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The Chicago Cubs Can Be Surprise World Series Contenders

Kevin AlonzoFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2015

Chicago Cubs' Chris Coghlan, left, celebrates with teammates after he drew a bases loaded walk from New York Mets relief pitcher Jeurys Familia, in the bottom of the ninth, scoring Matt Szczur after a baseball game Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Chicago. The Cubs won 2-1. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

It's been 107 years since the last time the Chicago Cubs were at the summit of the baseball world, but if you look around the diamond when they're on the field, you'll see a core group with the potential to end the curse.

While the infusion of young talent may give fans hope that the Cubs can become a National League force in the foreseeable future, Joe Maddon's club has shown signs early in the 2015 season that it can contend sooner than expected.

Since getting off to an up-and-down start, the Cubs have won six of their last seven games, and at 21-16, they're in second place in the NL Central, behind the major league-best 25-13 St. Louis Cardinals.

If the season ended today, as the cliché goes, the Cubs would host the one-game playoff against the Washington Nationals.

Granted, it's a small sample size, but Chicago is 6-4 against teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better. The only club with a more favorable record against opponents over .500? The Cardinals.

Through trades, free agency and the development of players in the farm system, general manager Theo Epstein has constructed a roster that's ready to play meaningful baseball deep into the season.

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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

You can't talk about the Cubs' ascendance without mentioning Anthony Rizzo. 

Rizzo was one of Epstein's first acquisitions when he took the job in October of 2011. The first baseman was acquired before the 2012 season from the San Diego Padres in a package centered around pitcher Andrew Cashner. 

While Cashner has panned out just fine atop the Padres rotation, it's hard to make the argument that San Diego won that deal.

After belting 32 home runs and compiling a .386 OBP last season, en route to a top-10 finish in the NL MVP voting, Rizzo is again making a case that he's one of the premiere players in the league.

Rizzo's .344 batting average places him eighth in the majors, while his .470 OBP is second to only the scorching Bryce Harper. Furthermore, he has more walks (22) than strikeouts (17) on the year.

One of the biggest improvements in Rizzo's game is his newfound ability to hit lefties.

While he hit .230 against southpaws from 2012 to 2014, Rizzo's average is at .467 in 30 at-bats against them so far in 2015.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

This type of production puts Rizzo on pace for another MVP-caliber season, except this year there are other guys in the lineup who opposing pitchers must be careful with.

Epstein traded two minor league pitchers to the Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason for veteran catcher Miguel Montero and, so far, the move looks brilliant. 

Montero has a .950 OPS, a vast improvement over last year's starting backstop Welington Castillo's .685 OPS from a year ago.

But Epstein wasn't done dealing. The Cubs also got their leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, in a trade with the Houston Astros this winter.

The Cubs are getting what they traded for, as Fowler's .270/.354/.411 slash line is right around his career average.

Entering the 2015 season, the Cubs had three prospects—third baseman Kris Bryant, second baseman Addison Russell and right fielder Jorge Soler—ranked in the top 12 by Baseball America.

Soler—who made his debut in August of last year—possesses a respectable .273 batting average and .346 OBP in his first full season, but he is playing in the shadows of the other two Cubs phenoms.

In order to delay his service time, Chicago's front office waited until April 17 before promoting Bryant. He's lived up to the billing since the call-up, hitting .291 with a .426 OBP and four home runs.

There was a buzz in the air at Wrigley Field last Monday night when Bryant hit a bomb into the new left field bleachers, his first in front of the home crowd. He drilled a total of three home runs last week, exhibiting one of the many attributes—power—that made him a highly touted draft pick out of the University of San Diego in 2013.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com likened the combo of Bryant and Rizzo in the Cubs lineup to the Oakland A's duo of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Mooney wrote last week:

At a time when offense is down throughout the game, the Cubs have hoarded power hitters. Bryant led minor-league baseball with 43 home runs last year. Rizzo doesn't look satisfied with one All-Star selection, putting up a 1.055 OPS so far this season. Maybe this could be Bash Brothers 2.0

Per FanGraphs, Bryant has a .426 BABIP, which is unsustainable and well above the league average, suggesting his batting average is destined to drop.

Even so, he's showing patience not often seen in young hitters, as evidenced by his 24 walks. Therefore, if that batting average does take a bit of a dip, he should still find a way to help the team offensively.

Russell made his big league debut just a few days after Bryant and hasn't enjoyed the same instant success as his teammate—he's batting .247 in 24 games.

But his minor league numbers indicate it's too early for the Cubs to be concerned about his performance. In 2014, across three levels in the minors—with the majority of his games coming in Triple-A—Russell hit .295 with a .350 OBP. 

He's also playing out of position.

A shortstop by trade, Russell has had to man second base while the incumbent, Starlin Castro, remains in his natural spot.

Since bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2010, Castro has never completely justified the hype. He quietly bounced back from an awful 2013 campaign and put together a solid season a year ago. 

Right now, his average sits at .273, but the problem with Castro continues to be his plate discipline. He's walking in just 4.4 percent of his plate appearances, according to FanGraphs.  

Though starting left fielder Chris Coghlan's hitting below the Mendoza Line, the Cubs have enough offense to get by if their pitchers perform to their potential.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

After posting a 6.23 ERA in April, Jon Lester is throwing like a guy making $155 million over the next six seasons. He's 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA this month. 

Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, meanwhile, are proving last year was no fluke. They have 2.77 and 3.11 ERAs, respectively.

The back end of the rotation is shaky and according to Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune, Tsuyoshi Wada is taking Travis Wood's spot on the staff after Wood was moved to the bullpen this weekend.

Also concerning for Chicago is that Kyle Hendricks looks nothing like the guy who finished with a 2.46 ERA in 2014.

Furthermore, the bullpen is ranked 23rd in baseball with a 4.32 ERA. 

But bullpens tend to be hot-and-cold over the course of a season anyway, and you don't need five starting pitchers come playoff time.

Besides, it's not like the top teams in the NL are without flaws of their own.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have lost Brandon McCarthy for the season and Hyun-jin Ryu was transferred to the 60-day DL earlier this month.

While they're the hottest team in baseball, the Nationals showed earlier this year that they're not exactly unbeatable. Even if it continues playing exceptional baseball through September, Washington tends to underperform in October.

The Cardinals keep winning without their ace, Adam Wainwright, but as we saw last year when two wild card teams—the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants—made the World Series, all you have to do is make the tournament. All bets are off once that happens.

Last year, the Royals went on a magic carpet ride that culminated in their first trip to the Fall Classic since 1985. 

Like the Royals in 2014, the Cubs play with youthful exuberance.

They also have a balanced lineup—with speed at the top and some pop in the heart of the order—to go along with what's for the most part a very dependable rotation.

A lot has to go right for these young Cubs to play deep into October, but they have enough talent on their roster to make a run at the World Series—an event the majority of their fanbase has yet to see them play in.

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