5 questions facing Cubs in title defense

5 questions facing Cubs in title defense

CHICAGO -- The last team to repeat as World Series champions was the Yankees, winning three in a row from 1998-2000. Those teams relied on the core four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. The Cubs have their own strong core of position players, including Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, and they're aiming at repeating as champions in 2017.

After winning the first World Series championship since 1908, what's next for the Cubs? Here are some questions they need to address in 2017:

1. Who leads off?

Dexter Fowler is gone, signing a five-year contract with the rival Cardinals, and the Cubs project Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr. to share center field. But who leads off? Manager Joe Maddon said he's considering Kyle Schwarber or Ben Zobrist for the job. Zobrist was second on the Cubs in on-base percentage in 2016 (.386), and although he isn't a threat to steal, he has the perfect patient approach at the plate.

In 69 games in 2015, Schwarber had a .355 on-base percentage; in five World Series games, it was .500. He has batted first twice for the Cubs. Expect Maddon to experiment in Spring Training.

2. Who will be the fifth starter?

The Cubs were fortunate in 2016 that their starters were productive and healthy, leading the Major Leagues with a 2.96 ERA. Jason Hammel is gone via free agency, and lefty Mike Montgomery, 27, is projected as the fifth starter, joining Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. Montgomery has appeared in 65 games in the big leagues, including 23 starts, and he's 5-7 with a 4.23 ERA as a starter.

The front office, though, knows a team can't make it through a season with just five starters (11 pitchers started in 2016 for the Cubs). Where will they find the depth? Expect Rob Zastryzny, Jake Buchanan, Aaron Brooks and Seth Frankoff to start at Triple-A Iowa and be the insurance unless the Cubs can add someone else in the offseason.

NL MVP - Kris Bryant

3. What will Bryant do for an encore?

Bryant is the first player to win the Golden Spikes Award (presented to the top collegiate player), the Minor League Player of the Year, the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player honors in four consecutive seasons.

"It's amazing to even know I'm the first to do that," Bryant said of winning the four awards. "It's very humbling, and I'm so grateful to get the opportunities to get to that point."

As Maddon likes to point out, the young players keep getting better. Bryant is a perfect example. He led the National League in runs scored (121), and posted career highs in batting average (.292), home runs (39) and RBIs (102). Bryant, 24, batted second most of the season, and it will be interesting to see where Maddon inserts him in the lineup in 2017.

Contreras' role set to expand

4. Is Willson Contreras ready to be the full-time catcher?

When the Cubs promoted Contreras from Triple-A Iowa last June, they wanted him to learn from Miguel Montero and David Ross. Now, Contreras is projected as the starter for 2017. Is he ready? The Cubs liked the youngster enough to have him start five of the seven World Series games to take advantage of his arm and limit the Indians' running game.

Contreras batted .282 in 76 regular-season games, hitting 12 home runs. He's more athletic than Montero, but still needs experience in terms of game-calling. Plus, Maddon will have to find out which catcher is the best match with Lester now that Ross has retired.

5. Can the Cubs win it all again?

When the Cubs won the World Series in 1908, it was their second in a row, having beaten the Tigers in '07 as well. Maddon planned on spending time this offseason finding the right motivational message to deliver in Spring Training.

"What are we going to rally around?" Maddon said. "You [win the World Series], and you relieve a burden. However, you want to do it again, you want to do it again the next year. You know the path, the road, the alleys are not going to be exactly the same -- they can't be. How do you motivate and get guys to think in a manner that permits you to do what you did last year, which was pretty special? That's where I'm going to be this winter. That's where I'm going to spend a lot of my thought process on."

And he'll probably have some new T-shirts, too.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.