Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Chicago Cubs PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 812
Runs Allowed: 709
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .254/.332/.435 (.263)
Total WARP: 35.7 (15.3 pitching, 20.4 non-pitching)
Zack Moser: I’m somewhat surprised by the dearth of projections-rooted hot takes about the Cubs this year. PECOTA kind of hates them, which I find somewhat amusing, but the consensus that has accreted around this club is that they are a lock to make the playoffs once again. PECOTA, however, pegs the team as “only” the fifth-best team in the majors—second in the National League by a wide margin and just six games ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central. I’m pretty comfortable taking the over on 91 wins for this team. Do you get that same sense, or am I just a huge homer?
Nate Greabe: I totally get that same sense, but that could just mean both of us are huge homers. In all seriousness, though, the Cubs won 92 games last year after what was, frankly, a very bad and anomalous first half. It’s hard to see how they could be much worse than that this year. I expect Kris Bryant to put up more than the 4.3 WARP PECOTA projects; I expect Albert Almora and Ian Happ to put up more than 2.2 WARP between the two of them; I expect the pitching staff to be one of the best in baseball; and I will never stop expecting Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber to get better. They were good last year, they will be again. The question is if it’ll be enough.
Moser: To answer that question, I think maybe we should backtrack for a moment to a holistic assessment of the National League. The Cubs are the only NL playoff team from last year that really tried to improve on the field, it seems: the Dodgers, Nationals, and Diamondbacks all had significant players depart, and didn’t go outside their organization to fill those holes. The pessimistic among us would argue that the Cubs are only about as good as last year; that’s if you think Yu Darvish replacing Jake Arrieta is a wash, and if you don’t believe in their bullpen depth. So I would say, overall, this situation bodes well for Chicago. They probably got better, and their rivals got worse.
Greabe: Their rivals got worse, and no one in the division really made “the leap” either. There were a few weeks back in February when it felt like the Brewers were about to, but they didn’t end up acquiring the starting pitcher (or two) it feels like they need to be a viable contender. The Cardinals have some intriguing young pitching and traded for a legitimate stud in Marcell Ozuna, but they, like the other NL contenders, weren’t otherwise willing to pay a (discounted) premium for top-market talent. And the Reds and Pirates don’t seem in any particular hurry to contend, either.
But the Cubs still seem right in the middle of their contention window, and the Darvish signing kept it wide open. Everyone expects the Cubs to be good and win the Central again, so maybe the most interesting question is: where could this go wrong?
Moser: Something “goes wrong” for 29 teams every year, so like any club, the Cubs could experience a number of misfortunes that derail them from their ultimate goal. The likelihood of that happening to Chicago is less than any team not named Houston, though, and this team did well to safeguard against such calamities by putting together a solid offseason plan and executing it well.
They needed to replace Arrieta; they signed Darvish. They needed to replace Wade Davis and shore up a shaky bullpen; they signed Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. They needed a fifth starter and some rotation depth; they gambled $38 million on Tyler Chatwood‘s breakout potential, pushing Mike Montgomery back to his swingman role. Those moves alone mitigate a lot of the risk that the 2017 team played with, and combined with the Cardinals’ and Brewers’ relative mediocrity, Chicago is sitting pretty. The risk is relatively low for this team, barring catastrophic injuries or Kris Bryant‘s imminent possession by a demon that can’t hit breaking balls.
Which brings me to the most interesting thing about this team, since this is the factor that could put them in rarefied air like 2016. There are several candidates for breakout seasons, and many of the Cubs’ young hitters appear poised to become actual contributors instead of stars burning bright on the horizon of future Cubdom. Who do you bet on becoming the team’s next lineup cog? And why is it Ian Happ?
Greabe: I guess it’s Happ because maybe it always has been? Happ was the ninth overall pick in 2015, and he seems to have developed into exactly what the Cubs would have hoped for from a top-10 pick. He’s never seemed as exciting as Bryant or Schwarber or even Almora, but he seems to have made a successful transition from a contact-first guy to a legit power guy with OBP potential, and adding that to the lineup fills a role that the Cubs were lacking in last year after the departure of Dexter Fowler. Happ had 24 homers and a .284 True Average as a switch-hitting rookie last year; it’ll be exciting to see what he can do this year, and his six spring training homers so far have only added to that intrigue.
There are other guys who can improve, too. I still think Almora could break out if he can find some playing time. If Schwarber’s poor performance in the first half of last year means that he doesn’t currently have “cog in the lineup” status, I fully expect that he will regain it this year. And with apologies to Buster Posey, I think I’d rather have the next five years of Willson Contreras over any other NL catcher. There’s still so much potential here, which is crazy for a team as already-good as the Cubs. And that’s just on the offensive side.
Moser: If Contreras “breaks out” after putting up two .300+ TAv seasons, the NL is in trouble. I agree with these assessments—especially with Happ and Schwarber (I am an Ian Happ guy now)—but I still harbor a pretty conservative outlook for Almora. He’ll be serviceable, but a platoon with Jason Heyward in center field would be ideal, and it will also never happen.
Conversely, I think there’s a smaller chance that some of these players crater, or are truly, unfixably bad. Heyward, Addison Russell, and Ben Zobrist figure to put up 1000 plate appearances of .700-ish OPS performance between them, which is not ideal for a contending team like the Cubs. Of course, Heyward and Russell are world-class defenders, but they are preventing the Cubs’ lineup from rivaling the other top offensive units across the league. If Happ wasn’t a statue at second base, I would be beating the Baez-Happ middle infield drum loudly. Point is, those three are probably not going to flip a switch and be suddenly good at the plate again.
What strikes me so far about our conversation is just how boringly good the Cubs have become. Every positional starter will be under the age of 30, and yet these guys seem like old hat already. Do you expect anything new, or weird, or different from this team?
Greabe: Nothing really leaps out, and part of me wonders if the Cubs were worried about that slight, nagging feeling of staleness too. Whether it endears him to the baseball community at large or not, Joe Maddon is notoriously devoted to keeping things “fresh,” so when the Cubs brought in a new head hitting coach (Chili Davis) and pitching coach (Jim Hickey) early this offseason, it was easy to wonder how much those moves were just aimed at freshness for its own sake. It will be interesting to track/speculate about how much any changes in performance this year are coming from the overhauled coaching staff. But that alone is not going to keep the fans’ and players’ mindsets “groovy” or “lively” or “churning” or “present” or whatever other buzzwords Maddon would use for long.
What will be new and exciting? Darvish is new and very exciting. Chatwood is new, but barring a big surprise, not particularly exciting. The bullpen added a few new faces, with Morrow being the biggest, but bullpens are only exciting when they are bad. Baez and Contreras and Anthony Rizzo don’t have a boring bone in their bodies, so the Cubs will hope that can carry them pretty far. But this is by and large a very good, very established team. And therefore most of the intrigue will come from the winning and from the postseason—unless things go very sideways. For the first time in a long time, even the farm system doesn’t seem to have too much “new” going on.
Moser: Oh come on, don’t slight Adbert Alzolay like that!
Greabe: You’re right, Alzolay is cool. There is definitely some interesting pitching talent in the low minors (check out Jose Albertos, too), but it’s still hard to see any midseason call-ups making a huge impact. Unless you love Dillon Maples and/or Mark Zagunis. Do you love Dillon Maples and/or Mark Zagunis?
Moser: I do not.
Albertos could be a top starter, but he’s years away. Alzolay could contribute in September, but more likely he’ll compete for the fifth starter spot in 2019 with Chatwood and Drew Smyly. Only two position players made BP’s top 10 this offseason, and one of them is backup catcher Victor Caratini. There are some very interesting arms in the system, and a few position players worth monitoring, but the state of the farm just throws into relief the Cubs’ win-now construction. This team is going to be great until 2020-2021 at least, and they figure to be big players this coming offseason for Bryce Harper. As you mentioned above, they pried their window open with the Darvish signing, and they’re well-positioned to keep their boots on the throats of the rest of the NL. Their oldest core players are Rizzo and Kyle Hendricks, both 28.
Speaking of Hendricks, we’ve said surprisingly little about this starting rotation. Maybe that’s because they’re expected to be so solidly great that it’s not that fun to nitpick.
Greabe: We’ve entered the starting rotation part of the conversation, in which we say “it’s really good.” Let’s break it down, pitcher by pitcher:
So the rotation is really good. It’s a rotation, so injuries could derail it, but on paper it’s better than that of the Dodgers and as good or nearly as good as the Nationals. There’s not a lot to worry about here except maybe Lester getting older? Are you worried about that?*
*Please do not mention his issues throwing to bases in your response.
I’m worried about Lester inasmuch as I worry about Lester remaining healthy. Evidence suggests that he was hampered by fatigue and injury last season, leading to that unsightly ERA, but his DRA was still almost 20 percent better than league average and he put up three WARP. Lester can bounce back if he throws 180 healthy innings, but the key is that he doesn’t necessarily need to be JON LESTER at age 34, surrounded by this rotation. The peripherals are good, he still tunnels with the best of them, and he’s crafty as hell.
Chatwood, on the other hand …
Greabe: The argument for Chatwood is two-fold: 1) he’s a ground-ball pitcher, which is attractive in today’s game and in front of the Cubs’ good infield defense. 2) he’s not pitching in Coors Field any more.
The argument against Chatwood is that he’s never really been good. He’s never pitched more than 158 innings, he’s never posted a full season DRA below 4.54, and he’s not trending better. His cFIP last year was 115, which suggests he is what he is: a below-average starter.
The Cubs’ defense has propped up their starters before (see: Lackey, John, 2016), so Chatwood should be okay in the fifth spot as long as he produces the ground balls he’s supposed to and hands the ball off to a good bullpen in the sixth inning. But I’m not as excited about his upside as some people are.
If the fifth starter is where you really begin to pick nits with a team, though, the team is probably good.
Moser: I see more Eddie Butler than Jake Arrieta in Chatwood, so I generally agree. It’s probably equal odds he’s bad or acceptable, but you have to squint to see anything more, and I don’t know that Jim Hickey can alter Chatwood’s usage and sequencing enough to make an impact.
With the nits sufficiently picked, let’s toss out some predictions. This feels like a 96-or-so-win team to me, with a chance to approach their 2016 levels of dominance if two of the Baez/Happ/Schwarber triumvirate click. Bryant will hit more homers than he did last year while retaining his plate discipline gains, Rizzo and Contreras are poised to contribute eight or nine WARP between them, and the rotation’s top four are unflappably great. With the Dodgers’ lack of rotation depth, the Cardinals’ lack of a bullpen, and the Brewers’ lack of a rotation, I think this team is the class of the NL once again.
Greabe: It’s boring, but I pretty much totally agree. To put a number on it, I’ll say 97 wins, matching the output of the upstart 2015 Cubs. We’ve both been wrong before, but this team seems more likely to win 100 than 90.
I’ll just close out by officially declaring 2018 the Year of Willson Contreras. Welcome to Willson’s World.
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