2018 Season Preview: Chicago Cubs

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

92-70

94-68

96-66

822

695

Is it an overreaction to say it didn’t matter how the Cubs fared in 2017? Fresh off winning the first championship in over a century, it’s not like the city was going to disown them more or less no matter what they did. They’ve likely sold out Wrigley for the next half-decade at least, and at this point, all they have to do is show up.

Some of the returnees from the defending champs seemed to take that to heart. While they were no doubt one of the NL’s best teams, they weren’t the best team, and it wasn’t especially close. The Cubs weren’t much better than average on either side of the ball, a surprising result considering the youth and promise of their lineup and the veteran leadership of the staff.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Drew Smyly

There’s a pattern in the acquisitions made by Chicago over the winter: pitching. Lots and lots of pitching. A flurry of activity in early December netted Chatwood, Morrow, Smyly, and Cishek – Smyly won’t pitch in 2018 due to Tommy John surgery – but the rest fall somewhere between “useful” and “reliable”. Not the sexiest acquisitions, though maybe some of the most effective.

Chicago saved their bullet for February, though, adding the compensation-pick–free Darvish on a six-year deal that should give them one of the majors’ more formidable rotations again. The midseason deal for Jose Quintana plus Darvish makes a Lester/Hendricks middle much more palatable, and maybe Darvish can get back to the World Series and get some of that stink off of him.

Key Losses – Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Alex Avila

The worm turns. Arms come in, arms go away. Losing their No. 1 starter and closer means that the additions aren’t quite as additive as one would assume. Think what you might about Arrieta’s future and the general risks of giving 32-year-olds multiple year contracts, but he still averaged 4.5 WAR per season over his four years in Chicago. At least in the short term, that’s a loss, especially for a team that was always short on pitching prospects and has generally emptied the farm over the last few years. Davis’ departure is obviously an issue, though the loss of Rondon may hurt just as badly. Focusing on a poor 2017 ignores three strong previous years, and his strikeout potential makes for a strong bounce-back candidate if he can keep his HR/FB closer to 10% instead of the 20% he posted from 2016-17.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

98-64

92-70

91-71

Some discrepancy here, as ZiPS is much higher on the Cubs than anyone else. This is primarily due to strong projections from the lineup – no position comes in under 3 WAR and the corner infielders combine for 11 – plus a bounce-back for Jon Lester. Having the utility of Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez to cover for injuries will be critical for an organization that suddenly doesn’t have a ton of prospect depth. If they stay relatively close to full strength and Lester can stave off the demons of age, a 100 win season is in play.

Key Players:

Third baseman Kris Bryant has put up back-to-back-to-back six-win campaigns, combining health with excellent defense, power, patience, and average. Whatever tools are, he’s got ‘em, and the Cubs should probably extend him now before he eats their city whole. You’d never believe it now, but there was a time when Jose Quintana vs. Sale was a legitimate question. The lefty massively increased his K% in 2017, jumping from 21.6% to 26.2% year-over-year, but a middling 4.15 ERA against Sale’s Cy Young bid put the comparison to bed. If he’s more of the quiet ace we saw on the South Side, that makes the Cubs more than dangerous. A bounceback from Yu Darvish would accomplish much the same thing; it may be impossible to redefine his career after his two meltdowns in the 2017 World Series, as one could easily argue he single-handedly lost it for the Dodgers, so if he does it’ll be thanks to something truly incredible. If that incredible thing is good, the Cubs’ rotation worries may not be realized.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Oh, the curse of having all your top prospect pan out and litter your MLB team with young stars: there isn’t much left in the minors. Outfielder Mark Zagunis is possibly the most likely to impact the 2018 squad, considering both the left and right field positions have the less-than-entrenched Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward. Righties Adbert Alzolay and Oscar de la Cruz both reached AA last year and should factor into the MLB mix at some point, whether that’s in the back of the rotation or middle relief. De la Cruz is more likely to end up in the bullpen considering his health issues, but with the lineup and rotation likely set it’s really about the first position to suffer a couple of significant injuries.

Future Outlook:

With most of their core around 25 years old and money to burn, it’s more or less impossible to imagine Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer aren’t going to repeatedly produce winning teams for the next several years at least. It’s usually silly to think beyond that, and Chicago is not overflowing with premium minor-league talent, but there’s enough help and incumbent youth to ignore those problems for a few years yet. And by that point, they may not be worries anymore. In a division with the perennially-good Cardinals and three small-market teams, ousting the Cubs from the postseason is going to be incredibly tough.