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Cubs outlook for 2017: Few weak spots for defending champs

Photos from Game 7 of the World Series at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Nov. 2, 2016.

After the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908, President Theo Epstein added insurance and balance to a taxed roster. Here’s a closer look at their landscape:

Starting pitching

There’s reasonable concern for a rotation that threw a major-league-high 989 innings and didn’t use a sixth starter until its 84th game. Jon Lester is coming off his best season, yet he has pitched 200 innings or more for five consecutive seasons and eight of his last nine. Jake Arrieta will be on a mission to win another World Series and earn a long-term contract — likely too long for the Cubs’ tastes. Manager Joe Maddon will be careful not to extend John Lackey, 38, who missed a shot at 200 innings last year. Kyle Hendricks remains low maintenance and his repertoire provides a timely changeup to the repertoire of Lester and Arrieta.

Relief pitching

New closer Wade Davis is in a contract year and appears as calm and determined as the Marlboro Man. Koji Uehara, 41, has a devastating split-finger fastball but has been placed on the disabled list three times in the last two seasons with non-arm injuries. There’s lots of mileage on Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, which means Carl Edwards Jr. can play a bigger role if he sharpens his curve and changeup. Justin Grimm could earn a more trust if he can regain the effectiveness that saw him limit left-handed batters to a .140 batting average in 2015. The Cubs hope Mike Montgomery can fill Travis Wood’s versatile role.

Offense

Much of the focus is on replacing Dexter Fowler’s .393 on-base percentage. A bigger issue, however, could be Kyle Schwarber’s production against left-handed pitchers. Another question: How often will Maddon use switch-hitting Ben Zobrist in the leadoff spot, considering that Zobrist’s production tailed off dramatically after filling for Fowler in late June and early July last season? The rest of the lineup is an opposing pitcher’s nightmare, with the mix of right-handed hitters (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras) and left-handed hitters (Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay).

Defense

None of the Cubs’ starting pitchers average at least a strikeout per inning, but they won 81 games and posted a 2.96 ERA thanks to their teammates’ defense. Maddon is a staunch defender of Schwarber in left field, but it’s likely that late-inning maneuvering will involve the insertion of Jon Jay in left or Zobrist moving from second to left and Javier Baez inserted at second base. The fearless Almora is an upgrade in center over Fowler, who played better than he was given credit for. The Cubs are confident that Contreras can handle the mental stress of handling a veteran pitching staff and controlling opponents’ running game.

Baserunning

The Cubs stole only 66 bases in 2016, 20th in the majors, but smart baserunning remains one of their assets. Bryant moved from first to third 20 times in 39 chances, and Zobrist scored from first five times in eight chances. They ranked in the top 10 in baserunning gain (extra bases taken and outs avoided on the base paths) according to Baseball Information Systems. Almora, who gained notice for taking second on a deep fly in Game 7 of the World Series, raises the Cubs’ baserunning IQ. The Cubs’ deep lineup and power potential could afford them to take more chances on the base paths.

Intangibles

Matching last season’s 25-6 start will be difficult with April games against the Dodgers and Red Sox. Nevertheless, the Cubs have plenty of built-in relief help to protect their starting pitchers navigate through the first three months of the season. Outfield flexibility also will play an important role as Schwarber will need occasional rest for his surgically repaired left knee. The franchise has enough young depth and money to address any midseason needs to vault them to the top as the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman did last summer.

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