There’s an axiom that’s always brought up by reigning champions — winning the first one was hard, but repeating is even harder.
That saying doesn’t apply to the Chicago Cubs.
Winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years is so much harder than doing it again ...
That’s not to say that repeating won’t be tough, though — it’s probably tougher than most fans think.
And if the Cubs are to repeat, they’ll have to answer these six questions:
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Can they keep their rotation healthy?
The Cubs’ top four starters pitched a lot over the last two years — all have pitched more than 400 innings, including the postseason. And with another presumed postseason looming, making sure that Jon Lester (457 innings), Jake Arrieta (468.1), Kyle Hendricks (404), and John Lackey (429), have enough left in the tank for October has to be at the forefront of Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon’s minds this season.
One way the Cubs could help alleviate some of the workload is to use a six-man rotation — perhaps even for the entire season.
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Who will play the outfield?
This is the big question, and the answer will have a massive effect on the Cubs’ lineup this season.
Right now, we know one guy will be out there — Jason Heyward.
Other than that, it’s anyone’s guess.
The Cubs have five, maybe even six outfielders for three spots this year. That’s not necessarily a problem — depth is always a good thing. But presumably there will a favorite starter at each position: A guy who Maddon wants to put out there every day.
With Dexter Fowler’s departure, Albert Almora might be the new starting centerfielder. Or it might be Heyward, who would move over from right field.
And if Heyward won’t be in right, who will? Is it Kyle Schwarber, who has to play defense somewhere to get his bat in the lineup, and is probably better suited for left field (where Maddon has been known to play pitchers)? Or Ben Zobrist, who certainly shouldn’t be relegated to a utility man role in 2017?
Again, it’s great to have depth — the Cubs can roll with a lot of punches this season with a variety of exotic platoons. But at some point, you have to have main men, and figuring out a core lineup starts with determining the core outfield.
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Where will Javier Baez play? (Because this dude has to play)
The 24-year-old looked like a superstar in the postseason, but he’s not guaranteed a starting job in 2017. Which seems ridiculous, but such is the Cubs’ roster this year.
And because of the Cubs’ outfield abundance, Zobrist, a 4-win player in 2016, might be the everyday second baseman.
Zobrist isn’t a wizard with the glove at second, but he did post a wRC+ of 124 last year — that’s a bat you have to have in the lineup.
Is it worth taking a budding star in Baez and putting him in a utility role, though?
And if you relegate Baez to a utility role in 2017, will that stunt his growth as a player?
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Who will leadoff?
With Fowler at the top of the lineup, the Cubs went as he did. Fowler is gone, so who is going to be the spark plug at the top of the order?
It could be Zobrist, who led off 20 games last year and has a career .336 on-base percentage leading off innings (which is actually low for him).
It could be Schwarber, who has done it twice in his career.
It might be Addison Russell, or Almora. Depth outfielder Jon Jay might even get in on the action.
But someone is going to have to set the table for the Cubs in 2017, and establishing who can to reliably do it early could prove huge down the line.
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Can Kyle Schwarber even play the outfield?
I'll lead with this: Schwarber’s defense gets a bad rap — he’s a net-zero defensive player in the outfield over his career and he’ll likely have one of the best centerfielders in the league covering for him on balls in the gap in 2017.
But ... will Schwarber be able to get back to net-zero after the knee injury that forced him to miss nearly all of the 2016 season? And how much of that net-zero rating had to do with the great defense around him?
The Cubs have to get Schwarber’s bat in the lineup every day — it’s a game-changer. But will his glove in the outfield make him too big of a risk to play?
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Will Willson Contreras be able to replace David Ross?
Ross, Jon Lester’s personal catcher, retired at the end of the 2016 season — going out on top — leaving Lester without his battery partner.
It was a strange relationship, but let’s not get into that.
Cubs’ catcher of the future, Contreras, established himself as the Cubs’ catcher of the present for last year, and Maddon has already announced that he will catch Lester as well.
Will Lester be able to adapt to not having Ross behind the plate?
And the bigger question than that: Why is that a viable question about a pitcher who is paid more than $25 million a year?