Chicago baseball: Don’t bet against new-look Cubs


Starting pitcher Jon Lester throws the ball during his Chicago Cubs debut on Sunday at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Cubs were blanked by the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0, in the season opener but will look to even up their record in the second game of the series at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at Wrigley Field. The game will air on WGN.

By Steve Shonder

Just like every other year, this is the year for the Chicago Cubs, except there’s more truth to that than ever before.

The Cubs are coming off an 89-loss season, and suddenly they’re no longer total long shots. It’s a bit of a stretch to expect a World Series win this season, but it’s not a joke anymore.

The Cubs have a lot of young players ­— some a few years away from their prime and others right about to enter it — and this sets the team up for their first good year since 2008. They have a solid pitching staff, anchored by former Boston Red Sox ace Jon Lester and a resurgent Jake Arrieta, and a lineup filled with young hitters. While wunderkinds Kris Bryant and Javier Baez will start the year in Iowa, the Cubs boast a pretty good starting nine.

Starlin Castro is an All-Star, Anthony Rizzo is one of the best hitters in the league, Miguel Montero gives the Cubs another left-handed power bat, Jorge Soler can hit the ball a mile, Dexter Fowler gives the Cubs a real lead-off man and Mike Olt is going to be extra motivated to fend off Bryant. That is a solid foundation for a lineup.

With all of that and new manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs are suddenly going to be competitive. The days of openly tanking are over; the days of competitive baseball are here. Sure, there’s a lot that could go wrong. The Cubs could turn into the 80s Montreal Expos and squander all that talent, but there’s finally legitimate hope.

No Cubs team has ever been this widely heralded. This team is keyed up to start a dynasty with a legit shot at a World Series every year. That’s never happened to the Cubs, and it’s about time.

Key returning players

Jake Arrieta had his breakout year in 2014 and posted a 2.53 ERA, which halves his career ERA. He didn’t throw a lot of innings, but he was effective when he did.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo has been lost in the shuffle of all the Kris Bryant and shortstop logjam hoopla. You can argue over who’s the best first baseman in the city, but there’s no denying Rizzo is the best hitter in a potentially potent lineup.

Key additions

Joe Maddon will likely be the manager who sticks after the Cubs burned through two in two years. He’s performed miracles in the past with the similarly constructed Tampa Bay Rays.

Lester was the crowning jewel of the offseason and gave the Cubs a long-needed ace to anchor their staff.

Dexter Fowler provides a good stop-gap center fielder the Cubs have needed, among other things, for quite some time. While they had to give up on-base machine Luis Valbuena, Fowler is a pretty good get.

Biggest question mark

There are a lot of questions for this team. Will the Cubs actually crack .500 this year? How will the young talent adjust to the majors? Will leaving Bryant in the minors cost the Cubs a playoff spot? Well, no to that one.

Top minor league prospects

Kris Bryant

Addison Russell

C.J. Edwards

Projection: 89-73, National League pennant

A lot of things will need to break the Cubs’ way, especially since the playoffs are a total crapshoot. But, this could be the best Cubs team since 2003. They have the current to do some damage, and they have the farm system to bring in reinforcements by trades or call-ups if need be.

Best Case Scenario

The Cubs win the World Series. This is literally the best case scenario. Expectations have never been higher.

Worst Case Scenario

The jumbotron collapses on Baez, Soler, Bryant, Rizzo and Castro. Or, more realistically, the Cubs crash and burn, never making the playoffs.