Sports

Cubs primed to repeat World Series victory

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, March 24, 2017

The 2016 MLB season was a once-in-a-lifetime run for the Chicago Cubs and its fans. Putting to rest stories of failure — the billy goat curse and the infamous Steve Bartman intervention — the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. Down three games to one against the Cleveland Indians, Chicago captured the final three games of the season, capping off the miraculous comeback with a nail-biting Game Seven victory in extra innings.

But life goes on — pitchers and catchers reported in February, spring training games began in early March and it’s now time for the beginning of the 2017 season. It is an interesting moment to be a baseball fan. Though the baseball world loves to exult in its current parity and unpredictability, we stand here in the last week of March with only five clear favorites: the Cubs, Indians, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals.

Comparing each contender against the Cubs, it is clear that the defending champions are baseball’s best team. Washington, for instance, has tremendous talent: Star shortstop Trea Turner and second baseman Daniel Murphy form, perhaps, the best middle infield in the game. If Bryce Harper can shake off an injury-filled slump of a year and Max Scherzer can maintain his form, the Nationals will be in business in the regular season. But the problem for Washington is the postseason. The Nationals have had three tremendous opportunities in recent years to bring home the championship and have not come close, failing to advance out of the division series each season. Can Washington progress further than ever before in the playoffs with role players like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth rapidly aging, Wilson Ramos making a comeback from ACL surgery and Stephen Strasburg continuing to struggle with his health? It is more than a little doubtful.

The Indians, meanwhile, missed their best shot at a title last season. Can they surge back after such a heartbreaking end to their season? Cleveland signed slugger Edwin Encarnación, but Encarnación is not exactly Kevin Durant, to put it lightly. Jose Ramírez, Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis make for an exciting infield, but that does not guarantee another World Series appearance. The Indians rely heavily on their bullpen, especially stars Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. But, as Yankees fans who watched the Joe Torre managerial era know, relying heavily on certain bullpen arms can cause them to break down quickly. The Indians had Miller throw 19.1 innings last postseason and needed every one of them along the way. They will need their bullpen once again in order to make it back. But they are walking on a tight wire. Last year, when everything broke right for the Indians, they still lost to the Cubs.

The Dodgers are the favorite according to PECOTA projections and Sports Illustrated. Corey Seager, at the ripe age of 22, is already one of baseball’s best position players, and Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game. But as terrific as those two are, the Dodgers do not seem to be much, if at all, better than last year. Rich Hill had a career year as a 36-year-old. Confident he can do it again? Adrián González, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig, though still at various stages of productivity, have been gradually declining. The Dodgers need Puig to snap out of whatever hitting malaise has come over him and are relying once again on aging players such as González and Chase Utley. Their regular season record might be better with a healthy campaign from Kershaw, but the Dodgers have made the postseason every year since 2013 and have not reached the World Series. Their title window is closing, and they have been favorites every year. What makes this season so much different?

The Red Sox are dangerous. After escaping an elbow scare from David Price, they enter the season comfortable and ready, with an absolutely loaded team. They feature possibly baseball’s best string of hitters in their batting lineup: Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramírez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. Boston’s offense is so good it is almost unfair. Add in the offseason trade acquisition of star starting pitcher Chris Sale, and the Sox are a bona fide powerhouse. The only question is whether their pitching can hold up in the playoffs. Unfortunately, it is a gigantic question for this year’s Red Sox. David Price’s career postseason record — two wins, eight losses and a 5.54 ERA — stands out for all the wrong reasons. 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello has an ugly postseason career as well, with zero wins, three losses and a 5.66 ERA. Meanwhile, Sale has never pitched in the playoffs. If the Red Sox’ pitchers do not step up, it will be another early playoff exit for Boston. The Red Sox’ and Cubs’ offenses may cancel each other out, but the Cubs’ pitching could far outmatch Boston’s come October.

There is not much to say about the Cubs that has not been said already. Their offense is ridiculous. Last year’s National League MVP Kris Bryant is only entering his third season and is still getting better, while Anthony Rizzo is a certified all-star. Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Báez and Willson Contreras are all improving young players. The Cubs match their talented offensive youth with pitching experience — Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are workhorses. Even 27-year-old Kyle Hendricks, the rotation’s youngest member, was a Cy Young candidate last season. Do not forget about World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, either. In addition, the Cubs still have room to improve over last season: Jason Heyward had a terrible year, Arrieta struggled with command issues and Schwarber suffered a torn ACL. Improvement from those three would make the Cubs even more dominant. Chicago is the one team without a discernible weakness. Looking for a World Series pick? Though it has not been said often over the past century, go with the Cubs.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.