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2017 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs finally ended their 108-year-long championship drought by winning the most thrilling World Series in years last November. Where do the Cubs go from here? There’s only one answer: repeat.

The roster the Cubs will go into the 2017 season with is not that much different from the roster they opened with in 2016. The biggest changes are in center field, as Dexter Fowler has gone to the division rival Cardinals, and Wade Davis now owns the closer’s role.

The Cubs acquired Davis from the Royals back in December in exchange for outfielder Jorge Soler. Davis, effectively, is replacing Aroldis Chapman who was acquired by the Cubs from the Yankees in July last season, then went back to the Yankees in free agency. Few relievers have ever been as dominant as Davis has been these last three campaigns. Since the start of the 2014 season, Davis owns a 1.18 ERA with 47 saves and a 234/59 K/BB ratio in 182 2/3 innings. The right-hander did battle a forearm injury last season, limiting him to 43 1/3 innings, so the Cubs are banking on the 31-year-old staying healthy.

Fowler had what was arguably the best season of his career last year after returning to the Cubs. He hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 home runs, 48 RBI, 84 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 125 games. The Cardinals offered him $82.5 million over five years during the offseason, so the veteran outfielder went from Illinois to Missouri. The Cubs have the left-handed-hitting Jon Jay – inked to a one-year, $8 million deal in November — and right-handed Albert Almora, Jr. on the depth chart in center to replace Fowler. The duo will likely operate in a platoon. As the market for center fielders wasn’t exactly bustling, the Cubs did about as well as they could have reasonably done addressing the position.

Other than those two spots, it’s all familiar faces for the Cubs. After winning the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Award, Kris Bryant followed up with an outstanding 2016 season, resulting in the NL Most Valuable Player Award. He hit .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs, 102 RBI, and an NL-best 121 runs scored in 699 plate appearances. Along with that, he was one of the best fielding third basemen. Bryant turned 25 years old in January and it’s scary to think what he can accomplish not having yet hit his peak. He should be the favorite to win the 2017 NL MVP Award and if the Cubs continue to pace the league, Bryant will be a big reason why.

Across the diamond, Bryant’s teammate Anthony Rizzo was nearly as impactful to the Cubs last season. The 27-year-old finished fourth in NL MVP balloting, hitting .292/.385/.544 with 32 home runs and 109 RBI in 676 PA. He, too, was slick-fielding at his position which the Cubs’ pitching staff certainly appreciated. Rizzo has been one of the scariest and most consistent bats over the last three years — hitting 32, 31, and 32 home runs – so it wouldn’t be surprising if he had a career year and found himself as the leading Cub in MVP discussions.

Slugger Kyle Schwarber will open up the season in left field, just as he did last year. His season abruptly ended, unfortunately, when he collided with Fowler in the outfield trying to catch a fly ball in Arizona on April 7. He suffered a torn ACL and LCL. Even without Schwarber, the Cubs made it all the way to the World Series, so he was able to return on October 25 to open the Fall Classic against the Indians. He performed admirably, contributing six singles, a double, and three walks in 20 plate appearances for a robust .500 on-base percentage. Now with a full and healthy season ahead of him, the 23-year-old Schwarber is primed for a big season. As manager Joe Maddon is considering Schwarber for the leadoff spot, more plate appearances will mean more opportunities to showcase his power.

Let’s hop into the starting rotation quickly. Four of the five members of baseball’s scariest rotation last year are returning to the Cubs in 2017: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey. Jason Hammel has been replaced by either Mike Montgomery or Brett Anderson, whoever pitches the best during spring training.

The veteran Lester pitched to a second-place finish in NL Cy Young balloting, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and a 197/52 K/BB ratio in 202 2/3 innings. Sabermetrically, Lester pitched a bit better in 2014 with the Red Sox and Athletics, but by more traditional metrics his 2016 performance was the best of his career. Now 33 years old, Lester hasn’t lost much life on his fastball. Pitchers usually do as they get into their mid-30’s. The Cubs are hoping he can avoid age-related decline for at least one more season.

Arrieta was the league’s best pitcher in 2015 and he appeared to be well on his way to a second consecutive Cy Young Award as he carried a 1.74 ERA after his June 17 start against the Pirates. Clayton Kershaw – Arrieta’s steepest competition – was battling back issues. But Arrieta struggled the rest of the way, putting up a 4.31 ERA in his final 17 starts. His overall stats were fine – 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA and a 190/76 K/BB ratio in 197 1/3 innings — and he finished ninth in Cy Young balloting, but he was no longer the lights-out right-hander we saw in 2015. Fortunately, he figured things out just in time. After the Cubs lost his first two playoff starts against the Giants and Dodgers, they won his final two starts, both in the World Series against the Indians.

Hendricks deserves being mentioned as he led the majors with a 2.13 ERA. He finished third in Cy Young balloting, though, behind Max Scherzer and teammate Lester. Appropriately, Hendricks is very late-career-Greg-Maddux-esque, as he doesn’t feature an overpowering fastball. Rather, he relies on pinpoint command and mixing up his pitches to fool batters. Now that Hendricks is on the map, if he’s able to repeat what he did last year, the 27-year-old might take home some hardware.

The Cubs’ top-three is the best rotation top-three in baseball. Then you look at Lackey as their No. 4 and you realize why they won 103 games in the regular season last year. Lackey, now 38, put up a solid 3.35 ERA in 29 starts. His postseason starts were lackluster – eight runs allowed in 13 innings – but ate up just enough innings not to shortchange the bullpen.

The Cubs are very strong elsewhere, but in the interest of keeping these previews condensed enough to read during a break at the office, we’ll stop here. The Cubs’ catching situation is quite good with the young Willson Contreras backed up by veteran Miguel Montero. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards, Jr. are well-equipped to bridge the gap to Davis in the late innings. Jason Heyward will hope to finally figure things out offensively as he returns to right field. Shortstop Addison Russell appears poised to take the next step towards stardom. You can always set your watch to Ben Zobrist at second base. And last but not least, Maddon reprises his role as baseball’s oddest manager. We can only wait to find out what weird methods he’ll come up with to unite his team this time around.

A team hasn’t repeated as World Series champions since the 1999-2000 Yankees. If any team is going to do it, it will be these Cubs.

Prediction: 99-63, 1st place in NL Central

Giants remove pitching coach Dave Righetti

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After 18 years, 12 winning seasons, seven postseason runs and three World Championships, Dave Righetti is no longer a pitching coach for the Giants. He was removed from his post on Saturday, when the team announced a few reassignments as they shake up their coaching staff. Heading into the 2018 season, Righetti will serve as special assistant to general manager Bobby Evans, former bullpen coach Mark Gardner will step into a similar special assistant role to “assist in pitching evaluations,” and former assistant hitting coach Steve Decker will take a special assistant role in baseball operations.

According to MLB.com’s Chris Haft, Righetti was the longest-tenured pitching coach in the big leagues. He helped shape the careers of notable Giants’ aces like Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — all Cy Young contenders (and, in Lincecum’s case, a two-time winner) at various points in their careers. He was there to assist Ryan Vogelsong during his stunning mid-career comeback in San Francisco. He helped newcomers like Chris Stratton and Ty Blach flourish even as the team stumbled to the bottom of the division. He was there to take the credit when a sterling rotation clinched the Giants’ 56-year, drought-snapping championship title in 2010 — and, when things went so horribly south in 2017, he took the blame as well.

Hardly anything went right for the Giants’ pitching staff in 2017. Madison Bumgarner was shelved after sustaining a serious shoulder injury in a dirt bike accident, Johnny Cueto couldn’t shake a cluster of blisters on his right hand and Mark Melancon found it difficult to justify a $62 million paycheck after pitching through an arm injury to four blown losses/saves and a 4.50 ERA. It would be a lot for any pitching coach to stay on top of, and given the team’s rapid descent from 2016 postseason contenders to last-place finishers in 2017, it’s not surprising that Evans felt the need to switch things up.

Successors have yet to be named for Righetti, Gardner or Decker, though Murray hears that the Giants could have interest in former major league pitching coach Jim Hickey. NBC Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic adds that Evans is searching for someone to “put a new voice” on the pitching staff and will likely target someone who, like Righetti, brings considerable experience to the role.