For the first time in over a century, the Cubs will report to Spring Training as the defending World Series Champions. The 108 year drought is over, now the quest to win it again, begins.
Last year manager Joe Maddon used “Embrace the Target” as the team’s rallying cry. This after an improbable playoff appearance in 2015 and a trip to the NLCS. Now the target is firmly on the Cubs’ backs as the 2017 season begins.
This year according to MLB.com, at Maddon’s opening press conference today, the themes will be: 1. Be uncomfortable, 2. Authenticity, 3. That's Cub, and, 4. Don’t forget the heartbeat. Interpret how you want, but it seems like Maddon won’t stand for complacency off of last year’s performance and crazy offseason. An offseason that included countless appearances on late night and daytime television programs and a trip to the White House.
As for the actual baseball outlook, Maddon plans to emphasize many of the same principals he did last season, telling MLB.com, "I think we have our best opportunity to repeat by pitching and playing defense that we've done in the past.”
Most of the core group from last season is back. The notable exception is Dexter Fowler, who signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals. While Fowler’s prowess at the top of the order (.277/.393/.449) will be missed the Cubs do have several options at this spot. Realizing that the entire infield returns, including swing guy Javy Baez is certainly a plus. The emergence of his game in the post-season, combined with the way Addison Russell bounced back in the playoffs has fans drooling over the possibilities of what is to come. Add in All-Stars Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and NL MVP Kris Bryant and the optimism is at all time high levels.
Looking at the outfield, the Cubs will use a platoon of Albert Almora Jr, and Jon Jay in CF. Kyle Schwarber will be the main man in LF at least to start the season, and the thoughts of him being healthy and in for the long haul this year is a plus. Jason Heyward’s down season offensively didn’t affect his defense, and the 184-million dollar man has been working on his swing all off-season. He has to be better this year than last right?
|As told to MLB.com|
The rotation returns basically intact. Jason Hammel is gone to the Royals, with Mike Montgomery getting the first shot at the 5th spot this spring. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lackey are all back and coming in off of respectable seasons a year ago. Brett Anderson adds some depth if healthy. The free-agent made only 4 starts for the Dodgers last season (after undergoing back surgery in March 2016), but in 2015 won 10 games in 31 starts in LA. Keep the names Caleb Smith (Rule 5 Draft pick), Eddie Butler (acquired from Rockies) and Alec Mills in mind for further pitching depth.
Some changes were made in the bullpen this off-season. Aroldis Chapman signed as a free agent with the Yankees, Trevor Cahill is now with his hometown Padres and Travis Wood signed with Kansas City yesterday. Wade Davis is the new closer. The Cubs gave up Jorge Soler in a trade with the Royals to get him. Davis made only 45 appearances last year after going on the DL with a right forearm strain, but he saved a career best 27 games. He was the closer on the Royals World Series Championship in 2015, and had an ERA of only 0.94. A proven commodity and a guy that used to pitch for Maddon in Tampa Bay, makes the loss of Chapman easier to take. Many of the familiar faces are back, including Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr will feature prominently. Newcomer Koji Uehara will provide some veteran experience in the back end of the pen.
The biggest one as mentioned a bit earlier will be production from the leadoff spot. Fowler leaves a big hole at the top of the lineup. Early contenders to fill in the blank so to speak are Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist. Of the two, Zobrist has the most experience (duh!) in the spot. All time Zobrist is a .238/.330/.376 slash line hitter, with 17 homers in 705 career appearances in the top spot. Schwarber has just 8 career appearances as a leadoff hitter, hitting .375 with an OBP of .375 as well. Zobrist offers a switch hitting option, while Schwarber is a good contact hitter. Neither are the ‘pototypical’ leadoff hitters, but that notion has kind of gone by the wayside recently. An option that could evolve later, with some seasoning and development is Almora Jr. This is worth keeping an eye on as the Spring moves along.
Will Kyle Schwarber catch this season? According to the beat reporters on scene in Arizona the plan is to use Schwarber in LF everyday, and be the third “emergency” catcher”. He meets with doctors today to see if he can be cleared to catch.
Once Schwarber gets OK to catch, Theo says #Cubs will ease him in here, 1-2 days a week of catching work.— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) February 14, 2017
Theo said Schwarber examined today. If cleared to catch, he'll be brought along slowly. "We'll walk before we squat."— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) February 14, 2017
Who will catch Jon Lester? With David Ross in retirement, here’s your answer…
Plan is to have Contreras catch Lester. David Ross will work with Willson this spring #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 14, 2017
Seemingly the Cubs have an excellent chance to repeat this season. Lots of things still have to go right. Health is always an issue with every MLB team, as they traverse the 162 game schedule in only 6 months time. Don’t expect too many surprises when it comes to the 25 man roster to open the season. This team should repeat as Central Division champions for sure, but will face some big competition when it comes to the NLDS and NLCS. This team though is built to win, with depth and versatility. Bottom line: Repeat.