A lot has happened in the 364 days that have passed since Opening Day 2015 at Wrigley Field, and for this Cubs organization, the changes that have come have been fairly profound.
A team’s Opening Day roster almost always varies from year to year. But more often than not, it isn’t vastly different from one Opening Day to the next. Perhaps a big name pitcher is added to a perk up a rotation, or a trade for a few sturdy position players is made, but rarely is it anything as transformative as what has happened in one year on the North side.
Holding the 2015 and 2016 Cubs Opening Day rosters side by side gives you a bit of perspective that might have been overlooked as these changes slowly came about. Things have changed for the Cubs, and swiftly, too. In 2016, the Cubs will roster will have just nine new names, a decrease from the 15 new names they added from 2014 to 2015. But this isn’t so much about the quantity of players they added to the Opening Day roster, but the quality of them. Let’s flesh out the major differences between the 2015 and 2016 Opening Day rosters for a bit more clarity.
2015: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood
2016: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks
The biggest take away from the subtle changes to the rotation in 2016 is perhaps that some things are better in small doses, which the Cubs quickly learned about Travis Wood in 2015. After a rough start (5.59 ERA in 37.0 IP) in the back of the rotation, Wood moved to the bullpen where he helped the team as an effective long reliever (2.83 ERA out of the ‘pen). He’s successfully redefined his role, and will continue to be a valuable middle relief option in 2016.
Some of the names in the Cubs’ rotation may not have changed, but their stories have. Progressing his ability to throw strikes and turn his changeup into a plus secondary pitch, Kyle Hendricks will look to improve on his role as a fifth starter in the Cubs’ rotation this season. Jason Hammel, who now has Kyle Schwarber behind the plate as his personal catcher this season, has struggled to show consistency in the second half over the last two seasons. After putting together a strong spring, Hammel will look to maintain his performance by continually commanding the lower half of the zone, something that he struggled with in 2015.
Now enter newcomer John Lackey, who adds to the Cubs not only veteran leadership but also the addition by subtraction factor in leaving the Cardinals organization.
Lackey didn’t have the best spring, but spring numbers are never truly indicative of one’s abilities, and Lackey didn’t show any new inconsistencies—Cubs fans are well aware of Lackey’s fastball command issues, that came as part of the deal in exchange for the other tools Lackey possesses. The important part is he’s healthy, which is a valuable asset considering that health and reliability were continuing issues for Cubs’ middle of the rotation starters in 2015.
2015: Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke, Pedro Strop, Jason Motte, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon
2016: Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon, Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood
The first thing that catches my eye here is how much this bullpen has insulated itself (as well as the starting rotation) to be well ready for the unexpected. Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop continue serve as plus setup man options, while adding a healthy Neil Ramirez—something this club has been without for several season now—only serves to bolster the bullpen even more in 2016 than in seasons prior.
A vastly underrated closer who’s shown much consistency recently, Hector Rondon will look to be the club’s permanent closer, a role which he struggled with early on in 2015, seeing his ERA reach nearly 4.00 by the end of May.
Long relievers are essentially my favorite aspect of any bullpen due to the fact that they are able to support a rotation in more ways than one. Going into 2015, the only pitcher in the bullpen really equipped to fit this role was a struggling Edwin Jackson. Now, the Cubs have four arms able to provide insurance should injury occur to anyone in the starting rotation (Maddon has already named Cahill his JIC (“Just in Case”) sixth man). These pitchers also give Maddon confidence that should a starter needing to exit a game early, or if he simply wants to preserve his starter’s innings early on, there is a sufficient replacement readily available that can extend their workload 2-3 innings with ease.
Overall, there are just fewer question marks with this year’s Opening Day bullpen situation. Things are less makeshift and up in the air. While last season’s closer-by-committee dance may have been breathtakingly entertaining (quite literally), often it felt like dancing in a minefield.
Infielders and Catchers
2015: Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella, Starlin Castro, Jonathan Herrera, Mike Olt, Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo, David Ross, Miguel Montero
2016: Tommy La Stella (eventually), Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Miguel Montero, David Ross
The infield that the Cubs sent out in 2015 wasn’t exactly deplorable, but it certainly spelled out that “the kids are coming sooner rather than later”. When an organization such as the Cubs send out Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt as their Opening Day second and third basemen, you’re left to think that either something went wrong in the offseason (it didn’t) or that those positions are simply being kept warm pending another’s arrival. More suspicions of the roster’s provisionality were raised when the Cubs carried three catchers into Opening Day in 2015, something considered extravagant for any team. Then sure enough, Welington Castillo was traded in preparation for the arrival of Kyle Schwarber, and the plan would slowly begin to crystallize.
Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber would all arrive on the scene by mid-June, and the future would be set in motion. By mid-summer, the Cubs would make less fortunate teams envious of the embarrassment of riches and youth they possessed up the middle of the infield; riches so great that they afforded them the luxury to have someone like Javier Baez serving simply as bench depth. But after the Cubs finally decided to cut ties with Castro during the offseason, many suspected that there was an even larger plan on the horizon.
The Zobrist acquisition was a pivotal move in the offseason, confirming that the additions made during the season were laying the groundwork for something even beyond the perimeters of what baseball had envisioned for the future.
Well, that future is now, and the remainder of plan has now been fully revealed. The plan is a large arsenal of talent and depth matched with positional flexibility. The infield that was once merely talked about as something of the future is here, and it will only become stronger in 2016.
2015: Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, Matt Szczur, Jorge Soler
2016: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Matt Szczur/Javier Baez, Jorge Soler
One thing we notice here is that Dexter Fowler is still on the Cubs roster. Well, after denying his qualifying offer and reportedly signing with the Orioles this offseason, he’s back. But the role he plays this time is different. Fowler made a perfectly adequate centerfielder in 2015, even going on tear in the second half of the season in which he slashed .272/.389/.463. Now, he will see himself in less of a day-to-day role, leaving the Cubs with a strong bench and platoon option in the outfield. If anyone should land on the DL, in goes the perfectly fitted Fowler.
What the Cubs have essentially done is retained the already starting-caliber centerfielder they had, while going out and acquiring one of the best options available on the free agent market for the task in Jason Heyward. Moving on from Chris Coghlan may have hurt in the moment, but in hindsight, you’d have to be a fool to choose having a player like Coghlan on your bench over one who yields the production of Fowler.
Kyle Schwarber’s defense in left field may be questionable at this time, but it goes without saying that his bat is indispensable from the lineup, and we’ve yet to see a full season’s worth of production from him in the outfield with which we can really judge his abilities with full context. Schwarber will spend some time as Hammel’s personal backstop, and with the depth and flexibility of this team it’s not unlikely that you’ll only see Schwarber in the outfield for 120 games or less.
Sub-par defense has also been the major concern for Soler, and though his bat may not compensate for the shoddy defense in the same way that Schwarber’s does, it’s worth enduring the blunders right now. If he’s the weakest link of position players on this 2016 team, you needn’t concern yourself for too long—there’s obviously a bevy of talent to be found here. Soler still remains a valuable trade candidate at the deadline, should an area of immediate need arise. Perhaps that’s the most valuable asset that Soler possesses right now.
This team may not have the richness of minor-league talent that they did a year ago, mainly because many of the players we see on this 25-man roster today began the season at Triple-A Iowa in 2015. But there are still many talented players that did not make the roster out of camp this year, and will serve as exceptional depth should the Cubs need to reach farther than the bench for substitutions. Munenori Kawasaki, Matt Murton, and when he returns to Iowa, Matt Szczur—just to name a few—are all viable options that can be called upon.
The Cubs’ depth wealth doesn’t simply end at fluidity on the 25-man roster, as the Cubs are still significantly insulated by minor league options as well, a major Achilles heel for many teams over the course of a season, especially once depleting their prospect pool so drastically as the Cubs did. While fans continue to be a bit hyperbolic about the 2016 season, many skeptics wonder how this team can be invincible to injury. It’s not about being invincible. It’s about being tactical and well prepared for a game in which anything can happen. And that, the Cubs are in spades.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.