Chicago Cubs Exclusive: ESPN’s Aaron Boone talks Opening Night, rivalry
As part of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball team, former big leaguer Aaron Boone is ready for another chapter in the Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals rivalry.
For the first time in over a century, the Chicago Cubs open a regular season as reigning World Series champions. They bring that title to the home of their fiercest rivals, Busch Stadium, for an Opening Night headliner that will open the next chapter in the rivalry between Chicago and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Former big league infielder Aaron Boone will join Dan Shulman, Jessica Mendoza and Buster Olney in St. Louis for ESPN’s coverage of Sunday Night Baseball, as part of a seven-game marathon spread over April 2 and 3.
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Prior to the season opener, we sat down with Boone to talk about this rivalry, the upcoming season and his thoughts on Joe Maddon‘s club – as they seek to repeat atop the baseball world.
While Cubs fans already think the National League Central is in the bag, Boone immediately warned against underestimating Mike Matheny‘s team.
"I went in to Spring Training a little down on the Cardinals, but I think they got some decent answers this spring and I think they have a chance to be really good. This rivalry starting Sunday night has a chance to be really good. I think the Cardinals could push them. I expect it to be a good race all year."
Last season, Chicago ran away with its first division title since 2008, winning the Central by a staggering 17 1/2 games. St. Louis, meanwhile, finished second in the division – missing the postseason for the first time since 2010.
The team suffered a big blow early on this spring, learning that top pitching prospect Alex Reyes would miss the season, dealing a punch to the starting rotation. Still, the return of Lance Lynn and a healthy Michael Wacha could do wonders for the club.
Cubs of old are a thing of the past
Sure, the Cardinals have had their way with the division in recent years. But, these aren’t the Cubs of yesteryear – last season proved that. For Boone, it’s about delivering on the promise this team holds.
"They have a team that is potentially set up to be – just from a roster standpoint, the young nucleus and the pitching staff they have – they’re set up to potentially have a nice, long run here. Now the question is: do they get that done?"
The team lost leadoff man Dexter Fowler this offseason. The lovable outfielder signed a four-year deal with the Cardinals, immediately boosting their offense. However, Kyle Schwarber returns for his first full big-league season – which offsets the loss, to a degree.
This could be the last year of the Big Three atop the starting rotation. Jake Arrieta is set to hit free agency at the end of 2017, giving the team a strong sense of urgency to get the job done again this season.
Chicago’s offense could very well be one of the best in all of baseball. Anyone feels good with Schwarber followed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the lineup.
The Yankees’ 2003 ALCS hero admits this much, pointing out that the offense will undoubtedly look a little different without Fowler atop the lineup card daily.
"I don’t know if we really think of what an impact player (Fowler) was for the Cubs. To be a guy who gets on base at a .400 clip from both sides of the plate is a huge factor in setting up for a great offense. They’re going to miss that. Schwarber certainly gives them the potential to have that impact kind of on-base/power presence at the top of the order."
Cardinals set up for success in resigning Molina
Shortly before I talked with Boone, news broke out of St. Louis. The Cardinals were nearing a three-year extension with catcher Yadier Molina.
As someone who played the game for 12 years, it seemed a prudent question: is it wise to spend $55 million on a catcher heading into his age-35 campaign? What does it mean for St. Louis’ odds for success moving forward.
At least on his part, the ESPN commentator had no worries about keeping a player of Molina’s caliber long-term, even calling him a franchise ‘all-time’ great.
"He’s an all-time defender behind the plate. I don’t think he was quite himself last year and part of it had to do with trying to get over injuries. I think he comes into this year in great shape physically. I think on a three-year basis, because so much of what he impacts is with his mind, as long as he can go out there and physically do it, I like the deal. To be able to wrap up one of the iconic Cardinals – I think is a great thing."
Molina has been the full-time catcher in St. Louis since the 2005 campaign. He played integral roles in bringing two World Series titles to the Cardinals, while ranking as one of the game’s best offensive catchers, as well.
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Not only does he carry a big stick, he’s also been key in developing the Cardinals’ homegrown arms that have dominated for almost a decade, as well.
When the dust settles…
Most experts around the baseball world aren’t ruling out a repeat for the Cubs. Boone, meanwhile, isn’t ruling out anything, although he has Chicago winning the Central.
"I have the Cubs winning the Central again and I have the Cardinals as one of the Wild Card teams. I think they’re both going to get there … If the Cubs struggle at all, one of those starting pitchers doesn’t perform to their potential or somebody goes down, I think the Cardinals give them all they can handle."
As is the case on an annual basis, there’s a make-or-break with this team: health. Last season, the Cubs’ rotation was remarkably healthy. Minus a John Lackey injury late in the summer, the staff rolled all season long.
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Boone wrapped things up simply, pointing out a fact that looms large in the back of Cubs’ fans minds.
"Last year, those guys made 90-95% of their starts – their five-man rotation – which, in this day and age, is almost unheard of. They were all able to have premium years. Frankly, the depth, as strong as the Cubs organization is, the depth’s not overwhelming from a starting rotation standpoint. If one of those guys falls off or gets injured, all of the sudden it makes the Cubs a little less invincible."