By Chris Emma–
(CBS) The party of the century is over.
Soon enough, the “W” flag will be taken down from its frigid winter flight, the championship banner will be raised at fabled Wrigley Field and the magic of the Cubs finally winning the World Series will be put in the past.
Forever a part of local legend, those Cubs who finally won it all will be cherished throughout Chicago. But it’s a new year, and the expectations remain from where they left off. Entering the 2017 season, the Cubs are the team to beat in baseball.
Manager Joe Maddon knows it already — the Cubs’ target to embrace is now even bigger. He believes this group can handle the weight of those expectations, because they already erased the weight of a 108-year-old championship drought.
Since that championship run, the Cubs have been relaxing. Maddon hopped in his Cousin Eddie RV and drove home to Tampa, shutting down for several weeks.
Soon after finishing his skit on Saturday Night Live, first baseman Anthony Rizzo traveled the world. It was in the Virgin Islands where he saw a sail boat flying the “W” flag with pride. Those on board raised their arms and cheered for the Cubs star, still amid the World Series frenzy.
Kris Bryant, the NL MVP in 2016, turned his offseason attention to marrying his high school sweetheart. At Cubs Convention in January, a week removed from his vows, Bryant then focused on what’s next.
“We’re hungrier than ever,” Bryant said. “We would love to be that team goes back-to-back. I think we all have the right mindset.”
Now three months removed from the celebration at Progressive Field and the rally before several million in Chicago, the Cubs are preparing for spring training in Arizona. Pitchers and catchers report next Tuesday. The rest arrive three days later.
With the exception of the exits of center fielder Dexter Fowler and closer Aroldis Chapman, these Cubs are mostly the same. If anything, they could be even better.
Maddon is quick to remind that All-Star shortstop Addison Russell was just 22 last season. The entire organization is bullish on what catcher Willson Contreras can bring in his second year. The Cubs also will be buoyed by the return of slugger Kyle Schwarber, whom PECOTA projects for 31 home runs and 84 RBIs.
And then there’s outfielder Jason Heyward. If he can find success after his offseason swing overhaul, the Cubs will be much better for it. They believe he can revert to his career norms at the plate after a disappointing 2016 season in which he had career-low marks of seven homers and a .631 OPS.
As for replacing Fowler, that’s the task of steady veteran Jon Jay along with 22-year-old Albert Almora, the 2012 first-rounder who was the first pick of executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Chicago. Eventually, center field will be Almora’s to own.
Pitching is always the foremost concern for Epstein, and he’s added depth this offseason. The Cubs are preparing for the losses of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey after this season in free agency. For now, their postseason four of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Arrieta and Lackey is back. Left-handers Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson will battle for the fifth spot.
Lester is a proven veteran, and Hendricks proved he’s among the game’s best by finishing third in the Cy Young race. Arrieta showed he’s human last season, though he was still strong with an 18-8 mark with a 3.10 ERA. Age may soon catch up to Lackey, but he was reliable in 2016 and should be the same in 2017.
At closer, the Cubs replaced Chapman with Wade Davis, he of a 1.31 ERA the last three seasons. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Brian Duensing and more bring ample depth to the bullpen mix.
Talent certainly isn’t a shortage for these Cubs, for whom PECOTA rather conservatively projected 91 wins and another NL Central title. If the pitching performs at recent rates, the Cubs should flirt with 100 or more victories once again.
The Dodgers have the most formidable roster next to the Cubs, but they fell short in the National League Championship Series last fall. Until they can prove able to slay the dragon, the Cubs will be viewed as favorites to play in the World Series again. The Nationals and Mets should prove to be a threat in the NL, too. Let the race begin.
Spring training is near, and the party is over. A new season is upon us. The Cubs are raring to go.
“Hopefully we’ll be the team to beat,” Bryant said. “We certainly feel that way. We’re going to go with it and play our hearts out.”