In a season of so many positives for the Chicago Cubs, it is difficult to find a negative heading into 2016 — other than the fact that expectations are higher than anyone had at the start of 2015. Even though they got Joe Maddon to manage and Jon Lester to start, the club appeared too raw to play deep into October. However, this perception changed thanks to breakout seasons from Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber combined with a Cy Young campaign by Jake Arrieta.
Now, the Cubs have real expectations for the next season, which will put pressure on the young core of players moving forward. During his press conference after the NLCS loss to the Mets, Cubs president Theo Epstein stressed the rotation as the club’s biggest need for the new season, but there are other areas where upgrades are necessary for Chicago’s North Siders to make the World Series in 2016. Here are the team’s top three priorities for the offseason.
1. A leadoff hitter
With Dexter Fowler now in free agency, the Cubs need someone to replace him in the leadoff spot and anchor a defense that proved shaky at times in the 2015 postseason. Batting first for the Cubs in 2015, Fowler had the worst on-base percentage of his career (.346) while hitting a career-best 17 HR and scoring 102 runs — yet he averaged 4.08 pitches per at-bat and stole 20 bases while posting 154 strikeouts. Even considering the negatives, he was the spark plug of the second-half surge.
Multiple years of free agent money for a 30-year-old outfielder may not be a good fit for Chicago, so the club will turn its attention to other options. Among them, Denard Span is a free agent. Because of injuries that limited his playing time to 61 games in 2015, he could look for a one-year deal at age 32 to establish a market for 2017. With defensive and offensive output historically better than Fowler’s, Span appeals to the Cubs. Otherwise, Epstein could get creative on the trade market.
2. A middle-rotation arm
The Cubs sported the third-best ERA in Major League Baseball in 2015, but even the most diehard fan has to admit that the rotation is top-heavy with Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendrick at the back end. Epstein said “impact pitching” was a top priority for the club after the NLCS.
There are numerous impact arms up for grabs this offseason, with ex-Maddon favorite, David Price, as well as Jordan Zimmermann topping the list of free agents who would be a good fit. The second tier of free agents is nearly as appealing with Scott Kazmir, Wei-Yin Chen, and John Lackey available. You might say the Lackey experiment in the NL Central (2.77 ERA in 218.0 IP) worked out well in 2015. Whatever it takes, the Cubs can’t expect to go far in 2016 without a solid No. 3 starter.
3. Outfield defense
While Jorge Soler and Schwarber looked bad at points in the season, only Soler can be considered a liability in the outfield for his indirect routes to the ball. Schwarber improved and should continue to do so as he sees more action. The way both players hit makes it difficult to keep them out of the lineup. Nonetheless, with no one in center field yet and the youth movement lacking in defensive prowess, Epstein’s team needs to keep runs off the board through better outfield depth.
Maddon’s penchant for running Bryant and others out for outfield duty make a proficient outfielder even more of a priority in the 2016 season. On the free agent market, Jason Heyward is the obvious pick for defense, though he will be expensive. The Cubs may just retain Chris Coghlan and hope their corner outfielders improve as the season progresses, but an all-around outfielder is the safest call to make.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY