It is well understood that every team approaches the offseason with the intention of improving in some way, whether it is to build on the prior season's success and hopefully push things a step further, or to take a step out of the standings cellar and initiate the rebuilding process, and for most teams, it's usually somewhere in between. In the winter of 2014, we saw the Cubs take a couple of major steps forward with the additions of Joe Maddon at the helm and Jon Lester in the first spot in the rotation. Going into the 2015 season, I think most of us expected somewhere in the neighborhood of 83 wins and little to no expectation of a playoff appearance. I remember thinking at some point last February or March that they might just flirt with 90 wins, but that felt like a risky bet to make at the time.
Obviously, the Cubs greatly surpassed those expectations, competing in what proved to be a surprisingly strong NL Central. I'm not sure many people, if anyone, saw a 100, 98, and 97 win team all coming out of that division. What this means for 2016 for the Cubs is of course difficult to project. Not only because the calendar has not yet rolled over to the new year, but also because everything that we're looking at now is just on paper, so to speak. Going back to the original premise though, the idea here is that the front office sees what the Cubs can be capable of next season after a surprise NLCS appearance, and they have made the right kinds of moves to make this a team that is even better suited to contend. With that in mind, I'd like to take a look at the changes the have been made and attempt to flesh out the question as to how much better (again, on paper) the Cubs are going to be. For this post, I'll focus on the pitching, and then take a close look at the offense on another day.
I don't think there's a question that last season's rotational drop off from Lester and Jake Arrieta to pretty much everyone else was significant and probably played a large role in keeping the Cubs from being able to right the ship when things started to go south against the Mets two months ago. David Price and Zack Greinke were the glamorous free agents in this market, and while it seemed for a time that the Cubs might be the ones to snag Price, Theo and Jed made an addition to the rotation that I suspect will prove quietly masterful. The Cubs did not need another "ace" on the staff. In some senses, they already have two, so what they needed was exactly what John Lackey is likely to provide. Not only that, I think the money saved on pitching here probably played a large role in making the signings of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward possible.
Even if it didn't, Lackey's presence makes the third game in the rotation much, much less of a question mark and that by itself is a net gain. His projections for 2016 call for him to come down to earth a bit from what he did with the Cardinals last year, but even with that, Cubs fans will probably have little to complain about here. For some perspective, instead of seen Jason Hammel in this spot, it will be Lackey, and that's a difference in WAR of 1.2, just based on 2015 numbers. With the exception of missing 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, Lackey has been a workhorse his entire career, almost always making somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 starts each season.
Beyond Lackey, things still remain a bit of a question mark, but there are more possibilities than what we've previously had. Hammel struggled mightily in the second half last season, but this may have been due to a leg injury that had not fully healed. For some perspective, Hammel's WHIP jumped from 0.945 in the first half (17 starts) to 1.493 in the second half (14 starts). Many of his other numbers are similar, but his hit and walk totals jumped way up, and his strikeouts went down significantly. The hope is that if the struggles were due to a nagging injury, and he can be even close to what he was in this first 17 starts in 2015, then our first four starters could be among the strongest in the league.
In the fifth spot, Kyle Hendricks probably pitched well enough in 2015, his first real full season, to merit consideration for this last spot in the rotation. He projects to have a similar season in 2016 as he had this year, but the rotation's greatest improvement might come from the fact that Hendricks can pitch like a back end starter, and not like a 3/4 like he had to for so much of 2015, especially in the second half. Adam Warren could contend for this spot as well, and our rotation is stronger to a large degree due to the depth that has been added. This weakness was plainly seen down the stretch last season, and without bullpen arms like Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, and Trevor Cahill, the Cubs could very well have missed the wild card spot altogether.
Unlike the rotation (and especially the offense), the bullpen has been where we have seen the least amount of change, and that's probably a good thing. As I mentioned earlier, the long relief arms were quietly one of the greater strengths of the team, and the front office has worked to keep it that way, signing Cahill to a one year deal and keeping Richard around for another year as well.
Along with the mastery of the long relief, the back end of our bullpen was about as strong of one as you'd find. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon both project to have strong seasons in 2016, with perhaps slightly projected dips in performance. Even if this does prove to be the case, the strength in the bullpen is keeping the depth and deepening only further. Two bullpen arms that I expect to be worth keeping a close eye on in 2016 are those of Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards. If Strop and/or Rondon do falter, these might be the two who can step into those roles. Grimm had 3 saves and 15 holds in 2015, and Edwards had very limited experience this past season, but his recent move to the bullpen while in the minors indicates that he may be headed for a regular role in the bullpen. He might have the stuff to be a 8th or 9th inning pitcher too, as he earned 6 saves between Tennessee and Iowa in 2015. In his time with the Cubs this year, he used his fastball the most (about 64% of the time), and went to his curveball nearly the rest of the time (33%). Granted, it's a small number of pitches in the majors, but his fastball has shown to be effective (he gets it as high as 96 mph and he did not allow a hit on the fastball), and he got most of his strikeouts on the curveball.
As was true in 2015, the offense provided the glamour this offseason, and I expect that while we'll have the most fun watching the handiwork of the lineup, the quiet strength of this team in 2016 will come from their pitching, namely a rotation that has been subtly improved in its depth, and a bullpen that I expect will build on the success of the previous season.