John Lackey was fifth on the Cubs in pitcher starts in 2016 with 29. The teams other four starting pitchers, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel, made 31, 32, 30, and 30 starts, respectively. One of the things that can never be counted on in baseball is health. Health is sometimes being lucky, other times being fortunate; simply being in the right place at the right time as opposed to the wrong place at the wrong time. On other occasions, it is about seeing a doctor when the doctor can treat you and a particular injury being in the early stages where a player can be considered "day to day." Health, however, should never be factored in when a team is evaluated by stating "if things break right." The only exception is if we are describing a huge impact player coming off a major injury.
The first time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series was in 1907 and their followed it up by winning it all the next season. It has to be a great feeling throughout the city of Chicago and for the many who have rooted for the team day in and day out for many years to finally be able to enjoy a World Series Championship. The "curse" is officially over, it has now been exactly zero seasons since the Cubs last won their last one. The sixty-one years without getting to the World Series is also no longer active. The Cleveland Indians have now gone the longest without winning the World Series (1948). And the Washington Nationals (the former Montreal Expos) have the longest active streak of not reaching the World Series (1969). If you want to get technical, the Washington Senators last won a World Series in 1933, 83 years ago. But there was also not a team in the nation's capital from the seasons of 1972-2004. While that is clearly the longest a city or baseball region has gone without winning a World Series, Washington has been deprived a World Series celebration fifty years as opposed to the 59 the Indians have waited.
The Cubs added center fielder Jon Jay as a free agent from the San Diego Padres to replace the switch hitting Dexter Fowler. Albert Almora will be part of a right handed platoon as the Cubs look to use both on a regular basis. The Cubs also traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals to add relief pitcher Wade Davis. They also signed relief pitcher Koji Uehara to set Davis up and signed left handed starting pitcher Brett Anderson to replace Hammel, who signed as a free agent with the Royals. Based off these moves, it is very clear the Cubs were looking to answer any doubts about being the deepest and most complete team in baseball.
The team's best three offensive players, right now, are Bryant (121 runs scored, .292 batting average, .939 on base plus slugging), Rizzo (43 doubles, .292, .928), and Zobrist (96 walks, 82 strikeouts). For the first time, the Cubs should have Schwarber for a full season and I have personally been waiting to see what Javier Baez is capable of doing if he was able to be a regular player at some position for an entire season. Russell drove in 95 runs last season and hit a grand slam in the World Series a year after missing the National League Championship Series due to injury. Jason Heyward seems likely to get every chance to play because of his massive contract. Willson Contreras is going to be their starting catcher with veteran Miguel Montero backing him up. I would leave Heyward out of my initial lineup, though he will clearly get a chance to play most of the time. I like the idea of Schwarber (LF) leading off; I would then follow it with Zobrist RF, Rizzo 1B, Bryant 3B, Russell SS, Baez 2B, Contreras C, Almora/ Jay CF. Left hand hitting Tommy LaStella and right handed hitter Matt Szczur will join Heyward, Almora, and Montero on the bench.
One of the biggest pitching stories of the 2016 season was that of right handed pitcher Hendricks, who led the National League in earned run average and ERA plus, won 16 games, and finished third in the vote for the NL Cy Young. One of the keys to Hendricks' success was the fact that he gave up a lot less hits- 6.7 per nine innings pitched in 2016 as opposed to 8.3 in 2015. It was the second consecutive season the Cubs benefited from a breakout starting pitcher after Arrieta did it in 2015. While not as un- hittable in 2016, he still won 18 games, pitched to a 3.10 ERA and struck out 190 batters. A case could be made that their best 2016 starting pitcher was Lester, who was 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and led the team in both innings pitched (just under 203) and strikeouts (197). Lackey comes back for the second season of his two year deal after striking out 180 batters in just over 188 innings pitched. Anderson appeared in just four games last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching to an 11.91 ERA (15 runs in just over 11 IP). It seems as if he will get the first crack at the fifth spot in the Cubs rotation. Left hander Mike Montgomery will start the season by working out of the bullpen but will get the next chance if Anderson either gets hurt or falters. Right handed pitcher Eddie Butler will start the season in Triple- A, but provides a good depth piece as well.
Davis has pitched to a well under 2.00 ERA for each of the past three seasons pitching out of the Royals bullpen. Uehara, now 42 years old, has 522 career strikeouts in just under 439 innings pitched. Last year's closer, Hector Rondon, now serves as a set up man, a role he seemed to struggle with last season after the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees. Pedro Strop, who just signed a new extension to remain with the Cubs for another two seasons, has been very solid as the Cubs' eight inning man the past couple seasons. In addition to Montgomery, the Cubs also have right handers Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards to round out the pen.
Outfielder Eloy Jimenez is considered the Cubs top prospect as he possesses the ability to hit for power to all fields and maintain a high batting average. His only offensive deficiency is the fact that he strikes out a lot (but doesn't everybody now?). Second baseman/ outfielder Ian Happ moved all the way up to Double- A in his first full professional season after being drafted in the top ten of the 2015 draft. Right handed pitcher Dylan Cease struck out 66 batters in just under 45 innings pitched last year for the Northwest League's Eugene Emeralds. Left hander Rob Zastryzny came up late in the season and helped out the Cubs bullpen. I would expect to see him again in 2017. I would keep a close eye on right hander Jose Albertos, an 18 year-old who was signed out of the Mexican League. He has at least two major league ready pitches, his fastball (which he can command very well to both sides of the plate) and his change-up, which seems to be up there with any solid change-up in the major leagues.
If you want to go with a sleeper team to win the World Series this season, pick any of the other 29 MLB teams. The Cubs would have won you a lot of money if you bet on them last season, the same cannot be said about this season. While it does not seem like it will be a problem for the Cubs to win their division and possibly even finish with the NL or MLB's best record, the path to the World Series is a lot harder than it was the last time the Cubs were defending a World Series Championship. Having to advance at least three rounds is a clear challenge for anybody, especially a team with as much expectations to win this season as Chicago. Las Vegas put the Cubs at 95.5, which is fine considering the team won 103 games last season. I have been low balling the amount of wins all teams in baseball are having in these projections specifically because of the parity that exists in the game. That is what happens when you project 17 teams to finish with over .500 records! I have the Cubs at 94-68, first place in the National League Central division and the best record in the National League and in Major League Baseball.