Growing into my baseball fandom, I learned early about the joy of rivalries. The most notable, of course, is the epitome of sports rivalries: that of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Maybe that’s a bit of a bold statement that stems from naiveté; baseball is, after all, the only sport which I hang onto every moment of, but there’s no denying that the Boston-New York rivalry is one of the the biggest ones out there. During the beginning of my fandom, their rivalry wasn’t just personified in stories that I’d heard about Babe Ruth and the Curse of the Bambino, but actually in front of me every day as I watched it play out.
In the mid-2000s, it was almost as sure as the sunrise every morning that the Yankees and the Red Sox, two storied franchises that flourished with talent, would be battling it out each and every season into October. We don’t see much of that anymore. The Yankees lost their right to play deep into October with an AL Wild Card defeat just this past postseason, and failed to even make an appearance that brief in the two seasons prior. And despite an isolated World Series victory in 2013, the Red Sox have finished in fifth place in the AL East in 2012, 2014, and 2015. The rivalry is still buried there somewhere for these two East Coast franchises, but it’s taking a little bit of a respite for now.
In the Midwest though, another baseball rivalry has recharged it’s batteries. This time, it’s a National League tale of two ballclubs that plays out along much the same framework as the American League rivals we know well. A perennial World Series champion and highly touted division rival, and a seemingly cursed ballclub desperate to know—just once in their lifetime—the feeling that their rivals bask in quite frequently.
On one side there is the young core that is being supplemented with veteran leaders who are able to inspire in their apprentices the desire to bring a championship to the Chicago Cubs, and a manager at the helm who has an uncanny ability to breathe life into a dynamic he’s created, and fuel its momentum to attempt to achieve the ultimate goal of the game.
On the other side, you have a franchise built on excellence, on their gold standard, on “The Cardinal Way.” They were constructed by a front office and managerial brass that have instilled a feeling of bestowed membership into a ballclub with a certain benchmark of baseball standards into every ballplayer who suits up into their red and white jersey and plays under the Gateway Arch. Their success has been paramount, and, to their Northside rivals, a painful but well-respected thorn in their side.
And so begins the rivalry.
Joe Maddon has brought with him to the North Side incredible earned respect and personality. He is one of the most sought after managers in the game today, and with good reason. He also comes with his own story, and with an almost innate way of keeping all aspects of things entertaining, his added piece to the Cubs and Cardinals rivalry is no different.
“I grew up a Cardinal fan, a fierce Cardinal fan, and now I get to work against that feeling that I had as a kid,” Maddon told reporters at the Winter Meetings held in Nashville this week. And so there you have it, Cubs fans. You have someone who once stood on the other side of the Gateway Arch, someone who understands this rivalry without its context clouded by baseball, managerial or job-related tactics leading you through this already sensational journey.
Talk about a curveball.
With the Cubs staking their claim to relevance not just in the NL Central once again, but in baseball in general, and the Cardinals always coming into the season extremely well prepared, we have awoken this rivalry yet again. And this time, it’s an updated version of a story as old as these two ballclubs themselves, and comes with a whole lot of new flavor.
After the Cardinals endured multiple below the belt blows in 2015, yet still reared their ugly heads well enough to match up with the Cubs in the NLDS last October and ultimately lose the series 3-1 on a brisk Northside evening, the flame was only just ignited.
Adam Wainwright is ready to play again in 2015 after missing time with just four starts after a season-ending Achilles injury. Super-catcher Yadier Molina will look to make up for lost time after enduring a thumb injury late in the season. A young Stephen Piscotty will be waiting to show the Cubs the full helping of what he gave them just a taste of last year, which included a Stanford baseball IQ and a .314 TAv in his short 63-game stint. Matt Adams will look to play more than 60 games in the coming season. Matt Carpenter will be continue to show his dominance over the Cubs in clutch situations. And the show will go on.
But the offseason has proven to us that this rivalry isn’t just one that spans over 162 games, it’s lurking about 365 days a year. Taking its jabs even in the offseason, throwing out the implications of what’s to come. The Cubs have taken their first stab at the sleeping beast with something that’s vastly underrated: addition by subtraction. Remember that Cardinals pitcher, the one who pitched seven shutout innings against the Cubs in Game One of the NLDS, making Cubs fans young and old feel as though the tone for the series was being set and that the Cardinals would continue to press that ever-familiar thorn into their side?
His name was John Lackey. He pitched to a 2.77 ERA and a 2.3 WARP and got 218 strong innings under his belt at age 36. That guy doesn’t pitch for the Cardinals anymore, so you don’t have to worry about him. But the Cardinals have to worry about him. They have to worry about the fact that he’ll now wear pinstripes every five days at the corner of Clark and Addison. They have to worry that he knows everything about them, that he’s coming off one of his most dominant seasons in his 13-year career, and they have to worry about the fact that he’s not even the strongest arm they have to face on the North Side. Addition by subtraction is a valuable thing my friends, and it’s adding even more character to this tale.
The Cardinals should also be concerned that though they have young, sharp minds like Randal Grichuk in their lineups and seasoned, well respected athletes like Matt Holliday in their corner outfield who will emerge ready for 2016, the Cubs can counter that. The world has heard of names like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Jon Lester, and in that highly merited recognition comes the response to the Cardinals’ strong-willed and experienced staff. They prove to be no better in the city of the Red Birds than the boys on the North Side are. And it’s time to go out and show that.
It won’t be without a fight though. Before the plague of injuries, the Cardinals all but had the Cubs’ number in 2015, winning three of a four game set in May at Busch Stadium, handing the seemingly invincible Jake Arrieta one of his only losses on the season. They’ve exposed the weakness of otherwise dominant relief pitcher Pedro Strop, who had meltdowns of epic proportions in 2015 when facing the Cardinals in crucial moments. Strop finished the season with an 11.05 ERA against the Cardinals, allowing 10 runs in 7 1/3 innings of work; moving forward, considering how vital Strop is to the Cubs late-inning arsenal, that cannot happen again in 2016.
The offseason isn’t quite over yet, and the Cubs are improving their ability to be just a step shy of depth invincibility with the addition of Ben Zobrist on Tuesday, who, besides the ability to serve as exceptional depth, brings his 88 percent contact rate as a bonus to add to his value. The Cardinals have added their utility man as well this week with the addition of infielder and second baseman Jedd Gyorko, while only selling off a piece of their bench they no longer had a need for in Jon Jay, a player who was brought up and raised on the Cardinals core principles since he was drafted in 2006.
The Cardinals are most likely looking to retain their center fielder, free-agent favorite Jason Heyward, by any means necessary for 2016, but the Cubs are attempting to stick their hands into that pot, too. Even should the Cardinals lose Heyward, their #CardinalDeviMagic isn’t just something that works during the season, they’ll find a way to endure the loss of their young defensive superstar. They’ll still have an outfield with options including Matt Holliday, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Brandon Moss. (I bet you forgot about him, didn’t you?) Those options won’t serve as a weakness as much as they will a downgrade defensively, especially should Piscotty, who will need to smooth out his rough fielding skills, see a bounty of playing time.
The Cubs are in win-now mode, and constructed in a fashion that allows this to become a reality in the relatively short time frame that the term “win-now” denotes. They’re addressing offseason needs by shoring up their bullpen in a very familiar and inexpensive way, bringing back the effective longman trio of Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, and Trevor Cahill, adding contact hitting, leveraging valuable assets that became cumbersome, and working on perfecting their already-gleaming rotation.
The Cardinals are keeping quite quiet on their front for now, which only leads me to believe they’re watching what their division rivals are doing and how it will correlate with what they’ll need to do to ante up on an already model ballclub. The Cubs’ future has been extremely bright for a while, and in that, and it’s brought back to life some of the elements of good old fashioned baseball that make the game even more exciting to watch. The Cubs are calling out the Cardinals by virtue of their recent emergence, and have earned respect in return. This isn’t just about beating the Cardinals because they’re the bad guys, it’s about earning the ability to say you defeated such a worthy opponent. I embrace challenge, and in this respect, and all respects, you should too, Cubs fans. Take this rivalry and the expectation, the anticipation of it, as a compliment.
I can’t speak for the Cubs’ fan base, but boy, it’s only December and I’m already rubbing my hands together with the thrill of excitement for what’s already happening, and what’s to come. Now is the time for this story to start it’s new and epic chapter, and no matter the outcome of it—it’s sure to be a great ride.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.