Chicago Cubs: Will they be Better, Worse, or the Same in 2017?

The Chicago Cubs have broken their curse by winning the World Series after a 103-win regular season. Are they due for regression or not?

ESPN writer David Schoenfield wrote about the Chicago Cubs a few weeks back, commenting on the fact that they likely won’t win 100 games again next season. The main point of his argument was centered around the fact that most teams that win 100 games don’t win 100 the next year. This isn’t all that surprising. Winning 100 games is difficult. It’s slightly easier in today’s NL, but that’s also quickly changing. He also points out that the Cubs defense is likely to regress a small amount, pitching depth will become more important, and the team itself may battle more injuries.

Let’s start with the Cubs defense. It’s no secret that the Cubs defense had one of the best seasons by a collective group in a long time (and possibly ever!). The analytical approach, albeit flawed, said it was true. The eye test also said it was true.

Jason Heyward, Addison Russell, and Anthony Rizzo all excelled at their respective positions. Not to mention that Javier Baez was one of the most exciting defensive players of the year, playing all around the Cubs infield. Kris Bryant wasn’t exactly a negative at third base or left field either. Just as they were on offense, their defense was stacked with some of the best players in the league.

Schoenfield thinks, probably not incorrectly, that this defense will falter during the 2017 season. With the addition of Kyle Schwarber to the outfield and the removal of Dexter Fowler, the outfield may struggle. Fowler was no defensive monster, and Schwarber isn’t as horrible as the common perception makes him out to be; however, being required to move things around from one of the best outfield defenses ever will cause a decline.

Heyward may have to play in center field, which will naturally decrease the his defensive efficiency. If the Cubs are willing to sacrifice some offense, Almora may find himself in center, which would actually be an upgrade. In the outfield, the greatest weakness may simply be the moving parts.

In the infield, nothing is likely to change. Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez will be splitting time somehow, someway at second base. Addison Russell will provide a great amount of defensive value at short stop, as will Anthony Rizzo at first. Kris Bryant is likely to have another good season at third base and may even improve there. With Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras behind the plate, the Cubs have one of the best framers in the league and a catcher with an arm that isn’t too shabby with framing either .

The Cubs defense is likely to decline, yes. Their 2016 season was one of the best of all-time. Repeating such a historic season would be immensely difficult. It doesn’t, however, appear as though the Cubs defense will decline a great amount. One group that may be hurt by the possible defensive decline is the Cubs pitching staff.

It’s no secret that many believe that Kyle Hendricks‘ performance in 2016 had more to do with his defense than his actual talent. That greatly undervalues how smart Hendricks is about pitching, and the efforts he made in 2016 to produce soft contact. However, he certainly did receive a boost from the defense. Jon Lester also saw help from the defense, watching his ERA drop a full point from 2015 to 2016, despite having the same peripherals. Both Lester and Hendricks found a happy medium between having a great season, and benefitting from the strength of their defense.

The Cubs pitching staff, as Schoenfield points out, was also incredibly healthy during the 2016 season. The starting five man rotation made every single start, save for a few given to Mike Montgomery and Brian Matusz near the end of the season. Teams tend to not repeat that kind of pitching health. The Cubs did see injuries seriously damage their bullpen, sending Strop and Rondon to the DL during the second half of the season. However, their pitching staff overall was incredibly healthy. The loss of Jason Hammel from the rotation will also cause the Cubs to dig deeper into their depth.

The Cubs may not be done in adding to their team, but as it stands the rotation may be a point of weakness if they see any one of their top three pitchers go down with an injury. While they will likely see some regression from Hendricks, they can expect Lester to be about the same as he was in 2017. They may also be able to count on Jake Arrieta to comeback after struggling this past season. A good amount of Arrieta’s struggles were due to his mechanics, which he has recognized and will likely attempt to fix during the offseason. 

Finally, Schoenfield argues that the Cubs really didn’t endure many injuries. They saw Kyle Schwarber go down for the entire regular season, which naturally hurt their offense. Dexter Fowler missed a few weeks, and now-departed Jorge Soler was also injured for a short amount of time. Bryant, Rizzo, Russell, and Heyward all played for the duration of the season with no health questions at all. That is largely due to their age, but that type of injury luck may not be repeatable.

Schoenfield makes a great argument for why the Cubs won’t win 100 games next season. Some of his points are overblown, but his main points hold true. What he failed to see or comment on was that the Cubs underperformed their pythagorean win-loss record in 2016. As good as they were, they were supposed to be even better. They will likely see more luck in that direction in 2017. Can they win 100 games again? That remains to be seen. They do, however, have as good of a shot as anyone.

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