Will the Chicago Cubs Repeat in 2017?
The Cubs broke their one hundred and eight year curse last year, return nearly every key cog from their 103-win team and have a roster absolutely overloaded with players in, or approaching their primes. In short, there is nothing NOT to like about the Chicago Cubs; tons of young talent, decent contracts, great depth, and plenty of money to operate in the capable hands of Theo Epstein should any needs arise.
The next Dynasty, right? The early-aughts’ Yankees!
Well…. Not so fast. Let’s pump the brakes juuuuust a bit. The pieces are there for sure, but there are plenty of reasons why the next “dynasty” may never come to fruition. Here’s the Top Five.
#1. “Baseball, Man”
As in, did you see that lousy team just reel off three straight against the best team in the league? “Baseball, man.” No other major sport has less of a gulf between “great” and “terrible” than Major League Baseball.
The best teams occasionally win 100 games. The worst teams occasionally lose 100. For the most part, the high/low marks generally fall around low to mid 90’s on both ends of the spectrum. For example, a “really good team” might win 95 games this season while plenty of last place teams won’t lose much more than 90. The difference might be a whopping 25 games in the standings, but by percentage, we are talking just 14%. That’s not much. In NFL parlance, we are talking the difference between a 9-7 and 7-9 team.
The reason this matters is that the postseason is an incredible shrunken sample size. To win a World Series a team must win three straight crap-shoot series against nearly equal competition. And even if the competition is NOT equal, “baseball, man.” Stuff happens. A bleeder here, a flare there, one hanging curve or missed sign and the 4-3 series goes the opposite direction.
Since 2001, exactly HALF of the World Series Champions have won 92 or less games in the regular season. Only two have won more than 100, last year’s Cubs and the 2009 Yankees. In that same span 13 other teams won 100 games and DID NOT win the World Series. So, even if the Cubs ARE as good, or even better than last year (and they likely will not be) the Playoffs are STILL a complete crapshoot.
#2. It All Starts at the Top
Dexter Fowler never got first billing on a team loaded with stars; Lester and Arrieta in the rotation, Chapman throwing 104 out of the pen, and Rizzo and Bryant battling for NL MVP honors. But often it all started with Fowler, both setting the table by getting on base and defensively eating up everything in the outfield. John Jay is a decent replacement, and Almoro Jr. is unquestionably the future, but for the short-term, the Cubbies may miss one of their leaders and best all-around players. In fairness to the replacement platoon, both have been EXCELLENT so far this season, batting .364 and .333 respectively as of April 22nd, but it is early, and Fowler is more of a safe-bet over the course of 162 games.
#3. A Farewell to Arms
The Cubs starting pitching is very good. But starting pitcher’s arms are notoriously finicky as they progress in their careers. Their two most established starters, Jon Lester and Jake Arrita are 33 and 31 respectively, still in their primes but at the outer edge of them. John Lackey will turn 39 during the World Series. Their young arm, Kyle Hendricks, was amazing last year, posting Cy Young-worthy numbers, but they were certainly unexpected – far better than he pitched in 2015 and better than his minor-league career indicated were possible. He is off to a slow start in 2017 – perhaps it is nothing, perhaps it is a slight regression to the mean beginning. The bullpen lost Chapman, but replaced him adequately with Wade Davis in the Jorge Soler trade with the Kansas City Royals.
The rotation is still good, but it isn’t hands-down the best rotation in the National League. If Hendricks were to indeed regress back towards being a mid-three’s ERA pitcher without dominating strikeout stuff, and one of their Top Two guys were to battle any injuries, this becomes a very average staff – especially in a short playoff series. Even healthy, I’d take the Nationals, Mets or Dodgers #1 through #3 – which is about all that is needed in a short playoff series.
#4. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Let’s be pretty honest. Aside from the Opening Day Kyle Schwarber injury, the Cubbies led a pretty charmed life in 2016. They suffered no dramatic injuries to key players and their pitching staff was remarkably healthy. Bryant took the next step from Rookie of the Year, to All-Star, to MVP – just as one would right up in a fairytale, Rizzo remained the rock at first, and other young players developed perfectly linearly like Addison Russell and Javier Baez. They got a full healthy do-everything year from Ben Zobrist and productive seasons from their three-man catching carousel.
Now, some of good health can be attributed to having a young team that can bounce back quickly and to deft management by Joe Maddon. Some of it requires offering a shot of rum to Jobu (if you do not get that reference, for the love of GOD, please go procure a copy of Major League and lock yourself in your room for the next 24 hours to allow time for a dozen consecutive viewings…)
What if things aren’t so charmed this season? We already talked about the pitching potential pitfalls. Not only did that staff pitch above it’s expected performance last season, they were also healthy. Jason Hamel was one of the best fifth starters in all of baseball. He is now in Kansas City. Brett Anderson has some pretty big shoes to fill. He has talent, but also a very injury riddled career over the last seven seasons with a lot of very low lows.
There are also some offensive question marks as well. Can Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Alberto Almoro Jr. continue to develop? Can Kyle Schwarber’s bat offset what are sure to be some adventurous nights in left field? Will Jason Heyward be the guy they THOUGHT they were getting from the Cardinals back in 2015 or will another .220 season make for some awkward decisions for Mr. Maddon?
As good as the Cubs lineup and roster is, like all MLB teams, they are a few down-years or injuries away from some major question marks.
#5. One Step Away…
The Cubs could very well make it back to the Fall Classic, only to find a far more formidable opponent this time around. Both Cleveland and Boston are improved and would be a stern test in October. Cleveland added a HUGE bat in Edwin Encarnacion to strengthen the middle of the lineup and knock in 100-plus runs. Michael Brantley is healthty and productive after missing last season. That is two players better than anyone in the 2016 lineup that took the Tribe within a few outs of a World Championship. Add in another year of growth for one of the most exciting young stars in the baseball in Francisco Lindor and you have a dynamite lineup.
The starting pitching was also injury-riddled last season as well. This year, for now, Bauer, Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar are all healthy and Andrew Miller is ready to save the day – any inning in which you need him, as he and Terry Francona continue to redefine baseball and the evolution of effective bullpen management.
In short, the Indians are SCARY on paper right now.
And they may not even be the scariest team in the American League. Boston might be missing Big Poppi, but if so, they aren’t letting it show. Their loaded lineup of Xander Bogarts, Pedroia, Betts, Hanley, Sandoval, and company got even better this season with the addition of Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Benintendi, who is off to a fast start, hitting .300 and 10 RBI in his first three weeks in the Bigs.
But Boston’s biggest addition isn’t in the lineup, it is on the mound. You know you bolstered your starting pitching when you have the reigning Cy Young winner in Rock Porcello, and no rational baseball person would argue he is the best pitcher on the team. That honor is now clearly bestowed on newly-acquired Chris Sale, giving the Red Sox a potentially devastating one – two punch in a playoff series. Sale has posted a 0.91 ERA and struck out FORTY-TWO BATTERS in just 27 innings in Beantown, making him the early Cy Young favorite. As good as Lester and Arrieta are, neither is orbiting the atmosphere Chris Sale is currently occupying.
Right now, the Cubs are just +400 to win the World Series on Bovada.com. That feels insanely slim to me from a value standpoint. Especially when considering the Indians and Red Sox are +700 and the Nationals, whom I might favor in their series TODAY over Chicago, are +1000. Are the Cubs one of three or four teams that I feel confident penciling in to the postseason? Sure, and that makes them at least a reasonable consideration. But also consider, from a VALUE standpoint, the Cubs were +250 as the postseason started, and that was after winning NINE MORE GAMES than any other NL team and entering the postseason completely healthy.
If you are a die-hard Cubbie, you are probably already all in. But for you more patient, objective baseball bettors, I’d consider Nats at +1000 if I am locking in some future value.