The Chicago Cubs are the consensus best team in baseball. They have the reigning Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. They're young and rich, with a roster that's dealing with more of an open sunporch than a closing window. They didn't just spend money on a new pitcher and franchise player: they spent that money to steal the most valuable pitcher and hitter from last season away from their direct rivals.
If you believe in the existence of doomed teams that live in a permanent existential crisis, then you must be fascinated with the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Power rankings goeth before the fall.
If you believe in the law of averages -- or Gambler's Fallacy, at least -- then you must be fascinated with the 2016 Cubs. This is their best shot since the days of Prior and Wood, which was their best shot since the days of Hank Borowy, which was ... well, you get the point. And eventually, every team will win a World Series, right? Just the law of averages.
If you're in the middle -- you don't believe in curses, but you're still acutely aware that baseball is cruel and godless -- then you must be fascinated with 2016 for all of the above reasons. You have a sense of how this is going to work.
|Year||World Series favorite||Did they win the World Series?|
|2007||I can't remember||No|
I think there was a Marlins mixed in there at some point. Probably a Yankees team, too. The Nationals could fit for three or four of the years, probably, but you get the point. It's going to be fascinating. And regardless of exactly how you expect your baseball to happen, let's take a moment to marvel at how everything is aligning for the Cubs. We're not talking about the "Wow, sure is lucky that the Astros preferred Mark Appel to Kris Bryant!" kind of serendipity. We're talking about what the other four teams in the NL Central are doing right now. Taking them one by one ...
The Reds have given up.
The Brewers have given up.
The Pirates most certainly have not given up, but for a team that spent decades in baseball Hades, they sure are being a little lackadaisical in their approach to being contenders. Their most important offseason move so far has been to acquire Jon Niese. Their second-most important offseason move was probably to sign John Jaso. After that, re-acquiring Ryan Vogelsong is up there. Yoervis Medina was claimed off waivers. So.
This isn't to suggest the Pirates aren't contenders or threats to the Cubs. They definitely are. They have the best outfield in baseball, give or take, plus Gerrit Cole is a heckuva start to any roster. But the Pirates can't escape the orbit of their small-market reality. About 80 percent of the teams with this roster -- up to and including the Brewers -- would have taken a risk this offseason. The Pirates are being very, very mellow, and the Cubs should be grateful for that.
What could they have done? As much as it isn't my place to spend other people's money, they could have signed a pitcher. There were a lot of arms out there, and even though they would have had to compete in a world where pitchers who lead their league in earned runs still get $90 million, they had a built-in advantage of not having ugly contracts to deal with in the future, in part because they never, never, never, never sign expensive free agents to long-term deals.
This is the surprise of the bunch. Last year's best pitcher, by WAR? That would be John Lackey, whose 5.7 WAR was almost two wins better than the pitcher behind him. He's on the Cubs now. Last year's best position player, by WAR? That would be Jason Heyward, whose 6.5 WAR was almost three wins better than the player behind him. He's on the Cubs now. The Cubs were the team that eliminated them in the postseason last year, if you'll recall.
The Cardinals weren't exactly idle. They signed Mike Leake to a substantial contract. And they have Jedd Gyorko now, which sounds like a sarcastic jab, until you remember that they'll force feed him the ashes of Rogers Hornsby and dunk him in a vat of nuclear waste. As they do. They still have depth where teams usually scramble for depth.
But it's still hard to figure their offseason plan out. They had money, at least enough to pursue Heyward. They were supposed to be one of the teams interested in David Price, which makes it hard to accept that it's Mike Leake and done for them. Are they being ... wait, is this hubris?
My word, this is hubris, isn't it? This is baseball hubris, where a 100-win team took a look at their roster, waved off the two massive losses in free agency and declared themselves good to go. Three of the key players in their lineup are in their mid-30s already, with two of them already suffering age-related ouchies and general decline. They tapped into their outfield depth out of necessity last year, but they haven't done anything to rebuild it.
The Cardinals are counting on their ineffable sense of Cardinals to get them through this. They always figure something out. Their best-laid plans really do work most of the time. It took us five seconds to get used to Allen Craig because the Cardinals always find an Allen Craig. Then, when his career sputtered and the Red Sox couldn't give him away, well, that's because he was never that good to begin with.
Last year, the Cardinals took The Guy Drafted Right Before Mike Trout and turned him into a five-tool marvel, someone who should be around for years. What were they doing with Randal Grichuk in the first place? They got him for David Freese, who emerged from the vat of nuclear waste and feathers a few years ago. And they got Freese for a declining Jim Edmonds. In five years, they'll trade Grichuk away for Calph Mantoon, and the string will continue.
The Cardinals aren't studying before the test because they've never needed to study before a test before. And, heck, they might be right. It's just a mighty bold strategy after missing out on Price and Heyward.
To recap, here's what each team in the NL Central is doing:
- Really, really rebuilding
- Just kind of hanging out
- Signing Mike Leake
- Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make an LCS team even better
Just different shades of the same color, really. I'm not ready to hand the NL Central to the Cubs, but it's absolutely remarkable how their rise has coincided with the rest of the division giving up or staying very, very quiet. The clear path for the Cubs either worries you as a superstitious type, thrills you as a positive type or makes you excited about the huge pile of baseball that somebody is about to step into.