Let’s face the facts. The Chicago Cubs were a fun story in 2016, but when Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago back in late 2011 the goal wasn’t to win a World Series and then hit the reset button for another 108 years. As Epstein met over drinks with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts that October and watched the St. Louis Cardinals win their second World Series trophy in five years, the true goal for the franchise was clear: Win again and again and again.
If there were a team built for it, this Cubs team might be it. The average age of the core is well under 30, with four or five more years of control on guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, and many others.
But let’s not crown them just yet. There are 29 other teams that also are attempting to put a championship team on the field, and they’ll have something to say about it as well. After all, it’s been 17 years since a team has won back-to-back World Series.
So over the next five years or so, who else can rival what the Cubs put on the field in terms of championship contention? Most folks around Chicago would think of the Cardinals in terms of “rivalry,” but St. Louis doesn’t currently have the kind of core that is set up to contend long-term—or short-term, really. But there are a handful of teams that might get in the way of a Cubbie Dynasty over the next several seasons.
The Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s easy to forget all about it, but the Los Angeles Dodgers had a 2-1 series lead after Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill allowed a total of one run to the Cubs in Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS. Even after Chicago took the next two games and went back to Wrigley Field up 3-2 in the series, the Dodgers had Kershaw and Hill slated to throw the next two games. It was no slam dunk that the Cubs would make it out of the Championship Series.
But the Cubs got to Kershaw in Game 6 and Kyle Hendricks performed his opus with 7.1 innings of two-hit, six-strikeout, and zero-run ball. Hendricks’ mastery pushed the Cubs past the Dodgers, but there’s no reason to believe that the young club from Los Angeles won’t be back to challenge Chicago. Epstein said as much, when praising team president Andrew Friedman at the Cubs Convention in Chicago.
“They’re developing a powerhouse out there,” said Epstein. “They’ve got a ton of resources. Andrew and his whole team are really bright and we see them as a team we have to go through year to year.”
Indeed, the Dodgers have a lot of money and a lot of assets. Young, developing star shortstop Corey Seager is just 23 years old. Joc Pederson is 25. Even the enigmatic Yasiel Puig is only 26, and they have Kershaw, Hill, and 20-year-old Julio Urias locked in long-term. Those are three lefties that nobody wants to face in a playoff series.
The Cleveland Indians
It’s important to give credit where it’s due. The Cleveland Indians were a really good, young baseball team in 2016 and they performed admirably in the World Series—even if they blew a 3-1 lead. Cue all the harassing memes that Cleveland has been pelting the Golden State Warriors with over the last year.
But in 2017, the Indians project to be a really good, young baseball team yet again. They’re returning their 23-year-old star shortstop, Francisco Lindor, in addition to other players such as Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana. They even went out and spent money on a slugger, bringing in Edwin Encarnacion to replace 35-year-old Mike Napoli.
And did I mention the pitching? Corey Kluber is quite good, as you may have heard. He won the Cy Young award in 2014 and finished third in the voting in 2016. He also has some quality pitching around him in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, two starters that were injured and unfortunately unable to contribute meaningfully in the World Series.
Cleveland won’t likely have a ton of competition in the AL Central in 2017, with much of the division going either full or partial rebuild, so there’s a good chance that they’ll remain a fixture in the postseason for at least the next few seasons. That could mean more World Series matchups with the Cubs.
The Boston Red Sox
If there’s another team in the American League that could be rivaling the Cubs in the World Series over the next few seasons, it’s the Boston Red Sox. They’re also the team most likely to rival the Cubs in terms of young talent. Forty-year-old David Ortiz may be gone, but he left behind one of the youngest and most exciting teams in baseball.
Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi are all 27 or younger. Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia will both be 33 years old next season, but are still performing at a high level. And that doesn’t even get into the pitching staff. The Red Sox signed left-handed ace David Price as a free agent last offseason, and this offseason they traded prospects for Chris Freakin’ Sale.
It’s important to say this: The potential number-three starter on the Red Sox in 2017 is going to be the American League Cy Young winner from 2016, Rick Porcello. There may not be a more intimidating one-through-three in a starting rotation anywhere.
On the fringe: The New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and New York Mets
There are a few others that could realistically compete for some World Series titles in the next five years, but there are no guarantees. The Yankees have built up one helluva farm system, as have the White Sox. Neither team should be expected to compete right now, but in two or three years it’s not hard to imagine a Cubs vs. Yankees World Series, or even a “Redline Series” between the Cubs and Sox.
In the National League, the Mets still have pitching that scares you. Noah Syndergaard is the god of thunder and 90-mph sliders, while Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are nothing to sneeze at, either. The question with New York, outside of whether Matt Harvey will ever return to his All-Star form, is with the offense. Their bats are pretty mediocre outside of Yoenis Cespedes, and collectively are on the wrong side of 30.
The Cubs have a great shot at being a San Francisco Giants-style dynasty. Their young core has the playoff experience and the talent to put together extended postseason runs year after year. That was always the plan, as Epstein envisioned it.
But five years from now, if the Cubs are blocked from bringing the north side of Chicago another World Series trophy, expect that some of these teams were the culprits.