What, you expected it to be easy? The Cubs were on the brink of elimination after Game 4 of the World Series before storming to force a Game 7 and finally snap their 108-year championship drought on an amazing Wednesday night in Cleveland. And now “next year” no longer is the rallying cry of the hopelessly hopeful.
In fact, next year should be even more promising than this year because Chicago’s talented young offensive nucleus – Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Jorge Soler and, yes, Kyle Schwarber – will only get better.
Repeating isn’t easy – no team has gone back-to-back since the 1998-2000 Yankees – but Chicago will enter the 2017 season as the heavy World Series favorite, and for many reasons. Here are a few:
The majors' best rotation
All five members of the Cubs’ rotation – which led the majors by more than a half-run with a 2.96 ERA -- made at least 29 starts this past regular season. And all five are under contract through at least the 2017 season (the team has a $10 million option on Jason Hammel). It was such a ridiculously deep bunch that Hammel, a 15-game winner, never threw a pitch during the postseason.
Either Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks likely will win the 2016 NL Cy Young Award – a year after rotation mate Jake Arrieta earned the honor. And John Lackey provides that bulldog, veteran presence.
If the Cubs feel the need to upgrade – either via free agency or trade -- they certainly have the financial capability and/or the prospects to do so. In addition, there’s a possibility that reliever Mike Montgomery could be converted to a starter.
A full season of Kyle Schwarber
The kid played only two games during the regular season before making his triumphant and amazing return from his knee injury in the World Series. He slugged .487 with 16 homers in 69 games as a rookie in 2015 – then clubbed five homers that postseason -- and he has the potential to be one of the majors’ best power hitters for the next decade.
Manager Joe Maddon will have to get creative in order to get Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, but the versatility of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras obviously will help. The possible free-agent defections of outfielders Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan also would free up some at-bats.
Even if it loses the table-setting Fowler, Chicago’s lineup is going to be lethal. And it’s still improving.
The in-house replacement for Aroldis Chapman
That’s assuming, of course, that the Cubs don’t re-sign the free-agent closer -- and that’s certainly a consideration. Chapman was absolutely dominant after joining the Cubs in late July, striking out 46 hitters in 26.2 innings and converting 16 of 18 saves chances.
But if he were to leave, Hector Rondon is ready to reclaim the closer role. He had 18 saves when Chapman arrived after saving 59 games the previous two seasons, and his 10.8 K/9 ratio in 2016 was the best of his career.
The Cubs also could shop for another ninth-inning option, with Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon as possibilities. Among their other in-house free agents: setup men Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill.