Cubs are big-time underdogs; can that unite and motivate this team?

(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

For the first time since 2015, the Chicago Cubs are major underdogs in the Senior Circuit.

Few preseason projections expect this club to even compete for the NL Central crown, let alone another World Series championship. After the offseason Chicago turned in, it’s not all that difficult to see why – especially on the pitching side of the equation.

The biggest loss came in the form of 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish, who was traded to the Padres along with backup catcher Victor Caratini for a prospect-laden and right-hander Zach Davies. Also departing were veteran southpaw Jon Lester (Nationals), Jose Quintana (Angels) and Tyler Chatwood (Blue Jays).

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On the ‘addition’ side of the equation, you obviously have Davies, who is, admittedly, coming off the best year of his career. But he’s no Darvish. Old friend Jake Arrieta is back in the mix at age 35, looking to shake off the rust and ineffectiveness that plagued his three seasons in Philadelphia. Trevor Williams, longtime Pirate, has carried a 5.60 ERA/5.45 FIP over the last two seasons, but the Cubs are hoping for him to turn the corner in the back of the rotation.

So all-in, you’ve got Kyle Hendricks atop a staff that will showcase Davies, Arrieta, Williams and some combination of Shelby Miller, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills. Could this group be solid? Perhaps. Would that be a smart bet to make? Probably not.

The bullpen obviously has its own share of question marks, as well. Can Craig Kimbrel finally turn in a solid season in Chicago? Will Rowan Wick be healthy enough to contribute late in games? Did Jed Hoyer accumulate enough reclamation projects to piece together a workable pen over the course of a162 games? We’ll soon see.

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Offensively, once again, this lineup is dripping with potential. Kris Bryant is a former National League MVP. Javier Baez is a former MVP runner-up. Anthony Rizzo is about as close to a sure thing offensively as it gets and Willson Contreras profiles as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball today.

Chicago replaced fan favorite Kyle Schwarber in left field with Joc Pederson and will return both Ian Happ and Jason Heyward in the outfield. Heyward is coming off his best offensive season with the Cubs, in which he turned in a 129 OPS+.

At least for Heyward’s part, he doesn’t care that preseason projections have pegged Chicago as a .500 team, more or less.

"“I love that — not being picked to win,” Heyward told on Wednesday. “Preseason numbers and picks and whatnot don’t mean anything.”"

It’s hard to envision the Cubs outperforming the projections by a wide enough margin they put the division in a stranglehold. Why? Even if Bryant, Baez and the core get off to a scorching start, there’s a decent chance Hoyer flips at least one of them at the deadline if they haven’t already agreed to an extension beforehand.

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It’ll be tough to see, but the most likely path in a strong start, at least to me, is trade(s) focused on the future, regardless of what it means to the team’s chances at a ring in 2021.