By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — Dressed to the nines, Cubs past and present emerged from a corridor into the Sheraton Grand ballroom and took the stage Friday evening. There were Hall of Fame names like Andre Dawson and Billy Williams, fan favorites like Juan Pierre and Jon Lieber and stars of today like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
Hope springs eternal each frigid January weekend as the Cubs host their annual convention, an event that brings together a close-knit organization. But the festive feel went away at the tail end of the 2017 season-in-review video, which featured a far more abrupt finish than the one a year prior.
In fact, the final moments included celebrations after the Cubs’ victory over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Jake Arrieta pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed just one run, while Wade Davis worked two innings for the save. Their season would end one day later in an 11-1 loss to the Dodgers.
After a triumphant title in 2016, the Cubs were left to watch the thrilling seven-game World Series won by the Astros.
“It was a great World Series,” said Bryant, who admitted he wasn’t planning to watch at first. “Obviously, the Dodgers did great smashing us and getting there. But the Astros were an unbelievable team. It was great for baseball.”
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts pulled from a pocket his World Series championship ring during the opening ceremonies and the great Pat Hughes uttered his famous call again: The Chicago Cubs win the World Series! All throughout the Sheraton, there were ample reminders of where this team strives to be again.
To win another World Series, the Cubs are counting on better from their young core. That much was clear with the newcomers who took the stage Friday night — Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek, among others — all quality additions who drew nothing more than a reserved ovation from the packed ballroom. There’s no big-ticket newcomer to this team.
There was no surprise appearance from Arrieta or Yu Darvish on Friday night. In an offseason with little movement in free agency thus far, the storyline for the Cubs is about the men in that ballroom more than the ones who weren’t present.
What the Cubs need in 2018 is the kind of growth that wasn’t there last season. Bryant, Rizzo, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward all had their wins-above-replacement mark regress last season. The firepower on offense a lineup from which more was expected had a letdown.
“At any point last year, you could look at any of these guys and feel good about them,” Ian Happ said. “They’re all great baseball players. There’s no expectations above everybody comes out and plays the way that they can.”
Sure, the Cubs are living a different life than rivals looking up at them in the standings. Ninety-two wins and a third consecutive trip to the NLCS is a successful season, though the Cubs have a higher standard after what they accomplished in 2016. The temperament of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein after losing last October made it clear that what happened wasn’t good enough.
Rather than packaging a Happ or Addison Russell and looking for something different in the lineup, the Cubs are committed to their core. General manager Jed Hoyer said Friday on 670 The Score that the team is “almost definitely” moving into the season with this position player core and lineup. That means hoping that Ben Zobrist has a healthy wrist atop the order.
The Marlins have been operating a fire sale under the Derek Jeter-led new ownership, but the Cubs haven’t been reported in any conversations for a player like Christian Yelich. They’re more than comfortable seeing through what Happ and Albert Almora Jr. can become and how Russell and a slimmed-down Kyle Schwarber can rebound from a difficult year.
The Cubs are betting on 2017 being the outlier, believing the regressions were the cause of a fluke season. There’s no quantifying a World Series hangover, but perhaps there was something to it within the numbers, because a talented team wasn’t good enough.
Never one for panic moves, Epstein has held steady this offseason. He has surveyed the market and is waiting for agent Scott Boras to become more reasonable with Arrieta. A four-year deal makes a lot more sense from the Cubs’ perspective, and the Cardinals haven’t jumped overboard with a lucrative offer. Who will blink first?
The Cubs gave Chatwood what still remains the biggest deal for a pitcher this offseason — a three-year, $38-million deal for a 28-year-old ground-ball pitcher with untapped potential lost in Coors Field. We’ll see what the rest of this offseason brings to the rotation, with Epstein reaffirming to reporters Friday that he hopes to add another starter.
After losing the closer Davis, the Cubs’ lone All-Star last summer, there’s uncertainty in the bullpen. Can Brandon Morrow be the late-game answer for manager Joe Maddon? Will reliever Carl Edwards Jr. bounce back from a disastrous October? What happens if there’s an injury?
These are all questions for Epstein to ask himself in the weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.
“I’m excited for the guys that we’ve signed and brought in and hopeful that when we break for spring training, we’ll have an unbelievable roster,” Happ said. “I’m confident that Theo and Jed and the Ricketts will put that together for us.”
Optimism was of course ever present as the Cubs fans filled the ballroom and watched their heroes take the stage. There were World Series dreams in Januaries past that were dashed by last-place finishes.
After Cubdom finally got a taste of that championship champagne, World Series contention is demanded from this club. Perhaps they had enough on that stage Friday night to win it all again.