2017 Division Preview: 1st Place Chicago Cubs

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There is something wonderful about writing a blog previewing a Cubs season that doesn’t include things like a World Series Championship drought.  Or an NL pennant drought.  Or a division championship drought.  Or a “this is next year” narrative.  Or any of the stuff that has traditionally lined up so neatly with writing about the Cubs.  Or being a Cubs fan.  Or knowing the Cubs exist.

The defending World Series Champions will break camp this season looking really similar to the way they did when the World Series ended, too.  Dexter Fowler is gone.  Aroldis Chapman was a rental and we all knew it.  Travis Wood has left.  Jon Jay is in.  Beyond that, the same team who won 103 regular season games returns, in large, intact.

Let’s clear something up right now.  It wasn’t all luck that the Cubs went through the 2016 season with very little in the way of significant injuries.  Kyle Schwarber was really the only one.  And it was unavoidable, considering the circumstances.  Their depth softened that blow considerably, too.  But there was some luck.  Being as deep as the Cubs are allowed Joe Maddon to rest players pretty liberally.  He will have that same luxury in 2017.  It would be stunning if the Cubs got the same remarkable health from their starting rotation in 2017.  Their Opening Day rotation made 152 starts.  The other 10 games weren’t injury related, either.  It was the luxury of a large lead.  That probably won’t happen again.  If it doesn’t, though, there is depth to withstand a DL stint here and there.

On the position side, the Cubs are as deep and as talented as any team in baseball.  Maybe more.  That should allow them to play great defense for a second year in a row.  And they’re pretty good with the bats, too.  Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have built a remarkable organization.  With sustainable high end young talent all over the field.  2017 will be another year within that structure.

Strengths:

Hitting.  Pitching.  Defense.  But that’s all.  As a team, the Cubs were second in the NL in runs scored.  They led MLB with a 10.4% walk rate.  And they led the NL with a 106 wRC+.  The pitching staff also allowed the fewest runs in MLB…556.  56 less than the second place Nationals.  Part of the greatness of the pitching staff was the unprecedented defense behind it.  The Cubs tied for the 3rd highest ground ball rate generated by the pitching staff (46.9%).  And those ground balls were swallowed up and turned into outs.  In all, 82 defensive runs saved, a 9.1 team UZR/150, and a host of other flawed defensive metrics all say what we all saw.  The Cubs’ defense was an enormous reason why they won.  And it played up the pitching staff.  And it will again.  Brett Anderson and his 58.2% (!!) career ground ball rate was a nearly perfect addition.  The obligatory “if he stays healthy”, he can really flourish with this team.  But, he has made more than 10 starts only twice since 2012.

The Cubs are basically a walking bicep emoji.  They do a lot really well.  And Willson Contreras behind the plate on a more regular basis can make their defense even better.

There almost has to be some regression to the mean for the Cubs.  They did get a lot of good breaks last season.  But this team is ultra talented, well coached, and remarkably hungry.  That should mean good things for the coming season to look a lot like last season on the field.

Weaknesses: 

Sure.  I can nitpick.  The bullpen allowed the 6th most BB/9 in MLB last season.  They overcame that with a MLB low .262 BABIP and an NL best 9.92 K/9 out of their relievers, but if the defense regresses at all, that BABIP will surely rise, which will almost certainly cause their 3.56 bullpen ERA to rise.  For a team with as much power as the Cubs have, this isn’t really a weakness, but they were middle of the road in strikeout rate, at 21.1%.  All things considered, that’s perfectly acceptable for a team who walks so prolifically and hits plenty of home runs.  But in terms of relative weakness, that’s probably a place the Cubs struggle more than in other areas.  And not that it’s necessary, but the Cubs aren’t exactly lighting the bases on fire.  Their 66 steals were 4th worst in the NL.  Granted, the three who were worse either made the playoffs or were the Cardinals, who won 87 games.  The Cubs run the bases well…they just don’t steal them.

What more can I really say?  A team who posts a 103-58 record and wins a championship probably doesn’t have a ton of holes.  But for fun, let’s say they lost their proven lead off guy.  That could hurt…unless Kyle Schwarber is anything resembling the hitter we’ve seen in small samples since he was called up in 2015.

2017 Is a Success If…

I will never say “Championship or bust”.  Never ever.  It’s too hard to win a championship.  That is the expectation now, though.  To compete for championships.  So, here’s an outside the box thought that has nothing to do with how the season unfolds on the field.  The 2017 season is a success if the front office makes the future starting rotation a little more clear during the season.  That is to say…they go into the off-season with more than Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks as starters under team control.  This, of course, can happen in a number of ways.  They can extend Jake Arrieta and/or John Lackey.  Or Brett Anderson can have a great year and sign an extension.  Or, the Cubs could use some of their prospect currency and acquire a controllable starter.  Heck, I will even extend this to making it evident that Eddie Butler was a steal and is deserving of a spot in the rotation going forward.  Obviously, this is a mighty low bar to cross.  There are options for them here.  In my mind, though, there is a lot of value to going into the winter and not having to rebuild 60% of the starting rotation.  Too much can happen over the winter for that to be a good option.  So, shed some clarity on it by working during the season.  That would be a success.

2017 Is a Failure If…

Along the same line, the season was not lost if the Cubs don’t repeat as champions.  It’s too hard to do to say not doing it is failure.  The unlikely scenario of missing the playoffs would be a failure.  This team, top to bottom, is too talented, too deep, too well coached, and too well run to miss the playoffs.  Frankly, it would have to take a series of major injuries at multiple key positions for that to happen.  In some ways, it may be unfair to say it’s a failure when it would almost certainly be due to atrocious luck.

Projected Record: 95-67

I don’t project 100 losses.  And, even though it wouldn’t be a surprise with this team, I won’t project 100 wins.  It can’t all go right again like it did last year.  It would be fair to say that they regress to “awesome” or some level similar to it this year.  It may feel disappointing to read that, but 95 wins is a really great team.  But we were spoiled by 103.  Those expectations year in and year out are unfair, though. The Cubs will be (probably) great.  What is actually going to matter will start in October.  From last year, henceforth, that is the standard.  Competing in the playoffs.

Feature Image from MLB.com
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About Andy

Sometimes I write stuff about the Cubs. Sometimes it's even good. But don't get your hopes up. Basically, my writing is like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.

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