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Holy Cow! Cubs should be even better in 2017

Unfortunately for the rest of the NL, the North Siders are still on the rise
March 29, 2017

Can it get any better for the Cubs? Socially, probably not. Their 2016 World Series championship ride was a once-every-108-years style of celebration.But can they be better in 2017 than they were in '16? Absolutely.While the Cubs won 103 games last season, they should have won more based on their

Can it get any better for the Cubs? Socially, probably not. Their 2016 World Series championship ride was a once-every-108-years style of celebration.
But can they be better in 2017 than they were in '16? Absolutely.
While the Cubs won 103 games last season, they should have won more based on their +252 run differential. Their Pythagorean win total was 107, but they didn't reach it because they had a losing record (22-23) in one-run games.
Personnel-wise, how do they stack up this season compared to last year? I've been thinking about this all spring. Here's how I would break it down:
Starting pitching
2016: Despite Jacob Arrieta having a subpar second half, the rotation was the team's driving force. Kyle Hendricks' emergence and Jonathan Lester's reliability were keys for a group of starters that went 81-39 with a 2.96 ERA over 989 innings, which led the National League. John Lackey and Jason Hammel contributed to the top five guys making 152 starts, and that total could have been higher if Joe Maddon didn't have October in mind.

2017: The top four arms are the same, with Brett Anderson replacing Hammel at the back end. Some regression seems likely, but there's room for improvement from Arrieta, whose ERA jumped to 3.10 (up from 1.77 in 2015). He lost some command during an 11-start run from late June through the end of August, but he was himself in October, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning of Game 2 of the World Series. It's asking a lot for Anderson to match Hammel as the No. 5 starter.
Outlook: Small step backward
Bullpen
2016: This was a team weakness -- but only when compared against the team's other strengths. Cubs relievers put up a 3.56 ERA (fourth lowest in the NL) and had only 15 blown saves (second fewest in the NL). But there was a clear need for a major move at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and Theo Epstein imported Albertin Chapman to replace Hector Rondon as closer. C.J. Edwards worked in 36 games after a June promotion, becoming a significant piece alongside Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Travis Wood. Lefty Mike Montgomery was added in a July trade.

2017:Wade Davis has been one of baseball's best relievers the past three years (1.18 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 185 appearances for the Royals). He's in for the full ride, replacing Chapman, and the Cubs will benefit from getting full seasons from Montgomery and Edwards. Free agents Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing add depth, while Strop, Rondon and Grimm return.
Outlook: Improved
Lineup
2016: The Cubs were strong enough to boast two NL MVP Award contenders in Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and Chicago finished second in the NL to the Rockies with 808 runs. William Fowler, Addison Russell and Benjamin Zobrist delivered big seasons, and rookie Willson Contreras was a major surprise after being summoned in mid-June. But the Cubs lost a big bat when Kyle Schwarber went down with a major knee injury in the third game of the season, and both Jason Heyward and Jorge Soler disappointed.

2017: Schwarber, Bryant and Rizzo could pile up 1,900-plus combined plate appearances hitting 1-2-3. That alone is reason to be excited about the potential of the lineup -- but there's more. Contreras will be the primary catcher all season. If Heyward doesn't hit better, he won't receive as many plate appearances as the 592 he had last season. Fowler's leadoff skills will be missed, but Albert Almora Jr. looks ready to step in.
Outlook: Improved
Fielding
2016: Defense was the Cubs' calling card, with Rizzo and Heyward winning NL Gold Glove Awards and both Russell and Javier Baez delivering double-digit totals in Defensive Runs Saved. By some measures, the Cubs helped their pitchers more than any team in the past 30 years, with even backup catcher David Ross and Arrieta worth five-plus DRS apiece.

2017: Baez, who played only 383 innings at second base last season, could get more time there than Zobrist this year. That would be a major positive. Almora projects as a defensive upgrade over Fowler. The obvious question is how will Schwarber play in left field. However, it's worth noting that the 2016 standard set by Soler and the rotating cast of left fielders wasn't high.
Outlook: (Surprisingly) improved
Bench
2016: Ross and outfielder Matthew Szczur were excellent in reserve roles. Because the Cubs carried three catchers, Maddon was able to utilize Contreras and Miguel Montero when they didn't start. Contreras' versatility played a big role.
2017: As long as the other regulars remain healthy, the Cubs have Baez, Zobrist or another (resting) regular available off the bench every day. No team in the Major Leagues has such a luxury. Holdovers Szczur and Thomas La Stella remain (although one could still be trimmed for a reliever in mid-April).
Outlook: Improved

Organizational depth
2016: Entry-level talent proved key in surviving Schwarber's injury, upgrading the catching position after Opening Day and adding needed parts at midseason. Epstein sacrificed shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres and first baseman Dan Vogelbach to land Chapman and Montgomery, respectively.
2017: As the Epstein era prospects mature, this should remain a strength. Second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ and third baseman Jeimer Candelario are knocking at the door, but there's no need for them. Outfielder John Andreoli and infielder Chesny Young aren't far behind, and the Cubs could swing a blockbuster if they were willing to deal 20-year-old outfielder Eloy Jimenez. Eddie Butler, acquired from Colorado in the offseason, looked like a Major League starter in Spring Training.
Outlook: Unchanged

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.