CHICAGO -- Can they do it again?
It might be an impossible task for the Chicago Cubs to top their 2016 season, when they won their first championship in 108 years, but simply repeating the end result would be just fine.
The potential approaching potholes for 2017 aren’t hard to find: complacency, injuries and bad luck are just a few things you can expect after a near-perfect year. But it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe the Cubs are rightly suited to deal with what has been thrown at them.
“If anyone can do it, it’s them and Theo [Epstein] has been through it before,” a longtime executive said at the winter meetings earlier this month. “It starts with talent. They have it.”
They have plenty of young talent, which should combat the complacency narrative -- though they wouldn’t be the first team to take a collective breath after winning a championship.
Let’s assume that’s not the case. It really is hard to imagine such a young core going backwards. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are on the verge of making some real money, for starters, plus they’re all seemingly motivated by the challenge of the game and not what has happened in the past.
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer just signed five-year contract extensions, so this is hardly the end of anything for them. Now they get to tweak and maneuver with one word in mind: dynasty. It’s a tall task to ask of any organization, but the Cubs’ front office is playing with house money.
They’ve won their title, so they’ve already sealed their legacy in Chicago.
The Windy City is no stranger to teams following up with even more success -- the current Chicago Blackhawks took advantage of a young core to win three titles since the beginning of this decade. Their run is still going, and the parallels between the Hawks and Cubs are clear with rebuilding plans that followed a similar path. The Hawks’ core, like the Cubs, is filled with talent and drive. That’s the underlying force for both organizations, as it was for the Michael Jordan-led 1990s Bulls. They won six titles.
Of course, the champion 1985-86 Bears and 2005 White Sox had the potential to bring more titles to Chicago, but within a short period of time, both were mediocre.
If the Cubs experience a similar slide in 2017, the root is likely to be physical -- not mental. After a couple of long seasons, including one which ran into November, there’s no telling what kind of effect that will have on the body.
“I’m going to be really aware of resting people,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I am. You hear me say it all the time. There are naturally reasons built in to rest people. I really want to be cognizant from the beginning of not stepping on anyone too hard.”
To assume good health would be a leap but, as evidenced by Schwarber’s injury last season, the Cubs are built to keep the year from being a lost cause if they get hit with something unexpected -- with one notable exception.
“The one hitch can come on the mound,” a rival scout said recently. “They have the horses, but if they can’t go, no one knows who can step up.”
Maddon is already on record saying he likes the idea of implementing a sixth starter during the second half again, but they have to be healthy and deep enough to do it. Or have a tremendous lead in the division again. That’s certainly a possibility considering the other four teams in the National League Central are in some state of flux. And this is where Maddon is a master -- his best day-to-day quality as a manager is keeping his team sharp while giving players the rest they need.
What about bad luck? For the most part, that comes into play during a short playoff series, not over the course of 162 games. The Cubs can withstand some twists along the way and still return to the playoffs. At that point, they’ll have to dig deep for another month to hoist the trophy for a second consecutive season.
The quote that might fit best unfortunately comes from an underachieving Bears team Chicago fans know well. The Cubs have the "pieces in place" -- words that rang hollow for former coach Dave Wannstedt when he said them back in 1996. The Bears collapsed soon after, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs.
It’s hard to imagine these talented Cubs suffering the same fate as those Bears. A repeat could very well be in the cards for 2017, which means it could be the year in which Chicago’s newest dynasty is cemented.