As Major League Baseball does all they can to destroy the game we love, the fans of the Chicago Cubs are gearing up for a defense of their World Series championship. For the first time in 108 years (thank God that will be the last time we ever hear that number) the Cubs will be heading into the season as the reigning and defending World Series Champions. There will no longer be any talk of “wait til next year,” “Completely Useless By September,” plus goats and cats are now just a silly side story. None of that matters any more. Now, the Cubs are just like every other team in baseball (only much better). No longer are they (as Steve Goodman once called them) the “doormat of the National League”. Now, the Cubs are the king of the mountain, the cream of the crop. Now, the Cubs are the team everyone is looking at as the model franchise. The Cubs gave out the blueprint for how to build a contender and get from laughing stock to champion in just five years, something the Chicago White Sox are now trying to do themselves.
In three days’ time, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training to begin the 2017 campaign. For the most part, the 2016 team has remained in tact. The Cubs still have the top four pitchers in their rotation, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey will anchor the pitching staff. The fifth spot in the rotation which most people thought would go to Mike Montgomery is now a battle royal which includes new additions Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. While I thought that Montgomery was a shoo in to be the fifth starter, with Anderson now in camp, he might get pushed back into the bullpen; at least to start the season. Baring injury, Butler and Mills likely start the year with the Iowa Cubs to strengthen the depth.
With Montgomery possibly heading to the pen, they have plenty of options to hold on to leads. You have the returning Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop (who still has a contract in limbo), Carl Edwards Jr. along with new additions of Brian Duensing, Wade Davis and Koji Uehara. Rule Five draft pick/trade Caleb Smith will also be in the mix because if he does not make the team and stick with them for a good chunk of the season he needs to be returned. Considering this Rule Five pick was traded for, I would have to think that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer really wanted this guy, though I could well be wrong.
The Cubs have amazing pitching depth this year, and that is not even counting the pitchers they have in the minors who will likely make their way to the big leagues at some point in the season. As the old adage goes, you can never have enough pitching. The Cubs were remarkably healthy last year in the rotation (and pretty much everywhere) and likely will not have the same benefit in 2017. The more pitching the Cubs have, the better they will be.
The loss of Dexter Fowler hurts, I will not deny that. He was the Cubs lead off hitter and igniter of the offense. Unfortunately “Mr. You Go We Go” took a trip down south to the St. Louis Cardinals. Our loss is their gain, and sad to say he MIGHT have been the one guy the Cubs could not afford to lose. If you want a reason why, look no further than the second half of June til just after the All Star Break. Fowler was on the Disabled List, and the Cubs went through the ugliest stretch of baseball of the season. Things were so bad, that many fans lost hope for the season, pointing out all sorts of flaws. That poor stretch deflated a lot of fans hopes and dreams for the season. Fowler was a huge part of the success of the 2016 team, and the Cubs would not have won without him. Call him “greedy” if you want for not taking the Cubs one year deal and chasing after a lot more money elsewhere, but remember that he gave up a lot of money with the Baltimore Orioles to take a lot less from the Cubs to “finish what the started” in 2015. I will not call him greedy, I will say thank you for helping the Cubs win the World Series, and good luck in St. Louis… just not when you play us!
That being said, the Cubs will be fine without him. Albert Almora will likely get the lion’s share of time in center field, and he is far better defensively than Fowler. Bryant once called Almora the best defensive outfielder he has ever seen, and that was with both Fowler and multiple Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward on the team. His bat might not be as good as Fowler was in 2017, but he will have plenty of offense around him to cover for any sort of deficiency. The Cubs will hopefully have a full year of a healthy Kyle Schwarber, and Heyward will almost certainly have a better year at the plate than he had in 2016. After spending the entire off season working on returning his swing to its former prowess, you have to imagine that he will be much better than he was last season. Between the two of them, the Cubs offense should not lose much (if anything), in fact one might argue that they will be even better both offensively and defensively in the outfield. Rounding out the field will be new addition Jon Jay (the likely platoon partner for Almora) and returning Matt Szczur.
Around the horn in the infield, of course you have Anthony Rizzo at first, Addison Russell at shortstop and Bryant at third. Second base will be interesting to watch with both Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist splitting time. This might be the hardest decision Joe Maddon and company have to make–how to split playing time for these two at second, while keeping everyone happy. Baez came into his own in the postseason, pretty much making one amazing play every game; his bat was not too shabby either as he came up with a few key hits along the way. Zobrist, the World Series MVP, also deserves playing time. He played the outfield all post season and never once complained. Now that Schwarber is back, his outfield playing time will be cut short, likely limiting him to only playing left when there is a left handed pitcher on the mound. The rest of the time, Zobrist might become the ultimate bench player rotating from position to position to make sure everyone gets days off. This is one job that I do not envy as everyone wants to play every day, and with this roster and with the mad scientist Maddon at work, that will never happen. Keeping them all fresh and ready to play every day is a hard job, but I am sure Maddon will find a way to make things work. Tommy La Stella might be the only bench player for the infield, because with Zobrist and Baez able to play damn near everywhere around the infield, Bryant able to play both corners and Russell able to play both middle infield spots, you do not really need too many guys barring an absolute catastrophe.
Behind the dish, you have a full season of Willson Contreras (a full year with him will likely also make up for whatever offense is lost with the departure of Fowler) and the returning Miguel Montero. Schwarber still wants to catch but his days of being a catcher full time likely are over, though who knows what Maddon will do. After all, he did have Travis Wood and Strop both play in left field occasionally. Perhaps he will throw Schwarber behind the dish for an inning here or there, as long as he is medically cleared to do so.
While there will always be injuries and last minute deals, I think I can safely say that the Cubs team is pretty much set going into 2017.
Your starting rotation (in my opinion and in no particular order)
As you can see, that is 27 players. I currently have nine members of the bullpen, two might be left off the main roster. I am not up to date on who does have minor league options and who does not, so that will be an interesting race to watch. However, you could also see a 25th man battle between Szczur and La Stella, both of whom can be left off due to the versatility of the entire roster. Zobrist, Almora, Heyward and Jay can easily play all three positions, giving them days off and limiting the need for a fifth outfielder.
As previously mentioned, the infield versatility is beyond amazing, limiting the need for La Stella. If fans had the vote, La Stella would be sent packing. He lost their support when he refused to report to Iowa when he was assigned. I am not so sure Maddon would chose Szczur over La Stella though (or Epstein and Hoyer for that matter), they seem to really like him and what he can bring to the team which is why they did all they could to keep him around.
Options are good and as you can see, the Cubs have plenty of them. There are so many different directions they can take for 2017, and I am not sure any of them are bad choices.
Welcome to a whole new world of Cubs baseball. One where the Cubs are a legitimate threat to repeat as World Series champions, and are not just another team to play on the schedule. They are a team that you actually have to game plan for.