The Chicago Cubs won the World Series — something once completely unthinkable. They were down 3-1 in the World Series, storming back to force Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians. Tied heading into the bottom of the ninth in Cleveland, Chicago held the Indians at bay and took the lead in the 10th. But it’s not just about the 2016 Cubs. Going into 2017, the Cubs will be well set to defend their title. Here are five reasons the Cubs might repeat as World Series champions.
1. Most of the team will return
The major free agents from the Cubs’ 2016 roster: outfielder Dexter Fowler, catcher David Ross, starting pitcher Jason Hammel, and relievers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Aroldis Chapman. Fowler moved to the St. Louis Cardinals; Ross retired; Hammel and Wood went to the Kansas City Royals; Cahill moved to the San Diego Padres; and Chapman joined the New York Yankees. Those six players combined for 8.3 WAR last season — a decent amount of wins primarily through Fowler’s 4.2 WAR.
Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and other core members of the team will return to the field with the Cubs next season. Even if Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ front office doesn’t make major additions, the team that returns is probably good for 90-plus regular-season wins on its own.
2. Jason Heyward will bounce back
2016 was the outlier in Jason Heyward’s career. He hit just .230 with an OPS of .631 (both career lows). He was worth just 1.5 WAR; also a career low. But in the previous four seasons, from the ages of 22–25, Heyward averaged 5.5 WAR per year — and 6.5 WAR per 650 plate appearances.
There’s no doubt that Heyward was broken at the plate last year. He never really got into a groove offensively, struggling to catch up to fastballs and hitting way too many baseballs on the ground and straight to the second baseman. He’s worked hard at his craft, and will have an entire winter to work on revamping his swing. There’s a strong chance the 27-year-old will have a season more like the rest of his career in 2017.
3. Kyle Schwarber will be healthy
Without Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs wouldn’t have won the World Series. He wasn’t able to play in the field, being limited to just one pinch-hit appearance in three games at Wrigley Field and serving as the DH in four games in Cleveland. After having to sit out all but two regular-season games due to a torn ACL, Schwarber’s elite bat played a huge role, going 7-for-17 at the plate and leading off the top of the 10th in Game 7 with a huge single to start the winning rally.
He’s set to go out to left field next year, while probably still getting the occasional appearance behind the plate as the third catcher. Schwarber is a legitimate terror at the plate. While the Cubs still were able to put together a 103-win season without him, a healthy Schwarber gives the Cubs yet another great, young power hitter in the middle of their lineup. That will make up for the decent amount of value that they lost when Fowler left.
4. The core is still young
That strong core that’s coming back is almost entirely on the good side of 30. The average age going into next season for Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, Heyward, Baez, Addison Russell, and Willson Contreras comes out right at 25 years old. And that’s just including the players who had a major role in winning the World Series this season.
Guys like Albert Almora, Rob Zastryzny, and many of the talented young prospects waiting in the minor leagues will come up and have a say in just how good the Cubs will be for the foreseeable future.
5. The competition is weak
When looking at the landscape in the Cubs’ division, it’s safe to say that Chicago will be competitive for a while. Their closest competition, the St. Louis Cardinals, only won 86 regular-season games in 2016. While there are a few nice, young players in St. Louis, a lot of the core of that roster is aging and less valuable. Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and several other performers from last year are either on the wrong side of 30 or won’t return with the team.
Even if the Cards (or the Pittsburgh Pirates) make moves to improve their roster, it’s hard to imagine them coming close to chasing down the Cubs in the near future. To even win 86 games, the Cardinals needed absolutely absurd seasons from Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, who combined for 58 home runs in 813 at-bats. Since then, Moss has moved to the Kansas City Royals. And Gyorko will be 28 years old and probably will never have another season like that in his lifetime.
The National League Central division is right there for the Cubs in 2017, which gives them great odds at making and repeating in the playoffs.