The Chicago Cubs did not look like repeat NL Central champs for much of 2017. The 2016 World Series winners experienced a championship hangover of the highest degree, stumbling throughout most of the season thanks to underperformance and nagging injuries to key players. Key acquisitions were made, namely lefty starter Jose Quintana from the crosstown rival White Sox, but that the Cubs finished 92-70 and made it to the NLCS after fighting for the NL Central crown until the final week of the season seems miraculous.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein thus took the bull by the horns this offseason and added two key arms to the rotation, making Chicago look like a team to beat once again. However, that all depends on if the key players can stay fresh.
1 Greatest Addition: Yu Darvish
Yu Darvish didn't seem like a top target for the Cubs and his signing was truly a surprise. Team management didn't seem willing to spend money on Jake Arrieta, so why would Darvish even be on the radar?
Arrieta's return is almost certainly not happening now that Darvish is aboard on a six-year, $126m contract. Darvish earns $45m over the deal's first two seasons, at which point he can opt out and test the market again if he so chooses.
Regardless of what Darvish decides in two years, he is a great addition to a pitching staff that already ranked seventh in MLB with a 3.95 ERA last season. The Japanese righty was 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA for the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, making his fourth All-Star appearance. Hopefully, he can put his abysmal World Series performance (0-2, 21.60 ERA) behind him and get the Cubs back to their winning ways.
2 Greatest Loss: Jake Arrieta
The odds of Arrieta returning to the Cubs in free agency were low to begin with, but he did so much for the team the past few years even as his performance suffered due to injuries and velocity issues. The veteran righty was 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 2017 and posted a 2.4 WAR, down from one of 3.8 in 2016 and 7.3 in 2015.
Darvish's presence, not to mention that of young right-hander Tyler Chatwood on a three-year, $38m contract, makes Arrieta's exit from Chicago official. Since 2014, the man went 64-29 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in a Cubs tenure that saw him accumulate numerous accomplishments under his belt. In 2015, he won the NL Cy Young Award. Arrieta also threw two no-hitters with Chicago.
He is still without a contract, but whichever team ultimately signs him will land a pitcher with ace-quality stuff.
3 Greatest Asset: Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant is the bargain player of which front offices dream. He's only 26 years old and about to start his fourth season, and he has already been named Rookie of the Year and MVP in his young career, and that's on top of winning a World Series. Great as the Cubs are as a whole, Bryant is the real face of the franchise.
The star third baseman had just 29 home runs with 73 RBI after posting 39 and 102 in 2016, his MVP season, but Bryant made up for the drop in overall offensive production by posting a strong line of .295/.409/.537. He also posted an excellent 6.7 WAR while increasing his walk rate (BB%) from 10.7% to 14.3% and cutting his strikeout rate (K%) from 22% to 19.2%. His drop in power can be attributed to his line drive rate going from 23.7% to 19.9% and his groundball rate rising from 30.5% to 37.7%.
Still, with a salary of just $10.5m this year, Bryant is coming at a major bargain for Chicago and should soon be due a lucrative extension.
4 Greatest Liability: Ben Zobrist
Zobrist signed a four-year, $56m contract with the Cubs ahead of 2016 and after a solid season that capped with him being named World Series MVP, the switch-hitter regressed in 2017. Zobrist saw his batting average drop 40 points to .232, and he appeared in just 128 games.
Zobrist's BB% also fell from 15.2 to 10.9 and his line drive rate went from 21.6% to 15.6%. It might have just been bad luck but Zobrist also turns 37 in May and might be slowing down with age. He has two years and $28m remaining on his deal and finding a trade partner will prove tough if he continues his downward trend.
Signing him seemed like a fine idea at the time but given the Cubs' overall depth in the field, Zobrist looked like an albatross in 2017 and has a lot of work to do if he wants to shed that label this season.
5 X-Factor: The bullpen
The Cubs ranked sixth in MLB with a bullpen ERA of 3.80 last year, but the relief corps will look different in 2018. Closer Wade Davis, who saved 32 games and was an All-Star last season, signed a long-term contract with the Colorado Rockies in free agency, and hard-throwing Hector Rondon was non-tendered and signed with the Houston Astros.
This season, Chicago will look to the newly added Brandon Morrow (two years, $21m) to take over the closer role. Former Miami Marlins closer Steve Cishek was also added to boost the bullpen. Relief pitching is one of Chicago's question marks this year and if this group can hold leads late in games, then staying in contention for the World Series is not at all out of the question.
6 Final thoughts
Rough 2017 aside, the Cubs have everything it takes to make a run at another championship this year. The key players of the core group that won it all in 2016 are still there, and new faces have been added to fill holes left by free agency departures and general roster turnover.
The NL Central could be tough this season, what with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals also looking ready to compete for the divisional crown and shake up the balance of power, but the Cubs have the upper hand. They have already won a championship in recent memory, so it's just a matter of using that experience to make history repeat itself.
After adding Darvish and other key pieces, that could definitely become a reality.
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