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Cubs aren’t ‘favorites’ to win World Series

Jason Heyward greets Anthony Rizzo after hitting a three-run home run against the Angels on Monday in Tempe, Ariz. Rizzo followed with a solo home run. | Matt York/AP

Offseason acquisitions to go with the talent on hand have Cubs fans thinking about the World Series, and there are strong by-the-numbers reasons for hope.

But with Opening Day less than a week away, there also are reasons for caution and numbers not to be taken too seriously.

Let’s start with something not to be taken too seriously. The Cubs are being touted as World Series favorites months before we even know what rosters will look like after injuries and midseason shuffles. At VegasInsider.com, the Cubs are listed at 9-2 to win it all, with the Giants next at 9-1 and the White Sox at 40-1.

That’s not the same as saying Vegas expects the Cubs to win the World Series. Odds are designed to bring enough wagers on all teams that the house will make a profit, no matter who wins. The Cubs are a popular choice among bettors who want that ticket in case the miracle ever happens. Odds on the Cubs always are a little shorter than they should be.

But even if we took the odds at face value, being listed at the top doesn’t mean the Cubs are expected to win. At 9-2 odds, the expectation would be that if this season were played 11 times, the Cubs would be likely to

win twice, with other teams winning nine times.

That’s more like being first among 30 underdogs than it is being a true favorite to win.

On to by-the-numbers reasons for optimism. Coming off a 97-victory season and an appearance in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs built on their young talent base without giving up equivalent performance.

The top four newcomers — Jason Heyward (6.0 fWAR), John Lackey (3.6), Ben Zobrist (2.1) and Adam Warren (2.1) — totaled 13.8 wins above replacement in the Fangraphs.com statistic last season. The four leading departures — Chris Coghlan (3.3), Starlin Castro (0.8), Chris Denorfia (0.8) and Jason Motte (0.5) — totaled 5.4.

Heyward’s season was squarely between those of the Cubs’ top two position players in 2015, Kris Bryant (6.5) and Anthony Rizzo (5.5). He wasn’t as strong as either at the plate, but his 24 defensive runs saved led major-league right fielders at a position where the Cubs were minus-10 last season.

One reason for caution is that the Cubs might be a better team than they were in 2015 and not win as many games. Using the Pythagorean projection, their 689 runs scored and 608 runs allowed in 2015 normally would lead to a record of about 90-72, seven games worse than their actual record.

The 2016 talent might be up to the 2015 victory total. The Cubs’ additions and potential for growth among young players has Fangraphs projecting them at a major-league-best 97-65, ahead of the Dodgers’ 92-70.

The Cubs remain more likely not to win the World Series than to win it. But a base of about 97-victory talent is a good place to start.

Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.