Joey Ricotta | March 14th, 2020
Well, we don’t know for sure when the 2020 season will get underway, or how many games will be played, but we still need something to look forward to. 2019 was a disappointing season for the Cubs. They finished 84-78, good for a third-place finish, which led to the firing of curse-breaking World Series Champion manager Joe Maddon, and the hiring of former beloved catcher David Ross.
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The season was filled with distractions, starting with Addison Russell’s off-field issues, continuing with Ben Zobrist’s family situation and time away from the team, and concluding with the constant talk about the potential and eventual firing of Maddon. The Cubs bullpen let them down early and often, which led to the midseason acquisition of free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Even after the signing, the bullpen remained murky at best. Timely hitting and manufacturing runs were definitely an issue, the Cubs ranked 15th in the majors with a .259 BA with runners in scoring position. Surprisingly, that average was better than the two teams that finished atop them in the NL Central. Injuries, especially down the stretch, took its toll on the team. Glancing at the moves, or lack thereof, made this offseason, did the Cubs do enough to contend this year?
Given the distractions last year, maybe the frugality displayed by the Cubs this offseason, wasn’t the worst decision in the world. Obviously, the luxury tax is a big reason why it made sense for the Cubs to not spend money. Furthermore, the introduction of the new Marquee Sports Network, has its fair share of criticism, mostly due to the lack of TV provider deals set in place. Making a big splash, like trading away the 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant, could’ve added unnecessary fuel to the fire.
With all of that out of the way, how will David Ross lead the club in his first year as Cubs manager? Let’s dive in and talk about the expectations for this season.
As for the locked-in starters, let’s start behind the plate. Much has been said and made of Willson Contreras’ inability to frame pitches. However, last season he showed improvement with a 48.5% strike rate, ranking in the 50th percentile, which is the equivalent of league average. His pop time to second base was 1.93 seconds on average, which was good enough for third-best in the Majors. He’s always had and shown that ability, but it was the quickest average time of his career. The bat was really coming around as well. Contreras logged limited playing time (105 games) due to a right foot strain and right hamstring strain, which forced him into two IL trips. If the Cubs can get a full season out of Willy “The Beast” Contreras, they will be in very good shape offensively, and with his improving pitch-framing ability, defensively as well.
Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez remain the team’s cornerstone pieces. When they are all healthy and rolling, it’s tough for opposing pitchers to locate an easy out in the top half of the lineup. Manager David Ross is approaching things differently than the Cubs ever have before, opting to start the season with Kris Bryant at the leadoff spot. His OBP will certainly suffice. Since he’s arrived to the show, Bryant has been very good at getting on-base, he ranked second on the team to Rizzo with a .382 OBP in 2019. The Cubs have struggled mightily to find a leadoff hitter since Dexter Fowler departed in free agency after the 2016 Championship season. Believe it or not, Anthony Rizzo has been their best leadoff hitter, due in part because of his great plate discipline. Baez doesn’t need much introduction, but I’ll provide a stat that some people might not be aware of. Baez ranked first with 19 outs above average last season. He also tied for third in baseball with 26 defensive runs saved. I’d say his 29 homers and 85 runs driven in, in only 138 games played, qualifies as pretty good as well.
With four out of the five infield starting spots covered, let’s turn to the biggest uncertainty heading into the regular season, second base. This offseason, the Cubs signed Northbrook, IL native and former 2016 World Series opponent Jason Kipnis to a Minor League contract worth $1 million before incentives. Kipnis is competing with Bote, Descalso, and Nico Hoerner for the starting second base job. Both Bote and Descalso are virtual locks to make the roster based on their contracts. Descalso is guaranteed to make $2.5 million this season. Bote signed a five-year $15 million extension last April.
At this moment, Theo Epstein has to be regretting the Descalso deal, to some extent. He batted a measly .173 in 168 at-bats last year. Bote was decent with a .362 OBP and 106 wRC+. He also can move around the infield and creates more flexibility than the two older veterans, Descalso and Kipnis. Kipnis’ production has faltered since 2016, he’s hit no better than .245 each of the last three years. However, he still hits for decent power, with at least 17 bombs each of the last two seasons. As for Hoerner, we’ll talk about him more later in the article.
Kyle Schwarber looks to be the main man in LF and really came on strong towards the end of the season in 2019, hitting .280 with 20 homers in the second half. He’ll look to continue that, along with improving his hitting against left-handed pitchers. Ian Happ, arguably the hottest Cubs hitter this spring, figures to be manning CF. Almora will get some playing time, likely, in more of a platoon role against left-handed starters. Both have had their struggles and aren’t guaranteed anything if they struggle out of the gate. Happ is one of my breakout calls of the year. His statcast batted ball metrics are solid and he could blossom into a nice post-hype player. Jason Heyward will forever be loved and remembered for his World Series rain delay speech. But, his contract has been a burden almost since the day he arrived. However, there’s no doubt he will be starting in the outfield for the majority of the Cubs’ games. He’ll mainly be in RF, but he can play CF on certain days as well. Steven Souza Jr. was an interesting acquisition. He’ll presumably play LF on days the team rests Schwarber, mainly against southpaws. However, he has to make the team first. More on that later.
Starting Rotation Projections
One through four of the rotation is pretty set. The order of which the starters will be rolled out there is the only thing to be determined. Basing it off last season, Darvish or Hendricks presume to be the number one and two starters, followed by Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. Darvish started out rough but really turned it up a notch in the second half of the season, pitching like a true ace. Take a look at some of the numbers. In 81.2 IP, Darvish had a 2.76 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, .199 BAA, 37.8% K%, and only a 2.2% BB%. The second half numbers might not be sustainable, but if he pitches somewhat close to this level, Cubs management will be more than happy with the return on investment.
Hendricks remained the most reliable. The professor put up almost a spitting image of his ERA from 2018, with a 3.46 ERA, compared to a 3.44 ERA in 2018. He continued to mix speeds well and suppress hard contact and home runs, finishing in the 88th percentile with a 31% HH%, while allowing only a 0.97 HR/9 rate.
Jon Lester took a step back, posting a 4.46 ERA, which was over a full run more than his 3.32 ERA in 2018. If the Cubs can get a rejuvenated season out of him, they’ll be in good shape. He’s getting up there in age (36-years old), so there’s definitely some concerns whether he’ll be able to rebound or if this is just Lester in the final stages of his career. Quintana hasn’t lived up to his side of the trade, which sent Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to the Chicago White Sox. However, you could do worse for a fourth starter than someone who’s started at least 31 games in each of the last seven seasons.
The fifth starter spot is still up for grabs. As speculated, Tyler Chatwood is the front runner, according to David Ross. Although Chatwood has failed to meet the requirements during his time with the Cubs, especially his first season after signing, the front office would love to get some type of payout from what looks to be a detrimentally poor free agency investment, in hindsight. They paid him to be a full time starting pitcher. Last year, Chatwood worked as a swingman, pitching mostly in relief, while making a few spot starts. His numbers looked much better than his first season as a Cub. Chatwood finished the season with a 3.76 ERA and pitched superbly in the second half with a 2.84 ERA, .198 BAA, and 20.8% K-BB%. Overall, his 22.8% K%, was a 5.3% increase from 2018, and he did a solid job of cutting down the extremely high walk rate, 11.4% compared to 19.6%. Expanding on that, in the second half of the season, he only walked 8.5% of batters. So far, he’s looked more than good enough in spring training, to hold the fort. He’s throwing upper 90s and mixing in a nasty-looking changeup more often.
The other option is Alec Mills, who’s pitched very well this spring and showed promise last season at the MLB level. According to baseball savant, a lot of his pitches move at an above-average clip. And he threw 47.6% of his pitches on the edge of the zone last year. League Average is 39%. This spring, he has a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 IP. At the very minimum, I expect him to carve out some type of role as a solid relief option. Solid segue. That leads us directly to the next section.
Before we begin to dissect the bullpen for the upcoming season, let’s touch on some Cubs relief pitching stats from last year. In high leverage situations, they had the highest FIP in the NL (5.83). They tied for the highest BB rate in MLB (15.4%). Cubs relievers had the lowest K rate in the NL (20.7%), and they had the fifth-highest wOBA against in all of baseball (.352).
Going into the season, Kimbrel is locked in to be the closer. Because he was picked up in the middle of the season last year, he never had the chance to get a true spring training. Maybe that played into his bad performance and he can rebound. Before the spring training stoppage, in his three appearances, he was lit up to the tune of three earned runs and two homers allowed in only 2.2 IP. Hopefully, he’s just working out some kinks, as his curveball looked sharp.
Returning standouts, Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick will be the main setup men. After that, it’s really a mixed bag of creatures. Jeremy Jeffress is the biggest name the Cubs signed as far as relief pitchers go, and that comes after a down season last year with the Milwaukee Brewers where he registered a 5.02 ERA in 48 appearances. The hope is that he can rekindle some of the magic that helped him obtain a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 2018.
Brad Wieck showcased a lot of his potential, after the Cubs brought him over last season from the San Diego Padres, in a move that shipped Carl Edwards Jr. off. Wieck certainly has strikeout potential (34.3% career K%). The high HR/9 rate while a member of the Padres is alarming. All of his numbers were pretty solid with the Cubs, but did he just have a hot stretch or was that Wieck coming into his own? Wieck wasn’t on track to be on the opening day roster because he underwent cardiac ablation surgery to correct an atrial flutter. However, with the start of the season now being delayed, Wieck has a chance to get himself fully healthy before it begins.
Casey Sadler has some promise. Both his fastball and curveball had spin rates that sat in the 90th percentile, and his curve held opponents to a .157 BAA. The Cubs traded Minor League infielder Clayton Daniel for him on January 17th and he’s out of options, which indicates he’ll make the opening day roster.
Underwood Jr. is another pitcher out of options. Regardless of how he’s looked in spring training (not good based on results), the team may decide to put him on the roster. He has good stuff, so it’s more about him putting it together.
Throwing a dart with this last pick, I think Rex Brothers is the last man to make the bullpen. This may depend on how much time we have until the season begins. If Wieck is unavailable to start the year, the Cubs will only have one lefty in the pen (Ryan). Brothers has good strikeout stuff and has pitched well this spring, with a 2.57 ERA and 12 strikeouts in six appearances. Brothers is not currently on the 40-man roster, so the Cubs will have to make a corresponding move to make room for him.
Players to Watch For
Nico Hoerner – Interestingly enough, Hoerner was called up a little sooner than many expected, skipping Triple-A entirely, to make his debut last season. Although he played well, this is a team trying to compete now, and his development and everyday playing time are just as important. The playing time at the big league level isn’t guaranteed, nor is it a guarantee he’ll produce the same way he did a year ago. To me, the fact that Jason Kipnis was brought in, signals that Hoerner will not make the opening day roster. However, Nico could very well be a midseason call up, whether it be because of injuries or because of how well he is playing in the Minors. If someone on the big league roster takes off, the Cubs will be much more patient with him.
Ian Miller – Something that gets talked about and discussed all the time in the fantasy baseball community – STEALS. This isn’t a fantasy baseball preview, but the Cubs lack what many of our fantasy teams do, stolen bases. Last season, the Cubs finished 29th in the league with only 45 swipes. Miller has stolen 30 bags each of the last five Minor League seasons and he currently leads all base runners with eight spring training steals. On top of that, he’s played pretty solid defense, bunted well, and batted .382. The Cubs could use that kind of versatility from a bench player, whether he’s the 26th-man on the opening day roster or a midseason call up, I think Miller has a role on this team.
Brandon Morrow – Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Brandon Morrow is hopeful to make an impact at some point this season. After attempting to return much of last year, Morrow’s efforts eventually came up short, as he failed to pitch in a single MLB game due to injury. Now, Morrow has suffered a chest injury and a mild tear in his calf this spring. He’s recovered from the chest injury, but he wasn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season because of the calf and his rehab from elbow issues. The added time off will be good for his journey back. If he can return and pitch anything as he did in 2018, when he posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 appearances with the Cubs, that would be a huge club win. That’s not to be expected, but any type of contribution would help.
Adbert Alzolay – It became apparent early on in spring training that Alzolay was on the outside looking in at the rotation, and even an opening day bullpen spot. Alzolay has incredibly electric stuff, but he’s not quite there yet as far as his development goes. A lot of that can be chalked up to setbacks from injuries. Nonetheless, Alzolay has already been optioned to Iowa where he will begin the season pitching at Triple-A. It’s no secret that the Cubs have struggled to develop young pitching, but Alzolay remains among the top prospects in the organization. After making his debut last season, control and readiness are a concern, however, if he pitches well at the Triple-A level, he’ll be with the parent club at some point during the season, whether it be in the rotation or the pen.
91-71 First Place in the NL Central
I know, I know. I’m a meatball and a homer for picking my favorite team to win the division, right? I’m a wishful thinker, there’s no doubt about it, but hear me out. While the Cincinnati Reds have undoubtedly improved, they are still beatable. They’ve added a lot of new pieces, including last season’s second half Cubs hero Nicholas Castellanos. But, those new pieces could take time to gel together and work themselves out. The rest of the division didn’t get much better, and maybe even got worse. Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers lost talent in the offseason. Notably, the Cardinals lost Marcell Ozuna and the Brewers lost Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas.
No, the Cubs didn’t make a big splash, or really even as much as a ripple in free agency, but the core is still intact. Eyes are certainly watching how David Ross will manage this team, and it’s certainly not a perfectly constructed one by any stretch. But, I believe Ross will be a good change. Joe Maddon was the best manager in Cubs history. Sometimes things get stale. Sometimes a new voice is needed. In this case, a new voice is a very welcomed familiar one. Ross was acting like a coach long before his playing days were over and really got on the players he called teammates when mistakes were made. He’s very respected and well-liked in the clubhouse, but that doesn’t mean things will be all buddy-buddy.
A 90+ win season isn’t too bold. If they get decent production out of Kimbrel and a couple of others in the bullpen, an Ian Happ emergence, 2019 first-half Jon Lester, second half Yu Darvish, and full health, this team could still make a run. The Central Division is difficult to repeat and I don’t think the Cardinals will do it. The Reds aren’t quite ready, in my opinion. And the Brewers won’t be able to keep pace. Whenever baseball resumes, and the regular season eventually begins, I believe the Cubs will get off to a hot start and not look back, although, the three other teams mentioned will be in contention all season. The pitching is the only thing I really question with this team…do they have enough? Only time will tell.
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