Baseball is less than one month away and Spring training games are well in motion. All 30 MLB teams will be starting the season with a clean slate and have equal opportunity to chase a division title and possibly a shot at a World Series appearance in the beginning of March. Every team went through a different agenda this off-season to put their teams in the best situation as possible.
Here are my top three most improved teams based on the off-season. All of them have championship aspirations and the moves they made are going to be a huge part of their chase for a World Series title.
1. Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs have quickly become the darlings of baseball by riding off the momentum of last year’s NLCS run. President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, is the mastermind of turning Chicago’s organization around in just a few seasons. He’s taken the Cubs from the laughing-stock of baseball to almost the cusp of making the Fall Classic.
Epstein has done it through the draft and keen trades since arriving in the Windy City. They have taken advantage of their high draft picks in recent years by cultivating young sluggers Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez whom have all quickly become opposing pitcher’s nightmare. After all, the trio combined to crank out 43 home runs during their first seasons healthy.
In addition, on July 5, 2014 Epstein was able to swindle Addison Russell from the Oakland Athletics, who was Oakland’s top prospect at the time for pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. Oakland was pushing for a deep playoff run, so it made sense then, but now they’re experiencing buyer’s remorse as Russell has become another key piece to the Cubs roster.
Epstein’s four-year plan is coming around rather nicely, as he was able to bolster the roster this off-season with quality veteran pieces to complement their current young talent that have proven they can play and at times dominate. This off-season they added outfielder Jason Heyward, veteran starting pitcher John Lackey, utility man Ben Zobrist, and outfielder Dexter Fowler. These four moves on paper make the Cubs look destined to take home their first division crown since 2008. Let’s take a look at why all four of these players are perfect for the Cubs to build upon last year’s success and make it to the World Series.
Jason Heyward provides insane upside to their outfield
Jason Heyward was one of the most coveted free agents on the market this off-season. He cashed in big-time when he signed with the Chicago Cubs to an eight-year contract worth $184 million. This is a great deal for both sides for many reasons. Heyward is just 26 years old and is still in the prime of his career. Heyward’s best asset is the fact that he is one of the more elite defenders in the league. Since entering the league in 2010, he’s accumulated three Gold Glove awards and holds the most defensive runs saved in baseball with 122.
Heyward has been a tad inconsistent on offense throughout his career. During his six full seasons as a starting outfielder, none of them have seen Heyward batting over .300. However, Heyward’s forte recently isn’t hitting for average, nor for power, but getting on base. Heyward has avoided 100 strikeouts in a season for three consecutive years. Heyward’s discipline at the plate should cutback Chicago’s abysmal strikeout rate. As a team last year the Cubs’ hitters led baseball in strikeouts with 1,518.
What essentially the Cubs are getting is an everyday outfielder who will be there for them defensively and is going to reach base nearly every game. Take that success and plug it into an already stacked lineup that features Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist and the sky is the limit for the Cubs’ offense.
Ben Zobrist’s versatility is rare
Zobrist was another highly coveted free agent by many because of his versatility. He chose to take a dock in pay in order to land in Chicago. This is starting to turn into a very comfortable situation for Zobrist, as he became reunited once again with Joe Madden, who was originally his manager in Tampa Bay from 2006-14. This is a good move for the Cubs because he gives great at-bats and forces opposing pitchers’ pitch counts to rise. During his 10-year career in the majors, Zobrist has struck out a total of 757 times (75.7 per season). In addition to his low strikeout rate, Zobrist’s average OBP is .355.
This is key for a team that is full of free swingers. Zobrist might’ve been overpaid in general and considering his age of 34, he might not be as productive as the Cubs’ want him to be after his four years expire. However, he will provide sure hands at second base, which is something that Baez and Russell have yet to offer.
John Lackey rounds out their starting rotation nicely
John Lackey, another quality pickup for the Cubs will add depth to their starting rotation, which is already potent with reigning Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta and John Lester. Lackey is an innings eater, averaging 6.6 innings per start last season. Chicago’s bullpen is a bit of a concern, as Trevor Cahill and Travis Wood really are the only proven relievers back in 2016. Despite his age of 37, Lackey needs to continue defying father time and preserve the Cubs’ bullpen just like he did last year in St. Louis. Lackey also has built up a bulk of postseason experience, which is always needed when dealing with a young roster like the Cubs.
Dexter Fowler adds depth to the Cubs’ outfield
This move should have never happened in the first place, as Dexter Fowler had agreed to a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. However, the deal fell through because the Orioles were not willing to give Fowler an opt out of his contract. As a result, Fowler decided to go where ” his heart is” and this move turned into a good one for the Cubs because Jason Heyward can go back to his primary position of right-field that is less taxing than center field. It also deepens the lineup, as Fowler will most likely lead off with his great speed, setting the table for their ridiculous lineup. This deal is also cheaper than it would’ve been if he accepted the qualifying offer at the beginning of the off-season.