The Chicago Cubs just won the World Series for the first time since 1908. How long will they have to wait for the next one? Maybe not very. The window of contention with this group is wide open. Like almost dangerously so.
I'm not just saying this because of the World Series title. I would have said it if they lost in the first round or missed the playoffs. The makeup of the roster is scary talented and deep. Look:
We know David Ross is retiring, but this position is still in good hands. With the emergence of rookie Willson Contreras (age 24, earliest free agent in 2022), there's a regular starter who appears ready to be above average and maybe even All-Star caliber pretty soon. Miguel Montero slides into the Ross role, as there's one year left on his deal and he's long been known as a great leader and clubhouse guy.
Anthony Rizzo is 26 and the Cubs have club options through 2021. Javier Baez is 23 and can't hit free agency until after 2021. Addison Russell is 22 and can't hit free agency until after 2021. Kris Bryant is 24 and can't hit free agency until after 2021.
As I said above, scary.
There's also Ben Zobrist, who is signed through 2019. He is 35, so one would expect age-related decline at some point (but thanks to his World Series MVP, I don't think anyone would care if he becomes overpaid).
By the way, there's also third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who hit .333/.417/.542 in Triple-A this year.
There will be focus on Jason Heyward's gargantuan contract, but it really doesn't matter because the Cubs won the World Series. He's also a great defender and baserunner who is most certainly not going to be as terrible at the plate as he was in 2016. He was only 26 last season and hit .293/.359/.439 in 2015.
Zobrist will likely be in the mix here, because Baez probably needs to be playing most days.
Kyle Schwarber will play left field. He's 23 and can't be a free agent until after 2021. Albert Almora is only 22 and controlled through at least 2022. Matt Szczur is a very capable fourth-outfielder type.
And then there's Jorge Soler. We've seen a few glimpses of his immense upside, but he's got to be considered a disappointment at this stage of his career. He's also only 24 and locked up to a very cheap deal through 2020. We'll talk about that in a second.
The entire rotation will be back next season. Surely the Cubs will pick up Jason Hammel's $10 million team option while John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are under contract through 2017. Jon Lester is signed through 2020 with a club option for 2021. Kyle Hendricks is only 26 and can't hit free agency until after 2020.
Oh, and Mike Montgomery is also 26. He's under team control through 2021.
It's not nearly as set, but bullpens are volatile and there are many avenues to find good relievers, as the Cubs have proven these past two years. Back next year will be Montgomery (when he's not starting), Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Grimm and Rob Zastryzny.
I do wonder if they'll just let Edwards close to start the season. He looks like a future closer. And, of course, Rondon has done it before and been successful.
So if Baez is to play every day, that forces Zobrist to the outfield. Schwarber needs to play left, which means Zobrist needs to be in right. That could move Heyward to center, but Almora probably needs a shot. And I haven't even mentioned Soler.
I believe Soler needs to be traded. This is the last time he'll have any trade value unless he reaches his potential and that won't happen without regular playing time. Given that he's controlled and cheap, he's a perfect fit for a smaller market team.
Also, let's keep in mind that the Cubs' rotation after 2017 right now is just Lester, Hendricks and maybe Montgomery. They could sign someone after next year, sure, but what about a trade package involving Soler and a few prospects for someone like Chris Archer of the Rays or Sonny Gray of the Athletics? Or a huge, huge swing for Chris Sale (though I doubt the White Sox would do that, obviously)?
It seems to me that's the big trade of the offseason: Soler and more for a youngish and controlled starting pitcher.
Hmm ... have I not mentioned someone important?
And the Big Question
What happens with Dexter Fowler?
There's a mutual option on his contract that he'd be a fool to accept, so he's set to hit free agency. Fowler is 30. He was the heart and soul of the offense. "You go, we go" was the phrase the Cubs used and it couldn't have been more fittingly on display in Game 7, when he led off with a home run.
Call him the catalyst.
Is it a coincidence that the Cubs were 80-38 when he started and 23-20 when he didn't? Maybe. Maybe not.
If the Cubs do bring Fowler back, it would have to be on a four- or even five-year deal, I'd imagine. His value is huge now.
If the Cubs do that, they have an even bigger logjam in the outfield and there's no spot for Almora to develop at the big-league level.
As such, if Fowler comes back, Almora probably needs to be traded along with Soler.
Almora is 22 with all kinds of future upside, but it's mostly untapped and there's a certain level of risk that he ends up a relative bust. Fowler is a known commodity. Plus, the window of contention is right now.
I think the Cubs should do whatever it takes to bring back Fowler while dealing Soler and Almora for controlled starting pitching. Then some combination of Contreras, Rizzo, Baez, Russell, Bryant, Zobrist, Schwarber, Fowler and Heyward starts everyday with Montero and Szczur mixed in. The flexibility of several players will enable plenty of rest days for everyone, too.
But I'm not Theo Epstein; whatever decision he makes will probably be fine. He's a Golden God when it comes to being an executive right now.
Regardless of what they do, the Cubs are set up for an extended run of excellence. They just went over 100 years without a title, and it's entirely possible they'll go back to back or maybe even win three or four with this group.
We should also note that it's also very possible this group has just won its only title. Winning it all is incredibly difficult and requires a ton of skill and luck along the way. The stars have to align. They did for this group. They might not again, but there's a decent chance they will -- because the Cubs are absolutely stacked with great, young, controlled talent.