The Chicago Cubs are a popular pick to represent the National League in the World Series this season. They’re even a favorite to win the whole thing. Even so, the Cubs aren’t without their weaknesses, and it’s hard for fans to put their trust in a team that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1945 and hasn’t won it since 1908.
So if the Cubs aren’t the National League representative in the World Series this season, what will have happened? Did they fall apart, or did some other team simply get in their way? Without a time machine, we won’t know what will happen to the Cubs as the season rolls along. But what we can do is take an educated guess at what could stop this team from reaching its destiny. Here are the five biggest threats to the Cubs’ World Series chances in 2016.
While it’s not necessarily true that the Cubs were injury free in 2015, they certainly had their fair share of healthy seasons from important players. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, and several others made it through their 97-win campaign without having to take a trip to the disabled list — or even experience a prolonged stint on the bench.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals — more on them, in a minute — had a few major injuries to key players. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Yadier Molina, and others all had to take extended trips to the DL. If the Cubs have some major injuries, the quality of their division could catch up to them. Of course, this isn’t unique to the Cubs — the same can be said for any team this year.
4. The St. Louis Cardinals
Speaking of the Cardinals, they seem to always stand in the way, don’t they? Just when you think they aren’t any good is when they pounce, and this year certainly qualifies. They won 100 games despite injuries last year, and after losing quality players such as John Lackey and Jason Heyward in the offseason, it’s widely assumed that the aging team in St. Louis will take a back seat to the upstart Cubs and Pirates.
But the Cubs were the kings of the NL Central in 2003 too, and while they went out and signed Greg Maddux that offseason, the Cardinals came roaring back to the top of the division. The same thing happened in 2009, when the Cubs were coming off back-to-back division championships. So it’s a bit shortsighted to assume that the Cardinals will just go away because it looks, on paper, like they should.
3. The Mets’ starting pitching
This is obvious, but the Mets are pretty good, too. If the Cubs make the playoffs, there’s a decent chance they’ll have to face off with New York again. The Cubs have a ton of lefties in their lineup to match up against the Mets power pitching attack, which features Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz, but the old adage that good pitching beats good hitting is cause for concern in Chicago.
The idea that the Cubs make the playoffs again in 2016 would mean there was another joyous season on the north side of Chicago, and in a short series, anything can happen. But Cubs were shut down by the Mets’ starting pitching and dominated in just about every way possible in the NLCS. For the Cubs to get past the Mets, they’ll need their bats to show up against the starting pitchers and for their revamped rotation to hold it together.
Jake Arrieta had an historic season last year, but nobody expects him to do it again. Will he completely drop off? Of course not, barring injury. But relying on Arrieta to perform like one of the best pitchers of all time would be a mistake. The same goes for expecting repeat performances from Bryant and Schwarber, who both had impressive rookie seasons. The sophomore slump is a real thing, and while it doesn’t affect every single player, the Cubs will need to watch out for it.
The other part of regression is the “Plexiglass Principle,” or the idea that a team that makes a big leap forward — say, being well below .500 one year and then well over .500 the next — will make a leap backward the next season. The Cubs went from 73 victories in 2014 to 97 victories in 2015. Most aren’t predicting that they’ll improve on that record, but if they step regress far enough to win less than 90 games, they’ll be in danger of missing the playoffs.
1. The bullpen
Last season, the Cubs had several injury problems with their bullpen, which left them short on trustworthy arms at times. After going into Spring Training in 2015 with a ton of young, quality power arms, they found themselves with Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, and Jacob Turner on the disabled list, lefty specialist Phil Coke being released, and Hector Rondon struggling to throw strikes.
The Cubs eventually patched together a pen thanks to better health from Grimm, Travis Wood moving out of the rotation, and quality help from Trevor Cahill. But they didn’t really add much in the bullpen this season other than more depth to choose from, with most of their relief options involving failed starting pitchers such as Cahill, Wood, and Clayton Richard. If the Cubs do disappoint their fans in 2016, as they’ve done so many times in the past, a bad bullpen is the most obvious route the season could take.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisBP
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.