SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — After the Cubs’ 103-win season in 2016 and the World Series championship, the consensus among writers, scouts, executives and fans was that the young core of the ballclub should make it possible (if not likely) that the Cubs could repeat their title in 2017, or at the very least be a contending team for several seasons.
I’m sticking with that view myself. Based on everything we know right now, there’s no reason this 2017 Cubs team shouldn’t be at least a 95-win team primed to make a long postseason run.
But things can and do go wrong with every baseball team, good and bad. Last year, when the Cubs lost Dexter Fowler for a few weeks mid-season, they turned in 20 games of looking like the worst team in baseball, going 5-15. The 2015 World Series champion Royals suffered major injury issues and finished 81-81, a decline of 14 wins, missing the postseason.
While I’m certainly not hoping for this, here are some of the factors that could ruin the 2017 season for the Cubs.
The bottom of the rotation
John Lackey is 38 years old. He missed a bit of time last year with some minor injuries and wasn’t tremendously effective in three postseason starts. He’s looked good in spring training, but what happens if he suddenly declines as some pitchers that age do? Also, starter Brett Anderson has a significant injury history. If he has a season like he did in 2015 with the Dodgers (31 starts, 3.69 ERA, 1.331 WHIP, 1.5 bWAR) he’ll be perfectly fine. A season like last year (numbers are ugly, you can see them here if you really want to) would be trouble.
Last year’s Cubs rotation was the best in baseball by a significant margin. If that doesn’t happen again, the bullpen could be stretched very thin.
Wade Davis fails at closer and the others don’t pick him up
Last year, the Cubs posted only 38 saves, which ranked 10th in the National League. The reason for this is that they were winning lots of games by blowout (42-13 in games decided by five or more runs), so a closer wasn’t needed much. Davis has looked bad in spring games and is coming off a minor injury. If he returns to 2014 form, the Cubs will be fine. If not, they’ll have to trust Hector Rondon, who hasn’t looked good this spring either, or Koji Uehara, who hasn’t closed games since 2015.
Kyle Schwarber fails to thrive on his return
This is a double-edged sword. Schwarber has looked fine in spring training, both in the field and at the plate. But he hasn’t played much (17 games, 48 at-bats, many regulars played more) and hasn’t really tested his surgically-repaired knee for several games in a row. The colder weather in St. Louis and Chicago won’t help him. He’s also taking on a new role as leadoff hitter, which I think he’ll succeed at. The Cubs will need him to be as good as Dexter Fowler in that role.
Jason Heyward continues to be bad at the plate
Heyward’s new approach has had mixed results this spring. He’s hit a couple of home runs and smacked the ball hard on several other occasions. But he’s still hitting just .163/.268/.347. That won’t fly during the regular season. Other Cubs hitters picked him up last year and obviously his defense provides quite a bit of value. But the team really needs him to hit.
Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr. don’t replace Fowler
In a platoon, Jay and Almora could provide a reasonable facsimile of Fowler. They’re certainly a defensive upgrade. What happens if neither one hits?
Those aren’t predictable, of course. I’ve already mentioned last year’s Royals as an example of a team that probably should have at least repeated as a playoff team, but had their year ruined by injuries. The 2011 Giants, coming off a World Series title, had their year wrecked when Buster Posey missed most of it with an injury. The Cubs were able to weather injuries last year because they had Almora and Willson Contreras available in the system. This year, it looks like Ian Happ could play that role. But the club’s depth doesn’t appear quite as good as it did a year ago.
Please note that I’m certainly not hoping any of these things happen and it’s quite possible that none of them will. This article is simply a way of pointing out that “stuff happens” to almost every sports team. Assuming none of them do, the Cubs ought to be at least a 95-win team and be right back there in the mix in October... and hopefully, all the way to November again.