Chicago Cubs


Time shares and platoons have been the order of the day for the Cubs in the Theo Epstein era but they need players to raise their profiles to get back to the World Series. 
Javier Baez emerged last year but they need others to step forward to help them reassert their dominance in the deep NL Central. Epstein says Joe Maddon and his team are heading into a season that will be “a reckoning,’’ and it will be a long summer if they take a step backward.
Team MVP: Anthony RizzoAnthony Rizzo, like Baez and Kris Bryant, is a complete player. He’s also a leader in the clubhouse and among the most consistent run-producers in the game. His OPS has dropped two years in a row, however, thanks largely to a slow start last season, when back issues impacted him. He was a beast in the summer (.970 second-half OPS) but needs a quicker start this time around.
Best-Value Pitcher: Kyle Hendricks
Kyle Hendricks won’t be a bargain much longer, as he just agreed to a four-year, $55.5-million extension. but he’s a good bet to earn his $7.4 million this season.
He’s been underrated his entire career because he doesn’t throw as hard as others. He went to Dartmouth because Stanford wouldn’t take him. But he is 52-33 with a 3.07 ERA, the fifth-lowest mark of any active pitcher with at least 100 starts, and has already started 10 postseason games for the Cubs, including Game Seven of the 2016 World Series. He fits just fine alongside Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, who all earn at least $20 million.
Best-Value Position Player: Javier Baez
A slugger with a knack for making electrifying plays in the field, Baez is working his way toward a huge contract. He’s still three seasons away from free agency — like Bryant and Rizzo — and is earning $5.2 million after his being a first-time arbitration-eligible player.
Baez will be tested after a 34-homer, 111-RBI season in which he walked only 29 times. He loves to play shortstop but the Cubs have a significantly higher winning percentage when he plays second and Addison Russell is at short. Russell starts the year serving his suspension for domestic violence but returns in May, which probably means Baez slides to the other side of the bag.
Best Addition: Brad Brach
Having invested $185 million in Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow a year earlier and then exercised a $20-million option to keep mid-season acquisition Hamels, Epstein didn’t have the budget to spend heavily. Brad Brach will help improve an unsettled bullpen if he picks up where he left off in Atlanta (1.52 ERA i 27 appearances after a July 30 trade). He received only a $3.1 million guarantee for one season and an option.
The X-Factor: Pedro Strop
Pedro Strop, a setup man for almost all of his 505 career appearances, has more blown saves (30) than saves (22). But the charismatic 33-year-old is being asked to work the ninth inning as Morrow remains unavailable after elbow surgery last November. The Cubs are confident enough in him they passed on pursuing free agent Craig Kimbrel, who remains available.
Strop throws 96 and has a wicked slider that yielded a 29-percent whiff rate and a .121 batting average last season. He will provide a huge lift if he can reliably lock down the leads that are turned over to him. Runner-up mention in this category goes to catcher Willson Contreras and Bryant, who both are looking to bounce back from disappointing second halves. Bryant says his injured left shoulder feels fine but didn’t do much in spring training (.200 with two home runs in 40 at-bats).


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