Despite Theo Epstein’s Goal, Here are Five Reasons the Cubs Won’t Win the Division in 2015

In what has become an annual rah-rah fest that seems more about explaining why the team was bad this year than why the audience should drop thousands of dollars on tickets the next year, Theo Epstein spoke to Cubs season ticket holders this past week. In general, the ones who show up do so because they intend to buy their tickets next year. And why do that? Because the goal is to win the division.

At least that’s what we’ve all been told. Now, you guys know me. I’ve been on the bandwagon with “The Plan” all along, and I remain firmly squished in the middle like a guy riding the 151 bus during rush hour. But I think announcing that the goal for 2015 is to win the division is going to blow up in Epstein’s face, for several reasons.

Before I touch on those, I think it’s fair to point out that Theo and Company have many reasons to have high expectations. Their kids are arriving in the Big Leagues, they have tons of payroll to spend, a new TV deal on the horizon, and a few stars already entrenched in positions on the team. But can we really expect any number of improvements they could make to push them past the Cardinals and Pirates in the division?

I don’t believe so, no. I certainly expect a few big off-season moves, and that will likely mean some progress on the field that results in more wins. Maybe, if all things go well, they could win 85 games. But that said, here are my top five reasons the Cubs won’t win the division next season.

1. Starting Pitching

Teams need really good starting pitching to win. The Cards got great pitching from Wainwright, Lynn, and Miller this season. The Dodgers have Kershaw, Grienke, and Ryu. The Nationals, Giants, and Pirates all have good pitching. The Cubs? Jake Arrieta had a fantastic year. Will he repeat that? Uh, I dunno. We all kind of think he will, based on what we know. But without a proven track record it’s hard to predict.

And what about the rest of the rotation? Kyle Hendricks had a great first season, but most baseball observers would tell you he’s nowhere near as good as he looked. And that’s fine; a little regression for him still makes him a number 3 or 4 starter, and you need those guys. But after Arrieta and Hendricks, it’s kind of ugly. Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson (who Theo called a mistake he wouldn’t do over again, yeesh) had awful years, and I think there’s a strong chance one or both are goners.

The Cubs have done a good job building a tremendous amount of pitching depth, with Dan Straily, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, Dallas Beeler, and Erik Jokisch. But those are just depth guys on a last-place team. Maybe one of them takes the 5th starter spot, but if any more than about 30-40 starts are made from that group next year, the Cubs aren’t winning anything.

We have all heard the rumors of mutual interest between the Cubs and free agent Jon Lester, and for the sake of this story let’s say they sign both him and another decent starter like Jason Hammel. That’s a pretty good rotation. But is Arrieta, Lester, Hammel, and Hendricks the equivalent to what the Dodgers, Nats, Giants, or Cards can throw out when everyone is healthy?

2. The Kids

We’re all super-excited about Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant coming up and playing. But the fact is, most kids struggle their first year or so in the majors. Tommy Cook did a lot of research and wrote some fascinating stuff on the topic. The long and the short of it is: don’t expect these guys to be great next year.

I’d like to believe that maybe one or two of the major prospects have good seasons next year, even if the others struggle. There is still a lot of growth needed, and adding quality veterans that can help the team win with the kids is the right thing to do. If they can add one or two quality young hitters to a lineup with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, they shouldn’t struggle quite as bad to score as they did in early 2014.

But how many teams win 90-plus games with a bunch of rookies in the middle of the lineup? Remember, Bryce Harper has a ton of talent and we were all excited when he came up. I, and most right-thinking people, believe he’s going to be a star. But has he really hit like a star yet? He’s been very, very good for a 21-year-old, but he hasn’t put up star numbers. It’ll take time. These guys will take time, too.

3. Kris Bryant

Which brings me to Bryant. If there was ever a time where Theo may have backed himself into a corner, this might be it. Most Cubs fans can buy into keeping Bryant down at AAA despite ripping the cover off the ball in a season during which they’re going to finish in last place. But most observers believe the Cubs will try to conceal Bryant at AAA for the first month of 2015 due to control concerns.

Can you imagine that Rick Telander column or Gordon Wittenmyer story? The Cubs claim the goal is to win the division in 2015, but then send Bryant to AAA? I can defend either one of those things individually, but it’s hard to defend them together. If you’re going to tell your season ticket holders, and, by extension, your entire fanbase, that you’re going to try to win now, you cannot send Bryant to AAA next year simply to save dollars in the never-ending fight between Scott Boras and baseball team owners.

This will play out poorly for the Cubs, which is probably why I had a mixture of giddiness and cringing when I heard that the Cubs’ head honcho had decreed that it was time to start winning. I can fully support their reasons for sending Bryant down for a few weeks next year, but if you want to win now you’re being a hypocrite if you do it.

4. The Division

Let’s face it, the NL Central isn’t a particularly strong division. But it’s not the 2005 NL West, either. The Cardinals will still be the team to beat, no matter what happens this off-season. The Pirates have made the playoffs two seasons in a row. The Brewers surprised a lot of people this year, but they have a mediocre roster with not much in the farm system. The Reds had a ton of injuries, but the arrow might be pointing downward for them.

The Cubs are going to be on the rise, and I see no reason that they can’t move past the Reds and Brewers in the standings. But the Pirates, let alone the Cardinals, will be tough to beat. Outside of being ravaged by injuries (and the Cardinals still probably would win the division, because they’re the Cardinals), I don’t see many scenarios where the Cubs win the 90 games required to claim first place.

5. Organizational Depth

One of the specific “voodoo magic” parts of the Cardinals recent run of supremacy is how when guys go down, other guys come out of nowhere to play huge roles during the season or the post-season run. People forget that Wainwright needed Tommy John Surgery and didn’t pitch in 2011, when the Cards won the World Series.

If, sweet baby Jesus forbid, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta went down to injuries in 2015, do the Cubs have guys waiting in the wings to take up those roles? Outside of the prospects we all know should be on the field in 2015, who in the organization is ready to be the next Michael Wacha, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, or Jon Jay?

The answer isn’t clear. The Cubs do have a ton of elite talent, but the depth? It’s a lot of Matt Szczur, Rafael Lopez, and Dallas Beeler. Not exactly guys you envision making a big play or pitching a huge game in the playoffs. This is another part of the rebuild that takes more time than many may realize. Even if the elite guys come up and begin playing well immediately, the depth isn’t at a level where you could expect a good team to keep winning through injuries to key guys.

So I apologize if I’ve peed in your Cubbie Kool-Aid, but I don’t see any way this team wins the division in 2015. With a little good luck, some free agent signings, and quick player development, I could buy into the idea that 2015 should be a season in which the Cubs are legitimately in the playoff conversation and will be worth the price of admission.

Maybe that’s what Theo should have told the season ticket holders.

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