After one of the most exciting World Series in the history of the game, the Chicago Cubs and their fans spent the off-season celebrating a championship. With hopes exceptionally high yet again, it’s time to get back to work and begin the journey of attempting a repeat performance. The young core is returning, with just the loss of center fielder Dexter Fowler and fifth starter Jason Hammel. Theo Epstein worked his magic and found replacements, although the front office didn’t make an explosion this winter like they had previously.
The Cubs are yet again viewed as a favorite in the NL Central over solid a St. Louis Cardinals club and a sneaky Pittsburgh Pirates team. Many believe it could come down to an NLCS rematch between the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers this fall. With Spring Training underway, it’s time to look at what questions revolve around this team heading into the year in the Chicago Cubs 2017 season preview.
Chicago Cubs 2017 Season Preview
The Revamped Outfield
The Cubs outfield, in its own way, should be revamped. They lost Dexter Fowler in the off-season, and they plan to replace him with a combination of youngster Albert Almora and veteran Jon Jay. In just over 100 at-bats, Almora is hitting .277 with three homeruns and 14 RBI. Although his bat hasn’t been all that impressive, Almora will be a large upgrade defensively in center. Jon Jay will be the other option patrolling center field. Jay has proven himself as a viable hitter, with a career .287 batting average. He also hit .291 in a partial 2016 campaign. However, Fangraphs has Jay taking a slight dip offensively. His projected wRC+ is 83, well below league average.
The Cubs are also getting highly touted Kyle Schwarber back from a season-long injury in 2016. Schwarber will likely be in left field for most of the season. Schwarber is coming off knee surgery that ended his first full-length season just several games in, although he was able to return to the lineup in the World Series. His performance in the World Series, coming off several months of inactivity, have fans and people around the baseball world very excited for Schwarber’s potential. After getting a taste in 2015, the Cubs are ready to see what roughly 130+ games of their potential leadoff hitter can produce.
Finally, the one returning outfielder, Jason Heyward, has worked all winter in revamping his swing. Heyward is coming off an abysmal offensive 2016. He never seemed to be right and his swing mechanics were just off. He’s been working on improving his swing and is looking to make an improvement this year. While fans shouldn’t expect a .280 year with 30 homeruns, they should look to see him taking steps in the right direction. Coach Joe Maddon has already praised the improvements he’s seen.
The Fifth Starter Role
The Cubs, much like their lineup, are returning their first four starting pitchers. Jon Lester has already been announced as the opening day starter. Then, Jake Arrieta should be their two, while Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey will slot in as the three and four. However, with Jason Hammel not returning, the fifth spot is up for grabs.
Joe Maddon has tossed the idea of using a six-man rotation or at least having a sixth starter grab about 10 starts throughout the season during long stretches of games. The two likely candidates are Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery.
Anderson was acquired during the off-season on a one-year deal. He has had a lot of trouble staying healthy, as well as being a consistent pitcher. He only made four appearances in 2016, pitching to an 11.91 ERA. His 2015 campaign was much better. In 180 innings (a career high) Anderson went 10-9 with a 3.69 ERA. The Cubs are taking a small chance on Anderson hoping he can pitch to what his potential once was. They also need him to stay healthy. If he can accomplish both he will be a very solid fifth starter
The other likely option is Mike Montgomery. Montgomery was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in 2015 for a pretty solid prospect in Dan Vogelbach. He pitched well for them out of the bullpen and even acquired the final out in Game Seven of the World Series. In his short time with the Cubs, Montgomery split between starting and coming out of the bullpen. In his 17 appearances, five came as starts. He went 1-1 in those starts and totaled a 2.82 ERA in just under 40 innings pitched. Montgomery has starting experience (he started 16 games for Seattle in 2015) so it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him taking over the role.
With the Cubs having two good options for the fifth starter role, they also have one or two that could fill in with an injury or even take over if they perform through the roof. The most likely would be Eddie Butler who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals. Once upon a time in 2014 Butler was ranked 24th on Baseball America’s top prospect list. Just a few spots behind guys like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell. His minors career has been slightly more successful than his Major League career. He had a 32-25 record in the minors, while he had a 6.50 ERA in 36 appearances for the Colorado Rockies. The Cubs hope that they can revamp the young pitcher much like Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello did to Jake Arrieta’s career.
Future of Cubs Youngsters
The Cubs have graduated their big-name players over the last several years. Whether it’s Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber or even Kyle Hendricks. It’s no surprise that their farm system may seem a little depleted now. However, they still have some valuable youngsters in their system that may be more MLB ready than most think.
The big name is Eloy Jimenez. Jimenez is ranked 14th on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list. Some in the business have even described his power potential as similar to Giancarlo Stanton’s with a better contact and walk rate and good defensively. He’s hitting .321 this spring in 28 at-bats with two doubles, two homeruns, and two walks.
The next big name is Ian Happ. Happ was their first round pick in 2016 and he’s already got people thinking he’s ready for the Show. Happ is a former outfielder converted second baseman. He’s hitting .452 in 31 at-bats with three doubles, three homeruns and nine RBI. Happ is 63rd on Baseball America’s top 100.
The last two names being talked about this spring are Jeimer Candelario and Chesny Young. Candelario is an MLB ready third baseman who is blocked by the outstanding young talent that the Cubs have in the infield. Many believe Candelario could be a starter on at least a third of the league heading into the 2017 year. He’s hitting .263 with two doubles and two triples in his 38 at-bats. Chesny Young is probably the biggest surprise this spring for the Cubs. His numbers throughout the minors have been off the charts as he’s hit above .300 in Short-A, Full-A, Advanced A, and AA last year. He’s shown that he can handle his bat.
These four guys may make an impact this year in ways most may not have predicted. The Cubs have been extremely lucky with keeping guys healthy in the past. If they can accomplish that again this year they have a good shot at repeating. However, if they lose a player for a long period of time they can either pull one of these guys up, or quite possibly use them as trade chips. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one or more of these guys were shipped somewhere else this season.