Despite all of the acrimony, sadness, divisiveness, and gnashing of teeth that 2016 has produced to this point, we can all agree that this season provided one of the greatest endings ever seen on a baseball diamond.
With a momentous Game 7 capping off an amazing World Series, the Chicago Cubs erased 108 years of fear, frustration, and failure while also setting up a potential dynasty that could rival any of the great Yankees, Cardinals, or Giants runs of years past.
As my friends and family can attest, I was one of the few people outside of Cleveland that was not actively rooting for the Cubs to win. Sure, it made a fantastic and touching story for them to win and thereby make Cleveland the longest running baseball title drought around, but I usually root for underdogs.
It’s more fun when they pull off the remarkable. And this year, they nearly did.
When Rajai Davis slammed a low-inside fastball off Aroldis Chapman to erase a 6-3 deficit in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7, it looked like the Indians were going to pull it off. It looked like a 68-year run of nothing was about to halt.
When Chapman came out for the ninth, he was absolutely gassed. He had almost nothing left. But the Cleveland bats that inning — Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor — still could not quite square him up for a big hit.
I thought for sure Kipnis would take Chapman deep, a kid who grew up rooting for the Cubs sending the curse to a 109th year, but he struck out, while Santana and Lindor hit fly balls that settled into Cub gloves with nary a threat.
Then the rain came, and well, a lot of Cubs’ fans hailed it as divine intervention.
Whether that, or just lucky timing, or just a completely exhausted Bryan Shaw pitching for Cleveland, the Cubbies scored twice in the tenth inning. Good thing too, as the Indians grabbed one more in the bottom of the tenth before a meek grounder off the bat of Michael Martinez was fielded by Kris Bryant, tossed across to Anthony Rizzo, and just like that, one curse died while another lives on.
The Cubs ran the table this year, winning 103 regular-season games. They were a universal favorite to win the National League Central. They hit well, posting a team slash line of .256/.343/.429. They pitched well, leading the NL with a 3.15 ERA, a .212 average against, and a 1.11 WHIP. And, of course, they fielded well, posting a league-best .731 defense efficiency rating, which made their offense that much more potent, and the pitching that much better.
Individually, the Chicago cornerstones are Rizzo and Bryant, young sluggers who also displayed great athleticism in the field this year. With supplements up and down the lineup in Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Addison Russell, this group is built on youth, versatility, and hitting. Lots of hitting.*
*Oh, and GM Theo Epstein, who punched a ticket to Cooperstown with this, having been at the head of ending a combined 194 years of franchise curses of the Bambino and Billy Goat varieties.
And, of course, this postseason showed us all that bullpens are the new black. Terry Francona knew what he had in uber-pitcher Andrew Miller and used him brilliantly, as the lanky lefty appeared in 10 games, striking out 30 in 19 ⅓ innings. He was not scored upon against the Red Sox and Rangers, but did allow three runs to the Cubs.*
*Seeing him in four games, it is no surprise the Chicago buzzsaw got to Miller eventually.
With bullpen management becoming more and more important, and getting illuminated in this postseason by two of the most respected managers in today’s game, it seems only natural to ask what the next big trend will be.
This was the first World Series where no starting pitchers made it out of the fifth inning. So, it makes sense to say that the starting pitcher’s role is diminishing. However, because of the marathon, 162-game schedule of the regular season, it will never entirely disappear. No bullpen, no matter how good, can pitch four-plus innings every single day. Relievers are not conditioned for it.
With the uptick in bullpen usage, position player depth is at an all-time low. As a result, versatility is the key. Just look at World Series MVP Zobrist for proof. Starting his career with Tampa Bay as a shortstop, Zobrist has seen ample time at multiple spots, including 2016, where he played second base, first base, shortstop, and both outfield corners.
Heck, likely NL MVP Kris Bryant saw time at first base, left field, right field, center field, and even shortstop, in addition to his normal post of third.
This is where things are headed.
The game is healthy. The city of Chicago is jubilant. And as we all settle in for the Hot Stove season, let us all remember that there are good things out there.
And Spring Training, just five months away.