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So are the Cubs good now?

The Cubs have had an active offseason, and their fanbase is expecting contention. They're getting closer, but the expectations may have gotten a bit out of hand.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

I have previously disclosed around here before that I'm pretty scared of the Chicago Cubs revival that's underway. The Cubs were already in position to get good again beyond 2015; they have Theo Epstein running the show, a huge budget, and a farm system on the verge of graduating a lot of talent. However, there seems to be a sense among Cubs fans and national observers that this offseason has sped up that process, and that a return to contention for the Cubs has arrived. This week's Sports Illustrated showcases some of that crazy optimism-- according to the cover, Vegas odds for the Cubs winning the World Series have gone from 50-1 to 12-1 in a month and a half, which is insane. (Today I checked Vegas Insider, and they have the Cubs at 10/1 to win the World Series, which is tied for 4th in MLB).

To showcase how quickly this shift has occurred; here's something I wrote in April while previewing a Brewers/Cubs series:

...for now, the Cubs are not particularly good. The rotation is reasonable but their lineup has, well... a couple of players who might be able to start for a contending team. They still only have 3 (or 4 depending on how you count Mike Olt) regulars under 25, so they're not turning things over to the young position players completely yet. Their plan is likely to hope a few of those veterans have big first halves and can fetch a few more prospects at the trade deadline. The aforementioned solid rotation, too, has not exactly been taken over by the youth movement either; Travis Wood is 27 and the rest of the starters are 29, 30, 30, and 31.

This Cubs squad feels a bit like the '04 Brewers. That was a pretty bad, veteran heavy team with a few pieces that was just wasting time until the prospect wave arrived. The current edition of the Cubs have a bit more young talent-- Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Mike Olt in particular-- but aren't going to be finishing out of the NL Central cellar this year, either.

From then on, everything seemed to go pretty much according to their plan. They flipped some starting pitching for assets at the deadline and broke in big time prospects Jorge Soler and Javy Baez. Then the offseason came and they went ahead and hired one of the best managers in baseball, Joe Maddon, to run their baseball team. And to top it off they went out and signed Jon Lester.

So now, what I have seen from the Cub fanbase seems to indicate that they are of the view that the pendulum has swung back in the Cubs favor for good. Back in that April article, I expressed the idea that I was more optimistic about the Cubs future than most Cubs fans I knew. Now, after a brief interlude of Cubs fan tolerability, we're back to the status quo and they're expecting to compete this year.

So where do they actually stand, particularly in comparison to our Brewers?

To carry on the analogy above, if the Cubs last year were the 2004-2005 Brewers, it seems to me that the Cubs this year have skipped ahead to some bizarro version of the 2007 Brewers with a competent manager. That '07 Brewer team started off great but ended up at 83-79, blowing a playoff spot in the final month of the season. It also marked the emergence of 5 new members of the young Brewer core:

  • 23 year old Prince Fielder, who hit .288/.395/.618 with 50 home runs
  • 24 year old Rickie Weeks, who hit .235/.374/.433
  • 24 year old J.J. Hardy, who hit .277/.323/.463
  • 23 year old Ryan Braun, who hit .324/.370/.634 with 34 home runs in just 492 plate appearances, but also racked up what was probably the worst defensive season of the modern baseball era
  • 25 year old Corey Hart, who hit .295/.353/.539

That team still had plenty of holes. Bill Hall in center field had a subpar year, and the Menchkins platoon in left wasn't quite average. And Johnny Estrada wasn't Jonathan Lucroy. The pitching staff had a sporadically healthy Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo for the second half of the year, Francisco Cordero in the bullpen, and very, very little else. It took the addition of CC Sabathia the following season to finally get the Brewers back to the playoffs.

It would be wishful thinking that the Cubs collection of hitting prospects will all come through as big as the young Brewer core did back in '07, but it's almost uncanny to me how closely the young guns on the projected Cubs roster match up with that '07 Brewer team. Matching in order from the bullet points above:

  • 25 year old Anthony Rizzo is already a star with a .286/.386/.527 season under his belt. He's not Prince, but in a depressed offensive era he's one of the best 1B in the NL.
  • 22 year old Javy Baez will likely play second base. He's a top tier prospect who really struggled in his first shot at the big leagues last year, hitting .169 in 229 PAs.
  • 25 year old Starlin Castro has been around for a while now but has a Hardy-like power stroke for a shortstop.
  • 22 year old Kris Bryant is maybe the best prospect in all of baseball, who mashed in college and the minors and will likely make his MLB debut early this year at 3rd base. This may sound a bit familiar to Brewer fans.
  • 23 year old Jorge Soler is a more highly touted outfield prospect than Corey Hart ever was and had a great debut last year, but they are comparable power-hitting right fielders, and a Hart-like career track for Soler seems very reasonable.

The takeaway is that this is a Cubs team that might be getting close to that '07 Brewers team in terms of offensive talent. There will surely be growing pains for the Cubs, as there were for those Brewers, but they're back to being in the conversation for a playoff spot. And I don't like it.

I'll still take this year's Brewer squad to win more games than the Cubs. The Cubs at 10/1 to win the World Series while the Brewers are at 35/1 is legitimately insane (not to mention the Cardinals at 12/1). But it's very clear that the gap has narrowed considerably. And, quite honestly, 2015 is not the year I'm nervous about.