The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over a century and haven’t lost any fewer than 87 games in five years, and we’re supposed to believe they’re going to contend in 2015?

So they say. And you know something? Their chances of at least contending for a wild-card spot deserve to be taken seriously.

From the Cubs’ perspective, contending in 2015 has been the plan all along. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein told the media in September that he had his heart set on it, and he doubled down in October.

Mind you, this was before Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got to work in the offseason. At the time, Rick Renteria was still their manager, and their roster had little veteran talent.

Yeah, things have changed since then.

The Cubs brought in two-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon to replace Renteria. At his introductory press conference, he came right out with it: “I’m gonna be talking playoffs next year. I’ll tell you that right now.”

After upgrading with Maddon, the Cubs then improved their stock at catcher by acquiring Miguel Montero, made a small rotation enhancement with Jason Hammel and added a huge rotation upgrade in $155 million man Jon Lester.

The money is obviously a big reason why Lester chose Chicago. But as he put it at his introductory presser, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that they could win in 2015.”

Big plans. Big actions. Big talk. Yup, the Cubs sure are acting like a contender. Question is, of course, whether they actually look like one.

Let’s begin with a more direct question: After going 73-89 in 2014, did the Cubs really do enough to get that much better?

Rob Neyer of and Jesse Rogers of aren’t convinced, with the latter writing that it would be “a near-miracle” if the Cubs can rack up somewhere between 85 and 90 wins this season.

Because the Cubs only won 73 games in 2014, that’s a defensible position. Even in light of the Cubs’ new additions, a leap of at least 12 wins may land a bit too firmly in “asking too much” territory.

However, there is an argument that the 2014 Cubs actually underperformed. Here’s Dave Cameron of FanGraphs“BaseRuns strips a lot of noise out of the picture, and gives a you better baseline from which to start. The Cubs expected record in 2014, per BaseRuns? 79-83, six wins better than their actual record.”

That’s one way to perceive the 2015 Cubs as a team born out of a nearly .500 club, but not the only one.

What the Cubs have really upgraded this winter is their second-half roster from 2014, which looked decidedly different from their first-half roster. Following the midseason trades of Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs were taken over by young talents that led the team to a 33-35 record.

Since those same young talents are in the mix for 2015, the notion that the Cubs could at least be better than a .500 team is hardly far-fetched. They began their offseason with enough firepower for a run at .500, and additions like Maddon, Montero, Hammel and Lester have only added to it.

Fortunately, we don’t have to take it entirely on faith that the Cubs have the potential to be a better-than-.500 team in 2015. We can consult projections.

To this end, here’s where FanGraphs sees them finishing in the National League this season:

An 83-win projection doesn’t sound like much, but you can see all the projections are on the conservative side. Realistically, an 83-win projection means a legit shot at, yup, 85-90 wins. And knowing Maddon’s magical Gandalf-like tendencies, the Cubs may have an especially legit shot at 85-90 wins.

You can also see there isn’t much company around the Cubs. Only four teams look better, and only the San Francisco Giants look as good. That puts them squarely in wild-card-contention territory.

As for what it will take to make this projection pan out, it comes down to two things: The Cubs’ leading pitchers will have to do their thing, and some of their key hitters will have to live up to their potential.

One thing Rogers conceded is that the front office had transformed the 2015 Cubs pitching staff from a major question mark into a noticeable strength.

The projections agree, as the Cubs are projected to get more wins above replacement from their pitching staff than all but two other National League clubs. And going off what happened in 2014, we can see the Cubs have a very strong foursome in the rotation and duo in the bullpen lined up:

Lester and Jake Arrieta were two of the most dominant starters around in 2014. Hammel’s full-season production hides how good he was with Cubs, as he had a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts. Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop were two of the NL’s best relievers.

The only weak-ish link is Kyle Hendricks, who succeeded in a small sample size without overpowering hitters. But he has decent command and a good enough sinker to cut it as a No. 4.

If not, the Cubs will have options. Travis Wood was an All-Star in 2013. Tsuyoshi Wada had a 3.25 ERA in 13 starts in 2014. As a former top prospect with live stuff, the Cubs could do to Jacob Turner what they did to Arrieta.

There’s also how Montero figures to help. As Baseball Prospectus can show, going from Welington Castillo to Montero means moving from a terrible framer to an elite framer. He’ll get Cubs pitchers extra strikes, which many men with pocket calculators agree is a good thing.

So between the arms they have and how Montero stands to make them better, the Cubs have a shot to be one of the NL’s top run-prevention teams. And when you prevent a lot of runs, you obviously don’t need to score that many runs.

If you’ve been waiting for the part where we discuss the Cubs’ potentially lethal offense, well, it won’t have to be lethal for the Cubs to contend. It will simply have to be good enough.

There are too many unknowns in Chicago’s offense to turn to 2014 numbers for guidance. But if we zoom in on the projected starters, we’ll see that the projections for 2015 aren’t taking too much for granted:

It’s hard to argue with most of these.

After the years they just had, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro should be at least that good. Montero’s projection is in line with the player he was before he tired last September. Despite their strong minor league track records, on the other hand, it probably isn’t a good idea to expect too much from Javier Baez or Arismendy Alcantara in light of how much they swung and missed in the majors.

Where it is possible to argue is with Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. Bryant hasn’t yet reached the majors, and Soler owns fewer than 100 major league plate appearances. As such, maybe projecting them to be two of the Cubs’ best players is unrealistic.

Or maybe not.

I’ll point you in the direction of a longer explanation for why I’m on board with Bryant as the next big thing, but here’s the gist: He should be in the big leagues for much more than 315 plate appearances, and the 23-year-old has skills that say his 1.095 career minor league OPS is legit.

As for Soler, his .903 OPS during his cup of coffee came on the heels of a 1.132 OPS in the minors. And though Soler is something of a free swinger, Mauricio Rubio of Baseball Prospectus (via sees him as “a quick study” with an understanding of the strike zone and strong pitch recognition skills. Useful talents, those.

It would be one thing if we were sitting here expecting the Cubs to contend in 2015 because Bryant, Soler, Baez, Alcantara and fellow top prospect Addison Russell were surely all bound to snap their fingers and realize their potential at the same time. But we’re not doing that.

Nope. All we’re doing is banking on the two most advanced prospects of the bunch. If only Bryant and Soler make good on their potential, then the Cubs should have enough offense to support what looks like a strong pitching staff. If that happens, there will be more wins than losses.

Of course, the potential is there for a lot more wins than losses.

The Cubs offense will be a juggernaut if Baez and Alcantara realize their potential alongside Bryant and Soler, and if Russell supplants Castro at shortstop. If Wood gets back to his All-Star form and Turner proves to be the next Arrieta, the Cubs will have one of the NL’s best pitching staffs.

If all the pieces fit together that well in 2015, never mind the wild card. The Cubs will be gunning for the NL Central crown, and it’ll be as good as theirs.

But that’s more of a 2016 dream. The Cubs’ 2015 dream looks more like a wild-card berth, which would be a fine first step after years of losing.

And based on what we know, it’s a step the Cubs can take.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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