After finally ending the most discussed championship drought in American team sports, the Chicago Cubs enter the 2017 season with perhaps a bold sense of relief. The heightened pressure of winning a World Series with one of the highest payrolls in baseball is no longer on the shoulders of Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon and there is plenty of leftover talent from 2016 to win the National League Central.
But the big question still remains: Can the Cubs win it all again?
According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs have the best odds of winning the World Series at 19/5. Chicago is followed by the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers—all with 7/1 odds.
There is certainly reason to be optimistic about the Cubs' chances. Chicago, coming off a 103-win season, still has plenty of depth and youth. While Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel are no longer in Chicago, the roster is mostly the same from last season. Veteran Wade Davis should provide some added help to an excellent rotation and hard-throwing Carl Edwards Jr. has a chance to be solid closer after striking out 52 batters in 36 innings in 2016.
It will be interesting to see if Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo can continue to arguably be the best No.2 and No.3 hitters in baseball. Rizzo has been an impact bat since 2014 and posted his best OPS (.929) of his career, while Bryant is coming off an MVP season. Another big storyline will be Jason Heyward, a 2010 All-Star who was highly disappointing season with the bat. The Cubs had one of the best offenses in baseball in 2016 and most signs point toward another big season.
While oddsmakers like the Cubs chances, experts do too. Of the eight reporters at Sports Illustrated who cast their predictions for the 2017 season, three picked the Cubs to the win the World Series—more than any other team. All eight picked Chicago to win the NL Central.
If there is some cause for concern it might be the farm system. Should Epstein make a trade to address a deficiency, his best prospect is outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who is ranked as the No. 14 prospect by Baseball America. After Jimenez, there's a big drop-off, with Ian Happ (No. 63), Albert Almora (No. 64) and Dylan Cease (No. 97). That might still be enough to land a key veteran, but Epstein may shy away from mortgaging the Cubs future for an October push.
The last time a team won consecutive titles was 2000, when the New York Yankees defeated the New York Mets for their third-straight title. The Yankees came within one win of four-straight titles when they fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
Since 2000, no team has won back-to-back titles, though the Philadelphia Phillies came close to repeating in 2009 and the Kansas City Royals came within a game of winning the 2014 World Series and then won it in 2015.
Conclusion: The Cubs look poised to win the NL Central, but after that it's a tough call. It wouldn't be surprising if Epstein is reluctant to make a trade by the deadline and instead focuses on holding onto prospects for 2018. Expect the Cubs to make some noise in the playoffs but probably fall short to a team like the Washington Nationals, New York Mets or Dodgers.