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Defending the Crown - A Chicago Cubs preview

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A look at what our rivals to the north have been up to this season

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

So, what kind of margin of error is there for the best team in baseball?

The 2016 Chicago Cubs had a historic season, culminating in one of the most exciting baseball games of all time that resulted in a curse-shattering World Series title. They won 103 games and given their Pythagorean win-loss record of 109-53, they arguably played even better than that. Their +252 run differential was the best since the 116-win Mariners squad in 2001, and that Seattle team had the added benefit of an inflated run environment that pumps up the variance on that particular statistic. The second place St. Louis Cardinals were above average and still finished 17.5 games out of first. Nearly all of the Cubs’ core players were slated to return for 2017 and many of those were young and arguably still improving. How could this season possibly look any different?

As we all know, 2017 has been underwhelming for the Cubs thus far, and we can point to the winter as one reason why. The Cubs actually did allow their team to weaken a little over the offseason. Their biggest move was to trade for closer Wade Davis, who has been lights-out, but Davis was basically just a swap-in for departed fireman Aroldis Chapman. They acquired outfielder Jon Jay for some platoon help in the outfield and Brett Anderson as a lottery-ticket starter. Plus, they also planned to get slugging outfielder Kyle Schwarber back for a full season. These moves were not projected to offset the loss of center fielder Dexter Fowler and his 4.7 fWAR season, Jason Hammel’s surprisingly key rotation depth, and productive lovable scamp mascot superhuman reality star face of baseball third catcher David Ross, and they certainly haven’t.

However, the reasoning behind the step back in roster quality was sound despite the Cubs’ status as a contender and ample financial resources. 23-year-old Albert Almora was ready to contribute in center field and even after Fowler’s departure, the Cubs could already field a team of eight starting-quality position players excluding Almora. Willson Contreras’ emergence as a thumping backstop eliminated the need to replace Ross, and taking a low-risk shot on Anderson while allowing swingman Mike Montgomery the potential to develop as a starter probably made more sense than a risky multi-year commitment to another pitcher. The Cardinals failed to substantially improve their roster and the rest of the division looked weak, so there was plenty of logic to using part of that 17.5 game cushion to take a couple chances on riskier players.

That accounts for the expected portion of the drop-off from last year’s team.

After the decision-making element concluded and the season began, the presumed favorite to repeat as World Series champs faced one disappointing setback after another. Schwarber began to make a mockery of the Ruthian expectations bestowed upon him by shedding about 100 points of BABIP from his 2015 debut season due to bad contact and bad luck. The defense, which was 2013-15 Royals-level amazing last season, has regressed to just “good”. A flameout/injury from Anderson and a disabled list trip from Kyle Hendricks forced the Cubs to (unsuccessfully) test their rotation depth — something they didn’t have to do last year. Add in John Lackey’s aging into a dinger machine and a large step back from the other three 2016 rotation stalwarts and the once-vaunted rotation became the team’s single biggest mess. At the All-Star break, the Cubs inconceivably sat at 43-45, 5.5 games back of first-place Milwaukee. You probably could have gotten at least 50:1 odds on any of three portions of that sentence at the outset of the season.

The time off seemed like it did some good for the Cubs, as they emerged from the Midsummer Classic with a vengeance. The North Siders took eight of nine games while Milwaukee stumbled, which erased the Cubs’ increasingly worrisome deficit in the standings. Contreras, Jason Heyward, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell have been white hot during this stretch of play and the starting pitching has fared a little better of late, including a gem from Jose Quintana in his first start with the team. It looks like order is being restored to the NL Central.

There’s no shortage of Cubs news updates within earshot in Chicago and most Sox fans at minimum got some exposure to the Cubs’ core during their playoff run last season, so instead of the usual, I’ll just highlight a couple players new to getting regular duty with the team. Rookie Ian Happ further adds to the collection of defensively versatile Cubs, as he’s played all over the outfield and at second base this year. At the plate, Happ is a switch hitter with pop who helped jolt what was a struggling Cubs lineup at the time of his promotion. The aforementioned Jay has been one of a committee of Cubs to try to fill the leadoff spot void left by Fowler and he’s been a strong source of OBP all season long.

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The Cubs may have successfully quelled the fears that they might miss the playoffs this season, but at their nadir two weeks ago, their odds to take a weak NL Central division were no better than a coinflip. Returning to our question of margin for error, I suppose there’s two different ways to think about how this Cubs team answers that question. On one hand, the Cubs have endured a litany of random down half-seasons from their players and they’re probably going to wind up perfectly fine. On the other, this Cubs team has demonstrated that baseball is so unpredictable that even a juggernaut team can suddenly become vulnerable.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Monday, July 24: Kyle Hendricks vs. Miguel Gonzalez

Tuesday, July 25: John Lackey vs. Carlos Rodon

Wednesday, July 26: Jake Arrieta vs. James Shields

Thursday, July 27: Jon Lester vs. Mike Pelfrey

Key Personnel

Probable Lineup (AL) Pitching
Probable Lineup (AL) Pitching
1. Ben Zobrist - 2B SP1. Jose Quintana - LHP
2. Kris Bryant - 3B SP2. Jon Lester - LHP
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B SP3. Jake Arrieta - RHP
4. Willson Contreras - C SP4. Kyle Hendricks - RHP
5. Kyle Schwarber - DH SP5. John Lackey - RHP
6. Ian Happ - CF CL. Wade Davis - RHP
7. Jason Heyward - RF RP1. Carl Edwards - RHP
8. Addison Russell - SS RP2. Koji Uehara - RHP
9. Jon Jay - LF RP3. Mike Montgomery - LHP