March 14, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
No Cubs team will operate under the same paradigm ever again. Even so, what future teams will be remembered for is still probably failure. But like an inverse of the old reality, the brand of failure will be different. Before the World Series championship, each year’s team was another tally in the succession of losers. Now the expectations are still for a World Series ring, but to add a tally to an eventual dynasty rather than to quench a century.
The 2017 Cubs may trail the Dodgers in PECOTA's projections, but a) it’s March and b) try telling the fans who still seem to be clearing out of the Grant Park championship celebration that their team isn’t going to snag the elusive back-to-back titles. This optimism comes in part from the generations of romantics and their once-impotent hope finally coming to fruition, but also in part from pure, pragmatic realism. This team is objectively really good, after all.
How this year’s team will be remembered is the measure of its success. Where another championship is expected, anything less will yield a winter of figuring out what went wrong. Not that much different from winters past, but on the other side of the coin now. Expecting another Cubs championship might seem like Chicago hubris, but the team set to take the field this season possesses many of the same strengths that took them to the summit last fall—depth, pitching health, defense, and a bountiful offense.
In 2016 they absorbed the loss of Kyle Schwarber—a projected 2.7 WARP outfielder in what will now be his first full season in 2017—during the first week, and they won 102 games in spite of Jason Heyward’s first ever below-replacement-level performance. This year, even with Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis, the Cubs maintain enviable offensive depth. Jon Jay and Albert Almora might not match Fowler's hitting or his smile that would have made “No Lights at Wrigley” purists a little anxious, but the return of Schwarber to left field makes up for at least the former.
For the past two seasons, Cubs starting pitchers have stayed on the mound and off the disabled list with an ease that has begged the baseball universe to compensate. If the Cubs are going to fall short of their 93-win projection, this is probably how that happens. Their depth on offense verges on excessive in some positions, but their rotation is a potential land mine of old age and regression, and it—for now—is three good starters, an aging one, and ... Mike Montgomery? Brett Anderson?
The season will be unforgiving if one or more of these hurlers gets significantly injured or underperforms, because the Cubs lack backup on the 40-man roster and would have to look outside the organization. The green light of optimism here is the farm system still brimming with movable assets, but Cubs fans are still smarting from the Gleyber Torres-for-Aroldis Chapman trade, so they’ll light a candle for the shoulders, elbows, backs, and hamstrings of the north side starting five.
Last year's team defensive efficiency rating of 0.745 led the league by nearly 30 points, and when broken down by grounders and fly balls they were at the top of the league on both counts. And, like their offense, little changes here this season. Schwarber is capable of an acceptable left field, Jay and Almora will at least be as good defensively as Fowler, if not an improvement—depending on how many starts Almora ends up getting—and Heyward is a world-class right fielder.
The notable change in the infield will be that Javier Baez occupies more time at second base and moves Ben Zobrist to the utility role of his younger years, and this too is a mighty step forward defensively. While spending at least a little time at five different positions last season Baez posted 3.9 FRAA, and if he can demonstrate consistency early on expect him to man second base on a full-time basis.
This leaves the offense. Their collective TAv of .287 led the runner-up Cardinals by 11 points last season and their team OPS ranked third in the league. There is very little reason to bank on this changing much in 2017. Even if their pitching falters some, the offense averaged just a hair over five runs per game while dramatically underperforming their underlying numbers, which means that to some extent they should have scored more. Because of this, Thom Brennaman probably spoke for the rest of the league last April with his exasperated “enough already.” (He claims it was about the “Let’s go Cubbies” chants by the fans visiting Great American Ballpark, but the combined 24 runs in the two games leading him to that probably had plenty to do with it.)
Again, they lose Fowler here, but gain Schwarber and will have more Willson Contreras at the plate as Miguel Montero becomes the backup and David Ross dons his dancing shoes for reality television. Judged by projected WARP, Jay and Almora combine for nearly a win above replacement, and Schwarber the aforementioned 2.7. Set against the called-for 1.5 WARP from Fowler, there’s no reason for complaint. Lastly, even a tepid improvement from Heyward in the batter’s box will feel tremendous, so there’s ample room for improvement on what was already a great strength.
But really, quibbling over these things when the first three in the lineup will be Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo on most days is a mire in minutiae. Again, this team is objectively really good.
The Cubs of this season, and this era, will be largely remembered for Joe Maddon. Zany hipster genius or irksome kook, he commands the attention and focus of his players while keeping them loose enough to stand up to the longest championship drought in sports history. The right mixture of too-young-to-worry and been-there-done-that lifted last year’s team over the hump that the 2015 version was not quite ready for, and this season nearly that entire crop returns. Cubs fans should temper their Odyssean chest-thumping with a look at the rotation questions, but take refuge in nearly everything else.
The hope is that Maddon takes the Cubs toward a dynasty from here. One championship washed the city of its damned spot, but Chicago would gladly take a few more.