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How the Chicago Cubs Can Take Next Step from 2015 Darlings to 2016 Favorites

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2015

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester throws during the first inning of Game 1 of the National League baseball championship series against the New York Mets Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The 2015 Cubs season was an appetizer of sorts. It didn’t necessarily represent accomplishment but rather possibilities for a young core that will remain in Chicago for several more years.

No one walks into any restaurant because of its tasty appetizers. But certainly they can excite you about what else the chef has to offer. If anything, they increase your appetite. They leave you wanting more.

The Cubs want more, as they are hardly satisfied with a National League Championship appearance that ended in a sweep by the New York Mets. They want a World Series and appear close toward the goal of ending professional sports’ most futile streak. (For disclosure’s sake, though many of you already know, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 or played in one since 1945.)

It’s time to move on to the main course, and for that, the team needs a few more ingredients.

While the Cubs exceeded expectations with a playoff appearance in 2015—one that actually wasn’t expected from this group until 2016—holes in the roster were exposed. A young, talented group of position players couldn’t overcome a lack of starting pitching depth. The NLCS lesson? A team needs a deep rotation to win.

The Cubs relied heavily on an impressive group of rookie position players in 2015, including third baseman Kris Bryant (.275 AVG/.369 OBP/.488 SLG), shortstop Addison Russell (.242/.307/.389), left fielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (.246/.355/.487) and right fielder Jorge Soler (.262/.324/.399). While each should improve upon his inaugural major league campaign, offensive slumps are inevitable.

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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

There isn’t a team in baseball that can rely solely on its offense carrying it throughout the year. That would be like Picasso using only one primary color. And especially in the playoffs when the rotations get shorter and the pitching gets tougher, the Cubs will need reliable arms to ultimately play in November.

This season the Cubs had one of the best front-end rotations in presumptive 2015 National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and lefty Jon Lester, who signed a six-year $155 million deal last offseason. The plan always was to continue to build the rotation around Lester in the winter of 2015.

Arrieta went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Lester went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA. Most importantly, the duo was one of two pitching tandems in baseball each with a WAR of over 5.0. Arrieta’s WAR during the regular season was 7.3 and Lester’s 5.6. (The Los Angeles Dodgers were the only other team with such a starting tandem. Clayton Kershaw led all pitchers with a WAR of 8.6 and Zach Greinke’s was 5.9.)

But beyond Arrieta and Lester, the Cubs struggled to find reliable starters even before the playoffs began. Righty Jason Hammel struggled mightily for the Cubs, and while Kyle Hendricks proved reliable, he’s more a fifth starter on a solid rotation. Hendricks was third in the Cubs’ rotation this postseason.

The good news: There are plenty of high-end starting pitchers on the free-agent market. The Cubs should look to sign two.

Atop their wish list should be left-hander David Price. Price began the season with the Detroit Tigers, was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline and was crucial in Toronto’s push toward the playoffs. The Blue Jays are expected to make Price an offer, but the Cubs could outbid Toronto if they chose.

Price, baseball’s coveted free agent this offseason, was tied for third among pitchers with a 6.4 WAR. He has consistently been among baseball’s top-five left-handed pitchers. The major selling point for Price signing with the Cubs? He would be reunited with Joe Maddon, who managed Price in each of his six-plus seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

But the fragility of arms—no matter whose they are—dictate the need for rotational depth. Plus, as we saw in this year’s NLCS, Maddon likes to go four pitchers deep in a seven-game series.

Righties Greinke and Jeff Samardzija, both considered among baseball’s most durable arms, would be great secondary additions.

Greinke, who opted out of his deal with the Dodgers this offseason, is likely to re-sign with Los Angeles. But the Cubs will be in the mix, too. Aside from Greinke’s stellar 2015 campaign (19-3, 1.66 ERA), he has never spent time on the disabled list with an arm injury. So, though 32, his health is less of a concern than it might be with other pitchers over 30.

Gene Puskar/Associated Press

Likewise, Samardzija has proven durable and will come cheaper than most of his free-agent counterparts after a disappointing 2015 season (11-13, 4.96 ERA). He was one of baseball’s best pitchers with the Cubs in 2014. Though he was traded at the deadline to the Oakland A's, while with the Cubs in 2014 Samardzija had a 2.88 ERA. He was only traded because he demanded too large a contract. But now that the Cubs have some leverage back and with Samardzija looking to bounce back, it appears like a good fit.

Of course, starting pitching isn’t the only area of need. The Cubs must continue to tweak a bullpen that was shuffled throughout 2015. And center fielder Dexter Fowler is a free agent this offseason, leaving a gaping hole at the top of the Cubs’ order.

What they do to replace Fowler may depend on how much they spend on starting pitching. But Yoenis Cespedes, whom the Cubs were rumored to have interest in before he was traded to the Mets at the deadline, could fill the void.

Cespedes, who had 35 homers and 105 RBI in 2015, would fit nicely into a Cubs lineup that wants to win with power. He also has a strong arm and can play all three outfield positions—a key in playing for Maddon, who likes to move players around the field.

Prioritizing, though, will be important for the Cubs this offseason. A carefully planned winter could net the Cubs better results next October. But while the organization continues to chase that elusive World Series, it must first own the offseason.

A championship could be won this winter.

WAR pitching stats were obtained via Fangraphs.com. 

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