The treatment of the Cubs by the masses heading into this season is pretty funny, when you stop and think about it. The Cubs had never previously made the playoffs four years in a row -- and only once in three consecutive years, which was 1906-08 -- yet here they are in the midst of a four-year streak of postseason play. They've won 97, 103, 92 and 95 games the past four seasons, respectively, a streak that includes a World Series title.
And yet, thanks to a stellar run from the Brewers, a series of bad things happening to the Cubs -- some self-sabotage -- and a pretty weak/terrible offseason, there's nothing but negativity surrounding the team. I guess that was the goal in hiring Theo Epstein, eh? The best run in franchise history and people are still mad. That's a raised bar.
The realistic take here is the Cubs are still very good, though there's potential for another season of disappointment on Chicago's north side. In fact, nearly every outcome but one will mean disappointment.
- Ben Zobrist, 2B
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Javier Baez, SS
- Kyle Schwarber, LF
- Willson Contreras, C
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Ian Happ/Albert Almora, CF
Don't expect manager Joe Maddon to keep things set here. There are a lot of moving parts. Also, shortstop Addison Russell is serving a domestic violence suspension to start the season and he's eligible to return May 3. In listening to Maddon's comments, it seems like he'll pretty quickly move to using Russell on an everyday basis, kicking Baez back to second and Zobrist into a utility role, one that likely sends Bote to Triple-A, though a lot can change before then.
As has been the case in recent years, lefty Mike Montgomery is the sixth starter, should they need one or someone hit the injured list. It's hard to see Tyler Chatwood getting another shot here, but it's possible as well.
Brandon Morrow is probably going to miss at least a month to start the season, but he'd likely slide back in the late innings mix whenever he rejoins the club. Lefty Xavier Cedeno and righty Tony Barnette will fit here at some point, with Dillon Maples and Randy Rosario also in the mix. Non-roster invitees to spring training that might also see the bigs: George Kontos and Junichi Tazawa.
All the bounce-back candidates
It's pretty remarkable how many there are, given that the Cubs won 95.
Bryant got hit in the head with a pitch and later injured his shoulder. When he did play, he wasn't right and in his last stint on the active roster he changed his swing to accommodate the shoulder injury. In the previous two seasons combined, Bryant hit .293/.397/.546 (144 OPS+) and last season that line dropped to .272/.374/.460 (118 OPS+). Now he's back to 100 percent with his old swing and is killing the ball in the spring. Even though he won the award two years ago, Bryant is a fine dark horse MVP pick.
Darvish's first season on a huge deal with the Cubs was a total disaster. He was hurt for most of the season and was mostly bad when he wasn't hurt. He says he's feeling the best he's felt in years this spring -- which, we've been hearing that one for generations, right? -- and if so, there's a reasonable chance he pitches this season like the Darvish was saw previously in his career. Before last season, he had a career 3.42 ERA (127 ERA+) with 11 K/9.
In Contreras' first two seasons combined, he hit .278/.356/.494 (120 OPS+) with a 162-game average of 28 homers. Last year, he hit .249/.339/.390 (92 OPS+) with just 10 home runs in 544 plate appearances. He was especially terrible down the stretch, hitting .200/.291/.294 with just three homers after the All-Star break. Contreras told NBC Sports Chicago last week it was a pretty simple reason: He thought it would come easy and stopped working hard.
"I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I'd usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift," Contreras said. "To be honest, I didn't lift at all [as 2018 went on]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn't deserve to have a good year last year. That's what I told myself. I've learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I'm here."
If this is true and he's back to his old self, that's another big boost for the Cubs.
Through the first five seasons of his career, Quintana had a 3.41 ERA (118 ERA+). In the last two, it's been 4.09 (105). He's only entering his age-30 season and it's not like early in his career he was greatly outperforming his peripherals. His velocity by year hasn't changed a ton. The main problem appears to be that Quintana's curveball just isn't very good anymore. If that can get fixed, he's back to being a very good starter.
Even Rizzo had a miserable go at times last year. His numbers ended up close to where he normally sits, but from June 12 to July 25, he hit just one home run in 161 plate appearances. Through July 25, he was hitting .257/.359/.417.
Almora as a "bounce-back" candidate is probably a stretch, but he did go from a .298/.338/.445 line to .286/.323/.378. It really wasn't the whole season, either. It was the second half of it. Through July 4, Almora was hitting .329/.370/.462. After that, he was dreadful: .231/.261/.272. At age 25, it's possible to get better.
Happ is only 24 and has 875 plate appearances under his belt. He, too, went backward last season from .253/.328/.514 to .233/.353/.408 (anyone starting to see why hitting coach Chili Davis got fired?). There's big power in the bat and Happ's ability to take walks makes him a candidate for a nice OPS.
Schwarber isn't really a "bounce-back" candidate as a "he can be better" type. He is only really discussed in the extremes thanks to his postseason exploits in 2015-16, both the good on offense and bad on defense. The 2016 World Series led to him being incredibly overrated and burdened with unfair expectations -- not to mention the backlash from non-Cubs fans to all the adulation he got on the broadcast. That's the easiest way to create a polarizing player. He then had an awful start to 2017. Last season, he hit .238/.356/.467 (115 OPS+) with 26 homers in 510 plate appearances. That's good, but he's terrible against lefties and someone with his raw power and grasp of the strike zone just feels like he should be better. Maybe he's not, but I figured my fellow Hoosier was worth mention.
Was that the real Javy Baez?
For years, you could talk to scouts and hear "the upside is MVP." You could see the tools, but it just didn't seem realistic with so much swing-and-miss, especially out of the zone. And then 2018 happened.
To be clear, he still swings at bad pitches, but the strikeout thing is not as much a problem as the stigma suggests. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances last season, 82 struck out at a higher rate than Baez. He cut back by 2.4 percent from 2017. He's never going to be a contact hitter, but his strikeouts weren't an issue last year. The jump in power wasn't entirely surprising, either, for those who had seen his swing for years. The upside was always there. Same with the steals. He's always been great at defense.
In looking at his "fantasy" type numbers, the BABIP of .347 shouldn't bother anyone, given that it was .345 the year before and .336 the year before that. He bunts for hits. He's fast. He hits the ball hard. Of course he's going to run a high BABIP. The HR/FB jump from 19.7 to 24.3 might regress right back, but he's still in the range to hit around 30 homers in 600 plate appearances. The monthly stats show better and worse months, but there wasn't a superhuman stretch holding up his line, either. He was pretty consistently great on the whole.
It's entirely plausible that we just witnessed Baez's career year. It's possible he starts striking out at a 35 percent rate and just falls apart. He probably never finishes second in MVP voting again nor will he ever win one.
I am, however, just not seeing how it's so obvious that he's definitely going to take a step back. He's as talented as nearly anyone in baseball. Anyone watching him on a regular basis last season didn't see luck. He was that good.
If he can be that good again and several of the players I mentioned above do bounce back, the Cubs offense will be a powerhouse.
Of course ...
Reasons for concern in rotation
We covered Darvish and Quintana above in a bit of a positive light, but let's be real: It's entirely possible both are sub-par this season, too, if not worse. There are red flags on Quintana and Darvish was inconsistent in 2017.
Hamels was very good with the Cubs! He had a 4.72 ERA in 20 starts for the Rangers before the trade, though, and he's 35 years old now. Anyone predicting a bad year from Hamels has a leg to stand on.
Same with Jon Lester. He was an All-Star last season and the 18-6 record looks great! The 3.32 ERA was also very good at 129 ERA+. The FIP was 4.39, though, while the strikeout rate tumbled (9 K/9 in 2017 to 7.4 K/9) and he had a 4.54 ERA after the All-Star break. Lester was worth every penny of his deal and he's probably the best free agent acquisition in franchise history given all the circumstances, but he's 35 now and regression is coming.
That leaves good ol' Kyle Hendricks. He's good. He appears to have had his career year in 2016, however, so the 3.5 WAR he posted in both 2017 and 2018 seems like a reasonable bet for this season as well. That from the most reliable pitcher of the bunch seems scary.
If the Cubs need to replace one of these five, it's Montgomery or Chatwood. They don't really have a ton on the farm to trade for a high-quality arm, either. It's possible all five of the guys here have a good season. It's also possible this becomes a mess.
If the season is a disappointment, the likeliest culprit is here or ...
Bullpen depth is a major concern
With Morrow hurt, I see three guys the Cubs can count on to have a good season in the bullpen: Strop, Edwards and Cishek. Edwards has struggled with consistency, too. Past that, it's an assembly line of question marks. At this point, relying on the likes of Brach, Kintzler and Duensing to get big outs seems problematic. It's possible they end the season with a strong group that looks something like Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Brach, Cedeno, Maples and Montgomery and that it's a very good group.
It's also possible this, too, becomes a mess.
"Dynasty" talk can be salvaged ... with a perfect outcome
In looking at everything above, it occurs to me a picture can be painted about this Cubs' team in many different directions, depending upon the eye of the beholder. You don't like them? Go nuts with the pitching staff falling apart and many offensive players actually being the bad versions we saw late last year. You like them? Hey, all the bounce backs happen, Lester and Hamels keep it together for another season and the bullpen holds up. In the case of the former, they miss the playoffs by a decent margin. In the case of the latter? That's a 100-win team that wins the NL and could take the World Series.
It all comes down to this, however.
SportsLine gives the Cubs a 52.1 percent chance to win NL Central, but that isn't good enough anymore.
SportsLine gives the Cubs a 17.2 percent chance to win the National League and that's probably acceptable, though many would still feel it wasn't good enough.
SportsLine gives the Cubs an 8.1 percent chance to win the World Series and that's the way the Cubs can put all the ugliness of from September of 2018 through spring training 2019 in the rearview mirror and again start hearing that pesky word that starts with a D.
With a five-year stretch that includes five playoff appearances and two World Series titles, people could start talking about how adding a third title (in 2020) with this nucleus would make the Cubs a dynasty.
That's how the Cubs achieve success in 2019: By winning the World Series. That's it. Hey, the bar has been raised in Wrigleyville. It's what the locals have always wanted.