If you didn’t look at the numbers, and just read the takes (which I do not recommend), you might think the 2017 season was just a formality. You might think that MLB, and the NL in particular, were about to get dominated by a team head and shoulders above the rest. You might think, in short, that the Cubs are a juggernaut.
If the Cubs were in the A.L., maybe the Dodgers don’t make this trade. But for the foreseeable future, the Dodgers have to build a team not just good enough to win the NL West, but to reasonably be able to go up against Chicago in the postseason and like their chances. And because the Cubs are so good, your options are to either build a behemoth or to hope you get lucky.
The Cardinals’ team site, Viva El Birdos, is feeling the heat, describing the Cubs as “a new superpower” in the NL Central, after their “ascension … to the top of Major League Baseball.” I’ve played my own small part in this, too; I said the Cardinals were “in a tough spot, sharing a division with the powerhouse Cubs.” I could go on, but I won’t.
And let’s get something out of the way immediately: The Cubs are great. Really great! They are coming off a deserved World Series win and a 103-win season, and they're stocked to the gills with young, talented players. They’re a great team. What they aren’t is a clear favorite about to steamroll their way to the postseason.
Let’s begin with last year. The Cubs won 103 games, and unlike many teams who hit triple digits, it seemed to have more to do with skill than luck. By BaseRuns, FanGraphs’ method of estimating records based on underlying offensive and run-prevention abilities, the Cubs “should have” gone 107–55 last year. By 3rd Order Winning Percentage, the equivalent at Baseball Prospectus, they “should have” gone 113–49. That is a juggernaut.
A lot has changed since the victory parade, however. David Ross has retired, Dexter Fowler wears Cardinal red, and Jason Hammel has signed with the Royals. Individually, those might not seem like gigantic changes, but each one is significant. Ross had his best season offensively since 2008, and that combined with his excellent framing, defense, and pitcher management to produce two or three wins in only 205 plate appearances. Most of his playing time will be going to Miguel Montero instead, also an excellent defender but coming off a year of offensive struggles.
Jason Hammel’s spot at the back of the rotation will be filled by a combination of Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson, and while Hammel’s 2016 was not as good as his 3.83 ERA made it look (he had a 4.48 FIP and 5.44 DRA), neither of those replacement names does much to inspire either.
The biggest loss is Fowler, however, who was a revelation in 2016. He had the best offensive season of his career, and while defensive metrics are generally untrustworthy, he seemed to benefit from better positioning in the outfield, yielding a four- or five-win season. His replacement looks to be a mix of Jon Jay, a useful player but not whom you would pick to start, and Albert Almora, who has just over 100 PAs of major league experience to his name and will probably need some seasoning.
The point is not that the Cubs should have brought every one of those players back, or that if they could, they’d repeat last year. Basically every player on the Cubs had to play like a maniac last season for them to be as good as they were, and most of them are going to fall back to earth in varying degrees.
In his sophomore season, Kris Bryant cemented himself as a bona fide superstar with a season that can best be described as Trout-like. There’s only one Mike Trout, however, and it would represent still another major leap forward if Bryant could sustain his 2016 production for another season. Ben Zobrist had his best offensive season since 2012, but he’s entering his age-36 season. John Lackey had his best pitching season since 2013, and he just turned 38. Kyle Hendricks came out of nowhere to post a five-win season. The ERA of each Cubs starter was massively better than their FIP/DRA, and while there’s probably some skill involved with that (by the pitchers and the defense behind them), I wouldn’t count on them to repeat their incredible run prevention.
The point is not that 2016 was undeserved, or fluky. All of those players, and the Cubs collectively, earned their great performances. The point is that they’re not particularly likely to repeat. When everyone on a team plays at their 80th- or 90th-percentile outcome, some of them are going to get worse, and almost nobody is going to balance that out by getting better.
Where can the Cubs hope to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016? Kyle Schwarber will help left field, but the Jorge Soler/Willson Contreras plate appearances he’s replacing were pretty good already. Addison Russell could possibly break out into a superstar, and Jason Heyward could regain his form and performance. That’s it, though.
The upshot of all this is that the Cubs are a very good team, clear favorites for the NL Central, but not necessarily favorites for the NL as a whole. The FanGraphs depth charts project the Cubs for 94 wins, sandwiched between the Nationals at 90 and the Dodgers at 95; BP’s equivalent has the Cubs at 91, ahead of the Mets at 88 and substantially behind the Dodgers at 99.
But here’s where I close this article on a high note, and reveal that I don’t think it’s that crazy to think of the Cubs as nearly unstoppable. Your view just have to extend past 2017. What’s notable about the Cubs is not just their performance, but their youth. About half their depth chart is staffed by young players, there are more waiting in the wings, and the Cubs still manage to project as a more-than-90-win team.
The 2017 Cubs aren’t built to dominate the league, despite the way we’ve all been talking about them. But they are built to last, and they’re going to be in the top tier for a long time.