The Chicago Cubs are in the middle of a stretch long-time fans dared not dream of being possible even as recently as 2014. They've now gone to the NLCS three straight years, won the NL Central two straight years and took the 2016 World Series. In these last three seasons, they have averaged 97.3 wins.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe this recent run to a time-traveling Cubs fan from the past would be this: The Cubs won the NL Central by six games last year and went to the NLCS, but the season was a disappointment. The 2014 version of ourselves just did a collective double-take, right?
The run is going to continue, too, because this Cubs team is loaded and should be considered the overwhelming favorite to take the NL Central again. If we're talking World Series chances, few teams have a legitimately better shot.
- Albert Almora/Ian Happ, CF
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Willson Contreras, C
- Kyle Schwarber, LF
- Addison Russell, SS
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Javier Baez, 2B
The leadoff question
The Cubs struggled to find a set leadoff man last year following the departure of Dexter Fowler via free agency and it led to the offense being inconsistent (though they still finished second in the NL in runs scored, there were boom and bust periods).
They enter 2018 without an obvious fit at leadoff. From the sounds of it, manager Joe Maddon is looking a group of three or four and the best bets are some combination of Almora, Happ and Zobrist. Maddon will be mixing and matching often with his strong bench and defensively flexible roster, so whoever is in the lineup will help determine who sits in front of the bashing Bryant-Rizzo-Contreras trio.
Almora will be there every game against lefties, given that he hit .342 with a .411 OBP against southpaws last season. Perhaps he'll even improve enough against righties to become a fixture at the top.
If not, Happ needs to make better contact (129 K in 364 at-bats last year as a rookie) in order to look the part while Zobrist could use a bounce-back season (he lost 40 points of average and nearly 70 of OBP last year, likely due to age and a wrist injury).
If Jason Heyward -- who is still only 28 -- hits the way he did for St. Louis in 2015 (.293/.359/.439), he's a superb option, but I wouldn't be confident after these past two years.
Lots of room for improvement
Just looking at the 92-70 record last season isn't all too imposing, but the Cubs played .662 ball after the All-Star break, which is a full season pace of 108 wins. The "World Series hangover" seemed to be real, with players looking tired, notably pitchers with down velocity in the first half.
Further, the lineup was littered with players who could have been much better. Looking only at the offense, here's a quick look at players that should be better in 2018.
Schwarber: A total bust in the first half, Schwarber was even demoted to Triple-A for a stretch. After he came back, he hit .255/.338/.565 with 18 homers in 225 plate appearances. Over the offseason, Schwarber went nuts in his new workout regimen, losing at least 20 pounds. Check out the difference:
Russell: A tumultuous season that included a shoulder injury in addition to personal, off-field distractions and an ugly allegation, Russell went from 4.3 WAR in his age-22 season to just 2.4 WAR in his age-23 season. The lag was on offense and in his downturn in games played. It's fair to think he's just never going to develop in more than a low-average, decent-power hitter, but it's just as fair to believe there's more untapped potential in there.
Baez: He didn't have a down 2017, but he's trending better and that's likely to continue. Last year, he walk percentage went from 3.3 to 5.9 while his slugging percentage jumped 57 points. He did swing at more pitches outside the strike zone, however, so that's a specific area for improvement this time around.
Zobrist: As noted, age is a factor here, but going from .272/.386/.446 and World Series MVP to .232/.318/.375 is just too drastic to only be age. He'll be better this year.
Contreras: After a slow start, Contreras was morphing into a legit middle-order force before a hamstring injury derailed him for a stretch. From May 12 to the end of the season, Contreras hit .296/.378/.554 with 15 doubles, 19 homers and 61 RBI in just 321 plate appearances. He was the Cubs' most clutch hitter, too.
There are arguments to Almora and Happ to improve as they get more experience, too.
On the opposite end here, I find zero players who will obviously be worse in 2018 than they were last year.
A bullpen that can go any which way
Morrow was outstanding for the Dodgers last season, pitching to a 2.06 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 50 strikeouts against eight unintentional walks in 43 2/3 innings. He was outstanding in the playoffs until Dave Roberts ran him into the ground, too. Should he stay healthy while capably handling a full-time closer's role, he'll be one of the better closers in the game. Therein lies the rub, though, as health has always been a major concern through Morrow's career. It's why he had to move to the bullpen.
So you have the possibility of Morrow being great or having a bad, injury-plagued season.
That fits pretty well with the rest of the group.
Edwards had a 2.98 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings, but he went through bouts of poor command and had some high-profile postseason issues. Strop had another very good season, but is prone to the occasional lapse late.
Wilson was having an outstanding season for the Tigers (2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP), but he was atrocious with the Cubs (5.09, 2.09 with 19 walks in 17 2/3 innings). Cishek's been a bit up and down the last handful of seasons, but he was great last year (2.01 ERA, 0.90 WHIP), especially with the Rays and now-Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Grimm was just bad, pretty much all around. It's possible youngster Dillon Maples (1.96 ERA in Triple-A) makes an impact in Grimm's stead, but Maples struggles with walks.
Montgomery was good at run prevention (2.49 ERA) as a reliever, but 44 strikeouts against 34 walks in 61 1/3 innings leaves something to be desired. He was dreadful in the playoffs, too.
See, there's a lot of variability in here. Question marks all over the place. Every question won't be answered in the positive. If most are, the Cubs' bullpen will be stellar, possibly the best in baseball. If most are answered in the negative, though, this group will be a problem, a possible Achilles that costs them big.
Possibly elite rotation
I didn't list numbers next to the starting pitchers' names above for a reason and that's because you can order the top four however you wish and there isn't really a wrong answer. Upon the signing of Darvish,. Montgomery is their sixth option.
One thing to add: It's possible Drew Smyly can return before the end of the season for more depth. He had Tommy John surgery late last June.
Chance to start talking dynasty
The Cubs clearly enter the season on the short list of teams capable of winning it all this year. They are a strong bet to improve in several facets of the game this season and upwards of 100 wins and a World Series championship are on the table.
If they do so, that'll be a four-year stretch all including visits to the NLCS along with three NL Central titles, two pennants and two World Series titles in the past three years. Those are the beginnings of a dynasty. I think they'd need to add a third title for the Dynasty label, but even being in the ballpark of such a word for this franchise marks a remarkable turn. Seriously, talk about this with our aforementioned time traveler.
As for the downside, an awful lot would have to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs. I'm just not realistically seeing it.