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2016 MLB season preview: Chicago Cubs

Is this the year? With a terrific offense full of young stars, the Cubs have emerged as 2016's best team—and the favorite to win a long-elusive World Series.

This week, is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 1: the Chicago Cubs.

2015 Record and Finish:
97–65 (.599), third place in National League Central, second place in NL wild card (third overall); lost to Mets in NL Championship Series

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
99–63 (.611), first place in NL Central

The Case For

“They’ve sent in their ring sizes already,” says a scout for a rival team. “I don’t even know why we’re playing the season!” He’s being sarcastic, but not entirely. Every statistical projection system—and Las Vegas, too—agrees: The Cubs, having been assiduously engineered to break a championship-free streak that stretches back to 1908, are the preseason favorite to win it all.

Last year, when the club exceeded expectations by reaching the NLCS only to be swept away by the Mets, Chicago ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored at 4.3 per game. That deserves some parsing, though. After the All-Star break—when Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and fellow first-year slugger Kyle Schwarber had settled in—the Cubs ranked second behind the Mets at 4.7 runs per game. That upward trend should only continue. An even more comfortable Bryant and Schwarber will be joined by star free-agent signings Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) and Ben Zobrist (four years, $56 million), each of whom declined more money from other suitors to play for manager Joe Maddon on the North Side. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, who led the club with 30 homers and 101 RBIs last year, is firmly entering his prime at 26; a scout says he wouldn’t be surprised if Rizzo hit .300 with 40 homers, a combination only Nelson Cruz and Bryce Harper reached in 2015. The lineup is so stacked that no one even talks about shortstop Addison Russell, the game’s No. 3 prospect just last spring, much any more.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects the Cubs to score not just the most runs (749) in the NL, but more than any AL team save the Blue Jays—and that’s while having pitchers bat once every nine times. One of those pitchers is Jake Arrieta, who won the NL Cy Young award after going 22–7 with a 1.77 ERA. While it might be too early for Jostens or Balfour to put their championship jewelry into production, it might not be a bad idea to start designing diamond-encrusted “C’s.”​

The Case Against

At least one prominent and loud voice isn’t buying into the hype. “I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs,” Donald Trump said in late March of the Ricketts family, the owners of the Cubs and, apparently, among the presidential aspirant’s many political antagonists. The Ricketts have done such an awful job that their club had the third most wins in the majors last year—though that was only good for third place in the NL Central, behind the Cardinals and Pirates. They’ve done such an awful job that Vegas pegs them as the 2:1 favorite to win a title. If the Ricketts have any desire to run counterattack ads against The Donald, they shouldn’t be particularly hard to produce.

A postseason miss would be deeply shocking for the Cubs, even considering their unusually stacked division, but another year without a ring wouldn’t be. Those heady 2:1 odds translate to about a 33% probability of success. Chicago is built to dominate the regular season, but doing similarly in baseball’s winding, small-sample-size-driven playoff structure might prove another story. Since the playoffs expanded to three rounds in 1995, the club with the best regular-season record has won the World Series just three times, most recently the 103-win Yankees in 2009.

The Cubs’ undoing in October could be the same as last year’s, when the Mets outscored them 21–8 in the NLCS: a pitching disadvantage. They targeted David Price, the top free agent on the market, but club president Theo Epstein has said that they fell some $50 million short of the Red Sox’ winning $217 million offer. They had to settle for John Lackey, on a two-year, $32 million deal—a proven winner, but one who is unlikely to repeat his career best 2.77 ERA at the age of 37. Other than Lackey, the staff is much the same as last year: a strong top two of Arrieta and Jon Lester; an average bottom two, in Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks; and a bullpen, in front of closer Hector Rondon, largely composed of intermittently successful swingman types, like Trevor Cahill and Travis Wood and, now, Adam Warren.

Loud bats can be muffled in the postseason. The Cubs’ bats scream, but their pitching staff, as presently constituted, might be at best the NL’s fourth strongest, behind those of the Mets, the Nationals and perhaps the Giants. In advance of election day, Nov. 8, it isn’t impossible to imagine the GOP frontrunner taking some time out of his campaign schedule to rip off a gloating tweet: "THE PATHETIC RICKETTS FAMILY HAS SCHLONGED THE LOSER CUBS FOR THE 108TH STRAIGHT YEAR. SAD.​"

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

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X-Factor: Theo Epstein

All of a sudden, Epstein is in the final season of the five-year, $18.5 million deal he signed back in October of 2011. Given how well his tenure as team president has gone, it would be a surprise if he were not re-upped by ownership at a significantly increased salary. First, though, he’ll have some in-season tinkering to do. There’s little chance that the Cubs’ formidable Opening Day roster will prove identical to the one it fields in October.

Pitching is likely to be a deadline focus. While the Cubs’ farm system has matured, it retains enough pieces to get sellers interested, like 19-year-old top prospect Gleybar Torres, a shortstop; catcher Wilson Contreras; and outfielder Albert Almora. Combine a couple of those with one of the graduated former phenoms who now appear destined for the bench in Javier Baez or Jorge Soler, and Chicago might have its pick of the market. While the top free agent to-be, Stephen Strasburg, will likely be busy trying to get the Nationals into the playoffs, the Padres’ Andrew Cashner and the Rockies’ Jorge De La Rosa should be free. Of particular interest, albeit requiring even more of a return, should be one of the Indians’ hard-throwing duo of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, each of whom can be controlled through 2020. That means either could become a centerpiece of not just this year’s drive to break the curse but also of four more after it.

Number To Know: 119

That’s Heyward’s cumulative Defensive Runs Saved since his rookie year in 2010, the most of any fielder at any position over that six-year period. Is Ultimate Zone Rating your preferred advanced defensive metric? He’s first in that one, too, by an even greater margin. Heyward would have almost certainly been an above-average asset in centerfield, where for most of the off-season it looked as if he’d be playing. Dexter Fowler isn’t great in center—scouts say that he has a propensity for making the spectacular play but sometimes muffs the routine ones. But his surprise late February re-signing wasn’t just important as far as the superlative on-base skills he will provide the lineup, but also in that it will allow Heyward to return to rightfield, a position at which his impact is second to none.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Jason Heyward, OF

“Is anybody worth nearly $200 million? Solid all-around player, no question. To me, that’s just crazy paying him that kind of money. I think he’s good, not great. Doesn’t hit for power like you want him to do. Don’t you want a guy that’s at the top of the league leaders as far as hitting? I think he is what he is right now: a solid .275 to .280 hitter, 12 to 15 home runs, 15 to 20 stolen bases. Way above average in right, no doubt. But I want a guy that’s going to battle for a batting title, [an] OPS title. I don’t think he’s ever going to be in the top five in those categories.”​

Most Underrated: Ben Zobrist, 2B

“It’s hard to be underrated on the Cubs. I’m going to go with Zobrist. I’ve seen a lot of him over the years. He really helped the Royals get over the hump, especially when Alex Gordon was injured. Other teams were after him this winter, but a concern was at this age—35—when does it shut down? I haven’t seen any decline whatsoever. Father Time is undefeated, and it could catch up to him soon, but right now he’s fine.”​