There will be no more talk about curses or droughts. The Cubs are just another champion looking to defend their title now, but with their young core, they’re in a better position to do so than any team since the 2009 Phillies. The years of losing to which Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and the rest of the front office committed themselves when they arrived in late 2011 (which turned out to be relatively few) now seem more than worth it. With a half-dozen potential All-Stars in their lineup and a pitching staff toward which the team diverted most of its resources this winter, the Cubs remain at least the co-favorites to win the NL pennant in 2017.
Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta return for a third season together at the front of the rotation. Lester and Hendricks were Cy Young finalists in 2016, and Arrieta has enjoyed a three-season run as one of the NL’s top five starters, but there are creeping concerns with all three. Lester loses personal catcher David Ross, whose influence over the ace lefty was greater than perhaps any other backstop’s influence over a single pitcher in recent seasons. Hendricks dominates with excellent command, but his durability is somewhat questionable, and whenever that command falters, he’s vulnerable. Arrieta battled command problems that grew out of his complex delivery for long stretches last season. Behind that trio stand John Lackey, who remains a workhorse and one of the league’s fiercest competitors, and Mike Montgomery, the oversized lefty for whose sake the team declined an affordable option on oversized righty Jason Hammel.
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Whatever issues the bullpen might have, depth is not among them. This is a group five years in the making. There’s former Rule 5 Draft find Hector Rondon, buy-low trade acquisition Pedro Strop, then the guys who are products of considerably higher-stakes investments: Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm, who were at the heart of the Matt Garza trade, and Wade Davis, the capstone of this towering pyramid, for whom the team traded the final four years of their control over promising slugger Jorge Soler. Edwards, Strop, Rondon and Davis form a particularly intimidating potential parade of power stuff and wicked breaking balls. The power arms will be joined by a trio of newcomers – former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara and a pair of lefties in Brian Duensing and Caleb Smith, another Rule 5 pick the Cubs hope will pay off.
Addison Russell will be 23 years old all season but already has nearly two full seasons of experience. He’s still an interesting work in progress at the plate, with a generally patient approach and great power for a shortstop; but his strikeout rate has remained higher than his scouting report and minor-league track record foretold. Even if he can’t make more contact, though, he’s a budding star. To watch him play shortstop is a privilege worth the price of admission. Second base will be a more open issue. Javier Baez started there in every postseason game, but Ben Zobrist will take occasional reps, and top prospect Ian Happ could be a valuable midseason addition if injury or underperformance befalls any incumbent infielder. Baez, with lightning-quick hands, explosive athleticism, and the best infield arm in the National League, can play on the left side of the infield whenever needed.
After Ernie Banks moved to first base in 1962, the Cubs had one Hall of Famer (Ron Santo) throwing across the diamond to another for roughly a decade. Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo has punched his ticket for Cooperstown just yet, but both sluggers are young, well-rounded, and among the five best players in the league at their positions. In fact, they might be better compared to the tandem of Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, who manned the corners for the Cubs’ last run of good teams (from 2004-09). Alas, one of those two was often hurt, and the Cubs lacked the depth to keep winning without their lineup and infield anchors. The only thing that might stop Bryant and Rizzo from becoming the best corner infield pairing in team history is the lurking risk of injury, but the good news is that if that does happen, this iteration is much better prepared to weather the storm.
Albert Almora has drawn raves for his swagger, for his instincts in center field and on the bases, and for his ability to make solid contact consistently. He’s an impatient hitter, though, and lacks the huge tools to make up for that lack of plate discipline. Someone else will draw the duty of replacing Dexter Fowler’s .393 OBP at the top of the batting order, but Almora and journeyman free-agent signee Jon Jay will have to provide steady defense without creating a black hole at the bottom of it. With World Series hero and Midwestern demigod Kyle Schwarber returning from a torn ACL and likely to be at full strength by the start of spring training, the Cubs hope they won’t miss Soler in left field. Zobrist should see a lot of time in right, allowing Baez a chance to win the full-time second base job. That leaves no clear starting role for Jason Heyward.
Willson Contreras is one of the best mistake hitters in baseball, capable of hitting the ball 450 feet when a pitcher grooves one. He’s also blessed with great hand-eye coordination and projects to hit for average as he settles into a full-time role. Add to that uncommon speed, a high-powered arm, and an intensity that makes it hard to tear your eyes away from him, and all the pieces of a star catcher are there. What Contreras doesn’t offer is subtle value, and that’s where Miguel Montero comes in. One of the best pitch framers in the game, Montero steals strikes for his pitchers.
No team managed by Joe Maddon truly has a bench. Everyone is three innings or less from the next time Maddon might call upon them, and few players go more than 10 games without getting a spot start. With prospects Happ, Jeimer Candelario and Mark Zagunis on the doorstep of the majors, that figures to be true in 2017 as well.
Despite a few key mistakes in the World Series, Maddon is a good tactical manager whose willingness to flout convention provides an occasional mathematical advantage and engenders looseness during close games. More important, he leads one of the league’s best coaching staffs. Cubs players receive excellent instruction, and the information gathered and generated by the front office flows freely to the field. The clubhouse culture has been an asset each season under Maddon.
Last season, the Cubs had one of the best defenses in baseball history, blending dominance of the strike zone with excellent fielding across the diamond. They’ll allow more runs in 2017, but with a healthy season from Schwarber and continued development from other young hitters, they might also score more. Few teams are bulletproof, and fewer still immune to the vagaries of baseball’s long season and the thin margins that decide most games. Still, there’s no reason to predict anything other than a second straight NL Central title for this group.