Cubs enter '21 loaded with talent, questions

March 29th, 2021

After the twists and turns of the past year for everyone, not only those around baseball, this spring was a much-welcomed return to a sense of normalcy. Some fans returned to ballparks and teams navigated through a full Spring Training.

That has created a steadily increasing excitement for Opening Day, which arrives Thursday for the Cubs and Pirates at Wrigley Field. The North Siders will open as the reigning National League Central champions, and the Cubs plan on aiming for another division title.

"Everybody's looking forward to getting to Chicago," Cubs manager David Ross said. "And starting this journey we get to go on."

For the Cubs, a return to October would feel normal, considering Chicago has made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. That said, there are plenty of questions hovering over the team -- both about this season and the coming years -- as this crucial campaign launches.

What needs to go right?

In the rotation: The Cubs rebuilt their rotation over the offseason and the cast largely centers around command and generating weak contact. Chicago needs and to bounce back, following a spring spent on mechanical adjustments. The Cubs need and to continue their strong showings from 2020. And Chicago needs the pitching infrastructure group and defense to minimize the damage of balls in play.

In the bullpen: Above everything else, the Cubs need veteran closer to find the form he displayed down the stretch in 2020. A strong showing by Kimbrel would make the rest of the bullpen puzzle fall into place. Beyond that, the Cubs need an arm or two to emerge as trustworthy setup options, and the sooner the better.

In the lineup: The Cubs need a healthy season from , who has always performed at elite heights when injuries have not gotten in his way. Chicago needs to push his disastrous 2020 offensive season far out of his mind. The club needs its core group to lead the charge, with providing consistency in the leadoff spot. The North Siders need to provide a real power bat in the middle of the order.

Great unknown: Is this the last hurrah?

As Báez, Bryant and have continued to march toward free agency -- all three can become eligible next offseason -- there have been constant rumors, reports and speculation about which direction the Cubs are going. The players have grown used to being asked, "Could this be the last ride together for the 2016 World Series core?" But now, that question is very real.

The offseason trade that sent ace Yu Darvish to the Padres for (in part) a package of young prospects made it crystal clear that the Cubs have one eye on the long-term plan. That makes this season a potentially critical transitional year in the franchise’s timeline. The team's collective success (or struggles) in the first three-plus months of this season will undoubtedly impact how Chicago approaches the Trade Deadline, or any still-unsettled extension talks.

Team MVP will be: Javier Báez

Bryant has won an NL MVP Award. Willson Contreras could be a sleeper pick, given his offensive potential, ability to control the running game and steady improvement in pitch framing. Rizzo is a steady force and leader. But let's go with Báez, who checks so many impactful boxes if he is healthy and performing at a high level.

Yes, Báez hit .203 last season and ended with a 62 OPS+ in 59 games. He was vocal about the lack of in-game video hindering his routine and approach, and the energetic shortstop (like many players) looked a bit lost without an audience there in person to enjoy The El Mago Show.

Well, Báez will have his video, and Wrigley Field will have its fans (at 25 percent capacity to start the season). If those boost his performance, along with the possible impact of playing in a contractual walk year, there is plenty of potential for Báez to be the Cubs' top player in 2021.

Team Cy Young will be: Jake Arrieta

The easy choice here would be Hendricks, and it very well might be the correct pick by season's end. This has become Hendricks' rotation, and he is the Opening Day starter and unquestioned leader for the group. Last year, he spun a shutout in the opener and then put together a 2.88 ERA in 81 1/3 innings. So, yeah, Hendricks is the clean pick to be the Cubs' top pitcher.

So, let's consider a comeback story.

Arrieta is back, but the Cubs are not expecting the otherworldly arm that cruised to the NL Cy Young Award in 2015. A return to his 2016-17 level (3.30 ERA in 61 starts) would be a win, following the past two injury-marred years with the Phillies. Arrieta is 35 and will rely more on savvy than power. But he's surrounded again by familiar coaches and has one of his former catchers in the manager's chair. Don't sleep on a strong comeback year for the former Cubs ace.

Bold prediction: Báez wins MVP

Let's take a leap beyond just Team MVP for Báez. A couple seasons ago, this would hardly have been considered a bold prediction. After all, Báez was the runner-up for the trophy in his stellar 2018 season. But now? After what Báez went through last year? And with so many great shortstops throughout the NL? It's definitely a bold prognostication.

Báez started for the NL All-Star team at second base in 2018 and then started for the Senior Circuit at shortstop in ‘19. He led infielders in outs above average in ‘19 and picked up his first career Gold Glove Award for short in ‘20.

If his offense returns, and he pairs it with that stellar defense -- not to mention all those made-for-GIF slides, tags and bat flips -- then Báez might just be able to reach MVP heights.