No matter what transpires this offseason, the Chicago Cubs will be the team to beat in 2017. They will be the favorites in Vegas, the favorites in the computer projections and the favorites in all the preseason prediction lists.
Of course, winning back-to-back World Series titles is hard. It should be hard! It wouldn’t be so interesting if we knew the Cubs were already planning another victory parade with 5 million fans lining the streets of Chicago and buying Cubs World Series aprons. Although the Royals, Rangers and Phillies have all reached back-to-back World Series in the past decade, the last team to win consecutive championships was the Yankees in 2000, when they won their third in a row.
So, not to disappoint you, Cubs fans, but you probably won't win again in 2017. I'll take the field. But which team in the field can beat the Cubs? Every team! Here's how.
Washington Nationals: I don't know what happened to Bryce Harper in 2016, though I think what happened is he played through some nagging injuries. Remember when he hit nine home runs in April? He hit just 15 the rest of the season. The Nationals still won 95 games even though his OPS fell nearly 300 points. So imagine an MVP-level Harper hitting nine home runs every month, a full season of leadoff dynamo Trea Turner, one additional big bat in the lineup, Stephen Strasburg in the rotation in October instead of on the disabled list and Dusty Baker not doing Dusty Baker things in the playoffs.
Texas Rangers: They already have what a lot of contenders are seeking: a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, and a strong late-game bullpen. After two straight Division Series defeats, let’s see if the front office can figure out the final touches, like signing Edwin Encarnacion and Rich Hill.
Cleveland Indians: Would Game 7 of the World Series have turned out differently if Terry Francona had pitched to Anthony Rizzo instead of intentionally walking him? That’s how close the Indians came to shocking the Cubs: One decision might have altered the course of history. But I digress. ... OK, everyone wants to follow the Indians' Andrew Miller game plan, but only one team has the original, and the original can't be replicated. Get Michael Brantley back, find a replacement for Mike Napoli if he isn’t re-signed and then keep Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar away from Trevor Bauer's drones.
Boston Red Sox: I can see it now. The Red Sox are struggling along a few games over .500 at the All-Star break, Mookie Betts announces he now wants to be known as Markus Betts, Xander Bogaerts is fighting with Yoan Moncada and David Price is out with a sore elbow. It's complete disarray. The solution: David Ortiz is lured out of retirement, and the rest, my friends, makes for one hell of a story. If you don't like the Big Papi scenario, there's this: Andrew Benintendi, the next Red Sox All-Star.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Assuming they re-sign Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen and acquire a big right-handed bat -- how about Brian Dozier to play second base? -- the Dodgers are a good bet for a fifth straight NL West title. It seems if there’s one lesson the Dodgers should take into the postseason, it’s this: Stop pitching Clayton Kershaw on short rest. I get that the Dodgers' rotation was a bit of a mess at the end of the regular season, but it seems clear that pitching him on short rest hasn't been beneficial to him or the Dodgers. In the regular season since 2013, he's allowed five or more runs six times in 114 starts. In the postseason, he’s done it four times in his past nine starts.
Toronto Blue Jays: They should have the best rotation in the AL with Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano -- and you can dream on that, even if pitching isn't 90 percent of baseball.
Baltimore Orioles: The O’s mashed an MLB-best 253 homers in 2016 and the 2017 team figures to be led by the offense again. But the story remains the same in Baltimore – the O’s need more pitching. Zach Britton was great the end of games, but beyond Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, the starting rotation remains a big question mark.
San Francisco Giants: In retrospect, it's amazing how close the Cubs came to not winning it all:
1. The Giants give up four runs in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS to lose 6-5. With Johnny Cueto going in Game 5, the Giants could have easily won the series.
2. The Dodgers were up two games to one in the NLCS with Kershaw sitting out there for Game 6.
3. The Indians, with a depleted rotation, almost knocked them off in the World Series.
Anyway, the point here is the Giants need to sign a closer.
New York Mets: At their best, the Mets were very good in 2016: 15-7 with a plus-41 run differential in April before all the injuries set in, and then 18-11 in September with a plus-45 run differential as the offense took off to carry a patchwork rotation. If they don’t re-sign Yoenis Cespedes, they will have to figure out how to replace his offense (if the Diamondbacks are looking to blow things up, how about A.J. Pollock for center field), and the Mets will miss spiritual leader Bartolo Colon. But any team with Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, late-season find Robert Gsellman and a healthy Matt Harvey obviously has the capability of running the table in October.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cubs won 103 games, the Cardinals 86. Seventeen wins seems like a lot, but it’s not hard to imagine Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta pitching a little bit worse while some of the Cardinals guys pitch a little bit better, and the Cubs decline nine wins, the Cards improve nine wins and the Cards win the division.
Seattle Mariners: If the Jean Segura trade pans out, they will have a lethal top of the lineup with Segura, Seth Smith, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Edwin Diaz could be one of the most dominant closers in the game. Felix Hernandez is no longer a dominant ace, but James Paxton -- 3.19 ERA over final 11 starts with 71 Ks and nine walks -- has breakout potential (though staying healthy is another matter). Plus, isn't it about time the baseball gods smile on the Mariners?
Detroit Tigers: Hand over the team's official Twitter account to Kate Upton and everything should take care of itself. Also: Don’t trade Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler or anybody named Martinez, and ride it out for one more year. You know, according to Forbes, owner Mike Ilitch is worth about $6 billion. He’s 86, and there are reports of ailing health. Why not go for it and actually spend more money? Do you really care if future generations of Ilitchs only have $5.9 billion to play with instead of $6 billion?
Houston Astros: They’ve already traded for Brian McCann and signed Josh Reddick. I’d like to see one more splashy move, like trading for Chris Archer or Chris Sale to line up with bounce-back candidate Dallas Keuchel. Oh, and don’t forget Carlos Correa as one of your preseason MVP picks.
Pittsburgh Pirates: This may be the most amazing stat of 2016: Jeff Locke led the team in innings pitched with 127.1. And Jeff Locke wasn’t good. If they can get 90 starts from Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, this team could climb back into the playoffs. And anything can happen in the playoffs!
Chicago White Sox: Well, keeping Sale would be a good place to start.
Colorado Rockies: For the first time in years, the Rockies can dream on a solid rotation with Jon Gray, Tyler Chatwood, Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson and Jeff Hoffman, but it's the offense that can power the Rockies into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They scored 845 runs, their most since the 2007 World Series team scored 860. But that came in a league that averaged 4.71 runs per game; the 2016 NL averaged 4.44. Now add full seasons from Trevor Story and David Dahl, and better production from first base, and this offense can score runs on any team in any park.
Los Angeles Angels: I just realized this: The two years Mike Trout won the MVP Award were the two seasons he drove in 100 runs. The three times he finished second he drove in 83, 97 and 90. That has nothing to do with how the Angels can actually beat the Cubs. For that to happen, I’m thinking Garrett Richards has a 20-win season and Tyler Skaggs wins 15.
Milwaukee Brewers: Here’s a surprising stat. The Brewers ranked second in the NL in ERA in the second half. Now, that’s a little misleading, because they gave up a lot of unearned runs, but there are some interesting arms here, and Tyler Thornburg looks the part of ace closer after a big 2016. Orlando Arcia has breakout potential, Domingo Santana could turn into this year's Jonathan Villar, and Matt Garza and Wily Peralta could rediscover some of the past glory. Hey, it could happen.
Philadelphia Phillies: With nobody signed beyond 2017, the Phillies have as much payroll flexibility as any team in the sport. So let’s see: Sign Encarnacion and Cespedes, acquire Zack Greinke to give the Diamondbacks some payroll relief and the Phillies an ace for the rotation, add J.P. Crawford to the lineup and watch him pick it at shortstop, and have Maikel Franco suddenly figure things out. Dream big, my friends!
Oakland Athletics: When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream about climbing a giant hill of sand. At the top was a sandbox. I could never get to the top to play in the sandbox. But I’d keep trying and trying to climb that hill.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Greinke pitches like a Cy Young contender, Taijuan Walker turns into the next Jake Arrieta, Robbie Ray translates his impressive K rate into All-Star numbers, Shelby Miller returns to form, Pollock bounces back from injury, Paul Goldschmidt is a little better, Jake Lamb has two good halves, Yasmany Tomas blasts 40 home runs, David Peralta repeats his 2015 numbers, Ketel Marte learns to take a walk, Torey Lovullo is good at this managing thing and ... I think I just convinced myself that Arizona is your sleeper team for 2017.
San Diego Padres: Step 1: Don’t shuffle through 58 players again. Step 2: Pray.
Atlanta Braves: I think this team just needs a little veteran leadership. OK, we can chuckle at the Colon and R.A. Dickey signings, but the Braves did go 31-25 the final two months as the offense ranked third in the majors in runs. Is the offense really that good? For the sake of this piece, yes it is. From the 26 pitchers on the 40-man roster, the Braves then hope to cobble together a respectable staff, but here’s a big move they could make: Moving some of their minor league depth for Sale.
Cincinnati Reds: Like the Braves, the Reds were much improved after a terrible start, going 36-37 in the second half while outscoring their opponents by 16 runs. Joey Votto was a huge part of that after a poor (for him) first two months, but the young pitching was much better. The bullpen trio of Jumbo Diaz, Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen each posted ERAs below 3.00, and starters Brandon Finnegan, Dan Straily and Anthony DeSclafani combined for a 3.27 ERA. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed are potential breakout arms. It's a long shot, but successful pitching staffs can sometimes develop overnight.
Minnesota Twins: Hey, the 1991 Twins went from last place to World Series champs. The 1986 Twins were even worse than the 1990 Twins and won the World Series in 1987. So there you go -- your 2017 World Series champs: Twins over Cubs in seven games as midseason trade acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez tosses a three-hit shutout in the clincher.