The Chicago Cubs will open the home portion of their 2016 schedule on Monday night when they welcome the surprisingly hot Cincinnati Reds to Wrigley Field.
The game is not only the first of 81 games at Wrigley, where the Cubs went 49-32 in 2015, but it also marks the debut of several of the team’s newest acquisitions at the Friendly Confines. Players like Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist will play for the first time in front of the Wrigley faithful, and they’ll look to help continue the team’s hot start.
With a long slate of home games ahead of them, there is one question that naturally is going to be asked a lot on Monday: what will it take for the Cubs to meet the high expectations that fans, and the players themselves, are holding for this season?
With that in mind, there are five keys for the team to take advantage of in the coming months of baseball at Wrigley Field.
Be Multidimensional Offensively
In the 2015 National League Division Series, the Cubs took advantage of a powerful outburst of home run hitting ability to dispatch the St. Louis Cardinals. Everyone seemed to join in on the fun, as Kyle Schwarber led the way to a romping victory.
Unfortunately, the NLCS showed how flawed that approach can be. The Cubs’ bats went cold against an outstanding New York Mets pitching staff, and they found themselves bounced from the playoffs in four straight games.
If the Cubs are going to be successful this season, then they’ll need to learn their lesson and take advantage of some of the new faces in the lineup. Zobrist and Heyward are on-base machines, and if they do their jobs, and if guys like Anthony Rizzo continue to show plate discipline when necessary, then this offense should be able to ride through any power slumps.
Keep Starting Pitchers Rested and Healthy
Late in the 2015 season, guys like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester seemed to really hit their stride, but things began to fell apart as soon as the postseason began. Both pitchers showed the strain of a full season of pitching, and even though Joe Maddon was able to ride the Arrieta train to the promised land, it couldn’t quite get into the station.
Naturally Arrieta is going to want to throw 100 pitches and go six or more innings every time he pitches, but the Cubs will have to be careful with his deployment. The bullpen is stocked with relievers capable of throwing multiple innings, and if Maddon can resist the urge to just leave Arrieta on the hill at all times, then things should have a different ending in 2016.
Avoid a Sophomore Slump
On a team loaded with talented youngsters, the question of whether or not there are legitimate reasons to fear a sophomore slump has to be answered.
Fortunately for the Cubs, the experiences of 2015 should really help them in this regard. Sure, guys like Kris Bryant will go into power funks, and there will be rocky moments on the road of development for Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, but all three players should be able to ride through them because of the approach that Maddon has advocated and because of the veterans that now surround them in the lineup.
Be Open to Bullpen Experimentation
Maddon has never been accused of locking himself into a specific pattern of pitcher usage during his big league career, and that is going to be an asset this season if the Cubs are going to go far. They have guys looking to make impacts this year, including Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez, and it will be up to Maddon to make sure that everyone gets the amount of innings that they need.
The real question, of course, will revolve around what changes or tactics Maddon will use. If Hector Rondon hits a rough stretch, will Maddon use him less often in late inning situations? Will Pedro Strop continue to be a solid option in the eighth inning of games?
These questions will need to be answered, but Maddon has to maintain the flexibility that he has shown during these instances in the past.
Take Advantage of Early Season Schedule
The Cubs have one of the easiest April schedules in baseball, playing just three games against an opponent that made the postseason in 2015.
So far, they have been able to take advantage of that, going 5-1 in their first six games (their best six-game record since the 1998 season), but they’ll have to continue to feast upon the weaklings that are in front of them. They have seven games against the Reds and three games against the Brewers in the month, and although they don’t have a lot of games on their home field, they’ll look to feast on the bottom-tier teams and set themselves up well when the schedule gets tougher in May.