The 2016 Chicago Cubs were one of the strongest teams we’ve seen in years. Their 103 wins were the most by any team since the 2009 Yankees and no one has won more than that since the 2005 Cardinals won 105.
This past winter Chicago added Wade Davis, one of the best relief pitchers in the business over the past three seasons, solidifying a bullpen which, while certainly not a liability in 2016, wasn’t extraordinarily strong before the midseason addition of Aroldis Chapman. Given a choice between having Wade Davis all year vs. a rental of Chapman, I suspect most managers would prefer to have Davis all year.
Also new for 2017: a healthy Kyle Schwarber. He missed all of last season, returning only for the World Series, and is now back. That should provide a big boost.
So, you look at the World Series Champions, and you see that they still have Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the rest of the 2016 gang. You see that they have Schwarber back. You see that they solidified the pen and that, at the very least, it should be stronger than it was for the first four months of the 2016 season. Taken all together, you have to assume the 2017 Cubs will be better, right? Or at least no worse?
You might assume it, but then you remember that baseball doesn’t work like that. And you remember that, despite any number of strong clubs, we’ve not had a repeat champion since the 2000 New York Yankees. It’s a game of parity now and, of course, a game of expanded playoffs in which small sample sizes and short hot or cold streaks can make a hash of even the strongest team’s chances. The 2017 Cubs could win 110 games and then bow out in the Division Series because of a freak injury or two or three days during which the bats go cold and some Wild Card team gets hot.
But could the Cubs not even get that far? Could their 2017 regular season be a disappointment overall, separate and apart from some flukey playoff randomness? And if it were to happen, what would that look like?
Keeping in mind that all of us here have picked the Cubs to win their division, and thus no one is predicting a Cubs failure, let’s speculate about what could trip up the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
The Health of the Rotation
The 2016 Cubs rotation was phenomenal and, more importantly, phenomenally healthy. All five members of the rotation made at least 29 starts. While starter health is often a hallmark of World Series winners, it is not the usual state of affairs for major league teams. One of those starters, John Lackey, is 38. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are both over 30. While younger, Kyle Hendricks substantially outperformed expectations last year and it would not be unreasonable for him to fall back a bit. The fifth starter, newcomer Brett Anderson, has had a spotty health history. Obviously this is one of the most talented rotations in the game, but no club possesses the secret to keeping pitchers healthy, and it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which things go worse for the Cubs in that department this year than it did last year. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible for it to go better than it did in 2016.
The Health of their Closer
As mentioned, Wade Davis was a big offseason get for Jed Hoyer. But Davis, while phenomenal over the past three seasons, was on the disabled list twice last year with a flexor strain in his right forearm. The Cubs were allowed to take an additional physical exam of him before acquiring him from the Royals and they liked what they saw, but there is some risk here. If Davis’ health is an issue, the entire bullpen will be an issue.
Missing Dexter Fowler
Dexter Fowler left for St. Louis via free agency this past offseason. While the Cubs have replaced him with a solid platoon in Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr., they’re unlikely to produce the .276/.393/.447 line Fowler produced. I don’t personally buy into the “heart and soul of the lineup” arguments I’ve seen mentioned with respect to Fowler elsewhere, but the Cubs did suffer when he was out last year, going 23-20 in games in which he did not play. His loss will be felt to some degree.
Trouble in the Corners
Having Schwarber’s bat back will be nice, but getting Schwarber’s bat in the lineup means putting him in left field. There may not be any good position for Schwarber outside of the batter’s box, but left field is where he hurt himself last year by virtue of a collision that better defenders likely would’ve avoided. He’s not likely to have such a calamity befall him again, but his status as a defensive liability is unchanged. And he may be even more of a liability if he’s hesitant to range for balls for fear of another collision. Jay and Almora are going to have to cover a lot more ground than most center fielders. They’re good, so they can do it, but some catchable balls are going to inevitably drop.
In the other corner is Jason Heyward, last year’s big free agent acquisition. He stunk up the joint to the tune of .230/.306/.325 in 2016 and had a pretty dreary spring training as well. He has changed his stance and approach for seemingly the 10th time in his career and looked very tentative in Mesa. It’s hard to imagine him having a worse offensive season than he had last season, but if he does, it’s going to be a problem. Not many teams can carry a $21.5 million offensive bust, even if the Cubs did get away with it last year.
Now, let’s not go crazy here. The Cubs are, in our view, the best team in baseball heading into the 2017 season and, as we noted, should repeat as division winners. While the playoffs can be a crapshoot, there are enough weapons on this team to make them favorites in almost any conceivable matchup as well.
But the same could be said for most World Series winners over the past 15 years or so. And, each year, something trips them up. They’re baseball teams made up of human beings. Human beings sometimes break and sometimes fail to do their best work as consistently as one would hope.
No one is predicting that the Cubs will fail in 2017, but if they do, it’ll likely be due to the aforementioned factors.