The Chicago Cubs are in the middle of one of their most successful eras in team history, making the playoffs four years in a row and coming within a Game 163 loss of three consecutive division championships.
Still, if you were a Cubs fan, you could be forgiven for feeling a little unfulfilled. After all, with the team’s young core, the World Series title in 2016 was expected to be the first of multiple -- the start of a dynasty. Instead, they haven’t been particularly close to even getting back to the World Series, let alone winning it.
Last season ended with the team blowing a 5-game lead in the division in September, and what was supposed to be a feared offense essentially falling apart, scoring 3 runs or less 14 times in September and then again in Game 163 and the NL Wildcard play-in game. After a collapse like that, you would expect one of the most valuable franchises in the sport to take advantage of a historic free agent market to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
...the team’s lone significant free agent acquisition was Daniel Descalso. That’s pretty much it.
They could have moved on from Addison Russell and signed Manny Machado to play shortstop. They could have made a run at Bryce Harper to plug a hole in the outfield, where they got below-average production in center and right field. With Jon Lester and Cole Hamels going into their age-35 seasons, they could have signed a starting pitching to round out the rotation. If they weren’t going to improve the offense, they could have shortened games with another relief pitcher like Craig Kimbrel.
Instead, they signed Daniel Descalso, a utility infielder without a ton of utility and a career .694 OPS, to a 2-year, $5 million contract. He will likely see plenty of action while Russell is out for 40 games on his domestic abuse suspension.
The lack of spending meant the late-season rental Daniel Murphy wasn’t retained after hitting .297/.329/.471 with 6 home runs and 6 doubles in 35 games, leaving the Cubs to sign a 2-year, $24 million deal with the Colorado Rockies. Relievers Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez also both left for 2-year deals, Wilson landing with the Mets and Chavez signing with the Rangers.
To be fair, the Cubs didn’t need to do much more than sign someone like Daniel Descalso. Even if you don’t believe Javier Baez can hit like he did last year again, Chicago still has the best infield in the division and possibly in the National League.
Baez doesn’t walk and needs to hit .290 to put up a slightly below-average OBP and whether he can repeat a 40-double, 34-home run season with that kind of profile remains to be seen, but even a repeat of the year before last season (.273/.317/.480 with 23 home runs and 24 doubles in 2017) brings plenty of value to the middle infield.
While they hope Baez’s 2018 season wasn’t a fluke, they’re probably hoping 2018 was a fluke for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. The fact a .283/.376/.470 line and 25 home runs and a 121 OPS+ was seen as a massive disappointment for Rizzo shows how good he’s been -- he had hit 30+ home runs with an OPS+ above 130 for 4 straight seasons before that -- and at only 29 this year, it’s entirely possible he gets back to that point again. Meanwhile, Cubs fans could probably make a case that if Bryant played more than 102 games last year, a Game 163 never would’ve happened. Even when he returned from his shoulder problems, though, he wasn’t quite the same player, missing the power that made him a perennial MVP candidate. If he’s fully healthy, the Cubs lineup is completely different.
Kyle Schwarber is never going to be confused for a great pure hitter, but he showed more patience last year, cut down his strikeouts, and actually became a passable defender in left field. For a point of reference, Fangraphs calculated Schwarber at 4.3 runs above average defensively. Ryan Braun rated at -3.9 runs. He may not be the quickest guy in the world, but his routes improved a great deal and his throwing arm in left field is not a joke.
Albert Almora will open the year as the team’s centerfielder after Ian Happ was sent to the minors to start the season. Almora hit a pretty empty .286/.323/.378 but plays a solid defensive center field. He’ll likely hit at the bottom of the lineup.
Jason Heyward returns to right field after making the extremely difficult decision not to opt out of the last 5 years and $106 million remaining on his contract this past winter. He’s still nowhere near the offensive player everyone thought he would be after the way his career started in Atlanta, but he did manage to rebuild his swing to the point of getting back up to a .270/.335/.395 line last year, which is Just Fine if you forget about the contract (and a team like the Cubs can do that) and consider the defensive value he brings in right field.
How good this rotation is really might depend on how Yu Darvish comes back from his injury-shortened disappointing first year in Chicago. If he’s the 200-strikeout guy of old, he’s the frontline starter that makes them a World Series contender again. If he’s a high-priced mid-rotation guy, they might be in a little bit of trouble.
It’s still a strong rotation overall, but it’s verging on old. Darvish is 32 this year, and the rest of the rotation will be filled out with the 35-year-old Jon Lester, 35-year-old Cole Hamels, 30-year-old Jose Quintana and 29-year-old Kyle Hendricks.
Hamels is likely due for some regression anyway after putting up a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts as a Cub last year. He likely won’t be as bad as the 4.72 ERA he was tagged for in Texas before the trade, but expecting him to pitch like an ace is probably unrealistic.
Lester, meanwhile seems to be ageless and may actually be a vampire. He put up a 3.32 ERA at age 34 last year, but out-performed his FIP by a full run.
Jose Quintana is only good against the Brewers. Kyle Hendricks is a witch, although the FIP luck started to regress to more normal levels last season.
Even with the losses of Wilson and Chavez, the Cubs should once again have a strong bullpen, at least on the back end. Pedro Strop had a 2.26 ERA in 60 games last year, picking up 13 saves when Brandon Morrow and his 22 saves in 35 games with a 1.47 ERA was unavailable due to injury. Morrow won’t be ready for the start of the year, meaning Strop will likely have closing duties to start the year. Steve Cishek was last year’s rubber arm, appearing in 80 games and putting up a 2.18 ERA in 70.1 innings, striking out 78 batters. Carl Edwards, Jr. also joined the strikeout party, punching out 67 batters in 52 innings.
The middle relief might be where teams could catch the Cubs, though -- they’ll start the year carrying guys like Brandon Kintzler and Brad Brach who have had success in the past but aren’t anything spectacular. This would be another reason for the Cubs, if they had any interest in spending the money they have, to sign Craig Kimbrel and potentially push everyone back by an inning.
The Cubs have traded a lot of good prospects over the past couple years to help supplement their playoff runs, but there are still a handful of prospects who could end up playing a role for them in 2019.
Adbert Alzolay has a ridiculous name and a pretty ridiculous fastball for a guy who’s billed at 6’0” and 179 pounds, hitting 98 and adding a good curveball. He projects as a mid-rotation starter due to his iffy control, but the team’s 4th-best prospect could make a bullpen appearance at some point this year.
Right-hander Keegan Thompson is the only other guy with a 2019 ETA in their Top 10, but could also provide some innings this year. He projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
If we’re being totally honest, the Cubs should likely still be the favorites in the NL Central based on pure talent and the ceilings of the players on their roster. But they’ve seen just enough weirdness over the past couple years -- injuries to star players, Joe Maddon going from crazy genius to possibly just crazy guy who thinks he’s a genius, etc. -- and haven’t added anything substantial to their core while teams like the Brewers and the Cardinals have actively worked to build their rosters.
Top to bottom, though, Chicago has the best roster in the division and should at least make the playoffs. If everyone in the division ends up beating up on each other all year, though, there’s no guarantee a wildcard spot comes out of the NL Central — and it’s worth mentioning the Cubs finish the year with 3 games in St. Louis.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs