By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Upon arrival to fanfare in Chicago in October 2011, Theo Epstein brought forth a five-year plan for the Cubs to sustain success.
His bold, brilliant foresight culminated last November with the Cubs’ first World Series championship in 108 years. The title came in the fifth year of that plan, but even Epstein couldn’t imagine how it would all play out.
The journey included an unforeseen clause in manager Joe Maddon’s contract with the Rays that allowed him to jump ship to the Cubs, a struggling pitcher named Jake Arrieta turn into a Cy Young winner, the acquisition of a rising star in Addison Russell in a blockbuster 2014 trade and hitting so far on every first-round pick in the Epstein era.
Epstein’s goal was to bring the Cubs sustained success in five years. They were in the National League Championship Series by the fourth season and champions in the fifth. What’s remarkable about this roster is how it’s still so young, with much development still to come.
Because of that, the Cubs should be even better than their 103 wins of last season. Let’s take a look at why.
1.) From best to better for Bryant?
After a run to NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, Kris Bryant worked tirelessly to drop his 30.6 percent strikeout rate. His drive paid dividends, with Bryant raising his average to .292 and dropping the strikeout rate 22.0 en route to an MVP campaign.
Bryant smashed 39 home runs in his second season, a number that surpassed his Cubs rookie record of 26 in 2015. While he has prodigious power, Bryant aims for an all-around plate approach, which is how he believes he can get better.
Ever the swing perfectionist, Bryant went to work after Game 7 of the World Series. In an offseason filled with media tours and his wedding, Bryant focused on being a better hitter by going to the opposite field. He had struggled on taking pitches the other way and wasn’t nearly as effective on outside pitches.
Even in an MVP season, Bryant grew wary of pitchers’ working him away. He believes that’s the next step in his development.
2.) ‘Find pitching’
Written in large letters across the baseball operations conference room is an important message from Epstein to his brass: Find pitching.
Epstein knows there’s never enough for a healthy organization, which should have quality depth in the bullpen and ample options for a rotation. During the Cubs’ run to the World Series, they encountered luck with their pitching health. Only John Lackey missed starts with a minor injury, and the bullpen was healthy for the most part.
The Cubs didn’t have the luxury of Mike Montgomery until last July. They started Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Rob Zastryzny, Jake Buchanan and even Brian Matusz in an effort to save their arms. If an injury had occurred for a Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs would’ve been in trouble.
Naturally, Epstein made pitching depth a priority this offseason with that worst-case scenario in mind. Brett Anderson will be the fifth starter, and Montgomery will get starts too while waiting in reserve.Eddie Butler and Alec Mills are reclamation projects who could also get a chance this season.
Veteran relievers Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing add depth to a bullpen that now ends with Wade Davis — who posted a 1.87 ERA last season — instead of Aroldis Chapman. In the rotation and the bullpen, the Cubs are in a better situation with their pitching depth.
3.) The rise of Russell
Maddon often would discuss the promise of his young shortstop by first looking to Russell’s future. Wait until he’s 25, Maddon would say. It’s hard to believe Russell just turned 23 and is coming off an All-Star campaign last season. Power became a big part of his game with 21 homers, though it’s still raw.
Russell is already one of the top defensive shortstops in the NL and will be fighting with the Giants’ Brandon Crawford annually for Gold Glove honors at their position. He made strides at the plate in 2016 and is expected to improve again this year.
4.) Free Willy
With David Ross retired and dancing with the stars and Miguel Montero assuming a backup role, second-year pro Willson Contreras will be the Cubs’ primary catcher. And he should represent marked offensive improvement in the spot.
The 24-year-old Contreras posted a slash line of .282/.357/.488 in 2016, an impressive run for a rookie being shuffled between the busy role of catcher and trying a new position in left field. Contreras thrived at the plate and also was worth 4.5 defensive win shares, a testament to his efforts.
Contreras can focus primarily on his catching duties this season while working to replicate his season at the plate. He only had 283 plate appearances in 2016, many of which came during outings in left field. His bat proved to be too valuable for Maddon to keep out of the lineup. He was finding places for Contreras to succeed.
Now, Contreras will be a regular.
5.) ‘You go, we go’ 2.0
When Dexter Fowler returns to Chicago later this spring, he’ll do so as a St. Louis Cardinal while being greeted by an overwhelming reception from Cubs fans. Fowler will always be known as the man who led off Game 7 with a home run, a historic moment for the organization.
Fowler had a career year in 2016, posting a career-best 4.7 WAR in just 125 games as he was limited due to an injury that kept him out for several weeks. It wasn’t a coincidence the Cubs endured their worst struggles of the season without Fowler.
Now, they’ve aimed to replace him with quite the player — Kyle Schwarber, a unique lead-off to say the least. Maddon is confident in his career .353 on-base percentage and the potential to hit 30 or 40 home runs. During a spring training game last week, Schwarber led off the game with a bunt single then crushed a homer in his second appearance.
The 24-year-old Schwarber will handle the primary duties as the lead-off man, with Maddon targeting 140 games for him after he has played in just 71 during the regular season. With Schwarber setting the table, the Cubs will have great power and be dangerous from the first pitch of the game.
The Cubs are set for the long haul of the regular season, the deepest team in the game, and they stand poised to top the 103 wins of 2016. Their absurd plus-270 run differential of a year ago could be topped yet again by a team with greater offensive prowess than last season. On top of that, the pitching and defense remains largely the same — very good.
Playoff baseball is a journey of its own, a month of tension Chicago’s north side now knows well. Anything can happen, but these Cubs are just as equipped to win the World Series again.
After all, Epstein laid out a plan for more than one championship.