Cubs built to challenge for back-to-back titles

Youth should serve Cubs well again next season

Cubs built to challenge for back-to-back titles

CHICAGO -- In Game 2 of the World Series, the Cubs' starting lineup featured six players under the age of 25. Just think how much better the young players will be in 2017.

The Cubs won 103 games in the regular season, then ousted the Giants and Dodgers in the National League playoffs before beating the Indians in a tense seven-game World Series, and they did so by relying a lot on their youth. What will next year bring?

"I think when you demonstrate the confidence in these kids and they succeed, obviously, they come back the next year and they're a little bit better just for the experience itself," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

 

Maddon on magical season

The half-dozen players under 25 in Game 2 included Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell. Kyle Hendricks is 26; Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward are both 27. The future is bright.

Let's look ahead to 2017.

Arbitration-eligible: RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Pedro Strop, RHP Hector Rondon, RHP Justin Grimm.

Free agents: OF Dexter Fowler, RHP Jason Hammel, LHP Aroldis Chapman, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Joe Smith, OF Chris Coghlan, RHP Trevor Cahill, C David Ross, IF Munenori Kawasaki.

Rotation: After posting the best ERA in the NL (2.96), the rotation will be largely intact for 2017 with Arrieta, Hendricks, Jon Lester and John Lackey returning. The team decided not to pick up 15-game winner Hammel's $12 million option, which leaves a gap. Lefty Mike Montgomery, acquired from the Mariners for Dan Vogelbach, started five games for the Cubs and is one option. The Cubs also may look at lefty Rob Zastryzny, who went 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA in 15 games (14 starts) for Triple-A Iowa.

Lester a finalist for Cy Young

Bullpen: Who will be the closer? Chapman is a free agent, and he may not fit in the Cubs' 2017 budget. Rondon had a solid first half (1.72 ERA in 32 games), but struggled in the second half (6.41 ERA in 22 games). Strop seems better-suited as a setup man. The Cubs have middle-relief options in Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr., but need to find that anchor.

Catcher: Contreras is the catcher of the future, and the future is now. Promoted in June, Contreras got plenty of on-the-job training from veterans Miguel Montero and Ross, and was the primary catcher in the postseason. He's athletic, aggressive, a good student, and simply needs more time with the veterans. Said Maddon: "The sky's the limit with this kid." Montero has one more year remaining on his contract. A promising prospect in the system is Victor Caratini, who played in the Arizona Fall League.

Cubs catchers all drive in runs

First base: Rizzo set career highs in batting average (.292), doubles (43), triples (four) and RBIs (109), and continued to dazzle defensively. He showed his acrobatic skills when he jumped onto the ledge along the first-base side at Wrigley Field to grab a foul ball. Rizzo also delivered in the clutch, batting .341 with runners in scoring position.

Second base: This could be interesting. Ben Zobrist is signed through 2019, and came to the Cubs because he thought he'd be a regular at one spot, second base. But Baez's defensive skills outshined Zobrist's, and Baez was the Cubs' starter there in the postseason. During the regular season, Zobrist started 113 games at second, and made seven errors for a .984 fielding percentage, while Baez made 38 starts and committed six errors (.965 fielding percentage). Baez is flashier, and should really patent his swipe tag.

Zobrist shows off MVP trophy

Shortstop: What a year for Russell. He was the Opening Day shortstop for the first time, named to the All-Star team, a Gold Glove finalist and a World Series champion. And he's only 22. Russell, who celebrates his 23rd birthday Jan. 23, set career highs in homers (21) and RBIs (95), with 44 of those RBIs coming in the second half, second most on the team. One of the more gifted players athletically, Russell keeps getting better.

Third base: Nobody needed to worry about a sophomore slump for Bryant. The NL MVP finalist followed his 2015 NL Rookie of the Year season with an even better campaign, hitting 39 home runs, driving in 102 and scoring an NL-leading 121 runs. Bryant's hitting gets most of the attention, but he's a stellar baserunner, which is why Maddon likes him at the top of the lineup.

Bryant named finalist for NL MVP

Outfield: This is the one area that could look different for the Cubs. Heyward will be back in right field, but if Fowler does not return, that creates an opening in center. Albert Almora Jr., who batted .277 in 47 games, could take over in center field. Schwarber, who spent the season rehabbing from two torn ligaments in his left knee, is expected to be ready to play left. Soler, limited again because of injuries, is still under contract, and Maddon could insert Zobrist in left as well. Heyward did not let his offensive struggles affect his play in the field, but the Cubs hope to work with him in the offseason to get his swing back. He batted .230 in 2016 after batting .293 in '15. Maybe being in the second year of his eight-year, $184 million contract will help him return to form.

Fowler only Cubs player to get qualifying offer

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.