra year of team control over their star prospect. If he's as good as he seems like he will be, that could save the team $20 million or more.
Still, once Bryant is in the big leagues (likely in late April), the hype will start back up. He has unreal power and also hits for a very high average. That combination is what superstars are made of.
He's also going to provide protection in the lineup for Rizzo, which is no small fact. Once Bryant is in Chicago, the entire lineup will improve exponentially.
If Bryant is as stellar in the regular season as he was in spring training, the Cubs are headed in the right direction. He will also be headed in a particular direction. That direction is superstardom.