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Elite pitching, dynamic slugging duo are Cubs’ calling cards
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As the 2017 fantasy baseball season approaches, we take a look at the biggest news and storylines from each club. We’ll feature one team each weekday … and we’ll finish up on Feb. 15, the first day all teams will have their pitchers and catchers on the field for workouts.

So much went right for the Chicago Cubs in 2016 — and not just in the postseason, when they won their first World Series title since 1908. (You may have heard about that.) The Cubs were among the best in all phases of the game: pitching, hitting and defense. From a fantasy standpoint, however, they were exceptionally top-heavy. The starting pitchers were dominant, but manager Joe Maddon’s liberal use of the entire 25-man roster resulted in just two offensive stars. Will that be the case again in 2017?

2016 at a glance

Record: 103-58 (1st in NL Central)
Hitting: 3th (4.99 R/G)
Pitching: 1st (3.15 ERA)

Arrivals

OF Jon Jay
RP Wade Davis

The loss of free agent Dexter Fowler created a hole in center field, one the Cubs filled with Jay. Unlike Fowler, Jay doesn’t have much power or speed. Plus, he’s coming off two injury-plagued seasons.

Davis also has some injury concerns after dealing with an elbow issue last season — and seeing his average fastball velocity drop down the stretch. He’s still in the elite tier if he’s healthy.

Players to watch

3B/OF Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
C/OF Willson Contreras
SP Jon Lester

Bryant deservedly won the NL MVP award with a fabulous season (.292, 39 HR, 121 R, 102 RBI) at the age of 24. He’ll be a top-5 overall pick in just about every draft. One of the keys to his success was a drop in strikeout rate from 31% to 22%. Outfield eligibility is a bonus.

As the cleanup hitter in a high-OBP offense, Rizzo had the fifth-most at-bats in the majors with runners in scoring position — and he produced a .341/.460/.618 slash line in those 170 at-bats. Despite a slow start, he still finished with a .292 average, 32 homers and 109 RBI.

Contreras was promoted at midseason and fit in perfectly. He even saw action in left field to keep his bat in the lineup on days he wasn’t catching. That probably won’t be necessary this season with veteran catcher David Ross retiring and Miguel Montero in the final year of his contract. Contreras, 24, is a solid defender and the long-term answer behind the plate.

Lester could also serve as a proxy for Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks as well. All three were among the top 11 fantasy starters in 2016. (And John Lackey was 18th.) They didn’t have elite strikeout rates (all between 8.1 and 8.7 K/9), but the high innings totals with great defense behind them produced fantasy gold … and a total of 53 wins.

Sleepers

2B/SS/3B Javier Baez
SP Mike Montgomery

Simply wearing a Cubs uniform makes it almost impossible for a player to be a fantasy sleeper. Baez won accolades for his glovework, but cutting his lofty strikeout rate was an even more praiseworthy development. He probably won’t play full-time, so perhaps he falls far enough that fantasy owners can take advantage of his position flexibility.

Montgomery’s first career save just happened to come in Game 7 of the World Series. However, he’s the leading candidate to be the fifth starter. His minor league stats as a starter aren’t great, but any pitcher on this club shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bullpen

Closer: Wade Davis
Next: Hector Rondon

Davis is a good fit for reasons outlined above. However, he doesn’t quite land in the tier of elite closers because the Cubs are so good, they often win games and don’t even need a closer to save it. Even though they had Rondon — and later Aroldis Chapman — the Cubs tied for 22nd in the majors with 38 total saves.

Position battles

The most interesting question about the Cubs lineup is how much time Kyle Schwarber will spend in left field. He’s a fantastic hitter with plus power, but he hasn’t proven he can hit left-handed pitching. So how many at-bats can fantasy owners expect? 400? 450? More? Schwarber won’t come cheaply, so he’ll most likely be overvalued.

When Schwarber sits, Ben Zobrist will play left field and Baez will start at second.

Jay is set to platoon with Albert Almora in center field, although the Cubs’ best overall lineup would have Jason Heyward in center and Baez at second. Fantasy owners who put too much stock in any of these guys getting everyday at-bats could be subjected to the dreaded Maddon Curse. (Yeah, I just made that up.)

Prospects

2B Ian Happ
OF Eloy Jimenez

Happ fits in well with the Cubs’ culture of versatility — he’s a switch-hitter who can play both second base and the outfield. He has a nice combination of power and speed, but there’s no reason to rush him at age 22. Look for him to begin the year at Class AA and possibly get a late-season call-up.

Jimenez, 20, opened eyes at the 2016 All-Star Futures Game with a home run and a spectacular catch. He hit .329/.369/.532 at High Class A, then crushed it in the Arizona Fall League. He could be a special player.

Projected batting order

1. 2B/LF Ben Zobrist
2. LF Kyle Schwarber*
3. 3B Kris Bryant
4. 1B Anthony Rizzo
5. SS Addison Russell
6. RF Jason Heyward
7. C Willson Contreras
8. CF Jon Jay^

* Possible platoon with 2B Javier Baez
^ Platoon with Albert Almora

Projected rotation

1. LHP Jon Lester
2. RHP Jake Arrieta
3. RHP Kyle Hendricks
4. RHP John Lackey
5. LHP Mike Montgomery

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