The season-ending injury to catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber is a tough blow for the Chicago Cubs. However, given this roster’s supporting cast, we do not see the loss lessening the team’s chances at the National League pennant. Given the tortured history of the franchise, it would not be out of the question for Cubs fans to expect this to be just the beginning of a string of unfortunate injuries and rotten luck, which prevents them from the ultimate goal in October. But as of now, we think they will be fine.
True, Schwarber is a key cog in Chicago’s tantalizingly talented young core of bats, but there should be sufficient backup to pick up the slack. In the end, we still envision the North Siders taking home the NL Central crown, but falling short to the eventual NL-champion San Francisco Giants in a division series this fall. When making the prediction that Schwarber’s injury will not be a nail in the coffin for the Cubs, there were a handful of arguments we considered, and it starts with the rest of the offense.
The 23-year-old Ohio native appeared in 69 games after his big league call-up in 2015, picking up 16 home runs and 43 runs batted in 232 at-bats. The Chicago lineup ranked second in walks (567) last season and inside the top half for many other categories, including 12th in at-bats per home run (32.1), much of which was done without Schwarber. With guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, and Dexter Fowler, this offense should still be among the best in the bigs.
Despite being no-hit for nearly seven innings on Monday night, the clutch home run from another offensive force, Addison Russell, is a good sign. This team, which went to the NLCS a year ago, is not just an offensive juggernaut (like the Toronto Blue Jays perhaps), but they have strengths across the board. Aside from the vaunted lineup, a strong starting rotation and a top manager at the helm can help overcome the loss of Schwarber as well.
It has been discussed many times, but the Cubs pitching — in particular the starters — has the potential to be elite in 2016. It is still unbelievably early in the campaign, but the team’s arms boast some pretty impressive numbers so far. Entering Tuesday, Chicago ranked second in team ERA (2.59), quality starts (six), and fewest walks allowed (nine), while pacing the league in opponents batting average (.188).
With Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the front, newcomer John Lackey in the middle, and Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks in the back, this unit can be one of the best in baseball. The stellar starting pitching and dangerous depth in the lineup is great, but what may really set this team apart is their manager, Joe Maddon. Again, the notion that Maddon is the best manager in baseball is not a new idea from us, but it bears repeating.
We know about the huge success he had in turning around the Tampa Bay Rays organization for a handful of years and then, in 2015, he led an extremely young, inexperienced group through the toughest division in the league and into the playoffs. Then, Maddon’s bunch pushed aside the favored St. Louis Cardinals to make it one step from the World Series.
Yeah, the Cubs were outplayed and somewhat easily dispatched by the New York Mets in the NLCS, but taking any team this youthful — let alone the Cubs — all the way to the doorstep of the Fall Classic in your first season has to get you some serious props. Last year Maddon showed — again — why he is the best in the business.
Going from Schwarber to Jorge Soler seems like a downgrade at first, and it may continue to be. However, the depth of this roster, along with a certain hipster-style manager leading the way should (for now) be plenty to keep the Cubs in the pantheon of NL greats this year.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127