It’s easy to say the Chicago Cubs fell short of their goal in 2018. That goal included winning their second World Series title in three years, further staking their claim as one of the best team’s in baseball. Instead, the Cubs faltered down the stretch, leading to the Milwaukee Brewers catching them in the division and eventually surpassing them in a deciding Game 163.
To make matters worse, just a day later, the Cubs dropped the National League wild-card game to the Colorado Rockies, scoring just one run for the second straight day, effectively ending their campaign. While I could re-state the Cubs’ second half offensive numbers from 2018, I will not. Much of that reasoning has to do with the fact that I don’t want to think about those numbers with a new season right around the corner. Additionally, thinking about those numbers brings back memories of what could have been (and really still can be) with respect to signing Bryce Harper.
Even with Theo Epstein declaring that the offense broke in the second half, the Cubs’ front office can not find enough cash to add the ultra-talented Harper this off-season. I guess I understand that. I mean the Cubs are fielding a team that will earn somewhere close to $220 million in 2019, it’s just that adding Harper would be really cool.
Instead of adding a high-level free agent this off-season, it looks more and more likely that the Cubs will continue to lean on their young core. That’s not a terrible option considering that core includes a former MVP in Kris Bryant, a 2018 MVP candidate in Javier Baez and one of the more consistent players in the game from a production standpoint, Anthony Rizzo.
Now less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, we are beginning to get a good look as to what the Cubs’ roster will look like. Depending on who you ask, it’s a pretty solid group, one that should bounce back from a disappointing 95-win season last year with a fully healthy Bryant at the top of the order.
Without further ado, lets take a look at the PECOTA projections provided by Baseball Prospectus, a system that received an update earlier in the week.
The Lineup and Its Production
PECOTA stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm and is “BP’s proprietary system that projects player and team performance.” More information on the PECOTA system can be found here.
To say the Cubs have a solid lineup, even without the addition of Harper, would be an understatement. As things stand right now, PECOTA projects Willson Contreras (catcher), Anthony Rizzo (first base), Ben Zobrist (second base), Kris Bryant (third base), Javier Baez (shortstop), Kyle Schwarber (left field), Albert Almora (center field) and Jason Heyward (right center) to receive the most playing time at their respective positions.
Of those starters, Rizzo is slated to collect the most playing time at his primary position, appearing in 90 percent of the Cubs’ games at his corner infield spot. Perhaps as a result of that consistent playing time, the lefty slugger is also projected to lead the starters with a .282 batting average, .381 OBP and .486 slugging percentage. Additionally, the projections suggest Rizzo will pace the club with 88 RBI and a 4.8 WARP (wins above replacement player).
Following Rizzo in playing time at their primary position is Bryant at 75 percent, Contreras and Schwarber at 70 percent each and Heyward at 60 percent. Of that group, it’s no surprise that Bryant is projected to have the highest batting average at .273 (second highest on the team). Perhaps more important that batting average for Bryant is his slugging percentage. Limited with a left shoulder injury last season, Bryant managed just 13 home runs and a career-low .460 slugging percentage. While PECOTA only has Bryant slugging .473 in 2019, it says he will club 23 home runs and collect 75 RBI on his way to a solid 4.3 WARP.
The group of Contreras, Heyward and Schwarber were all partial reasons why the Cubs offense struggled in the second half of 2018. Among Cubs players with at least 100 plate appearances post-All-Star break last season, none of the three mentioned ranked higher than sixth in batting average. In fact, Heyward paced the group with a .247 clip, with Schwarber and Contreras logging .221 and .200 marks respectively. Those numbers produced well below average wRC-plus figures as Schwarber’s 89 mark was the best of the three in the second half.
Those lackluster efforts by Contreras, Heyward and Schwarber certainty did not help the Cubs’ offensive production in 2018. In conjunction with the budget restraints this off-season, it becomes all that more important that this group bounces back in a big way this season.
PECOTA, however, doesn’t really bear out that type of bounce back season for 2019. Both Contreras and Heyward are slated to hit .253 with OBP’s in the low-.300’s. As for Schwarber, the left-handed slugger is down to slash .244/.337/.447 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI for a WARP of 2.0. If that projection holds, that would be the lowest slugging percentage of Schwarber’s career.
Aside from Schwarber, these projections do forecast a bit of a rise in slugging percentage for Contreras. The youngster’s dismal second half of 2018 dropped his slugging percentage to .390 for the season and resulted in him hitting just 10 home runs (career low). According to PECOTA, Contreras will slug .415 with 15 long-balls in 2019, making him worth more than a win above replacement at 1.4.
One of the bigger story lines for Cubs fans heading into 2019 is how will Javier Baez build upon his MVP-caliber 2018 campaign. The 26-year-old infielder set career highs in (among other things) batting average (.290), OBP (.326), slugging percentage (.554), OPS-plus (133), total bases (336), home runs (34), RBI (111) and hits (176). For his efforts, Baez finished second in the NL MVP voting and also earned his first All-Star Game appearance and Sliver Slugger Award.
Since Baez broke into the league back in 2014, fans and the Cubs’ front office alike had been waiting for a break-out season like the one we experienced last year. Now, the focus shifts to if Baez can replicate his success of last season.
While the mindset surrounding Baez and the team is a positive one concerning this topic, the PECOTA projections do not like Baez’s chances of finding that same level of success. Instead, the projections suggest Baez will slash .268/.322/.470 with 27 home runs (team high) and 79 RBI, batting primarily out of the two-, three- and four-holes. If PECOTA holds true, those numbers would look very similar to Baez’s career average’s of .267/.309/.470, numbers that equate to a relatively league average .779 OPS and 109 OPS-plus.
That kind of drop-off would put Baez around 20 percent worse in ’19 than he was in ’18 (133 OPS-plus), production that should be able to be made up by a healthy Bryant.
Heading into 2019, Cubs manager Joe Maddon will have many moving pieces to his lineup. Addison Russell will begin the season serving the remainder of his 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. With about 30 games left on that suspension, it’s still unclear if Russell will ever wear a Cubs uniform again, a notion that led to the signing of utility man Daniel Descalso this winter.
Serving as one of the only additions to the roster this off-season, Descalso has played almost every position on a big league diamond, including pitcher. His services will allow a lot of shuffling on the infield this season.
According to projections, and as stated above, Zobrist and Baez are slated to receive the majority of the playing time at the middle infield positions. However, Russell is projected to match Baez’s 45 percent at shortstop with Descalso a distance third on the depth chart at five percent. Obviously, those numbers would shift with any change to the Russell situation.
At second, Baez is lurking right behind Zobrist’s 45 percent with 40 percent of the playing time. Baez has played a lot of second base in his time with the Cubs, while the aging Zobrist will be fighting father time in his late-30’s.
In center field is another interesting position “battle.” Currently, Almora is slated as the Cubs’ primary center fielder, earning 55 percent of the playing time according to PECOTA. Right behind him is Ian Happ who began the 2018 season in center field (and in the lead-off role), but lost playing time due to his proneness for strikeouts. After posting a 120 OPS-plus and finishing eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, Happ managed an OPS-plus of just 106 in 2018 while striking out 167 times in 142 games.
Almora’s struggles last season were perhaps even worse as his OPS-plus dipped below the average of 100 (90) for the first time in his career. To the displeasure of Cubs fans, this year doesn’t project to be any better for either Happ or Almora. PECOTA suggests Almora will post a .711 OPS, just 10 points better than his .701 mark in ’18 while Happ is slated to slash .229/.326/.410. Together, this duo is projected to amass 1.7 WARP, which is just 0.2 wins more than the amount Zobrist is projected to have.
A Lackluster Rotation
One of the clear strengths of the Cubs’ roster, at least on paper, heading into 2019 is the starting rotation. Comprised of Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, one would be hard pressed to find a better one-through-five in baseball.
While viewed by many as a strong point of the team right now, there are cracks visible in this group. For starters, both Lester and Hamels are 35 years of age and likely don’t have much left in the tank. Additionally, Darvish tossed just 40 innings in his first season as a Cub due to an elbow injury that will hopefully be cleared up by Opening Day.
Despite concerns over aging and injuries, the Cubs will field one of the most experienced rotations in baseball in ’19. Also, for his age, Lester is still reeling off solid seasons, just look at 2018. In 181.2 innings, the southpaw posted a 3.32 ERA and finished ninth in the NL Cy Young Award voting despite his peripheral numbers sliding in the wrong direction.
Even with the optimism from fans surrounding the rotation, PECOTA does not like the group. Of the five primary starters, Darvish is projected to have the lowest ERA at 3.78 across a team-low (for starters) 142 innings. For the return year following injury, Darvish’s projections look pretty solid. His 1.26 WHIP would be the second lowest among starters while his 155 strikeouts would rank third despite his lack of innings.
As for the elder statesmen of the group, Lester and Hamels, the projections ding them for their age. They are both slated to produce ERA’s north of four (Lester – 4.38, Hamels – 4.06) and lead the Cubs staff with 12 wins apiece. To go along with that, the newest member of the rotation, Hamels, will lead the team in strikeouts (168) if PECOTA holds while posting a 1.7 WARP.
Lester, on the other hand, may finally experience a “passing of the torch” moment in 2019 as PECOTA suggests he will lag behind the rest of the rotation with a 1.0 WARP.
The remaining two members of the rotation, Quintana and Hendricks, project to be solid mid-rotation pieces this year. Each with ERA’s in the high-three’s (Quintana – 3.96, Hendricks – 3.92), PECOTA says they will throw the same amount of innings, 165.
It’s no surprise that Hendricks is slated to have the least amount of walks (47) among his rotation mates while lagging behind in strikeouts (145). Even with a lesser strikeout total, PECOTA gives Hendricks a 1.8 WARP for 2019 while Quintana and Hamels each receive a 1.7.
Sorting Through the Bullpen
Dissimilar from the rotation, the Cubs’ bullpen, on paper, looks to be a weak point of the club. With little money to work with this winter, the Cubs were forced to add around the edges, bringing in Brad Brach and a slew of other cheap, under-the-radar options.
As things stand right now, the Cubs’ bullpen strategy for 2019 will likely be a trial-and-error type situation. With the amount of options they have available, that seems to be the only practical way to sort through all of the players.
Due to the amount of players likely to get a call this summer, I will not bore you with statistics on all of them. Instead, here are the projections for those who will play a large role in Joe Maddon’s bullpen this season.
Mike Montgomery – 73 innings, 4.48 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 29 BB, 59 K, 0.3 WARP.
Randy Rosario – 26 innings, 5.18 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 12 BB, 21 K, -0.1 WARP.
Brad Brach – 46 innings, 4.10 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 19 BB, 44 K, 0.2 WARP.
Steve Cishek – 46 innings, 3.92 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 20 BB, 49 K, 0.4 WARP.
Tony Barnette – 21 innings, 4.58 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 8 BB, 19 K, 0.0 WARP.
Brandon Kintzler – 26 innings, 5.10 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 10 BB, 18 K, -0.1 WARP.
Brian Duensing – 26 innings, 5.80 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 14 BB, 20 K, -0.3 WARP.
Carl Edwards Jr. – 51 innings, 4.01 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 29 BB, 64 K, 0.3 WARP.
Pedro Strop – 51 innings, 4.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 10 SV, 22 BB, 51 K, 0.3 WARP.
Brandon Morrow (will begin season on the injured list) – 41 innings, 3.92 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 20 SV, 17 BB, 40 K, 0.3 WARP.
WARP for starting rotation – 8.0.
WARP for all other pitchers present in projections – 1.7.
Overall Team Performance
The 95-win plateau is hard to achieve in baseball. With that being said, the Cubs have reached that mark in three of the last four seasons (97 in 2015, 103 in 2016, 95 in 2018). Without a jolt to their lineup, however, PECOTA suggests this season may be the one in which all that success comes to a halt.
Their system currently gives the Cubs a record of 82-80 which would be good enough for a third place finish in the NL Central behind the Brewers (89-73) and St. Louis Cardinals (86-76). While it’s likely the Central will be the toughest division in baseball this season; sporting the highest win total, I don’t know if I can agree that the Cubs will be seven games worse than Milwaukee.
Moving on from overall record, the Cubs’ offense is projected to produce 739 runs, which, according to PECOTA, would be tied for fourth in the NL and second in the Central. Where the real difference comes is in the pitching staff. Currently, PECOTA says the Cubs will allow 731 runs, which would be the fourth most in baseball and close the club’s overall run differential to plus-eight.
Moreover, PECOTA does not like the Cubs’ defensive skill players. The metric FRAA (fielding runs above average) has the Cubs at negative-12.4 as a team, a number that would rank as the third worst in baseball. Compare that to Milwaukee’s positive-34.4 number and one can begin to see a real x-factor beyond the offense.
With Spring Training right around the corner, it’s important to remember these are just projections and one injury or addition can throw them into flux, especially the playing time percentages.
If you’re interested to diving deeper into the Cubs’ (or any other team’s) PECOTA projections for 2019, you can check them out here.
Thanks to Baseball Prospectus for providing useful projections.
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