The 2017 World Series Champs

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With the 2017 Major League Baseball season under way it’s time for Cubs fans to start thinking about the season ahead. It’s hard, I know. Last fall brought with it everything a die-hard fan could want complete with a nearly unfathomable storybook ending. But the Cubs have found their way to 2017, we should too.

A look at the World Series odds point to another Chicago Cubs World Series title in 2017. The lineup is stacked with star hitters, defensive wizards scatter the field and, with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey back for at least one more season, the pitching staff is armed for dominance. But don’t kid yourself Cubs faithful, there are legitimate contenders across the majors looking to dethrone the champs.

In the National League the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, New York Mets and San Fransisco Giants will all try to bring down the reigning champions. The Dodgers return basically the same team that won ninety-one games along with the NL West last season. With Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen starting and closing out games, respectively, again this season the Dodgers won’t go down without a fight. If their pitching staff stays healthy in 2017 the Nationals will be hard to beat come October. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer along with Geo Gonzalez and Tanner Roark can match up against almost any staff in the league. Will the Mets have the offensive fire power to keep up with their NL competition? If Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson and Neil Walker bring the same level of power to the 2017 season they’ll certainly stand a chance. Out of the National League elite, the Giants have the best chance at getting to the World Series. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija combined for forty-five wins last season. That troika, plus Matt Moore, have the pitching talent that pairs well with an offensive collection of consistent performers.

Tough competition lies within the ranks of the American League where the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox will compete for the AL pennant in 2017. Last season’s pennant winners aren’t too happy with how their 2016 ended. The Indians pitching staff, lead once again by Corey Kluber, will bring the same talent and intensity to 2017 that they did last season. And look out for shortstop Francisco Lindor to carry the offense and challenge for an AL MVP award this summer. The Astros finished third in the AL West last season–expect Houston to leap to the top of the AL West this year. Why? They’ve surrounded young talent–Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve–with vets like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to form a poised, prepared lineup that will win a lot of games this season. There’s no doubt that the lineup will look strange without David Ortiz in the DH spot but Red Sox Nation is excited about another year of Jackie Bradley and Mookie Betts roaming the outfield. And with the offseason trade for former-White Sox ace Chris Sale the Red Sox have piled more talent onto a pitching staff that already boasts David Price and Rick Porcello. Speaking of the White Sox, do the South Siders stand a chance in the American League? No way but that’s alright. For the first time in a long time White Sox brass is allowing themselves the space to rebuild the right way so they can challenge for a World Series ring again in the near future.

So which club will win the 2017 World Series championship? Winning back-to-back championships is a Major League Baseball rarity–the Yankees did it way back in 2000. But the World Series odds just make too much sense going into this season. With a deeply talented lineup the Cubs will win the NL Central by double-digits. Joe Maddon will have the luxury of resting pitchers and moving position players in-and-out of the lineup leading up to another fall playoff run. Maddon’s ability to play with all the pieces of the chessboard that Theo Epstein collected will prove too much for the rest of Major League Baseball.


RE: Addison Russell Planning to Become Next Cubs Superstar

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As Patrick Mooney suggested in this past week’s CSN Chicago article the Cubs have a shortstop that, believe it or not, has the talent to outshine everyone he shares a diamond with.

The start of spring training is a reminder that Russell has still only spent one wire-to-wire season in The Show. He turned 23 last month and has already become a World Series champion, the youngest player in franchise history to start an All-Star Game and the first Cub shortstop to reach 95 RBI since Ernie Banks in 1960.

Addison Russell is so young, has so much potential and, with that World Series grand slam, is proving to play big when it matters most. I’m excited for the evolutions of Bryant and Rizzo. I’m intrigued by the potential of Baez. And watching Schwarber swing a bat never gets old. But I’m most hopeful about Russell and how far his demeanor, bravado and big-time talent will take him over the next few years.

RE: Cubs Add Wade Davis With Singular Goal In Mind—Repeating As Champions

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It’s hard to replace a guy like Aroldis Chapman. Few pitchers have the arm strength, overwhelming delivery, spot-on accuracy and imposing stature to match the former Cubs’ closer. With the addition of Wade Davis the Cubs have added a reliever that might just come close. Bruce Levine, of CBS Chicago, gives us some great perspective on what Wade Davis has already accomplished and how he’ll fit into the mix come next spring.

Davis has been arguably the best reliever in baseball over the past three years, a stretch over which he’s compiled a 1.18 ERA and allowed just three homers. For his career, Davis sports a 0.84 ERA in 32 1/3 postseason innings.

With Davis ready to close in 2017, the Cubs can bring 25-year-old reliever C.J. Edwards along under less scrutiny, keeping the training wheels on for one more year before anointing him closer.

The Cubs are now really deep with talented right-handers in their bullpen. In addition to Davis and Edwards, they have reliable veterans in Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm.

Adding Wade Davis to the Cubs’ bullpen for one-year makes a lot more sense than paying $86M to Aroldis Chapman or $80M to Kenley Jansen. He’s a two-time All-Star that is already seasoned for the postseason. It works on so many levels.

RE: Miggy Makes ‘Em Pay

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Rian Watt’s stellar breakdown of the Cubs 8-4 game one victory over the Dodgers in Wrigleyville Baseball Prospectus included this well-phrased observation of an all-grown-up Cubs’ organization.

All over Wrigley tonight, you saw the Cubs taking advantage of a killer combination: their players’ tremendous baseball instincts and talents, matched with and supported by thoughtful preparation by the entire organization.

Indeed, it all came together last night in Wrigley Field in a very October baseball sort of way. Jon Lester threw another playoff gem allowing just one run–a windblown home run by Andre Ethier–in six innings. The Cubs’ bullpen was good enough to keep the Dodgers from ever taking a lead. Dexter Fowler was among the defense wizards that erased a few pitching mistakes. And big hits when it mattered most (Miggy FTW!) gave the Cubs a 1-0 series lead in what shall be an exciting, gut-wrenching National League Championship Series.

RE: An Irresistible Force Rises in Chicago

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Among the interesting tidbits in Rany Jazayerli’s recent piece on The Ringer is a nicely painted picture of the Chicago Cubs’ championship drought.

The last Cubs title predates modern skyscrapers, toasters, home air conditioning, sliced bread, and Arizona. The weight of 1908 has proved not only immovable, but unapproachable since 1945, the last time the Cubs even played in the World Series. The last Cubs pennant predates the United Nations, Israel, India, and integration. Decades of Cubs fans have been born, lived full lifespans, and died without ever witnessing their team win a championship.

Let that sink in for a minute. There was no nation-state of India the last time the team won the National League pennant. Sliced bread wasn’t a thing when the North Side ball club brought home its last World Series trophy–championship rings weren’t even given out back then.

The 2016 Cubs hold an almost double-digit lead on its closest division rival, a nearly .700 win percentage and the most wins in baseball. The baseball juggernaut is building steam to rival the Chicago heat and everyone–team executives, coaches, players, fans and media members–expects the Cubs to secure a World Series title before our country elects its first woman (or former Celebrity Apprentice judge) as president.

Maddon’s Next Cubs Experiment

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The 2015 Chicago Cubs played the unexpected underdog, winning more games than fans anticipated while competing farther into the fall than analysts predicted. The 2016 Cubs will play a different game, embracing the target that comes with being proclaimed National League favorites after bolstering a roster that was already on the come. The team is buying into Joe Maddon’s “embrace the target” slogan; it’s a strategy that only comes from an uncommon manager. Most coaches downplay expectations, creating an “us against the world” mentality but Maddon cares as little for traditional managerial speeches as he does for old-timey baseball tactics.

In Joe Maddon’s world, pitchers bat eighth, babe-in-the-woods rookies start meaningful games, veteran starters get quick hooks and infielders are sometimes cast outfielders. An excellent bench of hitters will allow the reigning NL Manager of the Year to tinker with literally hundreds of different lineups this summer and the likely starting lineup (below) will be among the best in baseball.

  • Dexter Fowler, CF
  • Jason Heyward, RF
  • Ben Zobrist, 2B
  • Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  • Kris Bryant, 3B
  • Kyle Schwarber, LF
  • Miguel Montero, C
  • Addison Russell, SS

Cubs’ hitters–the guys above along with reserves like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez–will put up plenty of crooked numbers in 2016. Last year was Joe’s “is batting the pitcher eighth worth a few wins?” test season. What baseball norm can he fiddle with this summer? Perhaps it’s time for Maddon to go with a six-man starting rotation.

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The shocker of the Cubs’ offseason was the $184 million Theo Epstein handed over to defensive wizard Jason Heyward. Cubs’ brass convinced Heyward to take less money to play for a major contender. Or was the morale boosting return of Dexter Fowler to the leadoff spot the big surprise? Maybe the signing of Ben Zobrist as a veteran presence and sure-handed second baseman will make the biggest difference. These additions, along with burgeoning stars Kris Bryant (NL Rookie of the Year), Anthony Rizzo (fourth runner-up for NL MVP), homerun addict Kyle Schwarber and uber talent Addison Russell, will give Cubs’ pitchers plenty of early leads. That reality is all the more reason for Joe Maddon to give each pitcher extra rest between starts without sacrificing many wins. Even Adam Warren, the presumed sixth rotation arm, will give up fewer runs than his team scores for him on a daily basis. The 2015 Cubs scored 689 runs while allowing 608 of them1. Expect the 2016 ratio to be even more favorable to the North Side crew.

The Cubs’ starting arms–Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel, Hendricks and Warren–have talent. Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young Award last season, Jon Lester is a two-time award winner himself and John Lackey is coming off his best ERA season ever. Expect Jason Hammel to be the rotation X-factor. He struggled to pitch deep into games last season while battling some injuries but reports out of Cubs’ camp suggest he’s looking strong and refreshed. The backend arms–Hendricks and Warren–that round out the staff don’t have Arrieta swagger. Yet. Kyle Hendricks is only twenty-five and, unfortunately, pitched like the fifth starter he was last season. The glimmer of hope? His September of 2015 was much improved from earlier in the spring and summer. The right-hander credits a simple adjustment2: “I got back into my mechanics and was hitting more spots, and got more called strikes…” If he stays close to pitching coach Chris Bosio this season, Hendricks should improve upon his 3.95 ERA of a season ago. Adam Warren rounds out this potential six-man rotation. Warren is the wild card of the bunch, traded this past offseason for once promising Cub-turned-Yankee, Starlin Castro. If he has trade-for-Castro talent than surely he can be more than a middle reliever. All of those arms, backed by some powerful bats, deserve a chance to go seven innings every six games, don’t you think?

A six-man rotation is unorthodox but the 2016 Chicago Cubs are primed for some unconventionalism. Joe Maddon blends gut feelings with hard numbers better than most skippers while commanding the respect of both his players and his bosses. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have proven themselves to be exploitive baseball executives–even the smallest market inefficiencies are worth exploring. If Maddon, Epstein and Hoyer believe an extra rotation starter will reduce the probability of injury, the Cubs brain trust may be willing to sacrifice a couple of wins for the greater good. Rob Arthur, of FiveThirtyEight3, suggests there is “a potentially meaningful drop in injury risk” when more days of rest are added between starts. In a season with playoff expectations and World Series hype, expect the Cubs to do whatever it takes to earn the target they’ve embraced so well.


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RE: And Leading Off for the Chicago Cubs is…

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Jen Mac Ramos of Wrigleyville Baseball Prospectus analyzed the Chicago Cubs 2016 leadoff options earlier this month. Will infield utility man Ben Zobrist or outfield superstar Jason Heyward make a bigger difference in the Cubs’ top spot?

In some respects, a case can be made for Zobrist to be the leadoff man. He’s a veteran, he’s the utility infielder who adds value to any team he’s on. And sure, he can hit leadoff if you want him to, but he may not be the best candidate for the job. One place you can look for the argument against is his splits: batting first, he’s hit .241/.329/.372 over his career, although there’s limited predictive value in lineup position splits. The strong case is actually one of negation: he’s probably a better fit hitting down the order, maybe in the seventh or eighth spot, where he can get on base and drive runs in. Zobrist also has a 31 percent run scoring percentage with a 73 percent stolen base rate, which is useful when you have talent scattered throughout the lineup.

Heyward, on the other hand, is a natural candidate to be the leadoff man for the Cubs this year. He’s got speed, he’s got some pop in his bat, he’s got above-average baserunning skills that frame him to be a good leadoff guy. He has a 6.1 BRR in 2015 and is projected to have at least a 2.5 BRR in 2016, compared to Zobrist’s 1.2 BRR in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals and projected 0.4 BRR in 2016. BRR can tell you a player’s ability to steal bases and go from first to third on a base hit or advance on a fly ball—which can be a good indicator of who a leadoff man should be. Heyward’s BRR number and projection shows that he is more than capable of being in the leadoff spot.

Jason Heyward is the better fit to lead off for the Cubs this season–Ramos is right. Especially for a team run by Joe Maddon, a manager that often slots his pitcher in the eight hole to turn over the lineup faster. Heyward will get on base plenty and have enough opportunities to drive home Addison Russell or whoever bats in the ninth spot. The Cubs prize free agent should lead a lineup that sprays the ball all over Wrigley Field this coming summer.