By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) I get it. This isn’t necessarily a comfortable position in to be in for Cubs fans, what with the national media picking the North Siders to win the World Series and being the favorites in Vegas to do the same. We’re used to somewhat overblown predictions of success followed by crushing defeat and shame. That’s our comfort zone. So I don’t blame you if you’re not sure what to feel heading into this season.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 2016 Chicago Cubs and assess the proper feelings ahead of Opening Night. And remember, we’re in the trust tree, there are no “wrong” emotions here.
Remember all those years of “Oh my God, we have 27 middle infielders and no one to catch/play the outfield/pitch?” Those days are long gone, my frents.
In fact, the Cubs’ biggest problem in the starting lineup is that Dexter Fowler wanted to take less money to stay in Chicago, and that meant Jorge Soler got squished to the bench. Actually, that’s not even a problem. That’s a problem in the same way having too many cars and not being able to decide which one to drive is a problem. If that’s your problem, you’re in pretty good shape. And don’t forget, super utilityman Javy Baez lurks in the waiting area, starting the season on the DL with a sore thumb.
Then there’s the fact that the heart of the order is going to look something like Jason Heyward-Kris Bryant-Anthony Rizzo-Kyle Schwarber. That’s like a fantasy lineup if the other teams were made up of small children who picked players based on their mascots. There’s no way anyone ever gets away with that lineup in a respectable league. So congrats, Cubs fans. You’re (literally) living the dream.
Justified emotions: Elation, disbelief, euphoria, chest-pounding and paralyzing fear of significant injury
With the exception of Matt Szczur (sorry Matt), your bench is made up of players who could easily start on other clubs. Keep in mind, at any given time, either Soler, Ben Zobrist or Baez is going to be riding the pine, hoping to get into the game and crack one onto Waveland. That’s not too shabby. And should anyone go down with a lengthy injury, guys like Munenori Kawasaki, Jeimer Candelario and Arismendy Alcantara linger on the 40-man, waiting for their chance to impress.
Justified emotions: Confidence, serenity and nonchalance
Stay with me now, because this is where it gets a little dicey. As in 2015, the Cubs have lights-out Jake Arrieta at the top of the rotation, followed by Jon Lester, who’s better than his 11-12 record indicated last season. The No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the rotation, though, could go either way. John Lackey is coming off a career year in 2015, matching his career-high with 33 games pitched with a career-best 2.77 ERA. Before then, the closest Lackey came to an ERA under 3.00 was way back in 2007, and he had some less-than-stellar years in between. So was 2015 an outlier for Lackey or has he made adjustments that will allow him, at 37 years old, to play the best ball of his career?
The back end of the rotation is comprised of Jason Hammel, who was hampered by injury in 2015, and Kyle Hendricks. The Cubs are hoping Hammel can re-create his 2014 magic, when he had a 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 17 games. To his credit, Hammel has grown a full beard and is now nearly indistinguishable from Arrieta from the neck up, so he has that working in his favor. Hendricks is probably a better bet at this point than Hammel, having tossed 32 games in 2015 with a 3.95 ERA and a WHIP of 1.16.
Bottom line: The rotation is solid, with Hammel and Lackey being the big question marks.
Justified emotions: Pride, post-Cy Young flush, healthy skepticism and paralyzing fear of significant injury to Arrieta
Let me be blunt: The Cubs’ bullpen was hot garbage for much of spring training. That comes with the caveat that there were some guys in there we’ll never see again, that some guys were “working on specific things” and yada yada yada. That said, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon should be able to lock down the final innings this season, with guys like Adam Warren, Justin Grimm and Travis Wood providing steady, non-dramatic relief.
Justified emotions: Healthy skepticism, mild concern and nonchalance
How many MLB managers do you know who live in an RV named “Cousin Eddie,” bring mimes and circus animals to the park on a regular basis, call “if you think you look hot, you wear it” their dress code and have the undying loyalty and admiration of their players? The Cubs are all good here with Joe Maddon in charge.
Justified emotions: Fierce pride, desperate urge to declare love and a tendency to look down on other managers
There are certain moments in American history that we, as a nation, look back on in attempting to determine how stupid any given person is: Did you fall for the Y2K hype? Did you believe the War of the Worlds radio play was real? Did you vote for Ross Perot?
On the North Side, we now make such determinations by asking if you believed in The Plan. If you didn’t — or if you are still griping about how Theo Epstein hasn’t won anything yet — we dismiss you as a dimwit. The fact is that five years in, Epstein and Jed Hoyer have laid waste to a crumbling organization, resurrecting it into one of the most respected developmental organizations in the game and a the favorite to win the World Series. It was a long road. It was painful. But if ever you find yourself feeling bitter about the last five years, take a look at the starting lineup and remind yourself it was all worth it.
Justified emotions: Unhealthy fixation on Theo & Jed, awe and admiration
In life, nothing is guaranteed. The Cubs could win the World Series this year, or they could miss the playoffs altogether. They could be decimated by injuries, or they could storm into the NLCS. Each season is precious, — “sacred,” as Epstein would say. The worst thing fans can do it take a postseason run for granted; you just set yourself up for disappointment.
But sometimes in the spring, baseball fans can sense something gathering: the shadow of a hope that wasn’t there before, a bubble of confidence swelling in the hearts of the fan base. Sometimes, a season just feels different.
Some years entreat you to enjoy every single moment along the way. For the Cubs, 2016 feels like one of those years.
Julie DiCaro is an update anchor and columnist for 670 The Score. She previously worked for 15 years as a lawyer in criminal and family court. Follow Julie on Twitter @JulieDiCaro and like here on Facebook here. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.