By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
Breaking a curse is Theo Epstein’s area of expertise. Repeating as a World Series champion is his next challenge.
The hardest part is history for the Chicago Cubs, who dramatically ended a 108-year title drought in Epstein’s fifth year as team president. Winning it all in back-to-back years, even with the majority of a promising young roster returning, will be anything but easy.
With the Cubs’ pitchers and catchers set to report to Arizona for spring training next week, Las Vegas oddsmakers are already thinking baseball.
The Cubs’ regular-season win total opened at 97½, and a proposition on the Cubs (plus-350) versus the field (minus-500) to win the World Series was posted Thursday at the Golden Nugget.
“When you win 103 games, you’re going to have a lot of things go your way, and things might not go your way the next year,” Golden Nugget sports book manager Aaron Kessler said.
The Cubs’ win total is a tricky proposition. On paper, manager Joe Maddon’s team might appear even better in 2017, and 90-plus wins is certainly realistic. But all sorts of potholes can develop on the road to repeating. While most sharp bettors will expect at least a little regression in the Cubs, the general public probably will take a more optimistic outlook.
“We’ll get some public money over the total,” Kessler said.
History offers a reminder of the steep hill the Cubs must climb. The last team to repeat as World Series champion? The New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
In 2004, Epstein was overseeing the Boston Red Sox, who finished the regular season 98-64 before breaking a World Series curse dating to 1918. In 2005, Boston slipped to 95 wins and was swept by the Chicago White Sox in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Aside from the Cubs, five teams won 90 or more games in 2016, with Texas and Washington tying for the second-most wins (95).
So, although the Cubs are loaded with talent and led by the sharpest baseball minds in Epstein and Maddon, history indicates reaching 98 wins will be no simple task.
In the offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals were stealing from their enemy, signing free-agent center fielder Dexter Fowler. The Cubs can plug Fowler’s hole by putting power-hitting bull Kyle Schwarber, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, back into the lineup in front of stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
After Maddon nearly blew Game 7 of the World Series by mismanaging his pitchers, including overusing closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees pulled Chapman back to New York. The Cubs replaced Chapman by acquiring Wade Davis in a trade with Kansas City. The Royals signed the Cubs’ fifth starter, Jason Hammel, but he also can be replaced.
“There’s a little question at the back of the rotation, and losing Fowler could hurt,” Kessler said. “The Cubs had good injury luck, too.”
Of course, the Cubs were overdue for some good fortune. Will this year be a different story? The bettors can start taking shots at answering that question.