The World Series parade seems like yesterday, and not just because it's not that many posts ago at this here blog. Now that the players are back in camp, let's take a look at what to watch over the next few weeks.
- Did you hear that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series? And they are bringing pretty much everyone back this year? Somehow it still hasn't sunk in. The window is wide open right now, and if the Cubs can pull off another title or two we could be talking dynasty. Winning titles is hard, but while there was so much chatter about how the title drought wasn't really on the minds of the players for much of last year, I thought you could still feel that weight at times during the playoffs. Without the weight of history hanging over their heads, this team might be loose enough to get even stronger.
- I'm not sure what would be the best analogy for Jason Heyward's swing last season might be. Unfolding lawn chair? Falling down a tree and hitting every branch? A derailed train, free-falling airplane, and massive earthquake all converging on a house with a gas leak? Heyward has been working on getting back to his form from 2012, when he hit 27 home runs and had the best season of his careet. He did strike out a lot more that year, and his walk rate was about the same as his 2016 rate, but his overall numbers can't get much worse. If he can bounce back to merely being league average at the plate, he could be a 3-4 WAR player again.
- The Cubs lost Dexter Fowler, but get Kyle Schwarber back as a regular as a consolation prize. There are no concerns about him at all at the plate, but it remains to be seen what they can get out of him on the field. Perception of Schwarber's outfield around baseball fandom in general seems to be that he is the next Adam Dunn out there, but people are remembering one or two bad games in the playoffs. I remember thinking he looked okay out there earlier in the year, but his reconstructed knee and having new CFs next to him are wild cards. He has also been cleared to catch, but I would be surprised if he sees more than a dozen starts back there over the whole season, if even that many. Joe did love having three catchers last year, and what I expect to see more of is situations where Schwarber comes in to catch in the seventh inning of a few games, to give him more reps without the full game grind.
- Speaking of Dex, there's going to be a large hole to fill in both CF and at the top of the lineup. It feels like the most obvious move would be to shift Heyward over to CF and put, say, Zobrist in right to get more playing time for Baez, but the vibe I get in general is that this will not happen very often. Joe likes to get creative with his super subs, but he doesn't have that many guys who can play center. If it weren't for the JavyTag phenomenon we would probably see Baez getting reps out in CF like last year (or was it two years ago?), but instead we'll probably end up seeing a lot of Jon Jay and Albert Almora, whose glove is legit but whose bat may never be enough to crack the lineup. Even if Almora goes 0/100 for the rest of his Cubs career, he'll still drink for free in Chicago thanks to some heads up baserunning. As far as the top of the order goes, Maddon has entertained the idea of having Schwarber lead off, which would be fun to see. Schwarbryzzobrist ftw.
- Jason Hammel's tightrope is now empty, and the Cubs have a number of guys to compete for the spot. Brett Anderson should be number one with a bullet as far as the options go, but his health as always is a question mark. Anderson is a worm-killing machine, and combining this with the Cubs stellar infield defense is a no-brainer. If/when Anderson doesn't stay healthy, the team can turn to the last Cubs pitcher to pitch in a World Series, Mike Montgomery, as the new swingman. I was baffled saw him start in Colorado last year and he actually looked pretty good, but he's a better pitcher than the bad first impression he made after coming over from Seattle. I'm not sure if this is a Wandy Rodriguez HOF situation since it happened a month later, I'd have to consult with the board. The depth behind these guys is not great, though I do kind of like Zastryzny. The Cubs pitcked up a few other interesting arms, most notably Eddie Butler, but making any comparison with the Jake Arrieta situation is pretty absurd beyond the fact that they are both pitchers who were traded to the Cubs. I would be happy to eat my words on this one, but I am taking a wait and see approach.
- I'm curious to see what the general fan vibe will be this year, now that we are in uncharted territory for any living Cubs fan. I'm not naive enough to think that the bandwagon won't be just as full this year, but personally it's been just a strange offseason. I've paid next to no attention to baseball, and there's been next to no Cubs news to even talk about beyond the lingering feeling of disbelief in how incredible the playoffs were and relatively minor signings like Brett Anderson. In years past a minor deal like that would have spawned multiple articles, now I don't really have much to say beyond my bullet point above. Good baseball is its own reward, I guess. There is now a wait list for Spring Training season tickets, so I guess the fan enthusiasm is just fine, and I'm just an outlier.
- The Cubs other big offseason acquisition was former Royals closer Wade Davis, which feels like it happened a lifetime ago. Joe didn't trust his pen at all in the playoffs beyond Chapman and Montgomery, but it was hopefully just a bit of bad injury luck. Rondon was one of the best relievers in baseball in ths first half of last year, but looked like a shell of his former self after coming back from injury. Strop looked a little better coming back from his own injury in time for the playoffs, but that's not really the time to knock off the rust. If they can stay healthy though, Edwards, Strop, Rondon, and Davis could end up as a pretty killer back half of a pen. Hopefully this isn't my Randy Wells disease talking, especially in Rondon's case.