Every baseball fan has been excitedly anticipating this day for month—Opening Day.
Baseball season means many different things to many different people. Season tickets, wearing your favorite player’s jersey, the smell of popcorn and hot dogs filling up the stadium, cheering for your favorite team late into the night, and singing along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
It's the end of the harsh winter and the beginning of spring. Spring brings new life, and with new life comes new hope for all teams competing this season.
Most importantly, it means the World Series. For the next seven months, teams will ride a 162-game roller coaster in hopes of getting their spot in this Series. Every Chicago Cubs fan is still buzzing from one of the greatest World Series victories of all time—the Cubs ending their 108-year championship drought last season in an intense seven-game Series against the Cleveland Indians, winning by one run in the tenth inning.
Now the 2017 season is officially underway and the pressing question is present across the world of MLB—will the Cubs do it again?
If Opening Day plays any kind of role in foreshadowing, the answer is no. During the Opening Day game last year, the Cubs took the victory from the Los Angeles Angels with a home run from Miguel Montero. In the primetime 2017 opener on April 2, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Cubs 4-3 with the help of recent addition Dexter Fowler who was signed to St. Louis after playing with the Cubs in 2015-2016. A 162 game season is long and subject to plenty of change, but if Chicago plays like they did on Opening Day, then their future won’t be pretty.
The Cubs are the general favorite team coming into this season, but given the fact that last season was the first time the Cubs had won the World Series since 1908, it isn’t hard to doubt if they will bring home the championship again. The last back-to-back World Series title to occur in MLB was in 2000 when the New York Yankees defeated the New York Mets. Since then, only three teams (the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and the Philadelphia Phillies) have returned to the World Series the following year after competing in the Series.
First Base: The Offseason
The 2017 spring season for baseball was crucial for the future of major contending teams, with important free-agent signings, trades, injuries, and position battles happening.
Fowler was a critical loss for the Cubs and a huge gain for the division rival Cardinals. Chicago will struggle to fill the empty shoes left by their clutch defender and leadoff hitter, whose average batting last year was the highest in MLB. Other significant losses for the Cubs were pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Jason Hammel, with only Wade Davis to fill their spot in the bullpen, signed by the Cubs to a one-year contract.
One team who added a lot of valuable players to their roster and looked impressive in the offseason is the Cleveland Indians, who closely contended with the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. The Indians made important transactions signing free agent Edwin Encarcion, who ranked second in MLB last year in home runs, Andrew Miller, who is one of the best relievers currently in baseball, and Boone Logan, a strong left-handed relief pitcher to accompany Miller and allow him to be moved around.
Two other teams in high contention for the Series this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox, are looking better after the offseason as well. The Dodgers acquired second baseman Logan Forsythe, who could be the most valuable second baseman that L.A. has seen in many years. The Red Sox have also gained depth and competition in their positions, and are showing solid overall talent up and down the lineup.
Second Base: Pitching Rotation
This article will go from second base over to the pitcher’s mound for a few minutes because it is clear from the recent transactions going on with the team’s roster that they are working hard to strengthen their pitching depth. Despite making trade sacrifices to better their rotation, there is still plenty of concern both in the bullpen and in the rotation.
Their star pitchers such as Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Brett Anderson and Kyle Hendricks have to stay healthy in order for them to succeed, and the majority of their rotation is injury prone and/or recovering from injury and also getting to be a bit old.
Lester is coming off of three consecutive seasons throwing a grueling 200+ pitches, so his body will be demanding a break quickly. Anderson has an extensive history with injuries, and his precarious health in the fifth spot in the starting rotation is a big risk for the Cubs. He has started just thirty times only twice in one 162-game season in his eight-year career. Last year, he pitched a grand total of just 11.1 innings.
Arietta plays a crucial role in the team’s rotation, but at 31 years old, his performance seems to be declining. In 2015, Arrieta played very well, but his statistics were less impressive in 2016, and he especially struggled in the postseason.
Hector Rondron never came back from his triceps injury as the same impactful player he once was, and it is unsure if he will ever be able to. Previous to his injury, Rondron allowed only twelve runs in 43 and two-third innings. After the injury, he let in eight runs in seven and one-third innings.
The Cubs struggle in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, allowing an average 3.84 ERA, which ranks 14th in MLB. Chapman was their rock at the back end of the bullpen with a stellar 1.01 ERA in 28 games.
The Cubs no longer have Chapman to protect the ninth, and it is doubtful if Davis will be able to compensate for that loss, especially since he injured his arm last summer. Chapman pitched an average of 13.97 strikeouts in 2016, while Davis pitched just 9.76.
Third Base: Lineup and Outfield
A big weakness on the roster this year is in the outfield. Kyle Schwarber is defensively weak in the outfield, but his superb hitting gives the Cubs no other choice but to play him there.
A potential weak link in the offense is Jason Heyward, who has been moved from second to sixth in the team’s batting order. The first five hitters are all outstanding players, but as the sixth man, Heyward will need to be able to drive them in under pressure. Unfortunately, Heyward did not play well in his first season with Chicago, with a batting average of only .230 in 2016, which is bad to begin with and especially bad for the world champions. The offseason showed no redemption for him either, with him hitting only .152 over this spring.
It is important to recognize that a reason Chicago was so successful last year is because, aside from Schwarber, they were a healthy team. Staying healthy in a league that plays 162 games a season is extremely difficult, and the Cubs will have to hope for another primarily injury-free season to make that happen.
Jim Gantner, who played in the 1982 World Series with the Milwaukee Brewers and is now currently a coach for the Brewers, shared his insights about the Cubs pursuit to get their second consecutive World Series Title.
“It's always tough to repeat because you have a target on your back. The opposing teams are always extra motivated when they are playing the world champions,” said Gantner.
“The Cubs have to maintain another year of good health and stay injury free. The players that had big years will also have to stretch it to another big year, especially the pitching staff, and that's not an easy thing to do.”
Home Plate: If not the Cubs, then who?
Though the Dodgers and Red Sox are also very viable options, the Cleveland Indians stand the best chance of winning it all. The Indians are hungry to win the World Series title they fell just one run short of in 2016, and the team is looking even better than it did last year.
As mentioned earlier, Encarnacion, Logan, and Miller are important new additions to the roster. The return of outfielder Michael Brantley, catcher Yan Gomes, and pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco is a huge advantage for the team as well. All four of these players were out last postseason due to various injuries, but if they had played in the World Series, it is very likely that the Indians would have been the 2016 champions.
This season that title could become not just a likelihood but a reality. Whether the returning players start or not, they will add much-needed depth to the lineup and rotation. Not to mention, the team still has 2016 AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona, who has gotten Cleveland to the postseason (and nearly a World Series title) twice since his hiring in 2013. Francona has expressed that before he retires he wants to win another title, and it is very likely he will be able to do it with the Indians this season.
It is still plausible that the Cubs could still win the 2017 World Series, but there are definitely some weaknesses within the team that would need to be strengthened in order for them to do so. Whether the Indians, Cubs, or a different team takes home the World Series title, the 2017 MLB season is bound to be an exciting one.