Photo courtesy of Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Join us for Baseball Prospectus Night at Miller Park to watch the Cubs play the Brewers on May 9th. Order Your Tickets Today.
***Joe Maddon and the Cubs have preached the importance of getting off to a good start since January’s Cubs Convention. This is hardly a new mantra—for the Cubs or around the league or, really, around all sports leagues. I distinctly remember Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson stating similar goals prior to the 2013 and 2014 seasons, respectively. The difference between this year and the past few is that not only were the Cubs expected to be better, but they actually delivered on that strong start. At 12-8, the Cubs had their first winning April since 2008.
Chicago fans will remember 2008 quite well. The Cubs had the best record in the NL by a sizable margin and their 97 wins were the most they’d accumulated in a season since 1945, which also happens to be the year of their last World Series appearance. Of course, we all know how that 2008 season ended, with an unexpected (to the extent that bad results are ever unexpected for Cubs fans) sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. They haven’t sniffed the playoffs since.
This present club has some similarities to that ’08 squad—a great team OBP, a middle of the lineup that features some impressive power potential, a strong top of the rotation—but one huge difference. The 2008 club had an average age of 30.2; this year’s team is more than three years younger on average, at 26.8. The difference is stark, and it’s seen primarily in the offense.
|POSITION||2008 (AGE)||2015 (AGE)|
|C||Geovany Soto (25)||Miguel Montero (31)|
|1B||Derrek Lee (32)||Anthony Rizzo (25)|
|2B||Mark DeRosa (33)||Addison Russell (21)|
|SS||Ryan Theriot (28)||Starlin Castro (25)|
|3B||Aramis Ramirez (30)||Kris Bryant (23)|
|LF||Alfonso Soriano (32)||Chris Coghlan (30)|
|CF||Jim Edmonds (38)/ Reed Johnson (31)||Dexter Fowler (29)|
|RF||Kosuke Fukudome (31)||Jorge Soler (23)|
The 2008 team had just two regular position players under 30. This year’s version of the Cubs has six, with the two ‘old’ players registering at 31 and 30. The youngest player in the ’08 lineup was Soto, who played one of the few positions where veteran experience is generally considered a huge advantage; that’s where the 2015 Cubs employ a 31-year-old Montero, for just that reason (and for his .310 TAv). The 2015 Cubs might not win as many games as the 2008 version, but the following seasons are sure to be a lot more fun for the team and fans alike than the half dozen years that followed the Cubs’ last playoff appearance.
Outside of Soto—who won Rookie of the Year that season—there was nobody from that 2008 group of bats who anyone expected to be around long term. The fact is, not many were even thinking long term. There was one goal: win now. That group was certainly talented enough to do it, but failed in October and never got the chance again. This time around, everyone knows that it’s not just about 2015; in fact, many believe 2015 is just a bridge year to bigger and better things.
And here’s why: Rizzo, Soler, Bryant, and Russell.
Rizzo has emerged as one of the best players in the game today. He often goes overlooked with the younger players getting much of the love, but after much tinkering, Rizzo, just 25 himself, broke out in 2014 with 32 home runs, a .336 TAv, and some well-deserved down-ballot MVP love. This season, while people like myself expected Rizzo to take a little bit of step back, the lefty slugger appears to be taking his game to another level, while also emerging as the clear vocal leader of the team, guaranteeing an NL Central title and making sure the team squeezes every amount of joy out of each victory.
Soler has struggled at times this season, striking out over 35 percent of his plate appearances, but when he has made contact, he’s crushing the ball. He certainly has some adjusting to do, but nobody doubts his ability to do so.
But it’s Russell and Bryant who really could make this group special. Russell was called up earlier than almost anyone expected due to Cub injuries and ineffectiveness at second. He has quickly taken off, showing impressive pull power, seven extra-base hits and a .239 ISO in his 12 games. Bryant, surprisingly, has displayed almost no power, but that doesn’t mean he’s been any less impressive. The 23-year-old has shown an improbably impressive approach at the plate, as his 16 walks are good for sixth in the NL with all five players ahead of him having played at least eight more games than him.
All this and we haven’t even begun to discuss the emergence of Jake Arrieta, the payroll that can continue to rise as the young talent develops, and a farm system that remains stocked and could prove useful come the July trade deadline. Yes, 2015 will have its highs—the aforementioned strong April—as well as its lows—the team’s current stretch of five of six losses, including the last two to the rival Cardinals in particularly brutal fashion. But when it all comes down to it, this team is nothing like Cubs teams of the past. Which is promising news for Cubs fans who prefer that other sports cliche: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.