Cubs Season Preview

by Logan Springgate

Offseason: Who’s Gone, Who’s New

Signings

RHP Yu Darvish (6 yrs/$126 mil):

There’s really nowhere else to start talking about the 2018 Cubs than Yu Darvish. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had him at the top of their board from the start of the offseason, but only for the right price. Well the offseason kept on going and the price fell to a very reasonable $21 mil/yr average. For those playing along at home, that’s $4 mil/yr less than what Arrieta signed for with the Phillies. Darvish was uninspiring with the Rangers to start last season (4.01 ERA, 9.7 K/9), but he bounced back to his unhittable self after he got traded to the Dodgers (3.44, 11.1). He cryptically attributed this to “information” that he got from the Dodgers. Sounds like that meant some arm slot changes and other things to make his delivery more repeatable. Unfortunately, it also revealed something in his delivery that the Astros noticed, tipping his pitch selection. They destroyed him for 8 earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings pitched in the World Series. Time will tell if the Cubs have some “information” of their own to fix that up.

RHP Tyler Chatwood (3 yrs/$38 mil):

I don’t know if there’s ever been a player that needed to get away from Coors Field more. In case you don’t know, Coors not only plays at altitude which causes balls to carry, but it also has a gigantic outfield. In his career, Chatwood has given up a .326 batting average on balls in play (BABIP, basically batting average against not including walks, Ks, and homers) and 5.25 ERA at home. On the road, it’s like he’s a completely different player. He only gave up a .272 BABIP and a 3.31 ERA. The difference was even starker last year, so let’s take a minute, close your eyes, and picture what he’ll look like when he pitches at most 1 game at Coors instead of 17. Oh by the way, he’s only the 5th starter for the Cubs. There’s a very real chance that he contributes to the Cubs being the best rotation in the league.

RHP Brandon Morrow (3 yrs/$39 mil):

The Cubs definitely made an effort to improve their bullpen this offseason, but closer has the potential to be a big downgrade. Morrow was something of a journeyman starter until last season when he broke out in the Dodgers’ bullpen. Dave Roberts trusted him to pitch in every game of the World Series, but it seemed like he wore down by the end of it (like anyone pitching 7 out of 9 days would). The move to the bullpen has allowed Morrow to drop his curveball and splitter and focus on throwing a 4-seamer, a slider, and a cutter, meanwhile his velocity has jumped about 3 MPH across the board. I think he’s got a good chance to keep last year’s positive changes and be very effective.

RHP Steve Cishek (2 yrs/$13 mil):

Cishek has a past as a closer, but has been more effective when he’s not working the last innings. In innings 6-8, his ERA hovers just under or just over 2.00, but you take him into the 9th and extras (situations that are a little important for closers) and his ERA jumps over 3.00. Overall, he’s a solid reliever and I think he’s going to take the Hector Rondon place in Joe Maddon’s heart.

LHP Drew Smyly (2 yrs/$10 mil):

This is the classic Tommy John flyer. Smyly likely won’t appear for the Cubs much if at all this season, so his contract has a lot of incentives built in. Smyly has had flashes of brilliance in 2015 and 2016, but he’s never been consistent. At one point in 2015, he had an 8 start stretch giving up 5, 0, 3, 0, 4, 0, 5, and 0 runs. Maybe the Cubs coaching staff can help him figure it out, but there’s nothing to be lost here.

Brian Duensing (2 yrs/$7 mil):

Ok so Duensing isn’t new, but I wanted to point out that he took a lot less money to stay in Chicago than he was offered elsewhere (*cough* Oakland *cough*).

Departures

Jake Arrieta: Thanks for your service Jake, but Darvish is younger and better and you started to show deterioration last year.

John Lackey: Maybe more than any other free agent departure, I’ll miss big John. The guy defined curmudgeon, but he was that fiery competitor that gets a locker room going. To paraphrase Lackey himself: he didn’t come for a haircut or to pitch out of the bullpen, he came for some jewelry, and got it.

Wade Davis: Davis was excellent for the Cubs last season, but everyone knew it was a rental when we swapped Jorge Soler for him last offseason.

Hector Rondon, Koji Uehara, and Justin Grimm: Not much to say here other than the bullpen was not good in the playoffs last year and Theo and Jed restocked and revamped via free agency

Others: John Jay (CF), Alex Avila (C), Rene Rivera (C)

 

Lineup Preview

Catchers:

Willson Contreras: This is the year for the Willson Contreras breakout. He was the primary catcher for the first time last year, but he still had to deal with Miggy Montero stealing a couple starts per week. Now he’ll be the everyday backstop with Caratini there to give him rest. The defense has never been great for Contreras, but the guy’s got a cannon for an arm. His back picks have made up for Lester’s embarrassing inability to throw to first. With that being said, it’s the bat that everyone should be excited about. Contreras missed a month with a hamstring injury and still hit 21 homers, so the power is there. It’s time for him to step up and become the big 4- or 5-hole bat behind Rizzo and Bryant.

Victor Caratini: There’s not a whole lot to say about Caratini except that the front office definitely likes him and he’s probably going to get his first full season in the majors this year. Caratini can be a fielding reinforcement in tight spots too with experience at 1B and OF. I expect Chris Gimenez (minor league deal) to get time with the major league club as well, but mostly in the role that Caratini served for the last 2 years.

Infield:

Anthony Rizzo (1B): Maybe it’s because I just finished Parks and Rec (again…), but this is probably best read in Ron Swanson’s voice: “Anthony Rizzo is very good. He is an exceptional team leader. As such, he should be the captain of his team. That is all.”

Javier Baez (2B)/Addison Russell (SS): Cubs fans will be looking for both Russell and Baez to take the next step this season. The defense up the middle is great, but the hitting has not been. Baez has unreal power when he connects, but has never met an outside breaking ball that he didn’t like. Russell went through a lot of issues last season both with injuries and personally. Once upon a time, they were both top-10 prospects, but they need to put it all together.

Kris Bryant (3B): Kris Bryant is kind of interesting this season. I fully expect him to be better than last year because he had incredibly bad luck with runners in scoring position (a career .288 AVG vs. .237 in 2017 with RISP) and had really bad leadoff performance in front of him in the order. However, I’m interested to see how much of his power returns. He said this offseason that he wants to walk as much as he strikes out. I’d love to see that kind of plate discipline from the 2016 NL MVP, but I’m concerned that it could come at the expense of some of his power; making contact on 2 strikes rather than driving the ball out. Bryant’s got 50 homer potential, but I don’t think this approach is going to get him there.

Bench: Ben Zobrist (2B/OF), Ian Happ (CF/2B), Tommy LaStella (3B)

After a near everyday role the last two seasons, I expect Zobrist to start taking a back seat to the young talent that the Cubs have up the middle. He’ll get plenty of time as a pinch hitter and to give other players rest, but I don’t expect much from him this season other than that. Tommy LaStella will never be anywhere near a starter, but you could wake him up at 2:30 AM, ask him to pinch hit in 5 minutes, and he would still slap a single into the right field gap. See below for Ian Happ.

Outfield:

Kyle Schwarber (LF): Schwarber has always been one of my favorite Cubs players that last couple years and I lovingly called him “Spud.” After an offseason body transformation, I’m gonna need a new nickname for him. I think this is a make or break year for Schwarber and I think he realizes it. He was overshadowed by Happ to start spring training, but Schwarber has arguably been better overall with a .381/.469/.786 triple slash. It’ll be nice if the defense is actually better this season, but it honestly doesn’t matter if the bat can bounce back.

Jason Heyward (RF): I really don’t know what to say about Jason Heyward. He’s an incredible defender, but it just doesn’t seem like the bat is there. The Cubs fan pipedream is that Heyward bounces way back this year, he opts out after the season (the first of two player options in his contract) and clears the way for Bryce Harper to come to Chicago. My brain knows this won’t happen; my heart wants it so bad.

Albert Almora/Ian Happ (CF): Almora and Baez will get the first crack at starting in center and at second, respectively, but The Happening is coming for them. Almora might have already lost the starter’s job after Happ’s spring training performance and Almora’s lack thereof (.182/.217/.386). It’s another defense vs. bat matchup and if Happ can be consistent out of the leadoff spot, then Almora probably doesn’t stand a chance.

Lineup Prediction

Here’s my best guess at what the opening day lineup probably looks like.

  1. Ian Happ, CF
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Willson Contreras, C
  5. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  6. Javier Baez, 2B
  7. Jason Heyward, RF
  8. Addison Russell, SS
  9. Pitchers

Now Joe Maddon is nothing if not experimental, so this exact order will get used maybe 5 times throughout the year. In 162 games last season, the Cubs used 143 different lineups (not including specific pitchers). Russell and Baez are interchangeable, so the hot bat will go 6th, but this is probably pretty close.

 

Starting Rotation:

Jon Lester (LHP), Yu Darvish (RHP), Kyle Hendricks (RHP), Jose Quintana (LHP), Tyler Chatwood (RHP)

The Cubs started last season with Lester/Arrieta/Hendricks/Lackey/Brett Anderson. I don’t think there’s any question that this starting rotations is much much better than last year. Lester and Darvish and Hendricks are what they are: very good pitchers. I don’t think Lester has just completely lost it after being a Cy Young contender in 2016. Here’s hoping Maddon will finally trust Hendricks to pitch more than 5 innings per start. However, it’s the back end that I’m most excited about. Q and Chatwood are both breakout contenders.

Quintana has flashed dominance in the past, but has never put it together for a full season and has never won more than 13 games. He seems determined to pick up that pace this year. Honestly, Quintana would be a #2 starter for at least half the teams in the league. The Cubs have admitted that they haven’t been good at acclimating pitchers for which they have traded. While that might seem like a convenient narrative, it leads me big expectations for Quintana this season. I mean, you don’t trade an Eloy Jimenez for just anyone. I talked about it a lot in the offseason review, but I think Chatwood could be in for very big things this season.

Bullpen: Brandon Morrow (closer, RHP), Carl Edwards Jr. (RHP), Pedro Strop (RHP), Steve Cishek (RHP), Justin Wilson (LHP), Brian Duensing (LHP), Mike Montgomery (LHP), Eddie Butler (RHP)?

There’s not a whole lot to say here. Brandon Morrow is stepping into big shoes after the departure of Wade Davis and Aroldis Chapman in the last two offseasons. Carl Edwards, a.k.a. Stringbean, needs to be a whole lot more consistent. For the same reasons as Q, I think Wilson’s performance in the 2nd half last season doesn’t represent his true abilities. And it had better not; the Cubs are counting on him to be the go-to late inning lefty. Montgomery really wants to start and I don’t know how long he’ll be on this team if that isn’t happening. I could see him getting traded for another lefty more comfortable in a relief role. Eddie Butler is competing for the 25th spot on the roster and it depends on whether the Cubs want flexibility in the bullpen or in the outfield.

Season Expectations

The Cubs got a lot better this offseason, but so did the division around them. They finished with 92 wins last year which was probably lower than I would have expected, so I guess I’ll conservatively project them for 96-66 this year. It wouldn’t shock me at all if they go for 100+ wins again. Making a 4th straight NLCS is a tall order, but I think it’s very possible.

Cubs MVP: Kris Bryant

Hard to pick against the guy who has already won the NL MVP before age 26. The power should be back this year.

Breakout: Ian “The Happening” Happ

If you’re surprised by this, then you haven’t read the spring training updates that I’ve been writing. But honestly there are so many people I could talk about here: Contreras, Baez, Russell, Schwarber, Quintana, and Chatwood are all contenders too.

 

Divisional Predictions

American League:

East: Red Sox

Red Sox pitching and power should be back, while I actually think the Yankees are going to slump a bit at times this season. This is the race to watch this season

Central: Indians

Duh. Maybe the White Sox start to challenge in a year or two, but no one is on Cleveland’s level yet.

West: Astros

Mariners and Angels are in the running for a wild card, but no one is even close to the Astros.

AL Wild Cards: Yankees and Angels

The Yanks are the easy pick. The Angels aren’t actually a contender yet, but they’ll be the 2018 version of the 2017 Twins. Good enough to get there, not good enough to compete. The Twins were my 2nd pick up until a couple weeks ago, but they won’t overcome Sano missing a month and Polanco missing half the season. The Mariners just aren’t gonna get the job done either with the aging team they’re running out there.

National League:

East: Nationals

The Phillies and the Braves are still a year or two out. The Mets and the Marlins are not good. That just leaves a Nationals team trying very hard to win before Harper leaves.

Central: Cubs

The Brewers got super lucky last season. They improved this offseason, but not enough to take another step forward. The Cardinals got better, but the Cubs got everything they wanted this offseason (see above).

West: Dodgers

Are you bored of the Dodgers yet? I know I am.

Wild Cards: Giants and Phillies

The smart choice is to take the Brewers and Cardinals, but I love what the Phillies did this offseason (Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta) and I can’t explain what happened to the Giants last season other than they needed Bumgarner badly.

Playoff Predictions

AL Wild Card: Yankees crush Angels

NL Wild Card: Giants over Phillies

ALDS 1: Indians slip past Red Sox (3-2)

ALDS 2: Astros overpower Yankees (3-2)

NLDS 1: Dodgers beat Nationals (3-1)

NLDS 2: Cubs sweep Giants (3-0)

ALCS: Astros survive Indians (4-2)

That Astros rotation is scary. And the bullpen is pretty good. And the lineup is really good. Kluber and Lindor can only carry the Indians so far on their own.

NLCS: Dodgers get by Cubs (4-3)

For personal reasons and for baseball reasons, I want to see this rematch. The Cubs pitching is setup to be much more competitive this time around. But something tells me this is the Dodgers year.

World Series: Dodgers finally do it, beating Astros (4-2)

In a rematch of last year and a battle of tired starters against a tired bullpen, the Dodgers finally get the World Series that everyone has thought they’d get in ’13, no ’14, no ’15, no ’16, no ’17. Kershaw is the WS MVP after starting games 1, 3, and 6 and coming in to clean up the 7th inning in Game 7.

Awards Season

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

How do you not pick the great player that’s looking to get the biggest contract of all time after the season? In related news: Bryce, I heard your dog’s named Wrigley and you like pinstripes and we have Kris Bryant…

AL MVP: Mike Trout, LA Angels

This should literally be Mike Trout every year. I’m not exaggerating. He loses because voters are somehow bored of how incredible he is year in, year out.

NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

The safe picks are obviously Kershaw and Scherzer, but I say this is the year Strasburg finally puts it all together. He’s incredible anytime he’s healthy, so what’s to stop him from keeping his arm in one piece for once.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

He lost it last year because he burned out right when the Indians got historically hot. It’s Sale’s turn.

NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

I wanted to pick someone else (see: Winker, Jesse), but Acuna has gotten better every time he’s moved up. It’s unheard of. He’s a special player. In other news, the service time rules are bad and I don’t understand how the MLBPA is so bad at negotiating.

AL Rookie of the Year: Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

If I’m the Cubs, I trade Torres for Chapman and a World Series ring 100 times out of a 100, but he was major league ready last year before needing Tommy John surgery. He’ll be up in April or May and starting most of the year. I think Ohtani is going to struggle trying to go two ways on an MLB schedule.

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