The Chicago Cubs ended the 108 year "curse" in 2016 by winning the world series with one of the best all around teams we have seen in baseball over the past ten years or so. Winning 103 games and winning the division by 17.5 games led the Cubs to an impressive playoff run. This team featured 5 All-Star starters including the entire infield, the 2nd and 3rd place vote getters in the Cy young, and the NL MVP in 3rd baseman Kris Bryant.
If you take a look back at the Cubs history you could easily say that the Cubs in 2017 were one of the top 5 teams in franchise history but some Cubs fans felt that the team under performed to their potential and to be honest they did. Some of that had to do with players having career seasons in 2016 and returning to normal numbers in 2017. However after a few off season moves and some players looking better than they did in 2017, the 2018 Cubs could be even better than their world series team, here are a few reasons why.
Starting pitching - The Starting pitching was the Cubs achilles heal in 2017 with players like John Lackey and Jake Arrieta having inconsistent years. It also took the Cubs half of the season to find a 5th starter that would stay in that role for more than a few starts. Jon Lester also had a bad year by his standards and missed a few starts due to injury. This year the Cubs starting lineup looks to be one of the best in baseball if it can stay healthy. With Lester named the starter the lineup will most likely look like this: Lester (L) Darvish (R) Hendricks (R) Quintana (L) Chatwood (R). Really the cubs could run any one of those first three pitchers as their number one and Quintana would probably be the #1 pitcher on a handful of teams this year. If the cubs can stay healthy they could easily have 4 pitchers with ERA's under 3.5 and maybe even all 5. Tyler chatwood will have the luxury of being the teams #5 starter which means he will be facing a lot of the other teams #5 starters if things can line up well and to be honest he would probably be a #3 starter on most teams in the majors. All in all the Cubs pitching rotation should be stacked and come playoff time the Cubs could have Kyle Hendricks or Yu Darvish as their 3rd starter which would be hard to beat considering Hendricks has a sub 3.00 career playoff ERA and Yu Darvish is Yu Darvish.
Young players getting better - A few players in particular could have big improvements from last year. Not all of them necessarily had bad years but I definitely see a few players who could make big strides. Two players in particular had step back seasons in 2017, including Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber played his first full MLB season and had many ups and downs, literally as he spent a few weeks in AAA trying to find his rythem. Russell faced injuries and never found his groove. Russell has never hit for much average, usually around the 2.40 mark, but he had 21 HR and 95 RBI in 2016 compared to just 12 and 43 in 2017. Kyle Schwarber showed up to spring training about half the size he was a year ago, after an off season of hard work Schwarber looks like he could be in line for a breakout year. Russell should also have a bounce back year and if he consistently hits in the bottom third of the lineup as he did early in his career it could be beneficial to him, even if he doesn't reach his 2016 numbers I think Russell could easily hit .250 with 17-18 HR and 75 RBI. Schwarber also has the ability to lead the team in HR this year and if he can eventually get to the point to where he can be an every day player he can be a 50+ HR guy.
2 other guys who could have big breakout years are Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. Almora Jr has less upside than Happ but he is already one of the best defensive outfielders in the MLB making highlight plays every time he plays. If he can continue to establish himself as a strong right handed bat off the bench. Almora played in 132 games last year, mostly coming off the bench but hit 8 HR, 46 RBI and .298 in 299 at bats. If he can continue to hit near the .300 mark and add a little bit of power he will continue to see the field in 2018. Happ on the other hand had a breakout rookie year hitting 24 HR and 68 RBI after only playing in 115 games. Happ did see his average to go down as the season went on but he could be in line to be the 4th member of a stacked middle of the lineup which includes Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Wilson Contreras. If Happ can get his average up to about .275 this year he could be an everyday player hitting either 1st or 5th in the lineup
While the cubs don't have much depth in the minors that is because all of their prospects are in the majors. The Cubs will most likely have 5 everyday starters in Contreras (C) Rizzo (1B) Baez (2B) Russell (SS) and Bryant (3B). the cubs outfield will feature Schwarber (L) Happ (S) Almora Jr. (R) Heyward (L) and Zobrist (S). Happ, Heyward and Schwarber will probably get the most starts with Happ and Zobrist potentially making some starts in the infield especially against good right handers. Zobrist will be a guy who plays all around this year and should have a solid year as he was hurt last year and who knows about Heyward. If his swing is finally fixed then watch out because the Cubs offense could be unstoppable.
The only question mark the cubs have is the bullpen, especially at closer but the Cubs front office will be able to figure that out if and when the time comes. No matter what happens there, the Cubs should win the NL Central and be a contender for the NL pennant. Chicago had to wait 108 years between world series wins but if things go as planned the wait for the next one could be much shorter.