The Cubs host the Cardinals on Sunday on Opening Night for the 2015 MLB season. Can Joe Maddon, Jon Lester and the rest of the Cubs send a message to the division favorite in the season's first game?
Start Time: 8:05 p.m. ET
Series: Cardinals 10-9 in 2014
At long last, the 2015 season kicks off on Sunday night at Wrigley Field. While there's much of note that won't be on display—Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, renovated left and rightfield bleachers—the Cubs will have a gigantic Jumbotron on display as well as three of their marquee off-season acquisitions in Lester, catcher Miguel Montero and new manager Joe Maddon, kicking off a new phase of the rebuilding effort that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer undertook three years ago. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system projects the Cubs for 84 wins, which would be their first season above .500 since 2009, and gives them a 43% chance at reaching the playoffs, the fourth-highest of any NL team.
While they've grown increasingly rich in position player prospects such as Baez (who debuted last year but struggled), Bryant (who isn't even on the 40-man roster yet and is being held down due to service time issues), Jorge Soler (who posted a solid September) and Addison Russell (who's not yet major league ready), the Cubs' lack of similar talent on the pitching side keyed the signing of Lester to a six-year deal worth a franchise record $155 million. The addition reunites Lester with the man who served as Red Sox GM when he broke into the majors in 2006. The 31-year-old lefty split his 2014 season between Boston and Oakland; he was acquired by the Athletics on July 31 in hopes that he could help them win a World Series, just as he'd done for the Red Sox in 2007 and '13. While Lester ran out of steam during the Wild Card Game against the Royals, it didn't eclipse the fact that he set career bests in innings (219 2/3), ERA (2.46, more than a run below his 3.58 career mark), FIP (2.80), walk rate (2.0 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.6).
For all of the hubbub surrounding Lester, who will be making his fifth consecutive Opening Day start, he comes into the game having not faced major league hitters since March 16. He was scratched from his next start due to arm fatigue and took his next two turns in minor league exhibitions as a precautionary measure. Given that Lester maxed out at 84 pitches in the last of those, he's likely to be on a pitch count in the vicinity of 100.
Expected to be behind the plate is the 31-year-old Montero, acquired from the Diamondbacks (who signed him out of Venezuela back in 2001) for a pair of low-level pitching prospects. On the offensive side, the veteran backstop may be showing the effects of age and injury. He hit just .243/.329/.370 with 13 homers for a 95 OPS+ in 2014, up from a 83 OPS+ in 2013 but nonetheless his second year with a below-average offensive showing. He's been worth just 1.2 WAR over the past two seasons, compared to 8.2 WAR over the previous two, although those figures account don't for his above-average pitch framing, which Baseball Prospectus's metrics ranked 10th in the majors in 2014 at 14.2 runs and which has been in double digits in five of the past six seasons.
Wellington Castillo, last year's regular, was the majors' fourth-worst in that category at 9.2 runs below average, and he was dead last at -12.7 runs the year before. So regardless of whether Montero's bat recovers, the entire staff, including fellow starters Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood and Kyle Hendricks, stands to benefit when he or backup David Ross (+14.6 runs over the past two seasons) are catching instead of Castillo, who's still on hand as part of a rare three-catcher system.
Sorting out that configuration as well as the rest of the roster will be Maddon, who opted out of his job in Tampa Bay after nine seasons, a run that included five years of at least 90 wins, four postseason appearances and the first pennant in franchise history, an impressive resume given the team's shoestring budget. While the change, which deposed predecessor Rick Renteria after he oversaw a seven-win improvement in his lone year on the job, wasn't pretty, Maddon's experience in molding a young core of talent into a contender and in working with an analytically inclined front office makes him the ideal man for the job. And this time he'll enjoy a much bigger budget.
Also making his debut for the Cubs will be Dexter Fowler, who was acquired from the Astros, with whom he spent just one season, in a January trade. It's the third team in three years for the 29-year-old Fowler, who can become a free agent after this season. While Fowler matched his career high with a 119 OPS+ (though his .276/.375/.399 line looks less impressive than the Coors-fueled predecessor it matched), his questionable defense (-20 DRS in 2014, -8 per 1,200 innings in his career) has depressed his value. With Arismendy Alcantara and perhaps even Russell slated for looks in centerfield in the not-too-distant future—depending upon the ways Epstein and Hoyer can figure out how to juggle the aforementioned youngsters as well as grizzled 24-year-old Starlin Castro—Fowler looks more like a placeholder than a true upgrade.
Speaking of placeholders, Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella are the likely starters at third and second base respectively until Bryant and Baez are called up, whenever that might be. The 26-year-old Olt is a former prospect coming off two brutal seasons in a row, including a .160/.248/.356 performance with 12 homers in 258 PA with the Cubs last year. Adjustments to his stance and swing late last year have borne fruit, and coming off a strong spring, he'll have a chance to showcase those gains before Bryant arrives. La Stella, acquired from the Braves in November, is 26 and hit .251/.328/.317 in 360 PA as a rookie with Atlanta.
As for the Cardinals, who are gunning for their third straight NL Central title and fifth straight postseason appearance, they’re the NL Central favorites again, with PECOTA projecting them for 87 wins and a 62% chance at a playoff spot. They've undergone a whole lot less change since we last saw them bowing to the Giants in the NLCS.
The only addition to the Cardinals’ regular lineup since then is rightfielder Jason Heyward, who was acquired in a four-player deal with the Braves that sent away Shelby Miller. The 25-year-old Heyward hit .271/.351/.384 with 11 homers and 20 steals last year. The home run total and slugging percentage were career lows, but he was a staggering 32 runs above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to a career-high 6.3 WAR. Even if he can't fully recover the power that saw him clout 27 homers and slug .497 as recently as 2012, he should provide a substantial upgrade on the .237/.283/.326 the team received from last year's rightfielders, including the late Oscar Taveras, who was tragically killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic last Oct. 26, 10 days after the team's elimination. The team is wearing an "OT" memorial patch on its uniforms this year to honor Taveras.
The 33-year-old Wainwright, who last year put together a Cy Young-caliber season that included a career-best ERA before needing off-season surgery to clean up his elbow, is making his fourth Opening Day start and third in a row. He could be on a limited pitch count as well. Though his elbow has healed, an early spring abdominal strain limited him to three Grapefruit League starts, and he survived an ill-advised attempt to barehand a hard-hit ground ball in his final tuneup, during which he threw 93 pitches. Likely to be much healthier than the last time we saw him is battery mate Yadier Molina, who was knocked out of the NLCS by an oblique strain after missing seven weeks in the regular season due to ligament surgery on his right thumb. The 33-year-old backstop, who’s won the last seven NL Gold Gloves at catcher, showed up to camp 20 pounds lighter than last year in an effort to ease the wear and tear on his knees.
The most substantial changes to the Cardinals since last season may not be on full display on Sunday night, for they're on the bench, at the back of the rotation and in the bullpen. Low-average slugger Mark Reynolds, who hit .196/.287/.394 with 22 homers for the Brewers last year, was signed as a potential platoon partner for lefty Matt Adams, as the 31-year-old righty Reynolds owns a .231/.351/.458 career line against lefties. He struggled against them last year, however (.173/.277/.296 in 112 PA), as did Adams (.190/.231/.298 in 130 PA).
Carlos Martinez is making the transition from the bullpen to the fifth starter role, while Jordan Walden, who was acquired in the Heyward deal, and Matt Belisle, who was signed as a free agent, will fill the setup roles vacated by Martinez and Pat Neshek, who left to sign with the Astros. The 27-year-old Walden is coming off career bests with a 2.88 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine across 50 innings, though his 4.9 walks per nine pushed his strikeout-to-walk ratio to a career-worst 2.3. The 34-year-old Belisle was roughed up for a 4.87 ERA in 64 2/3 innings with the Rockies, a combination of shaky peripherals (3.87 FIP) and a high batting average on balls in play (.329). Don't bet on that to come down, as he owns a career .328 BABIP, which is in a virtual tie with Zach Duke for the highest among any active pitcher with at least 600 innings pitched.