Western Courier

Cubs look to have bounce back year

%E2%80%9COf+the+entire+bunch%2C+it%E2%80%99ll+be+vital+that+Bryant+can+get+past+his%0Ashoulder+issue+from+a+year+ago+and+return+to+his+MVP+form%E2%80%9D%0A-Jacob+VanZuiden
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Cubs look to have bounce back year

“Of the entire bunch, it’ll be vital that Bryant can get past his
shoulder issue from a year ago and return to his MVP form”
-Jacob VanZuiden

“Of the entire bunch, it’ll be vital that Bryant can get past his shoulder issue from a year ago and return to his MVP form” -Jacob VanZuiden

WIKIMEDIA.ORG

“Of the entire bunch, it’ll be vital that Bryant can get past his shoulder issue from a year ago and return to his MVP form” -Jacob VanZuiden

WIKIMEDIA.ORG

WIKIMEDIA.ORG

“Of the entire bunch, it’ll be vital that Bryant can get past his shoulder issue from a year ago and return to his MVP form” -Jacob VanZuiden

Jacob VanZuiden, Courier Staff

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Now that pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, it’s officially time to start thinking about baseball again.

The 2018 season for the Cubs may be one they want to forget. After jumping out to a commanding early-season lead in the standings, the team seemingly lost its magic over the last month, allowing the Milwaukee Brewers to steal the division crown after losing a one-game winner-takes-all decider in early October. Chicago then fell to the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card playoff matchup. What once looked like another promising campaign was stopped dead in its tracks. For the first time since 2015, the Cubs were eliminated before reaching the divisional round.

Coming into camp with last year’s devastating string of losses fresh on their minds, the Cubs carry an interesting underdog status that was non-existent in years prior. Was 2018 simply a down-year where they failed to get hot at the right time or is this organization seeing the beginning of a decline?

In-house improvement was the name of the game this offseason for General Manager Jed Hoyer and President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein. With limited cap space, the front office opted to forego spending the big bucks in free agency and instead decided to bet on the roster’s core that’s taken them to the N.L. Championship Series three out of the last four years. Manager Joe Maddon’s message to the team this season is to “own it now.” This message is clear to his players; they’ve got the talent in place to turn last year’s woes around, but now it’s just a matter of doing it. When speaking to the media back in early December, Hoyer was adamant that the organization still believes they contain a championship caliber roster.

“We certainly weren’t who we believe we can be,” said Hoyer.. “And I know that this group of players has another gear that it can get to that we didn’t get last year. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to get there. So, the sooner we can start playing games again, the better. I can’t wait to drive to Arizona. It’ll be great.”

Health may be the biggest factor on the Cubs’ success, as it may have been the main culprit of the team’s late season derailment in 2018. Kris Bryant, Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish are just a few names that battled ongoing injury throughout the season, and a return to full-health would pay dividends for the club.

Of the entire bunch, it’ll be vital that Bryant can get past his shoulder issue from a year ago and return to his MVP form. He holds the keys to the Cubs’ offense and without him, the lineup could struggle. Even in his partial absence, the team still managed to produce 761 runs on the season, good for fourth best in the National League.

Bryant wasn’t the only one who struggled during the home stretch of the regular season. Wilson Contreras seemingly took a step back over the final months (although he was selected for his first All-Star appearance), managing a .094 ISO and just 11 extra-base hits over his final 203 regular season plate appearances. If he can return to the player that got him elected to be an All-Star (123 wRC+ with seven homers, 19 doubles and five triples in the first-half), the offense will look much more similar to the one we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.

Betting that their bats can pick up the slack left from 2018, the team’s pitching staff will also need to make strides. A glaring offseason need for the organization coming into this offseason was bullpen depth. Hoyer delivered, bringing in former-Oriole Brad Brach on a one-year, $4.35 million deal. Brach pitched well for the Braves down the stretch last season but wasn’t quite his elite self like in years prior. From 2015-2017, Brach posted a dominant 2.62 ERA with 251 strikeouts in 266 1/3 innings. Aside from Brach, the Cubs also added left-reliver Xavier Cedeno.

As far as their starting pitching goes, this seems to be the least of their worries. While John Lester may be aging and can no longer be considered a “stuff guy,” he, along with Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and a healthy Darvish make for a formidable five-man rotation. But just how good can this group be? That will fall on the shoulders of Darvish, who signed a monster six-year, $126 million contract last season but only made eight starts (4.95 ERA) due to an elbow injury that cut his season short. Now with expectations as low as ever for the 32-year-old, he knows that he has to come back strong.

“I couldn’t do anything last year for the Cubs,” said Darvish. “I really love the fans and this organization but I couldn’t do anything. I really want to do something for Chicago and the Cubs.”

If things work out the way they should, people need to stop underestimating the Cubs. In a “what have you done for me lately” league, Chicago seems to have fallen out of favor in the eyes of fans and executives across the league. After putting the proverbial finishing touches on their roster by strengthening the bullpen, only time will tell just how good they can be.

It’s been a quiet offseason with not as much buzz as usual surrounding the team, but that may prove to be just what this team needs. Now that they’re no longer the “team-to-beat,” they’ll gladly set out to prove their doubters wrong. There’s a lot of “if’s,” but you can bet all your chips on it; the Cubs will once again be a force to be reckoned with in 2019.

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Cubs look to have bounce back year