The Runners-Up: What the Cubs and Blue Jays Need in 2016

By Zach Bernard

The New York Mets and Kansas City Royals are set for the beginning of what many baseball fans are hoping is a genuinely epic World Series later this evening. Last year’s series between the Royals and Giants set the bar very high, going the full seven games with late-inning dramatics that could have reshaped the entire course of history. This matchup also carries historical significance: the Mets have not won a Series since 1986, and the Royals haven’t since 1985. It’s a cool gathering of powerhouses from three decades ago, and someone will break a rather lengthy drought.

Amid all of this excitement, it’s easy to forget the truly exciting campaigns put on by the runners-up in each league, the Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays in 2015. Between the regular season and the playoffs, the Cubs won 101 games while the Blue Jays took 98. It has been an awfully long time since either team has experienced such remarkable success.

So while Mets and Royals players, executives, and fans twiddle their thumbs anxiously awaiting tonight’s first pitch, Cubs and Blue Jays fans can’t help but look ahead toward 2016. And both teams have different outlooks toward the future; for the Cubs, their window has just opened, and they’re expected to be a success for years to come, while the window may be more limited for the Blue Jays.

Each team should have clear wish lists entering the offseason on how to better themselves for next season and make the leap to the World Series one year from now. For the sake of this post, we’ll look at three key elements each team needs heading into 2016.

Chicago Cubs 2016 Wish List

1) Starting Rotation Depth – It was evident throughout the NLCS that the one-two punch of Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta was not going to be enough to carry the Cubs into the World Series, and if it was, then it wouldn’t be enough to win it. Arrieta should win the NL Cy Young Award, and Lester lived up to his contractual expectations, but to expect them to carry the load all the way to a championship was heavy, to say the least.

Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel had fine 2015 seasons in their own rights, but neither of them threw like a legitimate #3 on a World Series team, especially in the second half. Hendricks especially has shown signs of brilliance, generating comparisons to Greg Maddux, but he hasn’t proven the ability to carry an innings load into October just yet. And the #5 spot in the rotation was rough all season; there was no consistency until Clayton Richard took over, and then the Cubs traded for Dan Haren, and then they would rely on occasional “bullpen days.” That simply won’t work again.

Fortunately for the Cubs, there’s a wealth of starting pitching on the free agent market in 2016. If the Cubs are looking for another ace, they can spend big money on guys like David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, and Johnny Cueto, or they could go for #2/3 starters like Marco Estrada, Wei-Yin Chen, Mike Leake, and Doug Fister. All of these guys are still relatively young to where a three-year deal wouldn’t be unreasonable. There have also been rumors that the Cleveland Indians are interested in Jorge Soler, which could net the Cubs Carlos Carrasco if they play their cards right and add a couple more pieces.

A year ago, I would have suggested the Cubs sign Tim Lincecum to perhaps go through his own “Bosmosis” (the process in which a formerly solid pitcher works with Chris Bosio and reclaims his glory, ala Scott Feldman or Jake Arrieta), but his hip problem has made the risk far greater that potential reward. Still, if the Cubs could snag him for cheap, perhaps it could work, even if he were to be moved to bullpen duty, which he has handled nicely in the past.

2) Another Legitimate Bat – The 2015 Cubs offense was streaky. One week you could expect them – and reasonably so – to put up 12 runs every single game with their brutal firepower, and then slow down the next week. There’s a reason Jon Lester only went 11-12 despite a stunning FIP of 2.92 and dominant 4.41 strikeout-to-walk rate over 205 innings.

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, and Miguel Montero give the Cubs a legitimate base in the lineup, but there are still some holes that need to be ironed out. Chris Coghlan has experienced a renaissance of his own with the Cubs, but his inability to hit against lefties provides a harsh limitation that remains a growing concern. Starlin Castro had an explosive final two months of the season (.369/.400/.655 with five homers and 14 RBI in September alone), but his first four months of 2015 were atrocious.

Castro becomes a huge asset to the lineup in 2016 if he can reclaim his second half success. His track record is streaky, but he put together a fine 2014 season that proved he can sustain success throughout a long season (that is, until he got injured and his season ended early that September). The Cubs also have an ace-in-the-hole with Javier Baez, who cut down his strikeout rate in AAA Iowa by six percent in 2015, and parlayed that to an impressive .325 OBP (when, compared to his putrid .227 OBP in 2014) in 80 plate appearances at the major league level.

If the Cubs can get consistency out of Castro and a full season of continued improvement from Javier Baez, they may not have to even touch the free agent market. Baez and Castro, along with Addison Russell, also gives you the problem of three middle infielders, but Joe Maddon has never been afraid to try new things with slotting guys in different places. One would imagine the Cubs need an additional outfield bat if they don’t go from within, and the market is slim; only Colby Rasmus and Jason Heyward are of a decent age on the market, and one may be safe to assume they’ll stick with their 2015 clubs into the future. Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes will also reach the market, but their price demands may be too much for what the Cubs need.

3) Re-Sign Arrieta and Fowler – This is a no-brainer. Jake Arrieta put together what may have been the most impressive season for a starting pitcher in modern Cubs history, and while the team still has control over the next couple of seasons, it wouldn’t be unwise for the Cubs to try and lock up their newfound ace for many years to come. Pitchers like him come around once in a blue moon, and while the urgency to re-sign him isn’t significant, it may be one of those things the Cubs might want to just get out of the way.

Dexter Fowler, on the other hand, requires a little more urgency. Leadoff hitters are hard to come by in the modern day, and Dexter did everything a team would want him to do at the top of the Cubs order. Sure, his .250/.346/.411 triple slash may look slightly above average out of context, but Fowler began so many games for the Cubs forcing opposing pitchers to throw between eight to 12 pitches before either drawing a walk or recording an out. You don’t see that every day, but Fowler had the knack of getting a pitcher out of a game before he could even get comfortable. His value to the Cubs, in that regard, is immeasurable; he was the ideal table setter for the big bats to follow.

Fowler will be entering his age 30 season in 2016, but based on his 2015 performance, he appears to be peaking now. He gets along with the rest of the team and appears to genuinely love playing for Joe Maddon and the Cubs. The Cubs would not be rash to offer him a three- or four-year contract to keep Fowler during his best years and establish the center field position as the championship window expands in Chicago.

Toronto Blue Jays 2016 Wish List

1) Bullpen Depth – The easiest thing for a baseball fan to say is that their team’s bullpen sucks and they need to go sign Dominant Reliever X. Being a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball is a relatively thankless job, because reliability comes more often than not, fans are just likely to remember the bad before remembering the good.

The main issue with building bullpens is what a crapshoot the process can be. The great staff of Baseball Prospectus looked into this in their book Extra Innings, noting the success windows for relief pitchers are significantly smaller than others. Their conclusion, using the San Diego Padres as an example, was that pitchers who post terrific strikeout-to-walk rates, be that from within or on the free agent market are the safest bet of the lot. This is how the Padres got great years out of Heath Bell following his departure from the Mets. It’s also worth noting that Bell’s success didn’t last forever.

Solid strikeout-to-walk rates and, for the quality infield defense, an impressive groundball percentage are the keys to building a successful bullpen, along with a few strokes of luck. The Blue Jays have a fine young closer in Roberto Osuna, who could take home the Rookie of the Year in the American League, and Liam Hendricks and Brett Cecil posted decent campaigns as well, but nobody stood out as dominant. That’s about all they had. At the trade deadline, they went out and got LaTroy Hawkins (2.76 ERA in 18 games with TOR, but a concerning 1.531 WHIP) and Mark Lowe (3.79 ERA in 23 games with TOR, a far cry from his 1.00 in 34 with Seattle).

Safe to say, this is a big problem and may have been their biggest in the postseason. Aaron Sanchez was moved to the pen in the middle of the season and did a fine job, and they can hope for consistency from him as another piece of the puzzle. But they’ll need to explore more options, either on the market or from within, to bolster the back end of every ballgame.

2) More Efficient Bottom Half – Everyone knows about the unbelievable power the Blue Jays possess in their lineup, from likely AL MVP Josh Donaldson to mainstays Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to the newly added Troy Tulowitzki. There’s no questioning what these guys are capable of doing to turn a game on its head; Bautista practically did that in Game 6 of the ALCS, until the Blue Jays bullpen almost immediately coughed up the tie.

Chris Colabello was a nice surprise for the Blue Jays, as was Justin Smoak, but there’s no evidence their success could be sustained beyond 2015, and certainly the Jays will hope it can. Russell Martin was severely lacking in his production on the first year of his contract, and his lackluster .329 OBP was dreadful compared to career averages. Ryan Goins, Kevin Pillar, and Ben Revere, with Cliff Pennington and Dioner Navarro hanging out on the bench, provided a fine defensive presence, but couldn’t get much going with their bats.

The Blue Jays need one more quality bat to break up the lack of offense near the bottom half of the order. Ian Desmond and Ben Zobrist are expected to hit the free agent market following the World Series, and if they do, these are two acceptable middle infielders that could spell Ryan Goins and give the Blue Jays that extra “oomph.” There’s also Daniel Murphy, Mr. October 2015, who many suspect may not stay with the New York Mets. He’s only 31, and despite his surreal October performance, he’s actually a fine regular season infielder. He could be “the guy” for Toronto if he chooses to leave Queens.

3) Re-Sign David Price – It’s your move, Alex Anthopoulos. Remember the huge, loud crowds of 47,000 rabid baseball fans filling up the Rogers Centre every night enjoying your team’s grand revival, of which you were the primary architect? Those crowds began coming right when David Price made his first start for the Blue Jays in front of a sold out crowd… on a Monday afternoon.

The Blue Jays were built as a powerhouse over the last few seasons and now the vision has come to life. But the key to greatness in the modern baseball era is not leading to one wildly successful season, but sustaining it. The offensive forces are set in their places, with just a few tweaks to be made. The team that can win annually is there as the Yankees get older, the Red Sox rebuild, and the Orioles and Rays remain confused.

This is your window, and now you need an ace. David Price is your guy.

Well-liked, dominant, and young, David Price is one of those once-in-a-generation starters that levels on par with the Clayton Kershaws of the world. The Blue Jays have him in their grasp, and it’s time for them to lock him up for the rest of his career. It’s a matter of Anthopoulos being able to convince Price that the team is built for the long haul, and if Price wants to stay in Canada. His demand will be extraordinarily high for 2016 and beyond, no doubt with Andrew Friedman likely making a push to sign him in Los Angeles and Theo Epstein aiming to reunite him with his former manager in Chicago. But only one of these aforementioned teams has him on their side entering the offseason, and it’s the Toronto Blue Jays.

We’ll wait and see how this all plays out as the long, cold offseason begins only a couple weeks from today. Both teams have some holes to fill, but with the right moves, there’s no reason to believe the Cubs and Blue Jays won’t contend for the World Series in 2016. Until then, we set our sights on what we all hope is an exciting and captivating 2015 World Series between the Mets and Royals.