As I sit here on a chilly evening in the middle of January, it’s very hard not to think about Spring and the endless amounts of baseball that follows. For fans of the Chicago Cubs, February 23 can not come fast enough. Not because that will be the first the North Sider’s face off against the Milwaukee Brewers since their loss in Game 163 last season, but rather because it will give the fan base a chance to rid their mouths of the bad taste that followed a 13-inning, wild-card game loss to the Colorado Rockies.
What figured to be a busy off-season, especially since Theo Epstein called the offense “broken” during his end-of-season press conference, has failed to live up to expectations. Instead, more turnover has come from within the front office and dugout than on the field with Tommy Hottovy and Anthony Iapoce becoming the club’s third pitching and hitting coaches respectively in as many years.
On the field, the only marketable signing has came in the form of Daniel Descalso inking a two-year, $5 million deal in mid-December.
No Bryce Harper, no Manny Machado, not even A.J. Pollock has come within reasonable shouting distance of signing on the North side of Chicago. With a payroll projected to top $220 million for the upcoming season, it has been rumored the Cubs would need to move money in order to sign a mid-tier reliever, let alone a high-priced free agent like Harper.
For that reason, most, if not all, of the Cubs’ offensive problems will have to be solved in-house. Those problems center around a second half performance that saw eight Cubs players (minimum 70 plate appearances) hit south of .250. Additionally, of the 14 players who recorded at least 70 plate appearances post-All-Star break, nine posted a wRC-plus of 95 or less with Addison Russell, Victor Caratini and Albert Almora turning in marks below 50.
With an offensive performance like that, it’s no wonder why the Brewers caught the Cubs, passing them in Game 163 last season.
Still, there are many reasons to believe the 2019 version of the Cubs will be better than last seasons, reasons that have me, as a fan, excited for the upcoming campaign. The first, and perhaps biggest, revolves around the Cubs’ former MVP winner, Kris Bryant.
A Healthy Kris Bryant will Make a World of Difference
Consider this, during the first half of 2018, Kris Bryant owned the same wRC-plus (133) as Javier Baez. As we all know, Baez finished second in the National League MVP voting after turning in a similarly solid 128 wRC-plus after the All-Star break.
For Bryant, his second half was choked with injuries, aliments that limited him to just 32 games down the stretch. Furthermore, Bryant’s aching left shoulder was the root for a lack of power for the 2016 MVP.
In the second half, Bryant slugged just .402, an 80 point decrease from the elite .482 mark he posted in the first half. Along with that, Bryant managed a .150 ISO post-All-Star break and watched as his hard contact rate fell from 35.4 percent in the first half to a meager 19.2 percent the rest of the season.
Without the sap in power associated with his shoulder injury, it’s very likely Bryant would have continued putting up MVP-caliber numbers from April through September. That’s a scary thought considering Baez posted similar numbers, a situation that could have resulted in the Cubs featuring two players in the top-five in MVP voting last season.
Unfortunately, Bryant’s first stints on the DL helped contribute to the derailment of the Cubs’ offense, something that likely won’t happen in 2019.
Poised for a bounce back season beginning this Spring, Bryant will no doubt enter his off-season workout program with a chip on his shoulder. Once again, that’s a scary thought for the opposition, one that would be welcomed from Cubs fans.
According to Steamer’s off-season projections for 2019, Bryant will be a shoo-in for Come-back Player of the Year and possibly even more. As things stand right now, Bryant is projected to have the highest WAR (5.8) in the NL next season, while at the same time ranking second in offensive runs above average (33.8).
Each of his projected .382 OBP, .886 OPS and 138 wRC-plus are slated to be top-five in the NL next season, meaning there is a strong case for the right-handed slugger to win his second MVP award in four seasons, and that makes me long for Spring.
Looking at the early projections for 2019, of course you see Bryant’s name at the top. Right behind him, and even ahead of him in some categories, however, is Anthony Rizzo.
Anthony Rizzo is Poised for Another Solid Season
Rizzo’s 2018 offensive campaign is almost a mirror image of Bryant’s. Prior to the break, Rizzo was hitting south of .250 after a dismal March/April. At the conclusion of April, the southpaw slugger was sporting a .448 OPS and .041 ISO culminating in a 32 wRC-plus.
Rizzo’s beginning to last season was perhaps the worst stretch of his career, a slump he quickly broke out of with a 158 wRC-plus in May. Even so, Rizzo logged an OPS of just .748 during the first half of play, due, in part, to his less-than-stellar 31.8 percent hard contact rate.
With Rizzo’s rather average first half and Bryant’s struggles down the stretch, “Bryzzo” never had a chance to jell like in seasons past. Nevertheless, Rizzo enjoyed an abundance of success following the break, as he was one of only two Cubs players (minimum 70 plate appearances) to hit north of .300 in the second half.
At .329, Rizzo owned the second highest average after the break, falling one point behind Ben Zobrist and fueling a fierce offensive onslaught for the former All-Star first baseman. What was a .246/.341/.407/.748 slash line in the first half quickly transformed into a .329/.420/.550/.970 line.
Behind that jump in production was Rizzo getting back to his core values at the plate, working counts and driving the baseball with authority on a regular basis. From the low-30’s to 37.2 percent, Rizzo’s hard contact jumped, as did his ISO, 60 points from .161 to .221 following the break. Similar strikeout and walk ratios also helped to fuel Rizzo’s resurgence.
During his slump, Rizzo owned a 9.9 percent walk rate and elevated (for him) 12.4 percent strikeout rate. Those numbers evened out to 11.3 percent and 11.6 percent respectively post-All-Star break, resulting in a robust .420 OBP and .406 wOBA.
For a half of 2018, Rizzo was the MVP of the NL, posting an insane 157 wRC-plus in the second half. According to projections, Rizzo will continue his All-Star-caliber offensive display in 2019, this time over a full season. His 139 wRC-plus is slated to be third best in the National League next season, giving the Cubs two players in the top-four for 2019. Additionally, Rizzo is projected to own the third best OPS in the league at .895 with his slugging percentage slotting in at fifth (.510).
At their best, “Bryzzo” is the best tandem in baseball. With Bryant healthy and Rizzo slated to carry his second half success from 2018 into 2019, the Cubs lineup will be one to reckon with next season, and that’s before a potential Harper signing.
For a chance to see “Bryzzo” in action once again, and really for the first time since 2017, I can not wait for Spring.
The “Boat Show”
Beyond Rizzo and Bryant, the Cubs’ lineup is full of offensive fire-power. Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras headline a supporting cast behind “Bryzzo” that will need to take a step forward in 2019 for the club to be successful.
One of those names in that supporting cast is David Bote. Bote, a former 18th-round draft pick in 2012, finally broke into the big leagues last season. Due partially to multiple injuries on the roster, Bote made his major league debut on April 21 and appeared in 74 games for the Cubs in 2018.
Touted as having one of the highest exit velocities in the minors, a change in Bote’s swing (increased launch angle) can be attributed to his success and promotion to The Show. At the big league level, Bote brought his knack for striking the ball hard, logging a hard contact rate of 38.6 percent in his limited big league exposure.
More than hard contact is needed to succeed on the game’s biggest stage as evidenced by Bote’s .239/.319/.408/.727 line last season. While he did club six home runs to supplement his strong exit velocity, Bote also recorded an insanely high 57.5 percent ground ball rate versus a meager 24.4 percent fly ball rate. No matter how hard you hit the ball, if it’s hit on the ground you will not be successful, and Bote is a prime example of that.
That, however, is not to say Bote did not have his shining moments in 2018. We, of course, all remember his two-out, two-strike, walk-off grand slam against the Washington Nationals in August, a shot that will forever cement his name in Wrigley lore.
In 2019, though, Bote’s role with the Cubs has yet to be defined. The addition of Descalso does not help things and could relegate the 25-year-old to the Triple-A shuttle he rode for so much of the 2018 season.
However, Bote is a super-utility guy, able to play all over the infield and some outfield. Last season, he often impressed with his defensive skill, meaning Spring Training will act as a proving ground for the youngster.
I tell you, watching the highlight video (link above) has me hyped to watch what Bote has to offer in 2019. As mentioned prior, his elite exit velocity has yet to be fully tapped as he is still learning how to lift the baseball with regularity. No matter what his role with the 2019 Cubs, Bote will likely get a good number of at-bats next season and I think that’s something we can all get behind.
A Good Starting Rotation
I would be amiss if I left out the starting rotation as something to look forward to for 2019. The group, which consists of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels is likely to post some impressive numbers in 2019.
Last season, injury and under-performance was the theme for the Cubs’ starting rotation. Darvish, the $126 million off-season investment, tossed only 40 innings and posted a 4.95 ERA while Chatwood, another off-season addition from a year ago, led the majors in free passes.
Through it all, however, the Cubs’ rotation posted the 10th best ERA (3.84) in the majors, sixth best in the NL. While that was the case, their FIP as a group ranged well above four, sitting at 4.30 due, in part, to the staff’s 3.54 BB/9 rate (second highest in the NL).
With Chatwood seemingly out of the picture in 2019, barring injury, that number should decrease while a healthy Darvish should take the rotation to a new level.
Even though the projections do not support it, I am looking forward to a good year from the starting rotation. Layered with veterans such as Lester and Hamels who know how to navigate a major league lineup as well as handle the spot-light in the postseason, the Cubs’ rotation will be one to watch next year.
According to projections, however, the lowest ERA among starters will be Darvish’s 3.76 mark with Lester bringing up the rear at 4.34. Not only do I think Darvish’s numbers will be better than that, but I believe Lester will have much greater success than that in 2019.
Save for a rough patch around the All-Star break last season, Lester was once again the work-horse fans have come to expect from the southpaw. In 32 starts and 181.2 innings, the left-hander posted a 3.32 ERA and elite 80.3 percent left-on-base percentage. Deeper than that, though, Lester’s numbers may have been propped up by luck and good defense.
That’s because both his 19.6 percent strikeout rate and 8.4 percent walk rate in 2018 slipped in the wrong direction when compared to 2017 and his career numbers. Additionally, Lester’s 31.9 percent hard contact allowed represented his highest mark since 2007, his second season in the majors.
Still, Lester found a way to find success in 2018 and stabilize a starting rotation that could have very easily fallen apart at the seams. Look for more of that in 2019, along with a nice bounce-back season from Darvish.
With that being said, the large x-factor that looms over the rotation, at least at this point, is Hamels.
Acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers last season, Hamels was brilliant for a Cubs team in desperate need of innings from their starters. Across 12 starts with the Cubs, the southpaw compiled a 2.36 ERA while at the same time posting comparable peripheral numbers.
That performance, with included a complete game, prompted the Cubs to pick-up Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019, making him the third southpaw in Chicago’s rotation for next season.
As a baseball fan, I believe in Bill Veeck’s words. “There are only two seasons – winter and baseball.” Right now, it’s winter, but in about 40 days, it will be baseball season and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Boston Globe