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2017 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Milwaukee’s rivals from south of the border are the clear favorites to win the NL Central again, and possibly a second straight World Series

MLB: World Series-Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Chicago Cubs ended the longest and most interesting championship drought in sports. Now they have their sights set on becoming just a regular old boring dynasty.

Winning a championship often means losing a few pieces to big contracts in free agency, and the Cubs were no different this past winter. Aroldis Chapman ended up being an expensive rental for Chicago, heading back to the Yankees on the richest contract ever given to a reliever (5 years, $86 million) months after being traded to Chicago in a deal that included top prospect Gleyber Torres. Leadoff man Dexter Fowler also cashed in after betting on himself on a one-year deal before the 2016 season, turning the best season of his career into a 5 year, $82.5 million deal with the rival St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs' pitching depth also took a mild hit when Jason Hammel and Travis Wood both signed with the Kansas City Royals.

Instead of panicking, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and friends reloaded. They addressed the back of the bullpen and the departure of Chapman by trading Jorge Soler to the Royals straight up for Wade Davis, who has posted a cumulative ERA of 1.18 over the past three seasons. They also signed ageless wonder Koji Uehara away from the Boston Red Sox, presumably to handle the 8th inning. Hector Rondon also returns, and despite saving 77 games with a 2.44 ERA over the past three seasons, will again be bumped to middle relief. If you're going to beat the Cubs this year, you're probably going to have to get the lead before the 7th inning.

Chicago also addressed the departure of Fowler by signing former Cardinal Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million deal. Jay played last season in San Diego, where he hit .291/.339/.389. He won't hit for the power Fowler did, but he should at least provide a steady veteran hand for Joe Maddon in case Albert Almora isn't ready to take over an everyday role in center.

When you're a World Series winner with a large budget, you also have the luxury of rolling the dice in other areas of the roster. For the Cubs this year, that meant signing oft-injured lefty Brett Anderson in hopes of adding some depth and possibly pushing Mike Montgomery for the 5th rotation spot.

But the Cubs' biggest addition for the 2017 season will likely be one that didn't involve a free agent signing or a trade. Kyle Schwarber will be back after tearing his ACL just a few days into the 2016 season. You'll remember Schwarber making a superhuman comeback from the injury to get back on the field in time for the World Series, where he proceeded to hit Corey Kluber like it was nothing.

Maddon has toyed with the idea of hitting Schwarber leadoff this year, and while he may not be the Platonic Ideal of a leadoff hitter, he is an extremely tough out who can also punish pitchers if they start the game with a mistake. Also, making teams start games by facing Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is just downright mean. You might worry about Schwarber losing out on chances to drive in as many runs as he's capable of doing by hitting him first, but the Cubs' lineup is so deep that they'll be hitting guys like Javier Baez and Addison Russell in the bottom half of the order, and they should be on base plenty for Schwarber & Co.

Behind the plate, Willson Contreras figures to get a majority of the starts, pushing former All-Star Miguel Montero into a reserve role. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out, since Montero complained about how little he played in the World Series before the champagne even dried in the locker room, but the veteran is publicly saying he'll show up and do his job this year. Contreras turns 25 this year and hit .282/.357/.488 with 12 home runs in 76 games after coming up last season. An .845 OPS and 125 OPS+ from a catcher is pretty acceptable, if he can keep it up in his first full season.

Rizzo will again hold down first base, entering his age-27 season and coming off a year in which he won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. The lefty hit .292/.385/.544 and put up a WAR higher than 5 for the third year in a row. The Brewers haven't had a player put up a WAR north of 5 since 2014, when Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez did it.

Javy Baez will man second base when supersub Ben Zobrist doesn't play there. Baez was a highly-hyped prospect who is still working on his consistency with the bat, but has not disappointed with the glove. Offensively, he's been overly aggresive at times, having a hard time not chasing pitches out of the zone. Last season, he struck out 108 times and walked just 15 times in 450 plate appearances. It's easy to harp on what Baez isn't yet, but he's still managed to be a power threat at a position up the middle and he'll only turn 24 this season.

Addison Russell is the other very young middle infielder who is still finding his way with the bat, but is also a spectacular defender. Last year, Russell hit 20 home runs and nearly drove in 100, but the overall line was a lackluster .238/.321/.417. With that said, even with slightly below average offensive production (he carried a 97 OPS+ in 2016), his defense is so good that he's still an extremely valuable player. Similar to Baez, it's easy to forget that he'll only be 23 this year considering it will be his third full year in the majors.

Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant will hold down third base again. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2015, Bryant took the leap to becoming one of the best overall hitters in baseball, putting up a .292/.385/.554 line, hitting 39 home runs, and scoring a league-leading 121 runs (thanks in large part to the other dangerous hitters in the Cubs lineup). It wasn't just the counting stats that were impressive, either -- he also put up a .396 wOBA and 149 wRC+. With an 8.4 fWAR and 7.7 bWAR, he was the pretty clear choice for MVP. A big part of that? He cut down his strikeout percentage from 30.6% his rookie year to 22% last year. He's quickly becoming one of the scariest hitters in the league, and he'll only be 25 this year.

If there's a weak spot on the roster, it's probably right field, where Jason Heyward still has 6 years and $134 million left on his contract. Heyward is still one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, which played a big role in his massive contract, but he saw his offensive game disintegrate. You could say he was Yuniesky Betancourt bad with the bat in 2016, but at least Yuni hit for power. A year after hitting .293/.359/.439 for the Cardinals in 2015, every part of his swing collapsed in Chicago and his line crashed and burned to .230/.306/.325. Heyward has tried to rework his mechanics -- again -- this spring, but scouts seem to think it's still a disaster. At least the Cubs have the revenue to hide him if they have to.

This team is going to score a lot of runs, but the starting pitching won't be bad, either. It will largely be the same group the Cubs had last year, anchored by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. John Lackey is also back and as mentioned, Montgomery will likely be given the 5th spot in the rotation.

But the big question this year is whether Kyle Hendricks' 2016 season was for real. He put up an absurd 2.13 ERA last season that was probably lucky, but in this case that's not meant as a slam on his abilities. His 2016 FIP of 3.20 indicated he was probably just Extremely Good last year, as opposed to Right Handed Clayton Kershaw. ZiPS has Hendricks projected for a 3.21 ERA this year, which is right in the same ballpark as his FIPs from the past few years.

Last year's Cubs easily won the NL Central with a record of 103-58, and they probably should have won even more games if you look at their run differential of +252 (their Pythagorean W-L stood at 107-54). This year's projection systems seem to like them a little bit less, if only because it's tough to project any team to win 100 games in any given year. To win that many games, not only do you need to be really good, but you also need a little luck and some bad opponents.

With the bottom of the division starting to improve -- PECOTA has every team in the Central projected for 74 wins or better -- it's entirely possible this year's Cubs end up being a better team with a worse record than last season.

With that said, there's no doubt that the Cubs are the team to beat in the division, and barring a major injury or two, it's hard to see them being pushed too hard for a division title. They may not finish 30 games ahead of the Brewers again in 2017, but it's safe to assume they'll have a relatively stress-free last week or two of the season as they prepare for another deep playoff run. And since the vast majority of their core players are 25 or younger, even if this year doesn't result in another World Series title, there's still plenty of time for more championship runs.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs