FT. MYERS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – For the first time since 1909, the Chicago Cubs are defending World Series champions. Just let the statement sink in. If you are a Cubs fan who spent any amount of time waiting for the championship trophy, savior it and get ready to experience life rooting for the team to beat.
We are a little more than three months removed since the epic night in Cleveland that featured all sorts of dramatic twists and turns. Now as the Cubs head toward Arizona for the start of spring training, there is little reason to believe it will be another 108 years between titles.
This is not to guarantee a title, and Cub fans should be warned repeating is tough. Nobody has done it since the New York Yankees from 1998 to 2000, and a repeat champion only occurred five times since divisional play was instituted in 1969.
Even recent teams with multiple championships find it hard to repeat. The San Francisco Giants won titles in 2010, 2012 and 2104 but missed the playoffs in each season following a title.
The Boston Red Sox won titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013. The only time they were close to repeating was reaching Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series.
Still, even with the numerous challenges of reaching the postseason and winning the required 11 games, the Cubs almost certainly will be in contention for the title again.
Now the question is who joins them and who derails them.
The Red Sox and Cleveland Indians appear to be the standouts in the AL, especially with the additions of Chris Sale and Edwin Encarnacion, respectively.
In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed three key contributors, Justin Turner, Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen, after getting to the NL Championship Series. Other teams who could have a say in Chicago’s repeat attempt might be the Washington Nationals and New York Mets.
Regardless for Cub fans, it is a nice feeling to know your team is the hunted and not the one doing the hoping and chasing.
No. 1 Chicago Cubs — The frontline starting pitching remains, and Wade Davis is a suitable replacement for the departed Aroldis Chapman. And did we mention Anthony Rizzo is 27 and Kris Bryant just turned 25. Also, remember the Cubs won the title with Kyle Schwarber getting hurt in the first week and Jason Heyward struggling.
No. 2 Boston Red Sox — David Ortiz is happily retired, but a young core returns in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., who proved worth the patience. Chris Sale’s presence should help, especially taking the pressure off David Price, though perhaps it says something about Price that the Red Sox needed to add Sale.
No. 3 Cleveland Indians — Edwin Encarnacion didn’t hit much in the ALCS against the Indians, but now he does not have to face their pitching staff. Encarnacion is an effective replacement for Mike Napoli on a reasonable contract, the starting pitchers should get even better, and a full year of Andrew Miller enhances an already strong bullpen.
No. 4 Los Angeles Dodgers — The Dodgers were good even with Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list last year. Imagine how good they would be if he stays healthy. Plus they re-signed free agents they absolutely had to in closer Kenley Jansen, third baseman Justin Turner and left-hander Rich Hill. A fifth straight NL West title seems likely.
No. 5 Washington Nationals — One of these days, they will get past the Division Series, and if they did, it would provide the nation’s capital a nice diversion from politics. The Nationals certainly have the talent, especially if Bryce Harper’s numbers are better than .243, 24 and 86. The addition of Adam Eaton should help; at least Washington fans hope so considering the prospects surrendered to acquire him.
No. 6 Texas Rangers — The Rangers won the past two AL West titles and last year pulled it off despite one of the league’s worst ERAs. A combination of good fortune and productivity helped, and the Rangers will need it again, especially if Houston is as good as projected.
No. 7 Houston Astros — The young core of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer has some help with the additions of vets Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Getting runs won’t be the issue, and if Dallas Keuchel is the 2015 version and the rest of the pitchers fall in line, preventing runs won’t be a problem either.
No. 8 San Francisco Giants — Maybe the Giants will finally be good in an odd-numbered year. At least they now have a closer, Mark Melancon, after the need for one was so glaring last season. This is a team predicated on pitching with just enough offense, and the combination seems to be present again.
No. 9 St. Louis Cardinals — If you are looking for a safe bet to be playoff contenders, pick the Cardinals. They are working on nine straight seasons with 86 wins and 12 playoff trips in the past 17. Of course, they might not have enough to keep pace with the Cubs.
No. 10 New York Mets — Health always is a big concern. Day-to-day often becomes a major injury. This is a team that reached the NL wild-card game with a patchwork rotation, but at the moment, Steven Matz, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler are fully healthy. So are the position players who missed significant time last year. The Mets did little in the offseason, but retaining Yoenis Cespedes helps.
No. 11 Toronto Blue Jays — Losing Edwin Encarnacion hurts, but Toronto had the league’s top rotation, and it returns intact. Jose Bautista also is back in another contract year to help Josh Donaldson with the offense. Kendrys Morales will not be not as powerful as Encarnacion but somewhat cushions the blow.
No. 12 Seattle Mariners — Is this the year Jerry DiPoto’s aggressiveness pays off? He made numerous trades again this offseason to improve an 86-win team, and if those moves succeed, the Mariners could be playoff-bound for the first time since 2001. Runs won’t be an issue with Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. A typical year from Felix Hernandez should keep Seattle in the mix.
No. 13 Pittsburgh Pirates — Every year, there is one team that is projected to be good yet fails. Last year, it was the Pirates thanks to a down year by Andrew McCutcheon and injuries to Gerrit Cole. Assuming both are back to normal and not traded, the Pirates should be in contention, especially if Ivan Nova’s strong two months become a solid six months.
No. 14 New York Yankees — The rebuild is on, and the era of big spending is over for the time being. It is a sentence many Yankee fans are embracing. Gary Sanchez wowed observers last year in his two-month homer binge. The rotation is suspect with the questions of health and consistency (Michael Pineda, we’re looking in your direction).
No. 15 Detroit Tigers — The Tigers publicly talked about cutting payroll, but the plan has yet to be fully implemented. It will be interesting to see if the plan accelerates following the death of longtime owner Mike Ilitch. The Tigers still possess Miguel Cabrera’s bat and Justin Verlander’s arm, which makes things compelling.
No. 16 Baltimore Orioles — The Orioles would like to be in position to use their closer on the road in a playoff game. If they get the chance again, it will be based on how a powerful lineup of Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo and Manny Machado performs and whether they get production a suspect rotation beyond Chris Tillman.
No. 17 Colorado Rockies — The Rockies are an intriguing group, especially in the outfield and Ian Desmond at first base. As usual, it is about the pitching, but a young rotation seems to be giving cause for optimism, which should put the Rockies right behind the Giants and Dodgers.
No. 18 Atlanta Braves — You might not have noticed, but the Braves played well in the final month as their youngsters began showing they were ready. Atlanta also added some veteran experience in the rotation with Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey as well as veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips.
No. 19 Kansas City Royals — The core that helped Kansas City to the World Series title in 2015 is intact, but fiscal reality of pending free agency is starting to creep in. It was evident when the Royals traded closer Wade Davis to the Cubs, but Kelvin Herrera is capable. The Royals, who were 13 1/2 games out of first place last year, need better production and luck.
No. 20 Tampa Bay Rays — It is three straight losing seasons for the Rays, and another seems likely. While Evan Longoria remains productive, the rest of the lineup is questionable even with the additions of Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos. The Rays have a knack of developing young pitchers, and the next one up is Blake Snell.
No. 21 Miami Marlins — The Marlins added some decent names to their bullpen mix, but the rotation is suspect, especially since the Sept. 24 death of Jose Fernandez in a boating accident. The outfield of Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton remains among the best defensively and offensively, but it might not be not enough for Miami to match last year’s 79-win total.
No. 22 Philadelphia Phillies — The mini-dynasty of 2007-2011 is officially a thing of the past with all links to it elsewhere or retired. Instead, the Phillies are hoping their young players continue developing and the veterans are productive enough to get another young player at the trade deadline.
No. 23 Chicago White Sox — The White Sox were stuck in the holding pattern of rebuilding or going for it in recent years. This year, the trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton officially signal a rebuild. Jose Abreu remains a nice piece and Todd Frazier’s power figures to be coveted at the trade deadline.
No. 24 Los Angeles Angels — The Angels have MVP Mike Trout and an aging Albert Pujols but little else. The defense will be improved, and if the pitching holds up, perhaps .500 is possible. Still, it does not look promising for the Angels this season, especially if health is as big an issue as it was last season.
No. 25 Milwaukee Brewers — Year One of full-scale rebuilding resulted in 73 wins, and the young group is somewhat interesting. The Brewers will miss Chris Carter’s 41 home runs but maybe not so much if Eric Thames hits as he did in Korea and if Ryan Braun remains productive. The Brewers are not ready to contend, but they are slowly progressing.
No. 26 Cincinnati Reds — The Reds have not quite mastered the rebuild yet, and the gradual movement of veterans likely will continue at various points. At times the Reds were a disaster on the field with many shortcomings. While they might improve at the plate, the arms are lacking.
No. 27 Arizona Diamondbacks — Losing A.J. Pollack for most of the season set an ominous tone last year. The underwhelming showing by Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller did not help. There are some pieces with Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta, Jake Lamb and Yasmany Tomas, but hardly enough to be serious contenders.
No. 28 Minnesota Twins — The 83 wins in 2015 proved fluky as the Twins lost 109 times last year. The Twins possess some nice pieces in Brian Dozier (if he is not traded), Miguel Sano and maybe finally Byron Buxton, but as with many bad teams, pitching is a significant issue.
No. 29 Oakland Athletics — Only two years ago, Oakland was coming off three straight playoff appearances. Then Billy Beane traded Josh Donaldson, and the rebuild was on. So far it hasn’t worked, and if Sonny Gray is not healthy, it will stunt the process even more since he figures to be coveted by contenders at the deadline.
No. 30 San Diego Padres — The Padres remain in oblivion despite their significant roster changes since the end of the 2014 season. San Diego did little in the offseason, and the team will continue footing the bill for shedding so many prospects early in general manager A.J. Preller’s tenure.
Carlos Beltran made his bones in his first stint in Houston in 2004, when he helped the Astros to the NL playoffs after being acquired from Kansas City in June. Beltran made his money after hitting eight postseason homers, signing a seven-year, $119 million deal with the Mets. He returns to the Astros to help fuel another playoff run.Los Angeles Angels
Cameron Maybin is the kind of player who could flourish in Mike Scioscia’s system. Maybin recorded 40, 26 and 23 stolen bases in the three seasons in which he played at least 125 games, and Scioscia likes little ball. Maybin slashed a career-high .315/.383/.418 in 94 games with Detroit last year.Oakland A’s
Sonny Gray’s forearm injury not only limited him to 22 starts and caused a career-high 5.69 ERA last year, but it also deprived the A’s of their most dependable starting pitcher. Oakland used 14 starters last year, all of whom made at least five starts. Gray is healthy now, and the A’s need him.Seattle Mariners
Since his 19-win 2009 season, Felix Hernandez has been ridden hard and put away wet. Is it catching up to him. He averaged more than 226 innings in the next six seasons after that before a 2016 calf injury limited him to 25 starts, 153 innings and a 3.82 ERA, his highest mark in a decade. How will be recover?Texas Rangers
Jonathan Lucroy identified the Rangers as the best fit for his present and future at the trade deadline last July when he refused a trade to Cleveland, and he was right in the short term, producing 11 homers, 31 RBIs, a .885 OPS in 47 games with the Rangers. His presence all year will be another plus.
Chicago White Sox
Left-hander Jose Quintana has become the de facto ace of the staff after Chris Sale’s departure, and he deserves it. Quintana has not missed a start in four years, and he owns a 3.35 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in that span, good numbers that look even better a hitter’s park. It is no wonder teams are after him.Cleveland Indians
Carlos Carrasco really is not fair. His four-pitch mix begins with a 94 mph fastball and includes a slider that according to Fangraphs was one of top eight pitches in getting swinging strikes and ground balls. Terry Francona’s brilliant postseason use of Andrew Miller masked Carrasco’s absence because of a fractured hand, but Carrasco is healthy again.Detroit Tigers
Wife Kate Upton was right, Justin Verlander was cheated out of the 2016 AL Cy Young Award after a 16-win, 254-strikeout season. Verlander, who turns 34 on Feb. 20, remains the ace of a staff that needs everything it can get out of him. He has subtly changed his repertoire with a little more slider and a little changeup.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals had success in resurrecting Kendrys Morales’ career, and now they are betting on the upside of Jorge Soler. The right fielder was acquired from the Cubs over the winter for 2018 free-agent-to-be Wade Davis, one of those offseason deals small-market clubs must make. Soler homered once every 19 at-bats last year.
Top prospect Byron Buxton, the 2012 No. 2 overall draft pick, has yet to make the splash scouts predicted, which goes to the perils of scouting and the difficulty of the game at the highest level. However, Buxton’s power/speed tools have not gone away, and he may be poised to break out in his age-23 season.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Mark Trumbo hit a major-league-high 47 homers last year in a park that suited him perfectly, and it seemed like the perfect jumping off point into free agency. The market did not respond, leaving him little choice but to return for $37.5 million over three years. How will he respond?
Boston Red Sox
Pablo Sandoval is penciled in as the Red Sox’s starting third baseman entering spring training. Yes, that Sandoval, the one who disappointed in 2015 after signing a five-year, $95 million free agent deal and then missed almost all of last year with a shoulder injury. On the positive side, he can hit, and he is reported to be in shape.
New York Yankees
Catcher Gary Sanchez blew up after being promoted in early August, hitting 11 homers in a 15-game span and 20 homers in 53 games overall. The Yankees believe in him, trading Brian McCann in the offseason, and Sanchez worked on his strength during the winter in order to sustain over a full season.
Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Duffy was a stealth star in San Francisco’s 2014 World Series win, flashing power and a plus glove at third base while finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting. The principal return for Matt Moore at last year’s deadline, Duffy should fit at shortstop, where he spent most of his minor league career.
Toronto Blue Jays
Put Devon Travis’s first two injury-hampered seasons together and you have a very workable second baseman — 46 doubles, 19 homers and 85 RBIs in 163 games. Shoulder and issues limited him 2015-16, and he was forced out of the AL Championship Series with a knee injury. Healthy, he enters spring as the top choice to hit leadoff.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
The D-backs opted to scapegoat general manager Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale for their 2016 struggles, but the late spring injury to A.J. Pollock was the more appropriate culprit. A two-way producer who ranked sixth in the majors in WAR in 2015, Pollock is back after playing only 12 games last year.
Rookie shortstop Trevor Story was a walking history lesson last year, tying major league records with 10 homers in April and 10 homers in his first 21 games. Thumb surgery cost him the final two months of the season after he hit 27 dingers in 97 games. He is healthy again, but that will be a tough act to follow.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Justin Turner knew exactly how to handle a contract year, setting career marks in virtually every offensive category — 34 doubles, 27 homers, 90 RBIs — in his first season as a regular. The Dodgers have to algorithms to believe he can do it again, and they gave him a four-year, $64 million deal as proof.
San Diego Padres
The most intriguing name in a mostly retread rotation is right-hander Luis Perdomo, who was thrown into the fire in his age-23 season after joining the Padres in a roundabout Rule 5 move. He throws 94 mph and showed progress after moving into the rotation for good in mid-June.
San Francisco Giants
Hunter Pence missed only two games from 2012-14 before injuries limited him the past two seasons. The Giants are solid on offense but not particularly overpowering, and they need Pence’s middle-of-the-order bat to be at their best. At 33, it remains to be seen if injuries will persist.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Kyle Schwarber was the feel-good story of the World Series when he returned from a devastating leg injury in time to serve as a designated hitter in the games at Cleveland. Schwarber brings another big bat to a talented roster and another malleable piece for manager Joe Maddon.
A starter in 2015, Cuban free agent Raisel Iglesias was used out in the bullpen when he returned from injury last June after missing two months. He converted six of eight save opportunities when asked to close in August, and he has the stuff to keep the role.
Right-hander Zach Davies is not physically overpowering at 6 feet, 155 pounds, and his fastball rarely passes 90 mph. However, he has extraordinary command of a four-pitch mix — the best command in baseball in 2016, according to Baseball Prospectus. He could be ready to take another step up the rotation.
Right fielder Gregory Polanco is so athletic — 6-foot-5, 235 pounds — it is scary, and he put it all to use in a breakout 2016 season with 34 doubles, 22 homers, 86 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in his age-24 season. A 30-30 season and superstardom await.
St. Louis Cardinals
Right-hander Michael Wacha is the Cardinals’ nominal No. 5 starter for now, and he has the resume to validate his choice after a 17-victory 2015, his only healthy season in the past three. However, top prospect Alex Reyes is waiting in the wings, and it may be only a matter of time …
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Shortstop Dansby Swanson was everything Atlanta believed he would be in his first dip in the major league pool last season, slashing .302/.361/.442 with seven doubles and three homers in 38 games after an August promotion. The first overall pick in the 2015 has All-Star written all over him.
Right-hander Dan Straily was solid in an under-the-radar manner after the 2016 All-Star break. He won eight of his last 10 decisions and gave up more than three runs only once in 15 second-half starts. On the season, he allowed three or fewer hits in 11 starts, tied for the major league lead.
New York Mets
Jose Reyes rehabilitated himself after rejoining the Mets following a two-month suspension last summer, hitting eight homers and stealing nine bases in 60 games. But he played third base, and David Wright is back after missing the better part of two seasons with back issues. How will that play out?
Shortstop Freddy Galvis was a power hitter and a plus defender in his second season as a regular in 2016, when he hit 20 homers, equaling the number from his first four seasons combined. Which begs the question, what do the Phils do when J.P. Crawford, Baseball America’s No. 1 minor league prospect, is promoted?
Shortstop Trea Turner was a revelation after an early-June promotion last season, and his acquisition as the player to be named in a three-team trade finalized in June 2015 could rank as GM Mike Rizzo’s finest deal. Turner amassed 13 homers, 33 stolen bases and a .937 OPS in 73 games. Scary good