Oh how the mighty have fallen…
The Chicago Cubs were going to be the next big dynasty. They won 103 games in 2016 with mostly pre-arb guys, with everything looking up. Kris Bryant was going to be the next first ballot hall of famer. Addison Russell was going to be a perennial all-star. Albert Almora was the center fielder of the next 10 years.
Fast forward just three years. Albert Almora was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2019. Addison Russell is completely out the league, for issues not pertaining to his pitiful on-the-field performance, and Kris Bryant hasn’t gone one day without being potentially traded to one of Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Washington.
It’s almost unfathomable to think that the North Siders have fallen to this point, but after missing the playoffs last year, it seemed like the house was going to be cleaned. First off, Joe Maddon wasn’t retained after a five-year run that was anything but unsuccessful. The best manager in the history of the team left for the Angels this offseason, being replaced by cult hero David Ross.
As a player, Ross was best buddies with Jon Lester, the de facto captain of the pitching staff. The greatest free agent signing in team history, Lester’s pitching prowess has diminished with age to the point where he is now the Cubs’ 3rd or 4th starter.
Their one and two are right up there with the best in baseball. After a first season in Chicago in which he couldn’t stay on the mound, and then a subsequent half season where he couldn’t get anybody out, Yu Darvish was one of baseball’s best pitchers in the second half of last season. Cutting his walk rate to a more than respectable number in the second half of last year while improving his strikeout numbers, it appeared as if Darvish had finally “found it.”
His partner-in-crime, Kyle Hendricks, is one of baseball’s most intriguing pitchers. Topping out at under 90 miles per hour on his fastball, Hendricks’s pitching style and ability to move and command his pitches is nothing short of Maddux-esque. Hendricks likely will be the opening day starter for the Cubs, given his history with the club and his still elite-level performance.
Jose Quintana, acquired two and a half years ago from the White Sox for Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, has not been what the Cubs expected to be acquiring. He still is a solid pitcher, but when the trade went down, he was a top-10 pitcher in baseball. He’s a solid 3 starter for this Cubs team, but it’s officially okay to be disappointed in this trade.
The five starter spot is up in the air, but it looks as if Tyler Chatwood has the inside track. After not living up to the expectations of his three-year contract, he became valuable out of the bullpen last season. It wouldn’t be a horrible idea for the Cubs to keep him there, but that means either Alec Mills or Colin Rea would take the 5 spot, and I’m not sure either are a better option.
The bullpen is headlined by Craig Kimbrel, who had a disappointing first half season in Chicago. The hope is that it was his lack of spring training that led to his struggles last year, but Kimbrel hasn’t been sharp in almost a year and a half. The rest of their bullpen is made up of guys who aren’t household names, though Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck were both very good last season for the Cubs.
Their lineup is a lot better than people are giving it credit for. For someone who has had a “down couple years,” Kris Bryant is still one of the best players in baseball. Bryant had a .908 OPS last season, one in which he put up a 135 wRC+. Bryant will now lead off for the Cubs, something he hasn’t done before.
Anthony Rizzo will hit right behind him. Rizzo, the “greatest leadoff hitter of all time,” had his best season since that 2016 campaign last year, putting up a .924 OPS. He’s one of baseball’s premier bats, and with a gold glove caliber defensive showing every single year, is squarely on the Mount Rushmore of MLB first basemen.
I’ve gotten through about 700 words without mentioning Javier Baez’s name, so here you go. The most electric player in baseball, Baez thrived last year, his first as the primary shortstop. He took a bit of a step back from his 2018 campaign, but if he can learn to take walks at even a slightly better clip, he is a very low key MVP candidate.
I have never understood, for the life of me, why Kyle Schwarber gets so much hate. First of all, let’s throw this out there first, he is a perfectly fine defensive left fielder. Not fantastic, but not bad. Secondly, outside of the month stretch in 2017 where he struggled mightily, he has always been among the top tiers of hitters. Last season, he was 20% above league average, and hit better than all but eight qualified batters after the trade deadline last year. He’s finally putting it all together.
Their catching tandem is the best in the league. For a guy who half the fanbase seemingly wanted traded five times over, Willson Contreras is one of the best catchers in baseball. Contreras had a 127 wRC+ last season, which was best among catchers with at least 400 PAs last season. He also had the third best pop time of any catcher in baseball last year. Framing is his issue, though he’s average at it. He’s nothing short of an elite catcher in Major League Baseball. His backup, Victor Caratini, would probably start for a vast majority of teams in the league. With the ability to play multiple positions, Caratini is super valuable as a backup and should play a big part in the Cubs season.
Ian Happ, following his recall from a minor league stint last year, played at a 4.2 fWAR/162 pace last season. Happ has fantastic hitting prowess from both sides of the plate, with decent wheels to boot. He’s not a great defensive CF, which is why his value isn’t that of some other CFs in baseball, but he’s definitely serviceable out there.
The rest of their lineup isn’t necessarily good, but neither Jason Heyward or whoever the second baseman is going to be (one of Jason Kipnis or Nico Hoerner) are awful hitters. The bench depth isn’t fantastic either, though David Bote is a really good bench bat.
This team isn’t deep. However, their starting lineup is right up there with the best in baseball, and the top of their rotation is the same. That’s not enough to run away with what has become an uber-competitive NL Central.
The sky isn’t falling. The Cubs are going to be good in 2020. Not 2016 good, but good nonetheless.
89-73 (1st Wild Card)
Projected Divisional Finish (NL Central):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Kris Bryant, 3B (4.2)
Anthony Rizzo, 1B (3.7)
Javier Baez, SS (3.5)
Kyle Schwarber, LF (2.2)
Willson Contreras, C (2.3)
Jason Heyward, RF (1.5)
Ian Happ, CF (1.4)
Kyle Hendricks (3.1)
Yu Darvish (3.6)
Jon Lester (1.8)
Jose Quintana (2.6)
Tyler Chatwood (0.9)