By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The World Series champion Chicago Cubs are on a new mission in 2017, aiming to end another drought by repeating as Major League Baseball’s best with another Fall Classic crown in the season starting on Sunday.
The long-suffering Cubbies turned the baseball world upside down last season, ending North American pro sports’ longest wait for a championship by getting to the winners’ circle for the first time in 108 years.
Now the Cinderellas are favorites to win again and become the first repeat champions since the New York Yankees made it three in a row in 2000.
The Cubs help kick off the six-month regular season on Sunday with an Opening Night contest against long-time rivals the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cleveland’s Indians, who took the Cubs to extra innings of a climactic Game Seven to decide MLB’s championship, top a bunch of worthy contenders standing in their way.
Taking over the dubious honor of replacing the Cubs as the longest suffering franchise since their last championship, the Indians made a bold move for a first title in 69 years by signing former Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year $65 million deal.
Along with the expected return to health of talented outfielder Michael Brantley and rotation members Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar at full strength, the Tribe are clear favorites to win the American League Central again.
Cleveland may need all those edges, however, with the Boston Red Sox expected to be an American League postseason force from the East.
Boston’s blockbuster deal with the White Sox brought them dazzling left-hander Chris Sale to join a rotation that includes reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and former winner David Price, although he will miss the start of the season due to injury.
The Red Sox will be without slugging designated hitter David Ortiz, who retired, but Boston still boast a dangerous lineup that may get a boost from a slimmed down Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval at third base.
The AL West looks competitive with a Texas rivalry looming between the Rangers and the fortified Houston Astros, both looking for their first World Series triumph.
Houston showed they mean business by adding catcher Brian McCann and veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick to a youthful roster featuring young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and the emerging Alex Bregman.
The Cubs lost Cuban fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman, who returned to the Yankees as a free agent, and centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who signed with NL Central rivals St. Louis.
To fill the Chapman void, Chicago dealt for Kansas City closer Wade Davis to mop up for their impressive starters Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks.
Chicago is banking on the further development of their brilliant young infield of third baseman/NL Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell and second baseman Jorge Baez to continue their reign.
Opposition could come from the NL East, where a lively race is expected between the pitching rich Mets and underachieving Nationals.
The NL West once again could boil down to the old Dodgers-Giants rivalry which remains as intense in California as in days of yore when the franchises resided in Brooklyn and New York’s borough of Manhattan.
(Editing by Steve Keating)