Ben Zobrist

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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

Baseball’s attempt to speed up isn’t connecting with all fans

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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.

Ben Zobrist named World Series MVP

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Cubs outfielder Ben Zobrist was named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series. He went 1-for-5 in the decisive Game 7, knocking in the first of two 10th-inning runs with a double to help stave off the Indians 8-7. In all seven games, Zobrist hit .357/.419/.464 with eight singles, a double, a triple, and two runs batted in.

Zobrist also won the World Series last year with the Royals. He was likewise a huge factor, getting three hits in a crucial 14-inning Game 1 win against the Mets. Wednesday marked the 54th postseason game in which Zobrist has played.

Zobrist, 35, is under contract with the Cubs through 2019, so he’ll hope to help the Cubs repeat next season.