What curse? The 2016 Chicago Cubs have no idea what you're referring to. When Steve Bartman reached for that infamous foul ball, Kyle Schwarber was 10 years old. Addison Russell was 9. When the black cat ran across the field in 1969, Cubs' manager Joe Maddon was 15. And nobody around the organization was around for the curse of the Billy Goat.
Fans on the north side of Chicago are all too familiar with the dark history of their beloved Cubbies, but bring up any talk of a curse around this current team and you won't get so much as a raised eyebrow. This is a new team, a new regime and a fresh start for one of the two original National League franchises.
These are not the "Lovable Losers" anymore, as they enter the 2016 season with perhaps the largest target they've had on their backs since '84 or '69. And it's probably even bigger.
The Cubs are legitimate contenders this season; the pick of many to represent the NL in the World Series. Ever since the organization hired boy genius Theo Epstein in 2011, the team has improved every season, but nobody quite expected the jump they made last year.
In Epstein's first season the Cubs finished 61-101. The next year they finished 66-96. In 2014 they improved by seven games in the win column to 73-89. And last season the Cubs finished the year 97-65 and made it all the way to the NLCS.
When Epstein came aboard he drew out a six, perhaps seven-year rebuilding plan with a focus on big picture. But as they enter year five, the Cubs are looking like the perennial October team we all dreamed of but few realistically envisioned in his introductory press conference.
Spring is right around the corner and for the first time in a long time the change in weather might not be the thing Chicago residents are most excited about. There is a change happening in the entire sports culture of this city, and if results can match expectations, Chicago will see a celebration unlike anything the nation has ever seen before.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. It is a long season and a lot can happen. So let's just start with the big storylines to watch as the Cubs begin spring training next week.
Innings for the starters
It became apparent in the playoffs last year that the Cubs' starting rotation was only formidable for about two and a half games each series. Management did something about that in the off-season by bringing in John Lackey, but their lack of depth also cost them because of the physical toll it took on Cy Young winner Jack Arrieta and last year's big acquisition, Jon Lester. Arrieta had a career year but also pitched 229 innings, second most in the NL. Lester pitched 205 and Lackey pitched 218 as a member of the Cardinals. These are veteran players and those are a lot of innings.
When the playoffs hit we saw a noticeable drop in Arrieta's game, due in part to the amount of innings he had put in including the playoffs. His four complete games were tied for the most in the league and his 3,438 total pitches thrown were the most thrown by anyone in the NL.
This year with Lackey bringing depth to the rotation and the Cubs' sights set on the playoffs, Maddon will have to manage the innings of his veteran starters early in the year, perhaps allowing for extra days off for them and innings limits early in the season. Of course try telling that to Maddon while Arrieta is in the midst of an 8-inning shut-out, but it's a good problem to have.
Who will be the fifth starter?
The top four spots in the Cubs' starting rotation seem set with Arietta, Lester, Lackey and Jason Hammel. But the fifth starter spot will likely be fluid and something to keep an eye on throughout spring games and early in the season.
Kyle Hendricks appears to be the favorite to start the year given his spot in the rotation last season. The 26-year-old isn't flashy, but he has really good stuff when it is accurate. Hendricks struggled last season, however, especially in the playoffs, and the Cubs will really need a reliable fifth starter in order to help keep days off consistent for the other four guys.
Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren will also be given a look in that spot. In 11 games with the Cubs, Cahill went 1-0 with a 2.12 ERA. He pitched really well in long relief out of the bullpen where he would be valuable for Maddon again, but if Hendricks struggles or there is an injury to someone else in the rotation, Cahill may be the next man up.
Warren came over from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade and will most likely stay in the bullpen, but he may be someone worth looking at for a spot start from time to time. He has a career 3.39 ERA and started 17 games last year for the Yankees.
While it is possible the Cubs could still make a move mid-season to help fill out their starting rotation, you'll likely see a good amount of musical chairs from Maddon as he experiments with different guys in that fifth spot.
Development of the youngsters
The Cubs farm is growing them faster than they can bring them up and that is another good problem to have. Last season we saw Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler as expected, but Russell and Schwarber getting called up early was a bit of a surprise. But no matter how and when they made it up, they did everything they could to set the bar extremely high for themselves coming into this year. Rookie of the Year Bryant hit .274 with 26 HR and 99 RBI. Schwarber hit 16 home runs in only 69 games and Russell hit .242 and was one of the team's best defensive players before an injury kept him out of the NLCS.
Then there's the playoff run Soler had. In seven post-season games, Soler hit .474 with a .600 OBP and three home runs in 19 AB. Javier Baez saw a nice post-season bump as well, hitting .333 in place of the injured Russell.
Now with a full season and post-season experience under their belts, there will be a lot of pressure on this young core to take the next step alongside veterans Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero. If these guys can continue to develop at anywhere near the pace they did last season, the Cubs are going to have one of the most formidable lineups in baseball.
The one outlier perhaps is Baez, who has struggled moving back and forth between the Minors and Majors last year. He is an incredible talent defensively with a lot of power behind the plate, but he strikes out a lot and could become a liability in a lineup built on high pitch counts and on-base percentage.
Sure there will be slumps and steps backward -- most of this group is under 25 years old -- but they play with a poise and maturity rarely seen with this many young players on one team.
Who will bat lead-off?
This is definitely the most intriguing question in the Cubs' lineup entering the season. Last year the Cubs were fourth in the NL in On-Base Percentage (.344) from the lead-off spot. Dexter Fowler saw the most at-bats at the top of the order, but with Fowler gone there are a couple of different ways the Cubs can go.
The Cubs acquired Heyward and Zobrist, both fully capable of jumpstarting your order. Zobrist is a switch hitter and Heyward bats from the left side. Heyward is a career .268 hitter with a .353 OBP. At 34 years old, Zobrist has almost identical career numbers with a .265 average and .355 OBP. Given Maddon's tendency to be aggressive on the base-paths, he may go with Heyward more often, who is more of a threat to steal a base, but both guys will likely see time at the top of the order this spring.
Some of this will also depend on how well the youngsters play. If Baez's struggles continue heading into the season, Zobrist will likely be an everyday second baseman and a sure thing at or near the top of the batting order. However, if Baez plays well, he could give Heyward days off in center field as well, based on what we're hearing. So the two could form a platoon in that leadoff spot for most of the year until Maddon decides to set a lineup heading into the post-season. Either way, expect to see a lot of experimentation with the lineup this spring and even into the first couple months of the season.
Embrace the target
Gone are the days of the Cubs taking opponents by surprise. As deep and talented as they are, they are no longer full of "unknowns." Everybody will be on everyone's scouting report from day one. Pitchers will have a much better idea how to keep pitches to Schwarber off the rooftops. The core players have continued to develop their A-game, but this year everyone will be bringing their A-game when the Cubs come to town. And how does Maddon plan to approach the added pressure?
Maddon stresses never taking anything for granted or becoming complacent, and if the Cubs have a hard time keeping themselves humble, you know their opponents will be doing everything possible to bring them down.
"Embrace the target" has become the mantra for the 2016 season, yet another t-shirt worthy phrase out of the mouth of their eclectic, fearless leader. But it isn't just the target on their own backs they should be working to embrace. It is the ultimate target ahead of them as well -- the World Series.