Cubs look to follow up 97- win season.

More stories from Brett Starkopf


PITTSBURGH, PA – OCTOBER 07: Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after a double play to end the sixth inning with the bases loaded during the National League Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on October 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

If this off season is any indication, they will do a lot. Although winning 97 games was only good enough for third place in the National League (NL) Central, the Cubs managed to eliminate their two division foes—the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals—in the playoffs en route to an NLCS exit against the New York Mets.

The Cubs hope to replicate that spark in 2016 led by veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo, reigning NL CY Young winner, which is an award given to each league’s best pitcher, Jake Arrieta and NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. Not to mention the Cubs made the biggest splash by signing the highly coveted outfielder Jason Heyward, formerly of the Cardinals, to an eight-year, $184 million deal. The best part about acquiring Heyward is the Cardinals don’t have him anymore.

Last season Heyward hit .293 with 13 home runs and 60 RBIs for the Redbirds, who won 100 games last season and captured their third consecutive division title. He also won his third gold glove in right field.

What the signing means for the Cubs is they have a reliable outfielder, which was badly needed. They have a leadoff man who doesn’t strike out often, again, which was badly needed; and most importantly, the Cardinals don’t have him—was that mentioned already?

In 19 games against the Cubs last year, Heyward hit .324 (the highest against an NL Central opponent) and scored 16 times (the most against any opponent). The Cardinals do not have that anymore. And it’s great.

Signing Heyward not only strengthens the Cubs lineup—which was already strong—and weakens their competitors.

How can it get better?

Well, they can sign John Lackey. Now, it wasn’t as sexy as a signing as Heyward but the Cubs have a realistic chance of making a deep run into the playoffs and adding Lackey—a two-time World Series winner—to the rotation, to go along with Jon Lester and Arrieta, gives the Cubs that rotation depth that eluded them in 2015.

In 33 starts last year, Lackey was 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA and became the ace for the injury-riddled—you guessed it—St. Louis Cardinals, who boasted the lowest team ERA in baseball (2.94).

Signing Lackey not only strengthens the Cubs rotation—which was already strong, finishing 2015 with the third-lowest ERA in baseball (3.36)—and weakens their competitors.

The strongest part about the Cubs last season was their depth. Years and years of drafting athletic shortstops (and trading Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell in 2014) have paid off. But, there were too many cooks in the kitchen as they say and someone had to go.

Starlin Castro was the odd man out, for good reason

The Confidence General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein have in Javier Baez forced their collective hand into making a move. As well as the emergence of Russell as the everyday shortstop.

Castro was the last player on the Cubs to have been drafted by former General Manager Jim Hendry and moving him to the New York Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren gives the bullpen a little more of a variety and relieves the congestion in the middle infield.

Ushering out Castro signifies an end of an era for the “loveable loser” Cubs and the start of something special, hopefully. Every player currently in the Cubs organization were drafted, signed or traded for by Jed and Theo.

But that isn’t to say Castro won’t be missed. Although his defense was lackadaisical at times and his mannerisms suggested that he would rather not be playing baseball, his offense made up for it. In the six seasons he spent in Cubby blue pinstripes, Castro collected 991 hits, was selected to three All-Star Games and was the first player born in the 1990s to play in the majors. He led all of baseball with 207 hits in 2011.

His departure will leave a hole in many a hearts, but his walkup music might be missed the most.

To fill his void, the Cubs signed second baseman/utility player Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, the Illinois native, spent his first nine seasons with Manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. He signed as a free agent with Oakland before being traded to the Kansas City Royals, who went on to win the World Series. Zobrist was crucial to the Royals’ championship run, hitting .303 in the postseason.

Zobrist is a switch hitter and he will likely bat second in the order behind Heyward. He is known for his versatility in the field taking reps at second base and both corner outfield positions last season.

As well as the new acquisitions, a lot of attention will be on the players entering their sophomore season. Kyle Schwarber made his presence known during the postseason. “Bam-Bam,” as he is known around the locker room, clubbed five home runs during the playoffs, setting the Cubs record.

Russell, who will be donning the number 27 next season, will look to improve his health more than any other facet of the game. He missed the NLCS against the New York Mets with a leg injury and he told’s Jesse Rogers at the Cubs Convention on Jan. 16 that he is, “working on getting my arm stronger and also my footwork.”

Russell thrived last season when he relieved Castro and shortstop. Switching back to his natural position he was able to show off his range that had him touted as the number one prospect in baseball last season.

And then there is Kris Bryant who was just voted by as the leagues second-best third baseman in the league. He will look to continue to live up to his potential of being one of the game’s best. However, the one thing that does need changing is his strike out total. Bryant struck out more than any batter last year. He is known for his patience and had 77 walks to show for it. He needs to make the necessary adjustments to dwindle down the strike out total and make him a more feared hitter

The 2016 Cubs are one of the most intimidating teams on paper. If they can gel like they did last year and use some of that magic, they will play deep in October and possibly November. All of the pieces for a championship contender are there; it’s just a question of whether or not they can be placed.