MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cubs well aware of challenge facing champs

Like NCAA tourney proves again, defending title often unlikely

Cubs well aware of challenge facing champs

MESA, Ariz. -- The word was spreading around the Cubs' clubhouse as players filtered in from the field at Sloan Park. On the Cubs' docket this day was an exhibition against Team Japan, which was in town for a North American tuneup in the midst of the World Baseball Classic tournament.

But the Cubs, like many sports fans, were also following another tournament altogether -- the March Madness that was No. 1 overall seed and defending NCAA men's basketball champ Villanova getting knocked out in the second round of the NCAAs.

"Wisconsin got 'em?" Cubs starter John Lackey asked.

Yep. Got 'em. And there, in one fell swoop, was a reminder -- as if a Cubs team that just ended a 108-year title drought needed it -- repeating ain't easy.

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So what will make the 2017 Cubs different than the 2016-17 Wildcats -- or, for that matter, every World Series champion in the 21st century?

Lackey, a three-time World Series winner who was on two previous clubs (the 2003 Angels and '14 Red Sox) that followed up their title triumph with a sub-.500 season, is as good a resource as any for that question. He had a pretty good answer, too.

"This is a way different animal," Lackey said, "because we're so much younger. Those were more veteran teams that I won with the last couple times. So I think the youth is going to help us. They still have energy, they're still trying to prove themselves, they're still going to arbitration. They've got a lot in front of them."

Lackey was clearly referring to the Cubs' position-player group and not so much a rotation with three guys in their 30s. But he does have a point.

The Cubs' average position-player age last season was 27.4. Per the data available at Baseball-Reference.com, that was the lowest of any club that went on to win the World Series since the 1969 Mets (25.9), back when MLB's average position-player age was a full year younger than it was in 2016.

Now, that doesn't mean we need to get into a dissertation over what happened to the 1970 Mets (and Cubs fans reading this don't need or want to hear anything else remotely associated with the '69 Mets anyway), but what's important here is that this Cubs team is in the fortunate position of being both in a formidable stage and a formative one.

"It's a really interesting situation," manager Joe Maddon said. "Our young guys get it. They're not living in the past, by any means. They know they're even better than what you saw last year. They want to pull that out of themselves ... and of course there's money to be made, too."

Kris Bryant specifically demonstrated that with a record-setting $1.05 million deal in his second pre-arbitration offseason. That was a nice message for the Cubs to send to their young guys: "Go ahead and win an MVP, and we'll take care of you."

In all seriousness, this camp has given us a window into the ridiculous possibility that the Cubs' position-player reservoir is not nearly as tapped as some might assume after so many high-profile promotions. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and second baseman Ian Happ all had outstanding big league camps (though Jimenez did require tests for a sore shoulder Saturday after an awkward recent throw from the outfield).

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Not bad for a club already dealing with the (good) dilemma of where and when to play Javier Baez.

OK, so what about the pitching? That's clearly where the so-called "hangover" concern is very real.

Jake Arrieta, 31, has thrown 468 1/3 innings over the past two years; Jon Lester, 33, has thrown 457 1/3; and Lackey, 38, has thrown 429 2/3. It shouldn't surprise you to learn all three rank in the top 10 among big league pitchers in innings over 2015-16. Kyle Hendricks is younger, at 27, but he's coming off a 404-inning body of work in that two-season span.

Forget Maddon's mad scientist approach to the lineup. His attempt to appropriately manage and cap innings -- often against the wishes of his starting pitcher -- will be interesting to watch early this season. Lackey has already called the Cubs' potential hybrid model, in which Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery serve as co-fifth men to occasionally buy the other starters extra off-days, a potential "disruption."

But the Cubs do feel they have a deeper bullpen (new closer Wade Davis looked especially sharp against Japan on Saturday) and decent starting insurance (Eddie Butler, Alec Mills, Casey Kelly) to brace for the inevitable. The Cubs got 93.8 percent of their starts last season from five guys and, well, that's going to be tough to repeat, too.

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"We were healthy the last two years," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We hope we're healthy again, but we've also got to be realistic."

Realistically? There's a not-small chance the Cubs might have to consider parting with some of that aforementioned position-player depth to assist the pitching staff.

But that's the beauty of it. One way or another, the Cubs are well-equipped. It's so rare in this sport to feel genuinely good about a club's chances of repeating, just because we've seen too many times the wear and tear that comes with a deep run -- especially one that extends into November. The Cubs, though, are the rare World Series winner that still has a ton of untapped potential, and they are, therefore, deserving of that No. 1 spot on your power rankings out of more than mere deference to their 2016 dominance.

All that said, as Villanova just taught us, it's best not to fill out power rankings -- or brackets -- in ink.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.