After a few months off following their remarkable World Series victory and celebration, the Chicago Cubs reconvened in Chicago over the weekend to celebrate once again with fans at the annual Cubs Convention.
The party raged all weekend long, as players, coaches, and executives reveled in a job well done, and the team celebrated its first championship in 108 years.
Now as the beer cans are swept away and the banners taken down, the job of strengthening the roster takes center stage once again for the team. How can they improve upon a roster that won 103 games and a title? Which weaknesses still need to be addressed? Which questions still need to be answered?
To get to the bottom of all of those dilemmas, we picked three key storylines for fans to follow as the team takes one more brief rest before reporting to spring training next month in sunny Arizona.
Is a Six-Man Rotation Still in the Cards?
One of the biggest focuses for the Cubs during the 2016 season was in limiting the number of innings their starting pitchers were throwing, and the practice yielded significant dividends in the playoffs. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks were both positively dominant in the postseason, and Jake Arrieta had a strong World Series as he picked up two victories in the Cubs’ championship run.
This season, things are going to look a little different in the rotation. The main four guys are still around, but Jason Hammel is no longer with the team, and the Cubs are likely looking to replace him with Mike Montgomery as the team looks to add more balance to its rotation.
Beyond that, the question remains as to whether or not a six-man rotation could be a good strategy to further protect pitchers from throwing too many innings. There are several options to explore if that’s what the team wants to do, even after Tyson Ross reportedly signed a deal with the Texas Rangers, and it will be interesting to see if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer opt to make a move to add some competition into the race for a starting rotation spot.
Who Will Lead-Off vs. Left-Handed Pitchers?
The Cubs had one of the best lead-off hitters in baseball last season as Dexter Fowler patrolled center field and led off games, but with the remarkable star now in St. Louis, the team has to explore what to do in the top spot in their order.
Against right-handed pitchers, all indications are that Kyle Schwarber will get the first crack at the job, as it will be up to him to set up the offense for Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Against lefties that question becomes more complicated, and while it’s possible that the Cubs could explore an outside solution to it, it’s more likely that they’ll look in-house instead.
To that effect, there are several players to keep an eye on. Ben Zobrist could be a good guy for the role, as he sees a lot of pitches and could get on base ahead of Bryant and Rizzo, but Joe Maddon is very comfortable with him batting fourth and driving those guys in instead.
Addison Russell could also get a look, although his power numbers and low-ish batting average could signal that he is better suited to the fifth or sixth spot in the order. Jason Heyward and Albert Almora could also get looks there, but unless Heyward has a huge jump in production, he may end up getting stuck in platoon duty and get kept away from left-handed starters.
Which Players Could Come Up Next Season?
While the Cubs seem pretty well set at a lot of positions, there are still plenty of players that could make their way up because of injuries or ineffectiveness next season.
A couple of guys to keep an eye on are Ian Happ, who has some serious pop and can play both second base and left field, and Eloy Jimenez, who is regarded by many to be the team’s top prospect and could one day be a star outfielder for the Cubs.
Either one of those guys could make the jump next season, but there are also a few others to keep an eye on. If the Cubs need some added pop in the lineup, Jeimer Candelario could be an option, although Bryant’s status as a top-tier third baseman could force a position change there. Dylan Cease could also make his way up next year, as the Cubs are seemingly always looking for fresh faces in their bullpen or in the back end of their pitching rotation.