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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #1: The Chicago Cubs Break the Curse and Win it All

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

That headline notwithstanding, we don’t believe in curses around here. We don’t think black cats released near the on-deck circle or billy goats denied entrance into a ballpark have an effect on baseball games or the men, born decades after the fact, who play them. It’s a lot of fun to talk about such things but if you’re the sort who takes such things seriously, by all means, seek help.

That being said, 108 years between World Series titles is quite a thing. A thing that, over time, would’ve generated enough agita on its own. It was only fitting then, that breaking that title drought — or, if you must, breaking that curse — didn’t come easy.

The Cleveland Indians built a 3-1 World Series lead and not many teams have blown 3-1 leads. But it never felt like they had a handle on it the way other teams with a 3-1 series lead usually have. The Indians only had three starters due to injuries and they had to ride them hard. The 3-1 lead was based mostly on cold Cubs bats and those bats weren’t likely to stay cold forever. Anything can happen in a short series, but the Cubs made it go longer, gutting out at bats and picking up wins in Games 5 and 6. The longer two teams play the more likely it is that the better team will win, and the Cubs were the better team.

Game 7 meant facing Corey Kluber, who had been dominant in the playoffs to date. Unfortunately for the Indians, however, Kluber was gassed, allowing four runs in four innings. But even then it wasn’t easy. The Indians rallied for two runs in the bottom of the fifth and three in the bottom of the eighth, thanks to a gassed Aroldis Chapman, to force extra innings.

You know what happened then, of course. Rain. Kyle Schwarber leading off with a single to right field. Ben Zobrist slapping a double down the left field line, plating the guy who pinch-ran for Schwarber. Miguel Montero ripping a single to left field to make it 8-6. That score would hold and the Cubs would be World Series champions.

They may win more. Their core — Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Jason Heyward are all young. Willson Contreras is but a baby. The starters are older, but still fantastic. The front office is unparalleled in the game and team revenues will be near the top of all clubs for the foreseeable future. Dynasties are hard to come by in modern professional sports, but the Cubs stand as good a chance as anyone to become one.

But that’s not what makes this the biggest baseball story of 2016. It’s bigger than that. It, admittedly, involves curses. It involves a club’s identity. The one in which the Cubs were such perpetual losers that they became a punchline in movies, TV shows and literature. A punchline so potent that merely portraying them as winners constituted the entire joke. They were shorthand for “sad sack” and tolerable only because their losing was, at times anyway, lovable.

That’s all over now, though. The Cubs are winners. They flipped the script in 2016 and broke the curses. And they will never be seen in the same way again.

Nationals succeeded by spending money

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Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.