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2021 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Will the Cubs trade assets at the deadline or go for it?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Oakland Athletics Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the talk surrounding the Chicago Cubs this offseason revolves around who would be traded from this team. Theo Epstein stepped down as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer took over that spot. Now the pundits expect Hoyer to throw in the towel. See the provocative argument written by Gordon Wittenmeyer, which sums up the perceived Cubs’ situation.

Now Hoyer is undergoing a Cubs Tanking 2.0 version of the process (a soft tank?) after six consecutive winning seasons because the top players from the championship core rebuffed extension efforts and appear headed to free agency over the next 22 months.

The fact of the matter is that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez will be free agents after this season unless some type of extension is negotiated. Willson Contreras will be a free agent in 2023 as will Craig Kimbrel. Other players that have come to Chicago and should bring value to their club are on short contracts that end after this season.

By next season this team might only have Kyle Hendricks, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Trevor Williams, David Bote, and Nico Hoerner in the fold with a lot of short-term contracts and and prospects filling out the roster; that is unless the Cubs sign some of their vaunted core to longer term contracts. With the uncertainty surrounding this team, it is impossible to know how they will operate in 2021. The results of the season up to the trade deadline will determine that for Jed Hoyer most likely.

Additions

The Cubs have actually been busy adding to their roster this offseason. However the players they are replacing on this roster might not match up as well as Cubs’ fans would like. The two biggest adds in terms of name recognition were Jake Arrieta and Joc Pederson.

Arrieta was the best pitcher in baseball for one amazing season in 2015. He was a really good pitcher for most of his time in Chicago. After signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, he became a shell of his former self. He and the Chicago Cubs are looking to rekindle something of what he was. The 35 year old right-hander has likely seen his best days, but could he be serviceable?

Joc Pederson was the other big free agent signing. The 1-year, $7 million deal is a bargain for someone of his ability. An 88 wRC+ in 2020 certainly did no favors for his value coming into his free agency. He will likely return to form in a Cubs’ uniform and lengthen an already formidable lineup.

The best addition might have been Zach Davies who came to Chicago, along with a few prospects, in a trade that sent Yu Darvish to San Diego. Davies is pitching really well right now in Spring Training, and he pitched really well in San Diego last season. Davies is simply a good pitcher. He will solidify one of the spots in the Cubs’ rotation, which is a huge question mark for them coming into 2021.

Other additions include Jake Marisnick or will play the role of fourth outfielder. Trevor Williams will try to lock down a back-of-the-rotation spot. Matt Duffy will compete for a utility role. Brandon Workman, Kohl Stewart, Andrew Chafin, and maybe even Shelby Miller are there to shore up the bullpen, which is another big question mark. Austin Romine will back up Contreras at catcher. Other than Pederson and Davies, this is not a group that elicits optimism in a fanbase.

Subtractions

As the Cubs cut payroll, they let go of a lot of talent. Three-fifths of their starting rotation from 2020 is gone (Four-fifths if you count Tyler Chatwood in that mix). A middle of the order bat is gone. A strong defensive centerfielder is gone. A really good backup catcher is gone. A couple of other good arms are gone. The question now for Cubs’ fans is who is next and when.

Yu Darvish has proven to be a volatile pitcher. For portions of his career, he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. For other portions of his career, he is good, but not great. Injuries have played a role, but he does not bring consistent dominance from season-to-season.

Last season, however, was his best season in Chicago as he posted 2.01 ERA. With a lot of future case locked up in Darvish, Hoyer decided to trade him while his value was high. The Padres sent Zach Davies and prospects to San Diego and took $59 million off the Cubs’ books in the trade. This might not have been a popular trade, but it might have been a smart one.

The loss of Jon Lester from their rotation has to be an emotional one. He was a tough and gritty pitcher that had some ace-like seasons. The Cubs do not win the World Series in 2016 without him. He is in Washington now trying to get a bit more out of that left arm, and it was probably a reasonably smart move not to sign him back, although 1-year for $5 million is pretty reasonable for someone of his ilk.

The last starting pitcher to move on to another team is Brewers killer Jose Quintana. When the Brewers and Cubs were both trying to acquire his services at the trade deadline of 2017, the Cubs had to give up Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, and more to get him. Quintana was not as effective as a Cub as he was in a White Sox’ uniform. Nonetheless he was decent, and made up what amounted to a good starting rotation. Without these three pitchers, the Cubs’ rotation looks a lot less formidable.

The Cubs lost a really dangerous bat as well. Kyle Schwarber was not tendered a contract, and he went onto sign with the Washington Nationals. Schwarber was a presence in the Cubs’ lineup. That said, they probably adequately replaced him with Joc Pederson. Nonetheless there was a magnetic quality about him at the plate that Brewers’ fans should be glad is out of the N.L. Central.

The Cubs also lost Albert Almora. With Ian Happ taking over center field in good fashion, Almora’s strong defense and light bat were expendable. They essentially replaced that same profile with Jake Marisnick. Victor Caratini joined Darvish in San Diego. Tyler Chatwood and Jeremy Jeffress are no longer pitching for them. They lost quite a bit, and as a result this Cubs’ team is probably not as good as years past.

Infield

The Cubs’ infield continues to be one of the better ones in baseball. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez are still in Cubs’ uniforms, and for as long as they this season, the Cubs will be a tough team to handle.

Kris Bryant is the member of that trio that gets the most buzz about potentially being traded. All offseason the scuttlebutt was about Bryant in another uniform. Well he remains in Chicago and the expectation should be that he has a good year.

Yes Bryant did not have a good season in 2020, and a bad shoulder reduced his effectiveness in 2018. Just remember he put up 4.8 fWAR in 2019, and he produce 6-8 fWAR from 2015-2017. Expect at least a season on par with 2019 or better from a very motivated Kris Bryant,

Anthony Rizzo is as consistent as they come. He does not strike out that much. He gets on base, and he hits for power. He plays Gold Glove caliber defense. There are not many better first basemen in the sport. Again expect a 4-5 fWAR player in 2021 who is also motivated to perform in 2021.

The greatest tagger of all time (tongue in cheek comment), Javier Baez is more of a wild card than the other two. Finishing second in MVP voting behind Christian Yelich in 2018, he was just really good in 2019 and pretty bad in 2020. This guy is going to slug, but his OBP and K% will likely be less than stellar. He cannot lay off the slider, and until he does, opposing pitchers can get him out. Nonetheless he is very dangerous at the plate and will be in 2021. Add to the fact that he is legitimately Gold Glove caliber at shortstop, and the Cubs infield looks really good in 2021.

The only question mark in the infield is second base. Will Nico Hoerner take the position everyday? The Cubs probably hope so, but the 23 year old former first round draft pick has not demonstrated he is ready, yet. David Bote makes hard contact and seems to deliver crunch time hits. He will compete for reps at second. Matt Duffy has spent most of his time at third base throughout his career, but he has played second too. Ildemaro Vargas will be a utility man for Cubs manager, David Ross. Look for him to get time at second base too.

Outfield

While the Cubs’ outfield is not as vaunted as the their infield, their starting outfield is going to be pretty good starting with Jason Heyward. When the Cubs signed Heyward to a 8-year, $184 million contract heading into the 2016 season, they thought they were getting a player who was just about to come into his own at the plate. They also knew they were getting the best defensive right fielder in baseball. That contract is one of many not to have worked out in the Cubs’ favor.

While Heyward has not lived up to his contract, he is still a fine player. He no longer is the elite defender he once was, but he is still awfully good. He is not anything close to the hitter the Cubs hoped he would become, but he is decent. In essence, the player that Heyward is now is about league average or slightly above. He will make $23.5 and $24.5 million each year for the next three years. League average should not be payed that much. Nonetheless he is a quality major league player that also seems to get big hits against the Brewers.

Ian Happ is growing into his position of center field. He had growing pains with the transition, and it affected his WAR, but he is at least competent at this point. His bat isn’t a problem though. A wRC+ of 132 in 2020 and 128 in 2019 demonstrate that. Look for him to get on base and a deliver in the slug department. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if he broke out to another level in 2021. If that happens then the Cubs become a really tough lineup to navigate.

The signing of Joc Pederson for just $7 million might be one of the better signings this offseason. Pederson generally crushes right handed pitching and has 30 home run power. He lengthens and already impressive lineup, and he will give Brewers’ fans fits this season. Jake Marisnick will be their fourth outfielder.

Catcher

Willson Contreras received a lot of trade rumor attention this offseason too. Yet he still remains in a Cubs’ uniform. Probably a bit overrated defensively, he still is a quality major league catcher. With the bat, he is one of the better hitting catchers in the game. He has posted well over a 120 wRC+ in three of the five seasons he’s played. As an all-around force behind the plate, he is probably in the top 5 in MLB.

Contreras’ back up is now in San Diego. Austin Romine was signed to take on that role in 2021. He is serviceable as a back up.

Rotation

One of the areas that Chicago is suspect in is the starting rotation. Kyle Hendricks is now the “ace” by default. Hendricks is really good, but the Cubs would rather have him as the #3 starter as opposed to the #1. Although he was the Opening Day starter last season against Brandon Woodruff and the Brewers, tossing one of the better pitched games in all of 2020.

Zach Davies will give the Cubs a good pitcher that will give them quality starts on most outings, especially earlier in the season. Pinpoint command and a wonderful change up are his calling cards, as Brewers’ fans know. Again, when Davies is your #2, and there is little depth in the rotation, your team is vulnerable.

Chicago will look to Jake Arrieta to eat innings and protect their bullpen. He is nowhere near what he was during his first stint in Chicago. The Cubs cannot be expecting that either, and they have to be hoping someone else steps up for them.

Will that someone be Trevor Williams? The Cubs picked him up after the Pirates let him go. Williams has showed promise, but has yet to deliver anything other that back-end starter, long reliever quality. Remember the Pirates chose to outright him and open him up to the market. The Cubs either think they can tap into to something the Pirates didn’t. They certainly would not be the first team to do so with a former Pirates’ pitcher. Or they are just looking to eat innings with this acquisition.

Alec Mills provided some quality starts for the Cubs in 2020 when injuries impacted their rotation. Nonetheless he might be better suited for the bullpen. The Cubs hope that assessment is wrong as they might just give Mills one of the rotation spots.

Chicago hopes Adbert Alzolay works out. He did strike out more than twelve per nine over six games and four starts in 2020. Shelby Miller might fit into the rotation too. He is having a good Spring.

There is talk about a six man rotation in Chicago. This rotation is lacking as a five man rotation at this point. There is little depth here and a lot of things have to go right for the Cubs to succeed in this department as a whole. In fact, this might be the Achilles heel of the Cubs in 2021.

Bullpen

Of course the bullpen could be a problem for the Cubs in 2021 too. They still have one of the best relievers of all time in Craig Kimbrel for which they paid handsomely to get. In a Cubs’ uniform he has been anything but an all time great. A 6.53 ERA in 2019 and a 5.28 ERA in 2020 likely have Cubs’ fans nervous. He has to return to some semblance of himself for this bullpen to be good.

This bullpen fails to strike fear. The pitcher that doesn’t make the starting rotation could help to fill out the bullpen. Other pieces include Andrew Chafin, Brandon Workman, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam, Dillion Maples, Rex Brothers, and Pedro Strop (signed minor league contract). Achilles heel #2?

Prospects

The Cubs’ farm system isn’t much better than the Brewers’ system in terms of rankings. They do have three prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 100: Brainy Marquez (#60), Brennen Davis (#61), and Miguel Amaya (#89). None of the three have played above AA. Whether any prospects deliver help to this Cubs’ team in 2021, that honor probably falls to Alzolay who is ranked as their #7 prospect.

Prediction:

The Cubs’ lineup is quite strong. Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Pederson, Happ, and Contreras are all likely to be much better than league average at the plate. Defensively they should be okay though not exceptional (Baez and Rizzo should be good to great on defense). Their pitching both in the rotation and bullpen is suspect. The Cubs are going to have to be the highest scoring team in the league to have a chance at the N.L. Central crown this year.

If the Cubs are in the hunt at the trade deadline, they might just add a pitcher or two or three. That would go a long way in getting them into playoff contention. The greater likelihood is that they are sellers at the deadline.

The Cubs will prove a bothersome team this season because of their position player group, but their pitching is apt to fail them after Hendricks and Davies. With the thinking that the Cubs start unloading assets at the deadline, the outlook of this writer for the Cubs is bleak. It would not be a surprise to see Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Pederson, Davies, and Contreras on other teams come August. If this is even partially true, the Cubs will struggle to reach .500 and finish in fourth place in the N.L. Central with a 78-84 record.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference