It’s hard to imagine that the Chicago Cubs could actually be better in 2017 after a 2016 season that saw them win 103 games in the regular season and their first World Series title in 108 years. That’s especially true after an offseason in which David Ross retired and Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel left via free agency. There’s actually reason to believe, though, that the Cubs are just starting and might be better in 2017, starting a dynasty. Here are a few reasons the Cubs could win 103 games or better in 2017 and why they can win another World Series.
A full season of Schwarber
Kyle Schwarber has ripped through every level of baseball that he has played. He’s got big league power and can handle pressure, as he demonstrated in the 2015 and 2016 postseasons. As a hitter, he’s the complete package, able to draw walks, get hits, and get on base. The Cubs got exactly a game and a half of him in the regular season last year. Being able to have Schwarber over the whole season will likely add 3-5 WAR to their offense. That pretty much makes up for the loss Fowler, along with the fact he brings more power and options to the lineup.
Schwarber is likely to put up a big OPS, and now that he is familiar with major-league pitching, he’s likely to hit much higher than the .246 that he hit during the 2015 season. How many teams do you think just added 20-plus homers to their lineup this offseason? Taking out Fowler’s total, that’s about how many Schwarber adds. Not even the Indians made that big of an upgrade going from Mike Napoli to Edwin Encarnacion. Schwarber will be a big addition to the lineup and could be one of the game’s next top sluggers. Getting him back for the whole season is the Cubs’ best addition.
A full season of an elite closer
Don’t get me wrong — Hector Rondon is a really good reliever, but Aroldis Chapman pitched almost 27 innings for the Cubs and allowed just three earned runs. In an August game against the Cardinals in which it was tied in the ninth, Chapman retired the Cardinals on three pitches.
The Cubs have a guy like that with Wade Davis now. Davis doesn’t throw 105, but he has a devastating cutter that he combines with a curve and fastball. His cutter is so good that he hasn’t allowed a home run on it since his breakout 2014 season. He has only given up an average of 1.6 homers over the last three seasons. He has also averaged over a strikeout per inning and has shown no signs of slowing down after coming back down to earth from his 1.19 FIP season with two straight 2.29 FIP seasons. Davis is as reliable as you can get and the Cubs still have one of the top five relievers in the game and maybe the best to finish games off for them. That’s often a very underrated part of baseball today, because one guy is literally the difference between a few wins and losses. No offense to Rondon, as he’s going to be a great setup man, but a guy like Rondon will still likely blow two or three more saves per year than Davis, and every win counts.
How they replaced Fowler
Fowler was one of the most valuable players on the 2016 Cubs, but he was on the wrong side of 30, and while he got the money he deserved it was hard to rationalize the Cubs matching the Cardinals offer because they have guys like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Schwarber, and so on to extend in a few seasons. There were no other elite center fielders on the market, either, so even though Fowler was valuable yet replaceable, nobody on the market could do that.
While signing Jon Jay isn’t the most flashy move you can make, the Cubs bought low on a guy who has been a pretty consistently good hitter most of his career. That and the fact they have Albert Almora, a top-ten draft pick in 2012 who has already shown he’s a very good big league defender, and they are easing him into the center field role. Between Jay and Almora, they have a really good platoon. If it doesn’t work, they still have Jason Heyward, who can slide to center with Ben Zobrist playing right and Javier Baez taking Zobrist’s slot at second.
I think the Jay/Almora platoon will likely work, though. Almora has the speed and defense down, but he hasn’t flashed much power and needs to learn to be patient. I think if he starts to take a more patient approach he could grow into the potential people saw in him when he was made a top ten pick. He’s still an upgrade on defense over Fowler. Jay is kind of a watered down version of Fowler, the defensive metrics have always been wishy washy on him but he’s a guy who can get on base, has moderate speed and grades out as an above average hitter. He doesn’t have the power that Fowler has but the Cubs line-up is going to have a lot of power. Obviously, it’s unreasonable to expect these guys to outperform Fowler, but in a platoon they could bring some good value to the Cubs.
Heyward’s new swing
Heyward has made a career out of hitting grounders, which is why he’s had some sub-par offense seasons despite the fact in every other aspect of the game he’s basically a superstar. He now has a swing that is designed to hit more line drives. He just needs to get on base more and get more hits; the Cubs don’t need him to turn into a huge power hitter. From what I could gather, Heyward was rolling over the ball. Josh Donaldson went on MLB Network last year and told kids to try to hit the ball in air. J.D. Martinez recently said in an interview that he always tries to hit the ball in the air. Most of the games top players have a high percentage of their batted balls classified as fly balls or line drives, but Heyward was never even close to that group.
In Ken Rosenthal’s article on the swing, he described the changes: “Heyward’s hands are lower than they were last season, closer to his body. His bat is more vertical. He’s shorter to the ball, and his follow-through is stronger.” A shorter swing path and hands closer to the body means more bat control and an easier time driving the ball.
Heyward’s biggest change was keeping his bat vertical and gaining more control over his top hand. Mike Trout told FanGraphs, “If you use too much top hand, you start rolling over a little bit.” I put a before and after picture together to show you how Heyward fixed this and how it could lead to an offensive season closer to his 2010 or 2012 than last season. He’s still only 28, and he still has all the skills.
Bryant and Rizzo
These two guys need to be appreciated, because I think that they are a modern day Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth (maybe not quite as good, but two guys who can do some serious damage). Bryant is the star and quickly becoming one of the best hitters in baseball. He followed up his historic rookie season by almost hitting 40 homers last year, and my bet is he will finally get over that this season. Rizzo has enough power to hit 35-40 homers, too, so they could be the rare teammates who swat 40 homers each. Bryant had an 8.4 WAR last year and Rizzo had a 5.2. With these two guys in the middle of the lineup, the Cubs offense will always have a beating heart and these two will produce MVP numbers.