The celebration has ended, the 108 year drought is over, and baseball on Chicago’s North Side should return to normal. In other words, fans of the Cubs can go back to worrying.
Several big concerns face them as they look toward the 2017 season, in addition to the nearly impossible task of topping the World Series Championship they earned in October. No team has won the Fall Classic back to back in this century, although a much shorter span than the Cubs endured between titles.
That trip to the World Series was made easier by the early schedule, an arrangement the Cubs will not enjoy next April. Chicago did not play a winning team until April 18 against the Cardinals, which was their fifth series of the season. The Cubs did not play another winning team until May 2, when they played the Pirates. Spending the first month against the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, Atlanta, and Milwaukee would provide nearly any team with the confidence needed to carry them through the most important stretch of the season. To emphasize just how important a hot start is, examine the National League from last season.
All four of the teams who reached the Division Series posted winning percentages over.700 during the first week of 2016, led by the Cubs and Nationals winning eight of their first nine games. The Giants were victorious in six of their first eight, and the Dodgers won seven of their first ten.
The advantage of opening against non-contenders will not be available to the Cubs in 2017, when the early part of their schedule features matchups against the only two teams that had winning records against Chicago last year. They open in St. Louis on April 2nd, a Sunday night game between the two rivals that will be broadcast on national television.
What could make that initial series even more troubling for the Cubs is the strong possibility that one of their most exciting players from last year will be playing for the opposing team. Center fielder Dexter Fowler, Chicago’s spark plug at the top of the batting order, is a free agent. Many baseball writers have projected St. Louis as the most likely team to sign Fowler. After the series in St. Louis, the Cubs must play the team that nearly eliminated them in the NLCS. The Dodgers, who won both of their regular season series against the Cubs in 2016, have the opportunity to avenge their playoff loss on the opening weekend in April.
The hot start Chicago used to build momentum for their World Series run last year is far less likely to befall them in 2017, simply because of the competition. Instead of opening against last place clubs like San Diego and Cincinnati, the Cubs will be tested right out of the chute by teams expecting to be contenders.