The St. Louis Cardinals participated in each of the last four National League Championship Series while the Cubs have watched from home, finishing in fifth place every year. One of the best rivalries in sports inevitably loses a little luster when the teams have vastly different goals. The Cardinals have maintained success over the past two decades through continually reloading their major league team with smart signings and an excellent farm system. The Cubs have had intermittent success over the past two decades, but chose to save money, reload the farm system with top draft picks and international signings, putting success at the major league level at the expense of rebuilding one of the richest franchises in sports. That period is over now.
The Cubs gave fans a glimpse of the future when they brought up Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, and Javier Baez for a time in 2014. They made a statement when they signed the highly regarded Joe Madden. Then, they finally unleashed the power of their checkbook, taking on the full contract of Miguel Montero to play catcher, signing Jason Hammel to a reasonable two-year deal, and then signing Jon Lester to a six-year $155 million contract to anchor the Cubs pitching staff. The Cubs are signaling they will compete in 2015. There is some debate about whether they will contend.
Ken Rosenthal said yes, the Cubs are ready. Rob Neyer disagreed, pointing out that the Cubs started last season with Jeff Samarzdija and Jason Hammel and did not contend. Dave Cameron looked at some numbers and came to the conclusion that the Cubs could contend in 2015 based on projections.
And that's why you really want your baseline to be built on a projection system. One that takes into account multiple years of data, aging curves, and current depth charts. Kind of like the one we have here at FanGraphs, thanks to the integration of the Steamer forecasts.
Cameron looked at projected WAR and found the Cubs just behind the Dodgers in fifth in the NL (prior to the Dodgers' moves). The problem with these projections, and Cameron recognized these issues later on when talking about the high expectations for Kris Bryant compared to the low ones for Baez and Alcantara, is that the players the Cubs have come with extremely high variability due to their inexperience at the big league level.
In Bryant, Alcantara, Soler, and Baez the Cubs could have half of their roster getting the majority of plate appearances throughout the season with just 626 total plate appearances in the majors. That leaves out Addison Russell, who could force his way into the lineup at some point. Projecting how prospects will perform is extremely difficult. Gregory Polanco of the Pirates struggled last season just like Javier Baez, just like Oscar Taveras. Moving to the majors is a difficult process and expecting players to perform at peak level upon arrival is wishful thinking.
Even with that variability, the Cubs should be significantly improved in 2015. Anthony Rizzo will anchor the lineup, Starlin Castro had a bounceback 2014, and Miguel Montero can steady the rotation behind the plate. Luis Valbuena will be decent, perhaps moving around the diamond depending on which prospects are with the team at the time. Chris Coghlan is a capable outfielder. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hamel form a good top of the rotation, although the depth should a starter get injured is not quite there yet.
Even reaching expectations, it is hard to envision the Cubs being as good as the Pirates, let alone the Cardinals (This is not Cardinals homerism. All the posts above mention the Cardinals as the benchmark). The Pirates lost Russell Martin, but added innings with A.J. Burnett and retained Francisco Liriano. A consistent season from Gerrit Cole will help the staff. Increased production from Gregory Polanco could give the Pirates the best outfield in all of baseball.
The Brewers showed last season what happens with consistent starting pitching and no major injuries for the first half of the season. Their second half, as well as the Reds entire season, shows what happens with a lack of depth. The Reds are dangerous if they do not sell off the team this winter. The NL Central could be the best division in all of baseball next season. The Cubs are in the mix with the Brewers and Reds, not quite to the level of the Cardinals and Pirates, but they might not be done.
The Cubs still have the potential to bolster their rotation through free agency or trade. Their farm system is stacked. James Shields, Max Scherzer and Cole Hamels are still out there. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, David Price, Zach Greinke, and Jeff Samardzija are all potential free agents next winter and could potentially be available now or sometime during the season. The Cubs signed Jon Lester, knowing he would not cost the team any draft picks. Their number one pick is currently protected if they were to sign another free agent like Scherzer or Shields. If the Cubs do compete on a higher level in 2015, their pick will not be protected again. Now could be the time for the Cubs to strike, knowing they will not have this opportunity again.
Some of the arguments made by Rosenthal, Neyer, and Cameron are merely semantics. In the age of two wild cards, competing can mean within four games in July, something that requires just a .500 record. The Cubs are already at that level. The Cubs might not project as well as the Cardinals. Even adding Jon Lester, the Cardinals have added the best player in the NL Central by 2014 bWAR and Baseball Prospectus' WARP (Lester has the edge in fWAR) with Jason Heyward. The Cardinals have improved, but the Cubs have the potential to improve more than any team in the majors next season.
The Cubs are about to make this rivalry exciting again. Tickets will be tougher to get in Chicago, and a full Wrigley Field will add to the already full Busch Stadium to give the rivalry more weight. As a Cardinals' fan, perhaps the most intriguing question is not whether the Cubs are contenders or the number one competition for the division. The most interesting question is probably, do the Cubs make me nervous in 2015 and beyond. Yeah. They do.
WINTER IS COMING