MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs

Seven Surprises from the 2015 Cubs Season

The Cubs have already surprised a lot of knowledgeable people by winning 97 games and making the playoffs this year. How did they do it? A lot of it was pretty predictable: Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant led the offense, while Jon Lester put together a very good season after a rocky start. But a lot of things happened that nobody saw coming, so let’s take a look at the biggest surprises of the Cubs 2015 season.

Cy Young Jake Arrieta Dominated

After Arrieta had a breakthrough 2014, many Cub fans felt that they’d found their ace starter for years to come. But in the back of everyone’s mind was always a little voice worrying that he hadn’t performed at that level for a full season before (he started “only” 25 games last year) and besides—it just seemed too good to be true, right? I mean, trading a mid-level starter for an 8th-inning stopper and top-of-the line ace under control through 2018? That’s storybook.

When Jon Lester was signed it put this conversation on the back burner—Lester was the unquestioned ace of the staff. But Arrieta’s historic 2015 season shocked the baseball world outside of Chicago, which hadn’t paid close attention to his performance in 2014. When he starts the Wild Card game on Wednesday against the Pirates, it’ll complete the biggest surprise of the Cubs season by far.

Kyle Schwarber is Here

The Cubs carried three catchers for a while there, until they finally found a taker for Welington Castillo in the Seattle Mariners. So while Schwarber continued posting video game numbers in the minors, everyone figured he’d just work on his catching while the bat continued to punish minor-league pitchers.

But then he got a chance to DH, an injury gave him some more time in the lineup, and the club realized it couldn’t keep such offensive prowess off the field; at that point, they started making room for him anywhere they could. While Schwarber has struggled as of late, he has still posted an impressive .246/.355/.487 slash line (along with 16 home runs) as a rookie—and he was only drafted last year. Where he’ll play moving forward with Montero ensconced behind the plate is anyone’s guess, but Maddon will find a way to use him.

Starlin Castro’s Roller Coaster Season

After hitting .245 in 2013 and striking out 18 percent of the time, I needed to see him rebound nicely in 2014 to fully buy into Castro for the long term. And he did, and I did too. He dealt with the adversity and hit .292 while tying his career mark of 14 home runs. His strikeouts stayed high but he also posted a career-high six percent walk rate. And then 2015 came along, and things got really ugly—so bad that Maddon pulled Castro from the starting lineup and moved Addison Russell to short. That was the first surprise.

With the excessive middle-infield depth on the club, however, I wasn’t too worried. My biggest concern was what the Cubs would get for him on the trade market. Enter the second part of this surprise: Castro didn’t complain after Maddon benched him, showed the baseball world how mature he could be, and rebounded offensively to finish the season hitting .372/.395/.646 with six home runs in his last 36 games, further solidifying the Cubs’ strong middle-infield depth.

Coghlan’s Key Role

While Coghlan’s 2014 may appear to be better than his 2015 season (.283/.352/.452 in 2014 and .250/.341/.443 in 2015), the team relied on him much more this year. Not only has he played more games (148) than ever before in his career, his versatility allowed Maddon to move him around in the outfield and even bring him into the infield here and there to get Schwarber’s bat into the lineup to take advantage of matchups. He’s also embraced a new philosophy when at the plate,  and it’s manifested in a jump in patience and pop with a career-high 11.5 percent walk rate and 16 home runs.

With the team seemingly bringing new pieces into the lineup on a daily basis, Coghlan provided some veteran stability along with his discerning eye and power. I can’t remember how many times I referred to him as “the third-best hitter on the team” behind Rizzo and Bryant; that’s something I certainly did not expect coming into the season.

Soler Power Outage

Soler did so well during his first taste of the big leagues that I figured he would play right field 80 percent of the time in 2015 (not all the time—the team would want to keep him healthy), hit for power, and bring some stability to the position. It didn’t happen. While I attributed some of his early struggles to the unusually cold temperatures he played in (especially compared to his native Cuba), his first full season didn’t pan out as most Cub fans would’ve hoped  as he slugged just .399 (with a .137 ISO) on the season. Still—he’s only 23 and has played in only 125 games in the big leagues, so I’m not worried and his .609 slugging percentage in the 11 games he’s played since returning from the DL in mid-September helps embolden that optimism.

Baez Barely Played

Kris Bryant was the talk of spring training, which took some of the spotlight off of Javy Baez. That ended up being a good thing, because he went through the wringer in 2014 and started 2015 with the tragic passing of his sister, whom he was particularly close to and required a leave of absence to properly mourn and be with his family. Then he got hurt. Both took their toll on the young middle infielder, but Baez bounced back, worked hard in Iowa, and made the adjustments he needed to make to prepare himself for big-league pitching (he hit .324/.385/.527 in Iowa).

Baez looked good in the brief time he had with the big-league club, and the most positive thing was the attention his defense and baserunning got, to the point where he’ll make the postseason roster less on the team’s need for a bat than for his defensive ability and flexibility. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Maddon’s Magnificent Moves

Maddon is definitely not your average manager. Check out some of the moves he made that many other managers might not have:

  • He pulled Rondon from the closer’s role in favor of Jason Motte, then changed back to Rondon when  the former began to falter and the latter had built his confidence back up.
  • He benched his young, cost-controlled shortstop when he struggled and replaced him with a rookie. And he remarkably managed to do so without having anyone grumble in the process.
  • He took Travis Wood out of the rotation and dropped him into the ‘pen, where he’s thrived, posting a 2.95 ERA and 30.2 percent strikeout rate.
  • He managed having three catchers on the roster for longer than anyone thought possible.
  • He found enough at-bats for a rookie outfielder/catcher/designated hitter for him to prove he belongs on the team.

Any one of these could’ve created tension in the clubhouse (or among fans), but they didn’t. For one, they all worked out in the team’s favor. But more than that: Maddon has won over the players’ (and the fans’) trust. That’s no small feat. Let’s hope the Cubs have a few more surprises left in them this year—I know I won’t be the only one watching.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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