By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) The World Series victory of last November is now history. If you want to relive the thrill of victory, walk over to the new office building next to the Wrigley Field and look for the championship trophy case.
The 2017 Chicago Cubs begin anew with many old faces that celebrated their first championship in 108 years on Nov. 2, 2016 in Cleveland — and also some new ones.
Let’s take a good look at manager Joe Maddon’s group for this season.
The Cubs return with four members of their outstanding rotation from last season.
Jon Lester is the ace and coming off what’s probably the best season of his career, as he went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, which was the second-best mark in baseball. The 33-year-old Lester has moved on from working with the retired catcher David Ross, working well with second-year catcher Willson Contreras in spring training.
Jake Arrieta is competing for his team, pride and a huge free-agent payday. He won 18 games last season and 40 over the past two, which is the most in baseball. The 31-year-old Arrieta wants to cut down on his walks (76) that marred an otherwise strong 2016.
John Lackey, 38, will assume the No. 3 slot in the rotation. Lackey brings a soldier-of-fortune mentality to each outing and is coming off a quality season in which he was 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA.
Newcomer Brett Anderson should be a quality addition, as he’s a ground ball machine. The only question is whether he can he stay healthy. Anderson has a self-deprecating way about him.
“I have been here six weeks, and I don’t hate anyone yet,” he said last week in Arizona.
The reigning ERA champion, Kyle Hendricks is the No. 5 starter. Yes, that’s correct — 16 wins and an ERA title gets you the last post in the rotation. This positioning should change as the season progresses.
Wade Davis begins his Cubs career as the new closer, and replacing Aroldis Chapman is no easy assignment. Davis has four quality pitches and left spring training throwing 95 mph-plus at times. He did have some command issues that should be watched, but he appears injury-free after two forearm issues in 2016.
Davis can be unhittable at his peak of performance, as his 0.94 ERA in 2015 and 1.87 ERA in 2016 reflect. Davis won’t pitch in more than two or three straight games, Maddon has said.
The other bullpen members are Pedro Strop, Koji Uehara, Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards, Justin Grimm and Mike Mongomery.
Maddon will have only seven bullpen arms at the start the season. One lefty in just Montgomery seems light, but Uehara is a reverse-split pitcher. Left-handed hitters have batted just .183 against Uehara, who turns 42 on Monday, in his career.
Look for Edwards to be closing games at some later points of the season.
There are two-and-a-half catchers on the Cubs. Contreras and Miguel Montero are the top two, and left fielder Kyle Schwarber is the third catcher who could sporadically start or more likely gets behind the plate after a double switch. Schwarber will be ready when called upon.
Contreras could be an All-Star in a short period of time. He has improved greatly in his catching metrics and has an arm that’s as good as any in the game. He’s a scary hitter, driving the ball 420 feet the opposite way at times in spring training.
With good health, Montero is in line for a much better in 2017. He worked in the offseason without back trouble.
The Cubs return with an All-Star infield from 2016. The longest-tenured Cub, first baseman Anthony Rizzo is prepared for a monster season, looking to be in his best condition ever. He had 32 homers and 109 RBIs in 2016.
MVP third baseman Kris Bryant is coming off a 39-homer, 102-RBI season in which he also scored 121 runs. And he’s set his sights on being better, wanting in improve in hitting the ball the opposite way. Lost in the MVP recognition and offensive prodcution was the fact Bryant was above-average at three different defensive positions. Where do we find more of this type of man?
Shortstop Addison Russell, 23, could be the team’s next MVP candidate, as he has the potential for 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs. His defense is also the best in the league.
Javier Baez and veteran Ben Zobrist will both play second base. Baez will move around the infield a lot. He’s such a weapon at second that Maddon will want him in games late to protect leads. His offense has great potential as well. With a little less playing time, Zobrist should be even more effective. He rarely swings at a bad pitch.
Two new starting outfielders join Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward. Schwarber returns after missing the last 159 regular-season games in 2016. He has made great strides on his defensive routes this spring, though there’s still work to do.
The center field spot will be a platoon with veteran Jon Jay and Albert Almora, who’s one of the best pure outfielders in the system. The team’s 2012 first-round pick, Almora has surprising power, and Maddon would love to see him win the job outright by October.
Jay is a capable defender at all three positions and a professional hitter.
Heyward is the best right fielder in the game on defense. His offense has a great chance to be better after an abysmal 2016. He was driving balls hard to all fields this spring. Repeating his mechanics has been a problem for Heyward. If he hits .275, the power numbers will improve dramatically. He should slug for a much higher number.
On certain days, Tommy La Stella will be Maddon’s only left-handed bat off of the bench (when right-handers start and Montero and Jay are in the lineup). Versatile outfielder Matt Szczur made the club after proving to be a nice pinch-hitting weapon in the first half of 2016. Having either Baez or Zobrist on the bench makes the Cubs the deepest team in baseball.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.