NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Joe Maddon (5th Season)

2018 Season: 95-68 (2nd in Central)    2019 Payroll: $210,800,714 (2nd in MLB)

Additions: RP Brad Brach, 2B Daniel Descalso, RP Kendall Graveman, RP Xavier Cedeno, RP George Kontos, RP Tony Barnette

Losses: 2B Daniel Murphy (Rockies), RP Justin Wilson (Mets), 3B Tommy LaStella (Angels), RP Jesse Chavez (Rangers)

The Cubs had a disappointing finish to the year last year and a lot of injury problems. Kris Bryant was out for a while and never really played like himself. Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow were on the DL. Recently there’s been an uproar from Cubs fans about the PECOTA projections; which projected the Cubs to finish under .500 and last in the NL Central. I think this projection tells us two things: the NL Central is really good this year and the Cubs have a lot of question marks. I’ll get into all the question marks in a bit, but first let’s look at the Cubs’ off-season moves. The Cubs traded Tommy LaStella away to the Angels and basically replaced his roster spot by signing Daniel Descalso for 2 years and $5 million. Daniel Descalso hit .238 last season, but he was really productive for Arizona. He had a 3.08 WPA, which was 23rd best in the MLB; meaning only 22 hitters increased their team’s chance of winning by more than Descalso. He is on the list ahead of Manny Machado, Lorenzo Cain and Nolan Arenado. He also had a 15% walk rate (3% better than his next best season). Brad Brach is a very solid back of the bullpen addition to the Cubs. He had a 3.59 ERA last season and increased his slider usage in every month from 11% in April all the way to 24% in September. Graveman has been a starter in the past and had a bad 2018 in just 7 major league starts (7.60 ERA). His ERA previously was 4.11 and he will add some depth to the Cubs staff. Addison Russell will miss the first 40 games due to his suspension for domestic violence.

Let’s look at how the Cubs lineup could look in 2019 with projected stats from Fangraphs

2019 Cubs Lineup (Projected Statistics)

2B Ben Zobrist 9 47 0.268 0.352 0.406 -0.3 1.4
3B Kris Bryant 29 89 0.275 0.382 0.504 -1.0 5.6
1B Anthony Rizzo 30 94 0.281 0.385 0.511 3.8 4.3
SS Javier Baez 30 97 0.269 0.313 0.488 -1.4 3.4
LF Kyle Schwarber 29 81 0.241 0.354 0.478 4.2 3.0
C Willson Contreras 14 58 0.257 0.340 0.427 0.2 2.8
RF Jason Heyward 10 53 0.269 0.341 0.405 7.0 2.0
CF Albert Almora Jr. 9 48 0.272 0.314 0.399 1.0 1.2
OF Ian Happ 17 54 0.232 0.332 0.427 -0.8 1.2
IF David Bote 3 12 0.247 0.311 0.410 -0.4 0.1
2B Daniel Descalso 5 22 0.230 0.330 0.375 -1.4 0.3
C Victor Caratini 3 17 0.262 0.328 0.397 0.1 0.7
SS Addison Russell 8 36 0.248 0.321 0.402 3.1 1.6

With Addison Russell out, Javier Baez will be the everyday shortstop for the Cubs. Second base will be filled by Zobrist, Descalso and Bote. Zobrist still rarely strikes out and will always work counts. Bote strikes out too much, but last year was his first year in Chicago and he came through in some really clutch moments. The Cubs have the same lineup as last season and just replaced La Stella with Descalso. There is obviously talent, but Cubs fans will remember only scoring one run in the 13 inning wild card game that ended their season last year. Hopefully Kris Bryant can return to form and bolster the top of the order. Bryant still had solid contact in 2018, but hit just 13 homers. Much of that loss of power could’ve been due to a few nagging injuries Bryant dealt with over the season.

Not much new to say about Rizzo, he’s got serious power and is the heart and soul of the Cubs. Albert Almora Jr was a solid center fielder last season, hitting .286, but splitting time with Ian Happ. Albert Almora Jr is the 9th best defensive outfielder in the MLB according to outs above average (probability to make a play versus league average). Jason Heyward was 28th in outs above average. Schwarber won’t have the same defensive ability, but can hopefully supply the power on offense that Heyward and Almora have lacked recently. Ian Happ also showed power, but struck out a team high 36% of the time last season! Happ has struggled in spring training and will actually start the season in Triple-A Iowa. Mark Zagunis will likely start in Chicago after a strong spring. Zagunis has been a player that opened some eyes in spring training, hitting .357 with 4 homers and 13 RBIs. He could be a pinch-hitting weapon for Maddon to start the season. Finally, Willson Contreras’ production dipped last season (.249 BA 10 HR 54 RBI). Contreras was also one of the worst pitch framers in baseball in 2018. 2019 will be a big year for Contreras in determining his future as a big league catcher.

2019 Cubs Starting Rotation (Projected Statistics)

Jon Lester 4.35 32 192 170 1.34 8 3.06 2
Kyle Hendricks 4.04 32 194 162 1.28 7.51 2.36 2.6
Jose Quintana 3.88 32 186 176 1.29 8.51 2.98 2.6
Yu Darvish 3.76 24 139 157 1.21 10.19 3.04 2.6
Cole Hamels 3.96 29 172 171 1.29 8.94 3.16 2.4

I’m not sure there’s a better rotation in the National League than the one the Cubs have on paper. Lester has been the ace and workhorse over the past few years. Hendricks relies on his control and can be one of the most impressive pitchers to watch when he’s on. Quintana is another big name, but he struggled at times last season, especially early in games. Yu Darvish can be the key to making this rotation incredible. He had injury problems throughout 2018. If he can be the pitcher he has been before and the pitcher the Cubs are paying $20 million to in 2019 then this rotation could be scary good. Cole Hamels rounds out the rotation and was an unbelievable pickup last season. He is a veteran presence who will go out there and compete every fifth day. Last season, Hamels was one of the Cubs most trusted arms in the playoffs.

The Cubs do have starting pitching depth too should injuries become an issue. Mike Montgomery can always make spot starts, the Cubs signed Kendall Graveman from the A’s, who’s made 78 starts over the past four seasons. The Cubs also have Tyler Chatwood under contract through 2020. Chatwood made 20 starts in 2018 and to say he struggled with control is a massive understatement. Out of all pitchers (minimum 100 innings), Chatwood had the highest walk percentage in the majors at 8.25 per 9 innings! The next highest walk rate in the entire MLB was 5.29! He had good movement on his pitching, but if Chatwood can’t throw strikes, he won’t be of any use to Chicago. Chatwood has looked good in spring training and had some clean innings, but he needs to prove it in regular season games. The biggest question mark in the rotation is Darvish, but overall, Cubs fans have to be excited about what this rotation can be.

2019 Cubs Bullpen (Projected Statistics)

Brandon Morrow 3.44 65 65 69 1.21 9.56 2.91 0.7
Pedro Strop 3.65 65 65 69 1.30 9.50 3.66 0.5
Carl Edwards Jr. 3.80 55 55 68 1.35 11.10 4.90 0.3
Mike Montgomery 3.9 57 64 53 1.35 7.44 3.05 0.3
Steve Cishek 3.92 45 45 46 1.33 9.16 3.69 0.1
Brad Brach 3.88 40 40 41 1.33 9.12 3.72 0.2
Brandon Kintzler 4.15 35 35 26 1.39 6.80 3.03 0.0
Brian Duensing 4.52 30 30 24 1.47 7.21 4.09 -0.1
Tony Barnette 3.72 25 25 25 1.26 9.03 3.02 0.1

The Cubs lost their most intimidating lefty in Justin Wilson. But they will hopefully get Brandon Morrow back from injury eventually, although he won’t be ready by opening day. The Cubs also signed Brad Brach as an experienced arm ready to use late in games. They lost Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs really do have all of their other major relief pieces back. They have Montgomery still as a lefty and invited Xavier Cedeno to spring training as another potential lefty reliever. Strop and Edwards are guys who can pitch those late innings and have done it before. Strop has a 2.61 ERA over the last 5 years he’s been in Chicago (lowest of any Cubs pitcher in that time, minimum 100 innings). Edwards lead the Cubs’ staff in strikeout percentage last year (11.90 per 9 innings), but he also had the highest walks per 9 innings at 5.54.

A few names not on the list, but to watch out for in 2019 are Dillon Maples, James Norwood and Dakota Mekkes. Maples and Norwood both got time last season, they both throw really hard and Maples has a slider that can be absolutely filthy at times. Mekkes was a 10th round pick by the Cubs in 2016. The 6’7″ Mekkes doesn’t rely on velocity as much, but he has a 1.16 ERA through his entire minor league career (1.17 between AA and AAA last season)! There is also a chance we get to see top 10 prospects Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele later this season. Alzolay’s fastball and power curveball combination can play in the bullpen right now, but the change-up isn’t good enough for a starter role. Steele missed most of 2018 after Tommy John surgery, but he could be a future 4 or 5 starter. He lives in the low-90s with an above-average curveball, an average change and a cutter.

Finally, a look at the top prospects in the Cubs system.

Chicago Cubs: Top 10 Prospects

Rank Player Age Highest Level Position ETA
1 Miguel Amaya 19 A C 2022
2 Nico Hoerner 21 A 2B 2020
3 Aramis Ademan 20 A+ SS 2020
4 Adbert Alzolay 23 AAA RHP 2019
5 Justin Steele 23 AA LHP 2019
6 Cole Roederer 19 R CF 2022
7 Brailyn Marquez 19 A LHP 2021
8 Alex Lange 23 A+ RHP 2020
9 Zack Short 23 AA SS 2019
10 Richard Gallardo 17 None RHP 2023



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