Look, here is what I know. The Chicago Cubs won 95 games during the 2018 season. They held the best record in the National League at the half way mark, and they displayed the most potent offense in the National League during that time. Then came the second half. The offense faltered completely. The struggles wouldn’t end until the season did. The Cubs held the best record in the National League until the last day of the regular season, of which, the Brewers moved into a tie with them prior to game 162. Not only that, they would be forced to play a game 163 to determine who would be the top seed in the National League, and who would have to play the Colorado Rockies in the Wild Card Game. The Cubs offensive woes were on display yet again, and they could not escape Wrigley Field with a win, marking their earliest end to the season since 2014.
So what has happened since then? The Cubs fired Hitting Coach Chili Davis, Jim Hickey stepped down as Pitching Coach, and they also lost Bench Coach Brandon Hyde, who was hired to be the Manager for the Baltimore Orioles. Congrats to him! Moving on, as far as the roster construction currently holds, the Cubs have been relatively quiet. They picked up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels and signed Daniel Descalso to a 2 year, $5 million deal. These are really the only “notable” moves the club has made. As far as departures, Jesse Chavez will be a loss out of an already weak bullpen, but that is pretty much it. So with so many pieces returning to a 95 win team, how could they possibly be underrated?
They are underrated for that very reason. They won 95 games, and they had really nothing go their way. I see so many places where they can and SHOULD improve. With that said, here is why the Chicago Cubs will be a much better ball club in 2019.
The 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and 2016 MVP. He missed 60 games sporadically throughout the season due to an injured shoulder. Really though, he was never healthy after getting hurt, and that was evident. In the months March/April and May, KB put up his usual MVP like numbers. Posting an OPS of over .900 each month and a wRC+ of 156 and 140 respectively, it was clear Kris Bryant was primed for a big season. Then the injury, which hurt him tremendously at the plate. He was never the same, posting a wRC+ no higher than 118 over any month.
Heading into 2019, Bryant feels good, and looks healthy. That will be crucial. Shoulders can be tricky, especially for baseball players, but I’m optimistic on this one. Bryant is also returning to his old one handed swing, which should help restore his power numbers. Steamer projections currently has him with the highest WAR in the National League for 2019. Kris Bryant‘s return to MVP level will be a HUGE improvement for the Cubs.
I just don’t believe in giving up on a player this good after one lost season in which injuries derailed him. Forget about the “tipped pitches” from the 2017 World Series with the Dodgers. That can be fixed. I’m worried about right now. As far as Darvish is concerned, many Cubs fans have already written him off, referring to his contract as essentially “dead money” in some cases. Why, I don’t know. Darvish has been throwing off flat ground already, and looks to be ready to go for 2019. When healthy, Darvish has a good chance to be the Ace of what has the potential to be a very good Starting Pitching Rotation. Getting a full season from Yu Darvish could be very much like adding a new SP in free agency, which they hoped to do by adding him prior to 2018. Yu is actually one of the players I am most excited for in 2019, and I think his presence on the mound will pay huge dividends for the Cubbies.
Positive Regression for Jose Quintana, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ
When Jose Quintana was acquired by the Cubs, one thing was almost a given: He was going to be consistently good. While I wouldn’t call his 2018 “bad” per se, but it certainly wasn’t up to Q standards. He posted career worsts in FIP, BB/9, and HR/9 among other things. He just wasn’t a rock in a Starting Rotation that could have used one.
Willson Contreras was primed for a big 2018. Labeled by many as Top 3-5 catcher in the game, Willson was not himself at the plate. He posted career worsts in almost every offensive stat imaginable. His defense still allowed him to post a 2.6 fWAR, but this was disappointing after seeing a 3.3 fWAR in 2017, a year in which he played 21 less games. I don’t know if it was fatigue, or where the issues arose, but he needs to be better in 2019, and I see no reason why he can’t return to his prior form. The Cubs could certainly use a boost in those power numbers.
Ian Happ is an interesting one. He certainly regressed, but he also showed some things that make me very optimistic. While I wasn’t pleased to see his already high K% rise another 4.9%, Happ’s BB% increased from 9.4% to 15.2%. That is huge. He’s starting to really understand the strike zone better, and he’s laying off bad pitches. As a rookie, we saw a free swinger. In his sophomore campaign, we saw a patient hitter, who had a major decline in power numbers. For 2019, I’m looking for him to combine the two. With being a switch hitter with plus power from both sides, Happ could potentially become a very dangerous player. His defense also took major strides in the wrong direction, so that should be hopefully another area of improvement for the young outfielder.
A Full Season of Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels was a low cost, left handed pitching acquisition at the trade deadline. He turned into the Cubs best pitcher in the second half. Just about everything was going right for Hamels, as he saw vast improvements in virtually every stat. He posted a 2.36 ERA with Chicago over 12 starts. What changed? A new environment probably helped, but most notably, Cole Hamels threw his fastball 53.7% of the time with the Cubs, his highest usage since his 2010 season with the Phillies. This was a huge 13.7% increase from the first half of his season with the Texas Rangers. His velocity was also the highest it has been since the second half of the 2015 season. His new and improved fastball usage also created an opportunity to re-establish that Changeup as one of the best in the game. That was crucial to his success in Chicago. While I’m not saying that Cole Hamels can match his 2018 second half, it appears that there is more left in the tank than many thought prior to the start of his Cubs tenure. With a re-established Hamels starting for an entire season, the Cubs rotation should be in good hands.
Joe Maddon’s Hands on Approach
The Cubs’ skipper has stated this off season that he will be more involved in the everyday coaching activities surrounding his ball club. In 2015, his first season as the Manager of the Chicago Cubs, Maddon was very involved, and we saw the impact that it had. While I have been very critical of Joe, the man is very baseball smart from a teaching standpoint. Having a better influence from him, especially in a year where there was once again a lot of staff turnover, should prove beneficial. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing his impact outside of making lineups and pitching changes.
Anthony Rizzo‘s Atrocious Start
This was no secret. The Cubbies leader and captain did not perform well to start the season. In the first 18 games of the season, Riz posted a slash line of .149/.259/.189. YIKES. He had just 1 extra base hit, and was really, really bad. This really didn’t help his final numbers in 2018, but as he always does, he turned it on. Anthony posted a 2nd half slash line of .329/.420/.550 and a wRC+ of 157. What if Rizzo hadn’t started so slow? Do the Cubs win a few more of those early games? Do they avoid the tie-breaker with the Brewers, and in turn avoid the one game wild card? Hard tellling, but after getting married this off season, Riz should be ready to go, and having his Bryzzo duo back, should make for a fun and productive season.
The Starting Pitching Rotation 1-5
1. Kyle Hendricks
2. Cole Hamels
3. Yu Darvish
4. Jose Quintana
5. Jon Lester
In no particular order, that is the Cubs rotation. Obviously they have to stay healthy, but with the good defense the Cubs normally play, all 5 of these guys should give them a chance to win each and every day. They also have Mike Montgomery as a 6th guy, who has proved to be a very viable option. If you didn’t realize it before, now you should. This rotation is really good.
The Cubs are talented. Everybody can see that. They won 95 games in 2018. They’ve won 387 regular season games since the start of the 2015 season. They aren’t taking anybody by surprise. Certainly there will be a lot of people taking them to win a very competitive National League Central Division. There are also a lot of skeptics out there. “Well Baez won’t play that well again” for example. But what if he does AND you get bounce back contributions from some of the guys I mentioned above? It is well known that Brandon Morrow will miss the first month of the season, but what if he returns to form? I know the what if game is dangerous, but these are things that I’m just adding on top of the stuff I already presented. The bullpen raises some real concerns, but it’s essentially the same as last season. Oh, and we saw a better Jason Heyward in 2018. While he might not improve upon last season, he’s definitely much better at the plate than his prior two seasons with the Cubs. Kyle Schwarber made big strides from 2017 at the plate and in left field, following his big body transformation. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned a healthy Ben Zobrist, who was awesome in 2018.
All in all, the Cubs are very good. They could be even better. They SHOULD be even better. The Cubs should look to be a bully in a tough National League Central. I’d like to emphasize one thing. Underrated doesn’t mean I think many people believe the Chicago Cubs aren’t good. I just simply don’t think many baseball fans realize how much better a 95 win team could get without any major outside acquisitions. If I could put my bias aside I would, but I can’t, so I’ll just make this statement anyways.
The Chicago Cubs will win the National League Pennant.
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Photo Credits: Jamie Squire / Getty Images