You may think I have a bounce in my step because spring is on the way, but every sense available to me during this winter without end says you’re wrong. You could argue it’s because baseball is being played again in Arizona and Florida, but I'm not there to witness it, and even the densest cluster of pixels can't impersonate a warm breeze. No, it was Kris Bryant's first spring training at-bat that made me so giddy, the one that ended after nine pitches when the young third baseman blasted a towering drive to straight-away center. Before Bryant launched that ball into the mesosphere, I was the same skeptical Cubs fan I had always been, longing for but never truly expecting greatness. By the time it landed on the berm past the center field fence, however, I started to feel something I hadn't experienced in so long I nearly didn't recognize it: belief.
Actually, it wasn't just Bryant's mammoth blast that released a decades-long backlog of baseball dopamine into my pleasure-starved brain. There was plenty of foreplay leading up to that moment, what with Albert Almora's double down the left field line earlier in the inning, and the sight of fellow top prospects Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara sharing the diamond with them. The Cubs may have been trailing 13-1 late in a meaningless spring game, but when I saw them all sporting real Chicago Cubs laundry, the actual uniforms, and saw Bryant launch his moonshot, I could finally see, and believe in, the outlines of a World Series to come. And then the topper: Our own Jason Parks, who is in Arizona, writes home with nearly pornographic descriptions of Almora’s swagger, Bryant’s power and approach, and Baez’s superstar potential. Okay, Cubs. I’m sold.
Of course, there's still plenty of work to be done. The 2014 Cubs are almost certainly going to be a bad team, and while our prospect gurus currently rank their farm system as the second best in the land, their comparative shortage of young impact talent already on the big-league roster drops them to 10th in our 25-and-Under Talent Rankings. As wonderful as it may be to dream on Chicago's young batting prospects, the Cubs remain dangerously short on pitching, and until they wrench that particular shaft into alignment they're not going anywhere. However, after watching Bryant’s massive blast, I’m fully convinced that that problem
can will be fixed, and in relatively short order, through the liberal application of significant financial resources, minor-league depth, front office savvy, and luck karma the power of inevitability. Now is not the time for pessimism. Be bold, Cubs fans, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Dare to dream.
Below you'll find an optimist's view of the 2016 Cubs, showing a proposed future batting order, rotation, and closer for a team that is ready to compete and has the look of an eventual champion. You’ll also see a timeline detailing how they can get there. First, though, let me differentiate between my newfound optimism, which has at least some tenuous connection to a possible future, and the sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm that engulfed me the last time I truly felt the Cubs could win a championship if only they made a few moves. For some perspective, here's the possible championship roster I would have envisioned back then:
Closer: Say what now?
Assembling that lineup would have required a few trade offers subject to ridicule from our own Ben Lindbergh, involving great teams of the early seventies all suffering early-onset dementia at the same time, diagnosed after trading their best players for can’t-miss youngsters like Rick Reuschel, Burt Hooton, and Pete LaCock. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, none of that happened; instead, the Cubs have spent most of the intervening years committed to providing me with a never-ending supply of “character.”
Unlike those crazy dreams of youth, while assembling the Optimist’s 2016 Cubs I'm going to make only a few
unlikely eminently reasonable assumptions:
1. Every Cub prospect and young veteran will remain healthy and reach their ceiling;
2. The Cubs will be able to find other teams interested in their few veteran assets and their second-tier prospects, all of whom will perform admirably and can be traded at their highest value; and
3. The Cubs will be able to increase their payroll significantly as soon as this coming fall.
The old, pre-Bryant-moonshot Ken would now take pains to tell you in a slightly annoying monotone that it’s highly unlikely that all those things will occur. What a buzzkill that guy was! The new, post-Bryant-moonshot Ken is completely on board the 2016 Contention Train, and is here to tell you how it will all go down:
June 2014: The Cubs select Vanderbilt pitcher Tyler Beede with the fourth pick of the First Year Player Draft. Beede has used his junior year to show off greatly improved command, and minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson, Beede's pitching coach during his freshman year at Vandy, is perfectly situated to jumpstart the young righty's career.
July 2014: The Cubs are bad, but Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both take big steps forward and show that they will be key components of the club’s future. Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood put together excellent campaigns and are traded in July for additional prospects—we’ll call these new players "The Sharkwood Haul." Trading their two best starters ensures that the Cubs again have one of the worst records in the league, but the arrival of Baez, Bryant, and pitcher C.J. Edwards in September gives impatient Cubs fans a tantalizing glimpse of the future.
October 2014: The Detroit Tigers win the World Series.
December 2014: The Tigers, having finally won one for Mike Ilitch, allow themselves to be outbid, and the Cubs sign free agent Max Scherzer to a long-term contract. Since the Cubs were among the 10 worst teams in 2014, they don't have to surrender their first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Sometime between December 2014 and October 2015: The Cubs trade for another Vandy standout, David Price, and sign him to a long-term deal—maybe in the 2014-15 offseason, maybe later. Since the Rays already have a pretty good player at the hot corner, it might require some other parties to transfer the value of a few third base trading chits (e.g., a rejuvenated Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, Jeimer Candelario) into morsels that will appeal to Tampa's discriminating palate. But combine that with slugger Dan Vogelbach and some of The Sharkwood Haul, and this is
perhaps certainly achievable. I'm absolutely certain that Price is going to be traded to a National League team, because I have access to the most highly-correlated indicator of such a thing: Price is on my AL-only Strat-o-Matic team, and when one of my players changes teams, he goes to the other league roughly 80 percent of the time. If not the Cubs, then who? If not December 2014, then when?
Summer 2015: The Cubs use their final Top 10 draft pick of the modern era to help restock their system, abetting the deep pool of Caribbean talent they signed back in 2013. Over the next few months, Almora, Alcantara, Soler, Pierce Johnson, and a fully healthy Arodys Vizcaino make their Wrigleyville debuts. Beede proves to be a prodigy, following a Wacha-esque path to the bigs that culminates in an August call up and a guaranteed rotation spot for 2016.
April 2016: Next stop, Contention. No championship yet, but it’s so close now you can feel its breath tickling the hair on the back of your neck.
October 20nn: Bliss. Money is great, of course, but when they look back on it all, Price and Scherzer will have learned that everything Theo and Jed told them was true: Being lynchpins to baseball history is the greatest reward of all.
The Optimist’s 2016 Cubs:
1. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B
2. Albert Almora, CF
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Kris Bryant, RF
5. Javier Baez, 3B
6. Jorge Soler, LF
7. Starlin Castro, SS
8. Welington Castillo, C
S1: David Price
S2: Max Scherzer
S3: C.J. Edwards
S4: Tyler Beede
S5: Pierce Johnson
Closer: Arodys Vizcaino
If you’re a fan of the Optimist’s 2016 Cubs, you might complain that the lineup leans a bit to the right or could use another table-setter, or fret that injuries or ineffectiveness could turn Scherzer and Price into twin albatrosses. In actuality, you should be freaked out at the thought that someone in the Ricketts family must have sold their soul to beat the long odds against all these kids being this good and this healthy all at the same time.
Don’t let that bother you—you’ve suffered long enough, and you’re owed this. It really
could will happen.