Why the Cubs are the favorites in the National League
The Mets are flying high after bringing back slugger Yoenis Cespedes and are the NL East favorites. However, are they the favorites to win the NL pennant and make back-to-back trips to the World Series? Not if a certain team from the North Side of Chicago has anything to say about it. Yes, the Mets swept the Cubs in the NLCS this past October, but here’s why things could be different in 2016 for the Cubs, who won’t have to settle for a wild card after an offseason of raiding the Cardinals’ roster.
Those ridiculous young hitters
As good as the Mets’ lineup looks with Yoenis Cespedes in it, the Cubs’ bats are even more impressive. New York’s .794 OPS after adding Cespedes last season was only slightly ahead of the Cubs’ .776 OPS in that same span. Here’s the scary part: NL rookie of the year Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez all have room to improve, Anthony Rizzo already is an MVP candidate, and there are more youngsters on the way. And then there are …
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The new veteran bats
Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, both of whom could hit just about anywhere in the batting order, are on-base machines who could provide more pop at Wrigley Field. Even if that isn’t the case, they will get on base for the other sluggers to drive in. There just isn’t a weak spot among the position players in this lineup after these offseason additions -- a real concern for the Mets’ (or anyone else’s) pitching staff. As a bonus, Heyward and Zobrist also bring more than 200 combined postseason plate appearances, and Zobrist has a World Series ring.
The addition of another veteran starter
Neither Jake Arrieta nor Jon Lester was effective in the NLCS, combining to allow eight earned runs in their two starts (both losses). Fatigue likely was a factor, especially in Arrieta’s case. Enter right-hander John Lackey, who jumped from the Cardinals to the Cubs this offseason. He will take pressure off Lester and Arrieta in the regular season and postseason, though the potential matchups with the Mets’ young arms remain toss-ups. And although they got far less attention last season, Cubs starters Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks posted sub-4.00 ERAs and 1.16 WHIPs.
MLB Photos via Getty ImagesLG Patterson
Their improved defense
Sure, Kyle Schwarber is a DH disguised as a left fielder, but he should be better after an offseason of work. Remember, Schwarber started twice as many games at catcher (72) than in the outfield in the minors. Ben Zobrist is a clear upgrade defensively at second base, and Jason Heyward should make a successful transition from right field to center -- despite all the fears otherwise. In addition, Kris Bryant now can play third base one day without having to wonder where he’ll play the next day. Chicago still can be versatile – Zobrist also can play the corner outfield spots -- without it being a liability (the Cubs' 111 errors last season were the sixth-most in the majors).
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Experience from last season
The Cubs weren’t supposed to contend until this season, so the unexpected postseason experience they got in 2015 will prove valuable, especially for all of the young players. There’s little question that they were a little too amped after eliminating the Cardinals in the NLDS and that they pressed once falling behind the Mets in the NLCS (in fact, they never led during that four-game sweep). Lesson learned. Expect manager Joe Maddon to make sure the Cubs better handle prosperity and adversity the next time around.