2017 Cubs Season Preview

The 2016 Chicago Cubs will forever be remembered as the team that finally broke the longest championship drought in professional sports history, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Cleveland Indians.  During last year’s run to victory, stars were born and legends were made; the big guns performed when it mattered, and role players stepped up to bring the team their first title in 108 years.  Now, the “Lovable Losers” have to prepare to defend their title.  Their core is still in place, but some little changes around the edges could ultimately make or break how successful they are in accomplishing their goal.  Will they be able to reign supreme for a second straight season, or will another club manage to topple them from their throne?  Here’s my outlook for what the Cubs will look like in this coming year:

 

Outfield:

LF- Kyle Schwarber

CF- Jason Heyward

RF- Ben Zobrist

In this roster configuration, I’m attempting to maximize the line-up potential that Joe Maddon has at his disposal.  It’ll be interesting to see what the manager ultimately does with Zobrist, the hero of Game 7 of the World Series; he started at second base for most of last season, but if we’re trying to maximize offense here, it’ll be tough to keep a guy with as much firepower as Javy Baez out of the line-up (more on that later).  So Zobrist will have to find his way to right, a position that will force the team’s most expensive player, Heyward, over to center, at what could be a defensive detriment to the team.  The former Cardinal’s contract looks more and more like an albatross every time he steps into a batter’s box—he still seems to be struggling mightily with his swing, and moving him to center is not only a misuse of his talents, but prevents one of the team’s best remaining prospects, Albert Almora, from getting reasonable playing time.  There’s a high chance, though, that Maddon looks at how Baez’s production fell off in the World Series and sticks Zobrist back in the infield, allowing Heyward to play his regular spot; there’s really no certainty in that regard.  The only thing that is certain is that Heyward, despite his huge contract, really needs to pick it up if he wants to assure himself of regular playing time on this incredibly deep and talented roster.

The only outfield spot that’s really locked down is one that, six months ago, nobody could have ever anticipated.  Kyle Schwarber’s remarkable comeback from his knee injury early last season, his presence in the World Series, and the impact that he made in his limited time made it clear that he deserves a spot in this line-up.  With a full off-season to continue his rehab, and to prepare for what could be his first full season as a full-time starter in both the majors and the outfield, the former Indiana man should continue his development into a power-hitting superstar.

  

Infield:

3B- Kris Bryant

SS- Addison Russell

2B- Javier Baez

1B- Anthony Rizzo

C- Willson Contreras

Arguably the two biggest position players in the entire National League will man the corners for the Cubs this year.  Bryant, who won the NL MVP award last year, didn’t have incredibly mind-blowing statistics, but the third baseman’s combination of solid contact, strong power, and nifty fielding make him one of the most valuable players in the game.  Rizzo, meanwhile, had himself a career year at the dish last season, batting .292 and knocking in 109 runs, and while his performance in the post-season wasn’t exactly up to scratch, it was his leadership abilities that really took center stage, as his enthusiasm helped buoy his team, especially when they seemed down-and-out following the Cleveland Indians’ win in Game 4 of the Series.  Both men will be essential if the Cubs are to have any chance of repeating.

The two youngsters up the middle are models of consistency and inconsistency, steadiness and streakiness.  The consistent one, Russell, might never be a star at the bat—he batted .238 last season, and he struck out (135) more times than he got a hit (125)—but he still managed to come up big when it mattered, as he knocked in 95 runs from a spot low in the batting order, and his defense saved many a base hit for the team’s pitching staff.  He’ll never be elite, but you know what you’ll get from him.  His double play partner, Baez, has the potential to be one of the greatest hitters at his position in baseball history.  He’s a freaky athlete with quick hands and top-level power, as evidenced by his many moonshots, but his aggressiveness has made him even more prone to strikeouts than Russell, and he’s fairly error-prone, having not fully mastered playing second base yet.  He should put up enough power numbers to hold down most of the playing time at second, but if Albert Almora or prospect Ian Happ find their strokes, and the back end of the rotation proves to be a problem for the team, expect Baez’s name to be floated in some trade rumors.

The man behind the plate, Contreras, was a mid-season call-up that caught fire as the regular season came to a close and essentially won the starting role based on that performance.  I worry about his transition to being a true full-time guy, especially with David Ross no longer present to give day-to-day guidance, so I don’t think he’ll see as much time as many expect, but in a couple years I reckon he’ll be one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

 

Bench:

C- Miguel Montero

2B- Tommy La Stella

OF- Jon Jay

OF- Matt Szczur

Montero won’t be happy playing in a reserve role for another season—he made that abundantly clear—but with David Ross retired and the man in front of him, Contreras, preparing to play in his first full he’s guaranteed to get more playing time than last season.  Playing for what could be his last good contract, I actually expect Montero to get the most playing time behind the dish this year.

There’s actually a pretty high chance that La Stella doesn’t end up on the roster—as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that Jason Heyward will start the season in right, which would force Ben Zobrist to second base, Javier Baez to the bench, and…  La Stella to the minors.  In this scenario, though, the versatile infielder is kept around to provide a veteran presence off the bench.

Jay was signed to help fill the void left when Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis, and he’ll do just that—help fill the void.  A lefty, he actually hit better against lefthanders last year, so he’s capable of taking at-bats in any situation.  For that reason, he figures to have an important role somewhere down the line.

There’s a chance that Szczur could end up not being on the big club this spring, but there’s a couple reasons that I see him beating out Almora for a roster spot—the former multi-sport star at Villanova is out of options, and since Almora hasn’t quite demonstrated that he’s capable of hitting major league pitching yet, I think that the gritty veteran makes the team.  If he struggles, though, or if Almora rakes in the minors, expect the team to gauge what interest there would be in him on the trade market.

 

 

Rotation:

Jon Lester- LHP

Jake Arrieta- RHP

Kyle Hendricks- RHP

John Lackey- RHP

Brett Anderson- LHP

You know that your team has a strong rotation if a guy that figures to be the long-term third starter, Hendricks, led the league in ERA last season (Hendricks will open the season as the 5th starter, due to the team’s desire to thrown John Lackey against his old team, St. Louis).  Jon Lester recovered his mojo in his second year in Chicago, finishing with a career-low 2.44 ERA, and earning the right to be the ace of this deep staff.  Arrieta, the bearded warrior, struggled in the second half of last season, but on a contract year, I expect the big righty to try to pick it up a notch in search of a big new deal.  Then there’s Hendricks, a man whose pinpoint control brought him to new heights last season.  I’m sure that he’s due to fall off a little bit, but if it’s only a little, the 27-year-old has a chance to be the future ace in Chicago in the vein of what the legendary Greg Maddux once was.

The back end of the rotation will be filled out by a couple of veterans looking to show that they’re still worthy of being members of a championship team.  Lackey is known to be a great leader (not to mention incredibly fiery) for this squad, and his 3.36 ERA last year proves he’s still got it, but I’m a tad worried about how long he can continue to be effective, especially as his innings decrease.  The best older pitchers rely on their ability to control their pitches and eat innings, and his 188.1 innings last year were his least since his horrendous 2011 season in Boston.  Behind him will be Anderson, who is coming off an injury-filled season with the Dodgers but has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation option.  At this point, though, I can’t see him making it through the whole season unscathed; he’ll pitch well when he’s available, but if he tops 20 starts I’ll be incredibly surprised.

 

Bullpen:

Carl Edwards Jr.- RHP

Justin Grimm- RHP

Mike Montgomery- LHP

Brian Duensing- LHP

Pedro Strop- RHP

Hector Rondon- RHP

Koji Uehara- RHP

Wade Davis- RHP (closer)

When it became clear that the Cubs weren’t front-runners to bring back Aroldis Chapman, and that it was unlikely they could sign the other two big-name free agent closers, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, the team’s front office worked fast.  They flipped Jorge Soler, who has star potential but has struggled for consistency in his two full years with the big club, to Kansas City in exchange for Davis, who was the best closer on the trade market.  He may not have the power pitch that Chapman had, but the former Royal might actually be more consistent, and his presence will keep the 9th inning in good hands for this year’s team.

Jed Hoyer also made a couple of shrewd free agent pick-ups to fill some needs.  With former closer Hector Rondon figuring to move back to his hybrid set-up/middle relief role, a true set-up man was needed, so Hoyer signed former Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara, who, at 42, is still capable of being incredibly effective.  Travis Wood’s departure also left a hole for a left-handed reliever in the ‘pen, so Hoyer inked veteran Brian Duensing, who has great splits against lefties, to a deal.  He won’t see as much action as Wood, but he could yet prove to be a useful piece.

The hold-overs from last year’s roster will complete what could be one of the most underrated bullpens in all of baseball.  There’s a couple fire-ballers (Edwards Jr. and Grimm), a couple of guys with great control (Montgomery and Strop), and Rondon, whose arsenal doesn’t have anything that particularly stands out but is very effective in high-leverage situations.  The best of the bunch is probably the man who finished off last year’s championship victory, Montgomery, who could see some time as a starter if Brett Anderson struggles.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Jeimer Candelario

CF- Albert Almora

LHP- Zac Rosscup

Candelario didn’t get much playing time after being added to the 40-man roster this past July, and while it’s evident that he still needs to work on figuring out major league pitching, he’s fared well in the minors, as he hit .333 in Iowa before being called up.  His versatility—he can play any infield spot except first—and speed could also make him a valuable reserve at some point during the year.

Almora is certainly talented enough to start the season in Chicago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but I still think that he needs to have better control of the strike zone before I think he really deserves to get real playing time for the duration of the season.  He’ll get called up at the first sign of injury or struggles for any of the outfielders, and he’ll surely be an important part of the team down the stretch, but I just feel he should start the year in Iowa.

Rosscup hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015, owing to the poor spring he had last year that caused him to start the year in Iowa and the shoulder surgery he had last May that forced him to miss the season.  As a lefty specialist that has pitched in parts of three seasons in the Show, though, Rosscup could find a role at the back end of the team’s ‘pen, especially if Brian Duensing struggles.

 

Top Prospects:

Dylan Cease- RHP

2B- Ian Happ

OF- Eloy Jimenez

Most of the Cubs’ big prospects have cracked the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean that the cupboard is bare; far from it.  We’ll start with Cease, a flame-throwing righty that can hit triple digits with every pitch.  As with all high-speed pitchers, though, he’s had some issues with locating his pitches, and the organization is still working out if he would be better suited as a starter or reliever.  Either way, as long as he can figure out how to reign in his heater, he’ll be a big arm to have when he finally makes it to the Show.

Happ has been absolutely on fire in spring training, batting a robust .407 as of this writing, but has yet to play a single professional game above AA.  That being said, his progress at the plate is really turning heads, and his ability to play multiple positions—he played mostly outfield in college, but spent most of his time last season at second—makes him a very valuable asset.  If he continues to see the ball well, he could well work his way into playing time with the big club, especially if Matt Szczur ends up leaving the organization, before many could have anticipated he would.

Of course, his path to outfield playing time might be slowed a little bit by Jimenez, the team’s top prospect.  Jimenez seems to be what many people hoped Jorge Soler would be—a big, solid athlete with impressive defensive instincts and upper-deck power.  Jimenez is still a little bit too aggressive at the plate, and breaking pitches seem to give him a decent amount of trouble, but the talent is there, and if he can continue to improve—his average in the minors went from .227 in his first season to .329 last year—the 20-year-old outfielder is sure to have a great career in Cubbie blue.

 

Possible Surprises:

IF- Jemile Weeks

OF- Jacob Hannemann

Weeks, the younger brother of former Brewer, and Cub tormenter, Rickie Weeks, is a do-it-all type player that can play virtually every position on the field and has some speed to burn.  There’s still a lot of good prospects that should see the bigs before Weeks ever would, but everyone knows how much Joe Maddon values guys that are able to fill gaps all over the field, and Weeks fits that bill.

Hannemann doesn’t rate among the team’s top 15 prospects—perhaps because the 25-year-old former third round pick has really struggled with minor league pitching, still not proving that he can handle moving to a level above AA.  That being said, there’s a reason that the Hawaiian was such a highly regarded draft pick.  He’s a good athlete and has shown that, despite his general struggles at the plate, he’s not all that bad at putting the bat on the ball.  If he’s able to figure out his swing, he could end up being a Shane Victorino-lite, a late-bloomer from the Island State that’s quick and makes good contact.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

CF    Heyward

LF    Schwarber

3B   Bryant

1B   Rizzo

2B   Baez

RF   Zobrist

SS    Russell

C     Contreras

P     Lester

The Cubs have what is arguably the most talented team in all of baseball, and coming off their first title in a very, very long time, they’ll be anxious to prove that they can go above and beyond last year’s miracle.  Ultimately, though, I don’t think they’ll win it all this year.  I’m worried about the drop-off that Kyle Hendricks will almost certainly face, as well struggles Jake Arrieta had last year, and what could happen to the team if both aren’t always on their groove.  I worry about the back of the rotation and their ability to maintain consistency.  I worry about the outfield, and the uncertainty about who is going to get playing time, and if those players are going to be deserving of that time.  Besides, with the parity that baseball has, it’s near impossible to repeat.  This team is excellent, and they’ll certainly challenge for the World Series, but I think that the small weaknesses that the roster does have will compound on themselves just enough to prevent the Cubbies from repeating as champions.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: 2017 MLB Season Preview | Kevin J. Gaffney

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