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Why Stop at One: Cubs Built for a Long Run of Title Contention

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Scott MillerNational MLB ColumnistNovember 4, 2016

CLEVELAND — It was the wise Satchel Paige who warned, "Don't look back; something might be gaining on you."

Don't the Cleveland Indians, who let a three-games-to-one World Series lead slip away to the Chicago Cubs, know it. Didn't the Los Angeles Dodgers, who fumbled a two-games-to-one National League Championship Series lead, learn it. Weren't the San Francisco Giants, who allowed a 5-2 lead in Game 4 of the NL Division Series to dissipate, guilty of it.

It took 108 years for the Chicago Cubs to catch up to the rest of baseball in the month of October.

But now that they're champions, look out, because it may take everyone else several years to catch back up to them. Here's something worth stashing in your closet next to the sunblock for next spring training: The last time the Cubs won a World Series, they did it in back-to-back years, 1907 and 1908.

These Cubs waged a campaign on multiple fronts this autumn to exorcise a century's worth of demons: Rival teams, curses, ghosts and, to a degree, their own youth.

Youth is resilient and youth is beautiful, but it also is not on the clock. Players develop at their own pace, which is why the 2015 Cubs came steaming down the tracks ahead of schedule, and why still-learning uber-talents like Javier Baez (23), Addison Russell (22), Willson Contreras (24) and, at times, even Kris Bryant (24) maybe weren't the perfect, mistake-free players Cubs fans expected at times as 2016 climaxed.

Experience is the great teacher. That this band of incredibly skilled, and young, Cubs was able to win it all while gaining it was impressive. That there is every reason to believe we haven't seen the best yet of a team that won 103 games this summer is the stuff of imagination and wonder.

"Hey, listen," Ryan Dempster, the retired pitcher who serves as a special assistant to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, said as champagne sprayed in the Cubs' clubhouse early Thursday morning. "The tough part is to realize that that's the next goal, right?

"They can do it again and again down the road. Right now they deserve to embrace this moment. All year, they had a target on their back from other teams, the media, fans, and yet they still were the best team in baseball. They did it.

"To see what they did tonight bodes well for the future."

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs turns a double play as teammate Addison Russell #27 looks on in the second inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Three of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Ch
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Bryant, Russell, Baez, Kyle Schwarber (23), Anthony Rizzo (27) and Kyle Hendricks (26) are among the core players who are under contract through at least 2020. Jorge Soler (24) is another whom the Cubs think will develop into an impact player, though he had a disappointing season and stayed in the background this fall. Outfielder Albert Almora (22), who also played some but mostly remained on the bench during the postseason, was a first-round pick in 2012.

In Game 2 last week, the Cubs set a World Series record by starting six players under the age of 25: Schwarber, Bryant, Baez, Russell, Contreras and Soler. The previous record was five players, set by Cincinnati in Game 4 of the 1970 World Series.

Russell and Baez are growing up together in the middle of the infield and already are setting the bar high.

"I think the combination we have up the middle is as good as you'll ever see," starter Jake Arrieta said.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs hits a solo home run during the first inning against Josh Tomlin #43 of the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohi
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Bryant likely will be named the NL's Most Valuable Player later this month when the awards are announced. Schwarber had just five plate appearances before a devastating knee injury ended his season. Then, in a stunning comeback on the game's grandest stage, he batted .412 (7-for-17) with two RBI and two runs scored in 20 World Series plate appearances.

"He jacks everybody up," manager Joe Maddon said of Schwarber during the World Series. "He makes the lineup better, thicker. Zo is seeing better pitches."

Zo, Ben Zobrist, used one of those pitches to push an RBI double into left field in the 10th inning of Wednesday night's Game 7, snapping a 6-6 tie.

There were times this postseason, especially at the plate, in which the Cubs were maddeningly inconsistent compared to what we generally expect of a 103-win team. There also were reasons.

"I think a lot of it has to do with youth," Maddon said. "That's what I keep bringing up. As we continue to move forward together, the one area of our club that I anticipate is going to get better is offense.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Manager Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs reacts after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on Oc
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

"If you put your scout's cap on right now, normally you look at our group, or any group, you're going to see running speed that should hopefully remain the same, possibly regress a little bit. Defense should remain the same, possibly get a little bit better. Arm strength the same thing, you want to at least maintain what you have. But if you had to write numbers down on a piece of paper, the one you're going to project a lot on would be offense, whether it's hitting or hitting with power."

Over 17 postseason games, the Cubs batted .233 with a .293 on-base percentage and a .399 slugging percentage.

In the World Series, they batted .249 with a .316 on-base percentage and a .404 slugging percentage.

During the regular season, they hit .256/.343/.429.

Part of the struggle during the postseason, of course, is attributable to a steady diet of Corey Klubers, Madison Bumgarners and Clayton Kershaws. You're not facing the Milwaukee Brewers' fourth and fifth starters in October.

But part of the inconsistency is growing pains, too. Baez was the MVP of the NLCS, then hit .167 with 13 strikeouts in 30 at-bats in the World Series. As one veteran scout said, Baez suddenly regressed to the young kid whom the Cubs first called up in 2014.

Everybody handles moments differently, and those who have an excitable personality, like Baez, sometimes have difficulty slowing things down when the noise becomes deafening. Also, opposing scouting reports are thick and detailed in the postseason, and these intelligence briefings expose the holes of even the greatest hitters. Not everybody is capable of making adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, or even from game to game, especially on the big stage. Baez, who is eminently capable of winning a Gold Glove at multiple positions (second base, third base, shortstop), made great strides offensively this summer, cutting his strikeout percentage down to 24 percent from 30 percent in 2015 and 41.5 percent in 2014, per Fangraphs.

"It's going to be easy to understand that the area we're going to get better at is offense," Maddon said. "Understanding themselves better. Understanding what the pitcher's going to try to do against them. Understanding how to make adjustments in the game. Understanding how to utilize the entire field more consistently as they gain experience.

"The part that's really exciting to me is that we're in this position right now, two years in a row. Last year we didn't quite get here, but two years in a row now we've been one of the last four teams playing with a really young group of baseball players that are going to continually get better."

Even despite Baez's World Series struggles at the plate, there were moments like this one:

While Baez, Russell and Bryant consume most of the spotlight, signs of talented young Cubs were everywhere this autumn. At one point during a pivotal moment in Game 5 against Cleveland, rookie Carl Edwards Jr. (25) was on the mound throwing to catcher Contreras.

Both players started this 103-win season at Triple-A Iowa.

Contreras, too, was guilty of a rookie mistake under the bright lights. Though he was behind the plate in Game 2, catching Arrieta's 5 1/3 no-hit innings, he rightfully caught heat for preening after a double in Game 1. After blasting a Cody Allen pitch to right field, Contreras flipped his bat and walked about five steps, admiring the fly, before realizing it wasn't over the fence and turning on the afterburners to reach second.

Contreras apologized to Cubs fans via Twitter:

Said Maddon, "As [the young players] gain more experience, you're going to see a lot of that stuff go away."

Not surprisingly, the Cubs have left a trail of admirers in their wake.

"They've got a lot of versatility," retired manager Jim Leyland, who now works for the commissioner's office, said. "I love their young shortstop [Russell]. ... He kind of gets lost a little bit with [Cleveland's Francisco] Lindor and [Houston's Carlos] Correa and some of the other guys, [Corey] Seager out in Los Angeles, but this kid's really good.

"Anthony Rizzo's a two-way player; he's an excellent fielder as well as a power guy. ... And I think a guy like Ben Zobrist has been a big key for them. He kind of solidifies things. They've got a nice combination, and Joe does a great job with them."

Perhaps as impressive as anything else was this young core's ability to block out the anguish of more than a century of Cubs baseball, the billy goats and curses and black cats, and lift this franchise to heights few of us have ever before seen. And though it was far more difficult than it sometimes appeared, they made it look as if they were lifting a simple Louisville Slugger more often than not.

"I think the way they did it," catcher David Ross said. "There are a lot of young, successful and talented players here, and they expect to succeed. They're not worried about past things. They're looking at now, and the future is very bright. ...

"I'm happy for the city of Chicago, for Cubs fans who have been so dedicated. These guys worked their tails off. They've all been through a lot, and they deserve everything they get for the rest of their life."

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Chicago Cubs owner Thomas S. Ricketts celebrates with The Commissioner's Trophy after the Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Clev
Pool/Getty Images

Not only will the surging Cubs be favored again in 2017, but there also doesn't even appear to be a spot for Zobrist, the World Series MVP. Baez is the projected second baseman and Schwarber the left fielder with Almora expected to supplant Dexter Fowler in center field. Where might that leave Zobrist? Possibly on the trade block. Or in even more of a super-utility role than he's accustomed to.

"There's no question this should be a very good team for a very long time," Leyland said. "Whether they're going to get back to the World Series every year, that's a different story. It's pretty hard to do."

Undoubtedly. But in winning it all this year, the Cubs have taken that long, difficult first step. Maybe this powerful young core develops into the next dynasty, or maybe not. But one thing is certain: Given the talent, youth and build of this team, the Cubs should be powerful for the next five or six years, minimum.

And as this group writes its own history, it will do so from a blank canvas that includes no previous baggage.

"It's really great for our entire Cub-dom to get beyond that moment and continue to move forward," Maddon said, "because now, based on the young players we have in this organization, we have an opportunity to be good for a long time, and without any constraints, without any of the negative dialogue.

"The burden has been lifted."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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