Is This the Chicago Cubs' Year?

With a new ace, a new manager and a new outlook, hope is high on the North Side. But can the Cubbies actually contend in 2015?

Jon Lester, during a press conference in Chicago on December 15th, 2014. Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty

This is our year, Cubs fans.

I've been hearing this rallying cry since 1980, the year I was officially inducted into the cult of the Chicago Cubs, but the phrase – a four-word incantation that combines prayer, prediction and reaffirmation of staunch fandom in the face of a magnitude of humiliations – has reverberated around the North Side and beyond for much, much longer than that. Some utter it with the breathless, guileless, rapturous positivity of the true believer; others, more cynical and scarred, deliver it with an eye-roll or air-quotes: "Sure, pal; this is our year. Right."

And yet, 107 years after the Cubs' last World Series championship, and 70 years since they even appeared in the Fall Classic, we all continue to hold out hope on some level. We have to; it's part of the deal, even if it means gritting our teeth through yet another recounting of "The Curse of the Billy Goat" whenever the Cubs appear on a nationally televised game, or if rooting for the "lovable losers" makes us the perpetual laughing stock of Chicago's South Side.

"A key difference between Cubs and White Sox fans is in their concept of loyalty," says Stuart Shea, whose Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines is one of the best books ever written about the Cubs, their home and the fans who flock there to watch them, win or lose. "Cubs fans show up, every year, every day, every cold April, every hopeless September, hoping that their team will give them a win – even if it's just one win in the middle of a 70-92 season. Sox fans think that's just stupid. They won't go to see a boring or bad team, no matter how nice the day is. Their loyalty to the Sox is tempered by a sense of indignation. Why would Cubs fans continue to support a loser? Sox fans feel that their 'love of the game' trumps that of Cubs' fans, even if they don't actually show up to the park." 

It's true; there is something kind of pathetic about a fanbase that will happily pack the Friendly Confines regardless of however much shit the management shovels onto the field. For eight straight seasons, from 2004 to 2011, the Cubs averaged over 3.1 million in attendance, despite the fact that the team only played above-.500 ball in four of those years, and only made the postseason twice. In 2012, nearly 2.9 million fans showed up to cheer on the first Cubs team since 1966 to lose 100 games or more. No wonder there are so many awful restaurants in Wrigleyville; if Cubs fans can stomach that kind of crap, they'll clearly stomach just about anything.

At the same time, there's something extremely noble about Cubs fandom. This is not a culture of here-today-gone-tomorrow front-runners; these are not people who respond to every baseball argument with, "Yo, but how many rings?" Yes, there will always be people who come to Wrigley just to party in "the world's biggest beer garden," as the ancient ballpark is derisively known, but it's still a beautiful and historic place to watch a ballgame. And there's still a significant portion of the Cubs' fanbase that will always be ride-or-die, because that's what you do with the team you grew up with – one that maybe your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents also grew up rooting for – no matter how many bad trades, inept managers, has-been relievers and quasi-Shakespearean tragedies they had to endure along the way. If you've got Cubbie Blue coursing through your veins, you will never fully renounce your fandom, whatever you may think of the Wrigley renovations or the Cubs ownership or the fact that they put up a statue of Harry Caray outside Wrigley a decade before they erected one of Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks. However tempted you may be to wipe your ass with your Cubs cap and set it ablaze, you never will – because you know deep in your soul that there's always the slim possibility that this is our year.

Only, this might actually be our year. The rumbles of that exciting possibility began halfway through the 2014 season, when the farm-system seeds planted and tended by Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein began to bear fruit. Rookies Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler may have been flawed, but they were still fun as hell to watch. Righty Kyle Hendricks debuted in July and pitched well enough in 13 starts (7-2, 2.46 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) to tie for seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Newly installed closer Hector Rondon just got nastier as the season went on, recording 29 saves and heading up a bullpen that may well be on its way to becoming the NL counterpart of the Royals' "score by the seventh or you're totally fucked" relief squad.

All Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who turned 25 in August, slugged 32 homers and posted a line of .286/.386/.527. Shortstop Starlin Castro, who'll turn 25 this spring, made the All-Star team for the third time, bouncing back impressively from his disappointing 2013 season; he hit .378 in August, and seemed on his way to putting up the best numbers of his career before an ankle injury ended his season in September. (And if he can just avoid nightclub shootings, he may be even better in 2015.) The Cubs went 33-35 after the All-Star break; not exactly the 1927 (or even the 2014) Yankees, but still a ray of hope after four-and-a-half seasons of abject misery. As was prospect Kris Bryant's incredible performance in his second year of professional baseball, which earned him the Minor League Player of the Year award and put him within reach of the Cubs' third baseman gig in 2015.

Further, and perhaps even more tangible, hope for the immediate future appeared this offseason, in the form of the Cubs' many pickups. The free agent signing of marquee lefty Jon Lester grabbed the headlines, of course, but the addition of starter Jason Hammel (who returns to Chicago after a half-season in Oakland) and reliever Jason Motte also bode extremely well for the pitching staff. The team made solid upgrades at catcher and center with Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, but the biggest offseason upgrade was that of manager Joe Maddon, who replaces rookie skipper Rick Renteria.

Renteria himself was certainly a step up from Dale Sveum and Mike Quade, who were little more than warm bodies to bring out the lineup cards. But in Maddon, the Cubs have snagged one of the sharpest, most innovative skippers in the game, a man who isn't afraid to bat a pitcher eighth or speak his mind about MLB's sudden obsession with speeding up the game. Maddon's track record of molding young kids into winners is excellent; and as his "beers and shots on me" introductory press conference demonstrated, he's already got a leg up on dealing with the Chicago media, a task that has proved daunting to many of his predecessors. If anyone can lead the Cubs to the Promised Land, it's this cat. 

OK, so maybe he won't do it in 2015. Certainly, there have been ill portents in recent weeks, including the death of Ernie Banks (and everything that happened after) and the army of rats unleashed by the renovation of Wrigley's famous bleachers, which now may not even open for business until late May. Sure, Back to the Future Part II predicted that the Cubs would win it all in 2015, but Vegas oddsmakers have projected the Cubs to finish the 2015 season with only 82.5 wins; while this would constitute the Cubs' first season above .500 since 2009, it wouldn't be enough to topple the Pirates and Cardinals, both of whom look to once again be the big bruisers of the NL Central.

A pennant run in 2016 would seem to constitute a much more realistic goal; let Maddon have a year to settle in, let the talented youngsters get more experience in "the show," and then see what happens. Still, the Giants took it all last year after winning only 88 games during the regular season; and if just the right combination of breakout performances, genius Maddon moves, dumb luck and whatever cosmic strings Ernie Banks can pull from beyond the grave come together to account for an extra 5.5 wins beyond the Vegas projections – well, you know the rest. This is our year, man.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76. He is not any relation to Theo Epstein, but you can find him on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras