In the spring of 2014, roughly 31 months before he was drunkenly dropping F-bombs on live television, unapologetically lit as his team celebrated the most overdue championship in North American professional sports, Theo Epstein knew nobody outside his front office thought much of the Chicago Cubs.
In his two seasons since taking over their baseball operations departments, the Cubs had sucked - hard and deliberately. The supposed fruits of the rebuild Epstein and Jed Hoyer spearheaded weren't yet in bloom, and they wouldn't blossom that season, either. Still, on a forgettable March day that preceded a forgettable campaign in which the Cubs would finish 73-89, Epstein saw what few else could.
"There's definitely a dichotomy with how we're perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization," Epstein told ESPN's Tim Keown about a week before Opening Day. "There's a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable."
Now, two-and-a-half years later, the entire world knows about that progress and potential. They'll tell their grandkids about that progress and potential, more commonly known as Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Javier Baez - the youthful core that propelled the Chicago Cubs - the Chicago Freaking Cubs - to a World Series championship earlier this week.
Epstein's methodology required trust from ownership, and patience from a fan base that exhausted its patience maybe five decades earlier, but, man, did it ever work out. Not only because the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 - seriously, guys, the CHICAGO CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES IN 2016 - but because the Chicago Cubs are poised to be the best team in baseball for a long, long time. They're poised to win the World Series again in 2017. Here's why:
POKE, CUBS, POKE
After adjusting for park effects, the Cubs fielded easily the best offense in the National League in 2016, and, if you discount the "contributions" from the pitcher's spot, rivaled the Boston Red Sox as baseball's foremost offensive juggernaut. Hell, even with at least two plate appearances a night going to a pitcher, the Cubs finished third in the majors in runs scored (787). Though they didn't hit for an especially high average (.256), they had plenty of power in 2016 and walked more often than any other team. This is significant because, with the possible exception of Dexter Fowler, the Cubs will bring back every one of their regulars in 2017, and have ostensible outfielder Kyle Schwarber back launching baseballs out of Wrigley Field all summer, too.
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The regression monster is an insatiable beast, and a number of Cubs players performed above their career norms in 2016, but this is still a team that - between Rizzo, Bryant, Zobrist, and Schwarber - has a crazy high offensive floor, and room for improvement. Can Jason Heyward possibly be as bad as he was this year again? What if Addison Russell continues to improve his contact rate, and Javier Baez really is the more disciplined version of himself we saw this year? Even if those things don't happen, the Cubs are going to rake.
THROW, CUBS, THROW
Hard as it is to believe, as good as the Cubs were at scoring runs, they were even better at preventing them. Propelled by a rotation in which Jake Arrieta, the reigning National League Cy Young award winner, was their third-best option, the Cubs led the majors in ERA (3.15), and, after adjusting for park effects and their league's run-scoring environment, were eight percentage points better at preventing earned runs than the second-best team. While ERA doesn't correlate as well year to year as, say, fielding independent pitching, even when looking at the defense-independent performance of Chicago's starters, the Cubs are sitting pretty for 2017. (Oh, yeah, all five of these guys are coming back next year.)
With Aroldis Chapman set to land a mammoth deal as a free agent this winter, the Cubs' bullpen will take a step back in 2017, barring an offseason addition, but considering how strong they are both offensively and in their starting rotation, they may not need a Cleveland Indians-esque group of relievers. Last year, with essentially the same lineup and starting corps, the average leverage index foisted upon Chicago's relievers was tied for fifth-lowest in the bigs. That's a fancy way of saying they didn't throw a lot of critical innings because, more often than not, the game was already in hand by the time their starter was done. Expect more of the same next year.
HEY, CHICAGO, WHADDYA PAY?
In March, Forbes pegged the Cubs as the fifth-most valuable franchise in Major League Baseball, worth an estimated $2.2 billion following a 22-percent jump year over year. That was before the 2016 campaign, in which the Cubs drew more fans per game (39,906) than all but four teams and, y'know, won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.
This past season, the Cubs had an Opening Day payroll of just over $171 million, eviscerating the previous franchise record of $144 million from 2010 (two seasons before Epstein took over). Not including arbitration raises for their four eligible players - Jake Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Justin Grimm - the Cubs have committed only $117 million to bring back the core elements of the 25-man roster that snapped their century-plus-old drought. As such, brace yourselves for the possibility that this ludicrously talented Cubs team will have monies - possibly many, many monies - to play with this winter, enabling Epstein to go out and address whatever piddling weaknesses this team may have.