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2018 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Do I really need to write 1500 words on the Cubs? You’re really going to make me do this?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs spent much of the first half of last season sleepwalking their way through their schedule. I would call it a prototypical World Series hangover, but given how the celebration extended into the new season, the Cubs were playing at more of a “Still Drunk On Sunday Morning” level than a hangover level.

Chicago was actually 25-27 at one point last season after getting swept in a six-game West coast road trip against the Dodgers and Padres. They then shuffled around at about .500 for the next month before turning on the burners in July. Eventually, the Cubs would meet LA again in the NLCS, where the Dodgers’ depth (both in the lineup and in the bullpen) got the best of the Cubs’ likely superior top talent.

The Cubs learned from that and went out and got deeper. Now, not only do they have one of the best young cores in baseball, but they have one of the deepest pitching staffs and benches in the game, too. FUN.

Additions and Subtractions

For the second straight winter, Chicago lost its closer, with Wade Davis collecting a bonkers contract from the Colorado Rockies (3 years, $52 million) over the winter. They also lost Koji Uehera when the veteran decided to return home to Japan after one of the most underrated runs a Japanese reliever has seen in the U.S. this side of Takashi Saito. They also let John Lackey walk, which really makes you scratch your head (not really, he’s washed up, but I wanted to get one more reference in) and they never really showed much interest in bringing Jake Arrieta back after his health started to show some cracks in the foundation.

So the Cubs went out and signed former closer Steve Cishek to replace Uehera and stole one of the Dodgers’ secret weapons from last year, Brandon Morrow, to serve as their closer this year. They replaced Lackey with Tyler Chatwood and then finally signed Yu Darvish the day before Valentine’s Day after months of flirting.

The additions weren’t necessarily made to be 1:1 replacements for the guys they lost, but they still represent upgrades almost across the board.

Infield

With most of the Cubs’ focus in the offseason being on pitching, there aren’t a whole lot of changes to be aware of elsewhere on the Cubs’ roster. They’re all the same faces and they’re still all annoyingly young, so they’ll be the same faces we’ll see for awhile. Behind that core of starters are a slew of Swiss Army Knife utility players.

Anthony Rizzo says he wants to play in all 162 games this year. That doesn’t seem to be Joe Maddon’s style, so if/when Rizzo gets a breather, Ben Zobrist will likely play first. Zobrist will also back up Javier Baez at second base, while Baez will back up Addison Russell at shortstop. Kris Bryant will, of course, be at third base, with Zobrist also filling in there from time to time. That’s unless Victor Caratini makes the team as a backup catcher to Willson Contreras, of course. Then he can also back up third and first base.

Got all that?

Outfield

Wait, I forgot to mention that the Cubs’ main center fielder, Ian Happ, also came up through the minors as a second baseman and will probably play there some, too. When Happ isn’t in center, it’ll likely be Albert Almora playing there.

Kyle Schwarber lost a significant amount of weight in the offseason and hopes being in better shape helps him avoid the slow start he had last year (not that it hurt him too much, he still hit 30 home runs in just 422 at-bats). When he’s not playing, you guessed it, Zobrist will play left.

Jason Heyward and his headache of a contract return to right field. On the bright side for the Cubs, he’s still one of the very best defensive right fielders in the game, and he was able to improve his batting average and on-base percentage by about 20 points last year. But the bad news is that still meant a line of .259/.326/.389. As a slap hitter that’s good defensively, Heyward is basically a version of Old Ichiro that’s making $28 million this year. He’s currently working on retooling his swing for the 37th time in the past two years.

Rotation

While Yu Darvish may have been the big free agent signing of the winter, he’ll pitch third in the Cubs’ rotation, which might tell you something about how ridiculously deep this group is, but is also partially strategy from Maddon. Chicago has three pitchers who were Opening Day starters last year in their rotation (Darvish, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana) to go with Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood, who might end up being the best 5th starter in baseball if you want to buy into Spring Training performance.

That kind of depth is allowing Maddon to order his rotation in a way most people probably wouldn’t, but may give the Cubs a starting pitcher advantage in most games they play. Lester will take the ball on Opening Day, and will be followed in the rotation by Hendricks, Darvish, Quintana and Chatwood. That means in any three game series, you’ll be seeing at least one of — and probably two of — Lester, Darvish and Quintana. FUN.

Bullpen

It’s not like the bullpen was necessarily a weakness for the Cubs last year, but with their recent additions, they may have the most solid group in the National League, if not the best top-to-bottom bullpen in baseball.

As mentioned, instead of paying Wade Davis $50+ million after he broke down in the playoffs (or, more accurately, Maddon rode him into the ground), the Cubs went out and got Brandon Morrow for half the price. Morrow has never really been a closer outside of a short stint during his Seattle days 10 years ago, but he rejuvenated his career with the Dodgers last season, striking out 50 batters and walking just 9 in 43.2 innings.

Morrow’s durability questions (which have followed him his entire career, due to his diabetes) have some wondering if he can handle the role full-time — he never pitched on back-to-back days last year, for example — but if he falters or isn’t available, the Cubs luckily (ugh) have a slew of former closers at their disposal that they’ll be using in middle relief.

They still have former Tigers closer Justin Wilson as a result of a deadline deal last year. Steve Cishek has a long history of late-inning success with the Marlins and Mariners and is coming off a year with a 2.01 ERA. Mike Montgomery got the final out for their World Series title, and Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards, Jr. have the stuff to be successful late-inning relievers (and have been). The worst reliever on their roster is Brian Duensing, and he had a 2.74 ERA last year and struck out nearly a batter an inning.

If you don’t get to a starter against the Cubs, you probably aren’t scoring many runs after that.

Prospects

Trades for guys like Jose Quintana have thinned out the Cubs’ farm system, they still have some potential contributors, even if they’re lacking in the Top-100 prospects.

Pitcher Adbert Alzolay may be smaller in stature, but can still fire a fastball at 92-96 and up to 98. That combined with his 60-grade curveball makes him a potential relief option for the Cubs this year, even though he’ll be kept as a starter in the minors.

Catcher/first baseman Victor Caratini is capable of being a solid backup to Willson Contreras, but he’s more of a hit-first catcher, which you don’t usually see with second-string backstops. As mentioned, if he makes the team as the second catcher, he’d also be capable of spelling Rizzo or Bryant at the corner infield spots.

Beyond those guys, the Cubs have a ton of young pitchers that may find themselves on prospect lists as they get closer to their 2019, 2020, or 2021 ETAs. As active players on the international market, the Cubs have a lot of very young prospects that haven’t quite built up the resumes to garner a lot of hype quite yet.

Prediction

The Cubs should probably win the NL Central again this year, and they should probably win it by a fairly comfortable (let’s say at least 5-ish games?) margin. They played out of their minds in the second half of last season after their first half World Series hangover let the Brewers hang around, and while it’d be unrealistic to see them play at that pace over a full season, there’s no denying they’re one of the most talented — and now one of the most deep — 25-man rosters in the National League.

Whether or not they can get past the Dodgers and return to the World Series remains to be seen, but a Cubs-Yankees showdown in October will be a trendy pick, even if the thought makes you a little queasy.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs

Poll

Where do the 2018 Cubs finish in the NL Central?

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  • 86%
    1st
    (840 votes)
  • 7%
    2nd
    (77 votes)
  • 1%
    3rd
    (15 votes)
  • 0%
    4th
    (1 vote)
  • 3%
    5th
    (33 votes)
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