By Andrew Kahn
As you may have heard, the Chicago Cubs broke a painfully long drought last year by claiming the franchise’s first World Series since 1908. If they win again this year, they’ll break another record drought: Not since 2000 has a team won back-to-back titles, the longest such streak in baseball history.
As things stand currently, the Cubs (32-32 through Tuesday) do not look like a playoff team. That is typical for a defending champ. Since the Yankees won their third straight in 2000, teams have been more likely to miss the playoffs (nine times) than qualify for the postseason. Only twice in that span (the Yankees in 2001 and the Phillies in 2009) has the defending champ returned to the Fall Classic.
The Cubs were the first-ever back-to-back champs, but doing so in the modern era is far more difficult. For a good chunk of baseball’s history, the best teams from each league met in the World Series. An extra round was implemented in 1969 and the wild card added another round in 1995. Since 2012, 10 teams make the playoffs, resulting in a wild card game. Even the best team in the league must win 11 playoff games in order to hoist the World Series trophy.
It is possible that the defending champ has a metaphorical target on its back. One would think that would apply to the other pennant winner as well, but the World Series loser since 2000 has made it back to the playoffs 11 times, reaching the World Series twice (Rangers in 2011, Royals in 2015). The Royals were able to redeem their loss. Does that mean the “target” theory is a myth? Or perhaps the losing team is in fact hungrier than the victors? It’s impossible to know either way, but human nature suggests even professional athletes will let up a bit after achieving success.
More likely, the same reason many thought the Cubs were a budding dynasty is why they are struggling: They are young. Addison Russell and Kris Bryant are in just their third season in the majors. Albert Almora and Willson Contreras debuted last year, when Javier Baez saw regular action for the first time. Kyle Schwarber played in just 71 regular season games entering this year, and Ian Happ is a rookie. Those are six of their starting position players and a prominent bench guy, all of whom are 25 years old or younger.
All of their numbers are down from last season. MVPs don’t typically fall off, and Bryant has been very good again this year. Though all of them are former first-round picks, assuming they will build off strong 2016 campaigns and keep ascending is a mistake. We think of Schwarber’s strong debut and heroic performance in the World Series, but he doesn’t have enough of a big league track record to determine whether his start this season (.172 batting average) is an aberration. Contreras looked better sharing time with two veterans last year than he does as the main guy behind the dish in ’17. Baez is fighting old habits at the plate.
The result, offensively, is 300 runs scored through 64 games (boosted by Tuesday’s 14-run outburst). The Cubs scored 344 runs by this point last season. Of course, the pitching has been worse too (292 runs allowed compared to 185 last year). Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey are veterans who have struggled out of the gate, while 27-year-old Kyle Hendricks, who had a breakout season a year ago, struggled before landing on the DL.
The Cubs are certainly not doomed. They’re only a game out of first in the crowded National League Central. The young core may be going through a rough patch as opposed to showing their true colors. The pitching and defense may not be as good as last year, but it should improve. The result probably won’t be 103 wins, but the Cubs’ championship last year was historic for another reason: It was just the fifth time since the start of the wild card era that the team with the best record won the World Series. The Cubs don’t necessarily have to be as good as they were last season to repeat. They just need to get in and get hot.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn