A lot of people are bidding 2016 farewell with a "good riddance" attitude, and given the sheer number of losses of beloved figures in both pop culture and sports, it's easy to understand why. But as it has so often in our collective history, baseball provided a needed counterpoint to the too-frequent doses of heartbreak emerging from the daily news. From stem to stern, the Chicago Cubs overcame a century of bad history and the sky-high preseason expectations to win the franchise's first World Series in 108 years. And they did it by taking a winner-take-all World Series Game 7 in Cleveland that will forever make almost any list of the most riveting ballgames every played. While 2017 carries with it the inherent promise of the unknown, this past year in baseball will be a tough act to follow.
That's true for me on a personal note. Just before the All-Star break, I was asked to help cover a Cubs team that was generating a staggering amount of interest. I had covered baseball for much of my sportswriting career but had zeroed in on the NBA the last few years. As much as I enjoy basketball from both a fan and analytical standpoint, I realized that I missed hardball to a degree that I had not anticipated. Because of that and the allure of the Cubs' quest, I did not have to be asked twice. As I've said what seems like 1,000 times to people since the World Series ended: It was not a hard story to cover.
There will be great baseball stories in 2017. There always are in the most literary of all sports. And there will be new, fascinating analytical angles in the most mathematical of all sports. The list of possibilities is endless. But today, a few days before the end of 2016, here are a few angles that should bear watching in the year to come.
1. Can the Cubs repeat?
This seems like an easy question to answer: of course! The Cubs took a lot of grief over the decades as their drought grew to an epic length. But for a team that has been around since 1876, their overall World Series win count of three remains low, if only because they have the archrival Cardinals and their 11 championships to contend with. And think of this: Between the Cubs' 1908 and 2016 titles, the Yankees won 27 World Series. This Cubs group was built for sustainability, so the quest to repeat should keep us engrossed deep into the summer, if not further. Can the Lovable Losers of the last century become the Evil Empire of the next?
2. If not the Cubs, then who?
Projections are a great, even essential, tool for establishing a baseline of expectations for each team. But they have their limits, too. The forecasts you see this time of year usually are somewhat unsurprising. You have player movement shaking things up, but you also have regression working to pull everyone toward the middle. True outliers are fairly rare, but that's not really the case this winter. The Dodgers, Red Sox and Indians all loom as obvious prime threats to the Cubs on the spreadsheets. These are some powerful forecasts, so if the 2017 World Series ends up as some mix of those teams, it would not be a surprise. But this is baseball, so if some of these power teams falter and others like the Nationals, Giants or Mets emerge as frontrunners, who would really be shocked?
3. Where have all the great curses gone?
After oh-so-close, gut-wrenching defeats in both the 1997 and 2016 World Series, have the Indians entered "cursed" territory? Nah, maybe now we can just abandon curse talk forever. Still, Cleveland's title drought has now stretched to a not-insignificant 68 years. This is a a young team, and it landed a premier bat in former Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion this offseason. There are 28 teams' worth of fan bases who might argue, but wouldn't a Cubs-Indians rematch seem appropriate?
4. Will any balls be hit in play?
The record for the MLB strikeout rate has been broken in each of the last nine seasons. Meanwhile, after a long slide, the frequency of homers in 2016 was the second-highest ever. These aren't necessarily great trends for the aesthetics of the game. Homers are great, and sure, there is no reason to go back to stigmatizing strikeouts either. But let's give all those great defenders something to do.
5. How will Bryce Harper respond to his "down" season?
If Harper had improved on his MVP season of 2015, it would have been borderline monstrous, even though he's at an age when he should still be growing as a hitter. That season, at age 22, his 198 OPS+ was the second-highest ever for a player that young. The guy ahead of him? Ted Williams. They guy behind him? Ty Cobb. A historical neighborhood doesn't get any more elite than that. Alas, Harper suffered through what is assumed to be an injury-plagued 2016 season in which he still managed a 116 OPS+ and ranked second in the NL in walks. Let's see if Harper gets back on the Hall of Fame track in 2017.
6. Do the Astros have enough pitching?
The Astros have had an aggressive offseason as they look to get back into the postseason and capitalize on what seems like a future championship core. With Carlos Beltran back in Houston, Josh Reddick on board and the possibility that the Astros add one of the remaining free-agent power hitters, they project to have an offense to rival any in baseball. But there is a clear need for another frontline starting pitcher, and after a weak free-agent class of such pitchers, there is plenty of competition for trade candidates like the White Sox's Jose Quintana. Will the Astros be able to plug that hole, if not this winter then by the 2017 trade deadline?
7. What effect will 2016's postseason have on bullpen usage?
No, we won't be seeing any Andrew Miller-esque relief performances during the regular season. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if managers get a little more creative at deploying their best bullpen arm -- even if it's a so-called ninth-inning guy -- in the highest-leverage spots. If so, it will be even more interesting to see how the pitchers involved respond, both to the circumstance and to the postgame questions.
8. Are we entering a new age of the curveball?
After falling out of favor, the old-fashioned hook appears to be making a comeback, especially after it was so prominently on display during the World Series as the Indians' pitching staff unfurled a barrage of curves at the Cubs. That came on the heels of the Dodgers' Rich Hill resurrecting his career by going to a curve-heavy arsenal and landing a big contract as a reward. During the regular season, 10.4 percent of all pitches were curves, up 1.1 percent over 2015. It's not exactly a revolution, but the interplay between pitchers and hitters is an ever-evolving thing.
9. Will the White Sox's kids create a stir?
Chances are the White Sox will be markedly worse in 2017 than they were in 2016. It's also quite likely that they'll be markedly more interesting. That says something about the blandness of mediocrity, and it says even more about the optimism that comes with youth. Every offseason, there are teams we can point to as candidates for a rebuild. The White Sox finally set off in that direction this winter, and to the credit of GM Rich Hahn, few executives have made such swift and impressive inroads in a fresh youth movement.
10. Is the Royals' time up already?
As a longtime Royals "observer" it feels like their years of contention have passed by with startling alacrity, a true whirlwind that appears to be on the verge of disappearing just as quickly as it came, with players like Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy and others headed for free agency. Chances are, if the Royals don't get off to a strong start in the first half of 2017, the phone of GM Dayton Moore will start lighting up like a pinball machine. But Moore has a conundrum: Just how strong would the Royals' position have to be to forgo moving those players proactively in an effort to shorten the timeframe for the next rebuild?