The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016. Everyone knows that, but I still like to type it. But here’s the thing: As they head into their 2017 title defense, the Cubs have a lot of room for improvement. Wait, how can they get better?
Winning a championship is not a manifestation of perfection, even if a team goes undefeated. Contrary to uninformed opinion, not even the historic achievement we witnessed this past November exempts the Cubs from either objective statistical criticism or downright criticism. That said, here are just a few of the things the Cubs can improve upon in 2017.
First up, the player with the most obvious area for improvement in 2017: Jason Heyward, who was truly excellent as a Gold Glove right fielder in 2016. J-Hey struggled mightily at the plate, though, slashing .230/.306/.325 on the season. The Georgia native began working on his plate approach before the champagne had even dried, focusing on making more, better contact. A return to even an average season at the plate would be a huge boost to the Chicago lineup.
Another area that needs to be strengthened is the Cubs bullpen. Joe Maddon was forced to lean heavily on Aroldis Chapman, often earlier in games than the closer preferred. Injuries to Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were undoubtedly big factors, but the reliability — or lack thereof — of other relievers added to some late-season struggles. While losing Chapman will hurt, the addition of Wade Davis (if healthy) gives the team a solid closer who doesn’t require a PR spin job. A full season of Carl Edwards Jr. and a return to health by Strop and Rondon should make for a much better pen in 2017.
The middle infield was truly excellent all around in 2016. Addison Russell, Javy Baez, and Ben Zobrist were all big factors on both defense and offense. Russell and Baez are just scratching the surface of what they could become. Javy has made remarkable improvements at the plate the past two years, cutting his strikeout rate from over 41% to around 24% and improving his OBP by roughly 100 points. Even with his leap, though, there is much more potential for the super utility man to tap. He could easily hit 25 homers and post an OPS over .800 in 2017, especially with increased playing time.
Russell, who just turned 23 a few days ago, has at least as much upside as Baez. In his first full major league season, the precocious shortstop hit 21 homers and played Gold Glove-caliber defense (I guess Brandon Crawford was better?). His breakout performance in the playoffs — requisite reminder that, while it’s super fun to watch, playoff performance does not offer a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions — left lasting memories, but Russell only hit .238 with an OPS of just .738 on the season.
Anecdotal though it may be, there’s precedent for significant improvement in the coming season. The player to whom Russell is commonly compared is Reds Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. After two decent seasons to open his career, Larkin saw a big OPS jump, from .678 to .776, in his third season. Looking to a more broad study offers even more hope, as we see that young players generally improve their plate discipline over the first six years of their careers. Russell following either/both trend(s) would have a noticeable impact on the team.
In just half a season at the major league level, Willson Contreras made his presence felt. The fiery catcher posted an .845 OPS with 12 homers in only 76 games last season. Behind the plate, he gunned down 37% of potential base stealers, which fell just outside of top ten in the National League. By one measure, his pitch framing was ranked 23rd among all catchers. And that was expected to be an area of weakness for the young backstop. If he can continue to learn and grow, Contreras will be a force for years to come.
After an amazing 2015 run that led to the Cy Young award, Jake Arrieta regressed somewhat in 2016. Let me be clear here in order that we’re not accused (again) of putting out click-bait: Arrieta was still an excellent pitcher last season and would have been the number one starter for most teams. Still, the TCU alum had control issues down the stretch and struggled with an ERA over 4.00 in the second half. Arrieta himself admitted that he must improve his location, particularly on the sinker, in order to return to truly dominant form. Such a resurgence would help both the Cubs and the free agent-to-be.
It’s hard to find any flaws with a guy whose trophy case is already overflowing and whose beautiful baby blues…wait, where was I? Oh yeah, even the National League MVP feels he has things he can improve upon. Kris Bryant says he will make a concerted effort to drive the ball to the opposite field more often in 2017. He has also said he hopes to reduce his strikeout totals and hit for a higher average.
“You want to look at numbers that only lead to a positive result, in positive changes for yourself,” Bryant said earlier this winter. “I don’t like to dwell on numbers too much. That said, if the numbers are in your face and you’re not using them to get better, you are only failing yourself.”
Despite capturing team’s first World Series title since Halley’s Comet was first photographed, the Cubs aren’t resting on their laurels. They aren’t satisfied with their championship run, they want more. This team understands that no amount of success precludes the need to get even better. The culture that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and the rest of the front office has planted is really taking root. With the talent and work ethic they have established, that ultimate goal of sustained success is very much within reach.