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It’s Going to Be a Little Harder for the Cubs This Year

Last year the Cubs looked like the dominant team in baseball, and they were. They’re still a great team, but the competition got better.

It’ll be awhile until they have to worry about the White Sox, however.   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Last year’s Cubs were a beautifully assembled team with virtually no major weaknesses, aside from a weak bullpen that they strengthened as the season went on. And they were lucky: their fourth starter turned in a Cy Young-caliber season, their prospects arrived ahead of schedule and better than expected, and they suffered only one major injury, the year-long loss of Kyle Schwarber, who, while awesome, was likely not one of their seven or eight most important players. They won 103 games and were arguably unlucky in not winning more based on their immense run differential. They were, quite simply, one of the best teams ever.

Yet they were pushed to the brink by a Cleveland team who lost their second and third starters—which, given their too-heavy reliance on Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Josh Tomlin, might have actually been the difference in the series.

A lot of times the best team just doesn’t win, so the fact that the Cubs are probably not baseball’s best team going into the 2017 season says nothing major about their World Series odds. They’re essentially a lock for the playoffs, and at that point circumstance will play a much bigger role than structure. But the teams they’re likely to face are a little bit better in 2017, and the Cubs are a little bit worse. Here’s what Fangraphs’ wins above replacement projections looked like yesterday versus about the same time last year for 2016’s top eight teams.

Fangraphs’ simulations give the Cubs a 94 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a 14.4 percent chance of winning the World Series, which is actually very good. But it’s a hair below the Dodgers (15 percent) and the Red Sox (16 percent).

Just before the season started last year, the Cubs’ odds were 18.7 percent, followed by the Dodgers at 13.5 percent, the Red Sox at 9.6 percent, the Astros at 9.5 percent, and the Indians at eight percent. Now the Indians are at 13.8 percent, the Nationals are at 10 percent, and the Astros are at 8 percent. The Cubs aren’t on top, and it’s gotten more crowded up there.

Nor is it just Fangraphs. Baseball Prospectus has the Cubs winning 92 games, the same as the Indians and Astros and five fewer than the Dodgers; they give the Cubs a 12.1 percent chance to win the World Series, behind the Dodgers (the highest, at 17.3 percent), Indians, and Astros.

What happened? For starters, the Cubs lost Dexter Fowler (3.3 WAR in 2015, 4.7 WAR in 2016) and replaced him with Jon Jay (career high: 3.5 WAR, 1.1 WAR in 2016). Jay is who he is at this point, so the Cubs would need a serious breakout from platoon-mate Albert Almora Jr. to come close to replacing Fowler’s production.

They also lost one of the two truly dominant closers in baseball, Aroldis Chapman, who had a 1.01 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP in his time with the Cubs, good for 1.4 WAR in just 28 games. He’s being replaced with Wade Davis, who is still excellent but is projected for just 1.7 WHIP this year. He’s also two years older and an injury risk. Behind Davis are Hector Rondon and 41-year-old Koji Uehara, both of whom fell from excellent to average in 2016. Like last year, the bullpen is the biggest perceived weakness, though if Davis works out, setup and middle men are easier to come by.

Meanwhile, their best competition got a little or a lot better. The Dodgers upgraded from Chase Utley at second to Logan Forsythe, the poor man’s Ben Zobrist; the Indians upgraded from Mike Napoli to Edwin Encarnacion at DH; the Red Sox added Chris Sale to a rotation that previously didn’t have a real ace; the Astros moved young star George Springer to their black hole at center (-0.8 WAR!) by adding Josh Reddick in right field. And all those teams have at least one great prospect ready to make the leap.

There’s no reason to doubt the Cubs’ playoff spot this year, and the preseason predictions are all but meaningless in terms of actually predicting what will happen after 162 games and multiple playoff rounds. But they are a decent measure of the quality of the competition—which may have surpassed last season’s consensus Cubs.

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