Until news broke of the buster-of-blocks trade that sent Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals, the offseason story in the National League Central has been apathy and self-harm. No team seemed particularly interested in winning baseball games in 2021, at least until very recently, and no team embodies that anti-approach quite like the Cubs.
The Cubs traded away ace Yu Darvish for a package of far-off prospects and then permitted Jon Lester and Jose Quintana to depart without replacing them. Outside of a canny signing of outfielder Joc Pederson, the Ricketts family has been pathetically derelict in their ownership duties. It's all strange treatment of a team that in 2020 won a tough NL Central and played at what would've been a 92-win clip across a season of typical length.
Given the Arenado addition in St. Louis and pitching hemorrhages in Chicago, it's tempting and maybe a little justifiable to dismiss the Cubs' chances to repeat in 2021. However, it says here that the Cubs despite the neglect of ownership are still threats in the NL Central, and that's largely because of their core hitters and their prospects for improvement.
Those core hitters are Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, and to varying extents they all failed to live up to their established offensive standards in 2020. Take a look at their 2020 and pre-2020 bodies of work:
|Hitter||Pre-2020 OPS+ (plate appearances)||2020 OPS+ (plate appearances)|
OPS+ is the metric of course here, but really any semi-advanced to advanced stat is going to tell a similar story -- that each under-performed his career norms.
Rizzo at 31 is the oldest of the quartet by a significant margin, so some sort of en masse transition to age-related decline phase is highly unlikely. Also note the vastly smaller sample sizes of the "struggle column," and on top of all that let's bear in mind that the 2020 season was played amid a global pandemic, which afforded nothing close to the usual routines. We already have ample cause to dismiss the struggles of 2020 for any player, let alone these four players, who were so much better across the much larger sample of prior seasons.
Given all that, the sensible expectation is that Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and Contreras will find or come close to finding their vintage levels in 2021, assuming health. That's going to provide a huge lift for an offense that last season ranked just 10th in the NL in runs scored and OPS. That's not all, though.
In essence, Joc Pederson -- the Cubs' biggest winter addition -- replaces Kyle Schwarber, who was non-tendered earlier this offseason. Schwarber last season batted just .188/.308/.393 in an aberrant down year, while Pederson comes in with a career line of .230/.336/.470. To be sure, the Cubs would likely benefit from improved production in left field with Schwarber back in the fold -- it's the 2020 baseline that's important here -- but instead they're getting a (likely) upgrade in Pederson. On another level, the Cubs struggled from poor production from the DH spot last season (.630 OPS), as manager Dave Ross cycled 16 different hitters through the role. That it appears there will be no universal DH in 2020 may thus help the Cubs' offense, at least relative to their NL peers.
That means it'll go a little something like this:
- Ian Happ, CF
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Willson Contreras, C
- Javier Baez, SS
- Joc Pederson, LF
- Nico Hoerner, 2B
- Jason Heyward, RF
Sit a platoon disadvantaged bat in favor of David Bote every time a lefty starts for the opposition (and ideally make a strict platoon player out of Pederson), and that may be the best lineup in the division. That strength is driven by the entirely reasonable expectation that Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras will all enjoy better days in 2021. That core-driven improvement on offense will theoretically offset at least some of the sloughed off value in the rotation.
Depending on how much the Cubs' neglectful owners are still willing to spend, they may still do a little fortifying elsewhere on the roster. Things as they are, though, the Cubs' bounce-back offense should keep them relevant. The post-Arenado Cardinals are now the solid favorites in the division, but a Chicago attack that should score more than 800 runs (assuming a full 162-game slate) might be enough to put some heat on them. No thanks to ownership, but the prospect of better days for four stalwart Cub hitters may just help the team contend one last time before the Ricketts finish their premature demo job.