AnalysisNL Central

2020 Chicago Cubs Season Preview

After a disappointing last two seasons in which many Cubs fans felt the team underperformed with a roster that was largely maintained from a World Series championship and two consecutive NLCS appearances (2016-17), the Cubs enter 2020 for one of the last times with the same position player core, again hoping that the pitching is enough to carry the Cubs into a deep postseason run. While there was talk during the offseason of the team treating this year as a “restock” to lengthen the window of competition for a championship, including talks of trading former MVP Kris Bryant, the Cubs are still loaded with talent headed into 2020, and especially in an NL central division that has the most parity of any division in MLB (according to PECOTA, the only division where four teams have at least a ten percent chance to win the division), the Cubs are set up as well as they have been in the years since 2016 to make a run at another championship. Now, even with the season still hanging in question to some degree, the team is playing full scrimmages as summer camps ramp up to full game speed, which means it’s time to take a look ahead towards the season to come.

PECOTA projections (Full season from February):

84.5-77.5 record (.521 win%)

2nd place in NL Central

32.6% Chance to win division

51.5% Chance to make playoffs

PECOTA projections (shortened season):

31.5-28.5 record (.525 win%)

2nd place in NL Central

24.5% Chance to win division

46.0% Chance to make playoffs

Notable offseason moves:

Hired manager David Ross

Signed OF Steven Souza Jr.

Signed P Jeremy Jeffress

Signed 2B Jason Kipnis

Signed C Josh Phegley

Signed P Ryan Tepera

Signed P Dan Winkler

Signed P Jharel Cotton

Selected RHP Trevor Megill from the Padres in the Rule 5 Draft

Acquired RHP Casey Sadler from Dodgers for minor league IF Clayton Daniel

Traded UT Tony Kemp to Athletics for minor league 1B Alfonso Rivas

Traded C Johnny Pereda to Red Sox for RP Travis Lakins

The most notable transaction of these is certainly the hiring of new manager David Ross (read more here). After Joe Maddon’s relationship with the Cubs front office supposedly soured a bit and his tenure in Chicago appeared to grow stale, he was fired, opening the door for a managerial hiring process in which Ross was apparently the front runner and ended up capturing the job. While there are concerns about Ross managing many of his former teammates, the team’s front office and players alike are fully convinced of his readiness for the job, and there’s not much more to be said for him than that. More than anything, the hiring of Ross is an exciting change that should renew the sense of urgency on the north side, as a lack of urgency was a concern that developed with Maddon’s managerial style over the course of his time. With a new manager and a resulting new atmosphere, the Cubs will hopefully feel refreshed in their competitiveness, especially in a shortened season where every game is paramount.

Beyond Ross, most of the moves that the team made were fringe moves with the goal of filling out the roster and hoping to bring on extra value, especially to the bullpen. In recent years, the bullpen has consistently underperformed expectations, and this has resulted in a high turnover rate of Cubs relievers. Now, the additions of Jeffress, Tepera, Winkler and Cotton, all players who have shown either Major League success or the talent to get there in years past, gives the Cubs more potential in their bullpen, which will be incredibly important in close regular season games that carry more weight. Similarly, the position player acquisitions of Phegley, Souza and Kipnis give the Cubs the ability to fill out their roster on the positional side, with Kipnis looking to be the starting second baseman as Nico Hoerner develops into the role and Phegley and Souza providing additional depth at their respective positions as players who have found some Major League success in the past.

Projected starting lineup:

C: Willson Contreras

1B: Anthony Rizzo

2B: Jason Kipnis

3B: Kris Bryant

SS: Javier Baez

LF: Ian Happ

CF: Albert Almora Jr.

RF: Jason Heyward

DH: Kyle Schwarber

Projected bench:

C/1B: Victor Caratini

INF: Daniel Descalso

INF: David Bote

OF: Albert Almora Jr.

OF: Steven Souza Jr.

On paper, this is a lineup as loaded with talent as the Cubs have ever had. With six of nine regular starters capable of posting at least a 115 wRC+, there’s the potential for so much out of the Cubs offense. Especially exciting is that two of the team’s biggest offensive concerns in the years since 2016 now look to be covered better than ever before. First and foremost, the leadoff spot in the batting order: since the departure of Dexter Fowler this has been a struggle for the Cubs regardless of the player slotted in there, and while Maddon often used players at the top of the lineup to “jump start” their offense, many different options, including Heyward and Almora, never panned out at the top of the order, leaving the Cubs very frequently with nothing but an out to show for their first batter. Now, upon his arrival, Ross is promising Kris Bryant as the team’s leadoff hitter, taking a page straight out of Moneyball and using his highest on base percentage hitter to lead things off for the team. This is a clear upgrade for the team, and it benefits the Cubs and Bryant equally (read more about the benefits of using Bryant to lead off here).

In addition, the Cubs outfield as a whole has lacked on offense since 2016, posting a 96 wRC+ in 2017 and never eclipsing a 110 mark in any of the last three seasons. After a 2016 season where the Cubs had more WAR from their outfield than any other team in baseball, the team has consistently ranked around 11th in each of the last three seasons. This year there’s reason for more optimism about the outfield, though, for several reasons. One of the most important is that there looks to be a lot less turnover in the outfield, allowing players more consistent playing time at the same positions.

Offensively, Ian Happ returned to the majors in 2019 after spending most of the season in AAA to post a 127 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances, cutting his strikeout rate by over five percent and upping his slugging numbers and maintaining his hard hit rate even as he took a more aggressive approach that involved swinging more frequently.

Kyle Schwarber has had many questions surrounding his MLB career, but whether he can hit has never been a question, and he, too, appears poised for a great season after posting his career best wRC+ in a full season last year, the second consecutive year where he hit for a wRC+ of 115 or better.

Even Jason Heyward, whose offense has rightfully been the subject of scrutiny since joining the Cubs, hit very well in the right scenarios last season (Bleacher Nation), and, if used right, can easily have his best offensive season in a Cubs uniform.

Defensively, where there were some concerns last season, the outfield is set to improve as well, with Happ being a plus defender, Heyward being able to move back to right field full time, and the addition of the designated hitter in the National League allowing Schwarber to move out of the outfield for Almora, a well above average defender in center field, to play there full time. For a more in depth look at why the Cubs outfield should perform better this season, read here.

The infield is set for a great season as well. After a move to shortstop full time, Javier Baez posted one of the best defensive seasons in baseball last year, and if he can pair that with his 2018 offense, he’ll be one of the games most valuable players at a prime position; even if his offense is more like last season’s moving forward, he’s a highly dynamic and valuable player to the Cubs. Kris Bryant, with the move to the leadoff spot and a return to a full-time third base position, should benefit from a little more normalcy after being tasked with playing some left field in the past few years. In addition, Bryant has played through several minor injuries over the course of the last several years; before a knee injury last season, he had returned to his MVP form from 2016, and assuming full health moving forward, there’s no reason to expect anything less from him. Rizzo has had his own minor injury issues in the last several years, especially with his back, and while he is dealing with the same back issues in training camp currently, there’s hope that he can stay healthy through the course of a full season, especially after the season shortened to 60 games and Rizzo slimmed down, losing 25 pounds over the course of the stoppage of play.

Behind the plate, the Cubs have one of the best pairs of catchers in baseball, with Willson Contreras being one of the best hitting catchers in baseball and Victor Caratini showing last season the potential to be an above average hitter with above average defense (highlighted by framing) as well. While second baseman Jason Kipnis has suffered an offensive decline since his best years in Cleveland, he remains an above average defender and solid, experienced option to fill the position.

The Cubs are also certainly going to benefit from the addition of the designated hitter, even if they won’t get the same boost as some teams (looking at you, Reds). If for no other reason, assuming that Caratini is truly an above average hitter, it either provides the Cubs with the ability to get Caratini in the lineup every day or get Almora, who is undoubtedly a good defender, in the field. To me, the best option for the DH is to split time there equally between Schwarber and Contreras; as long as framing is part of the equation, Caratini is a defensive upgrade from Contreras in my eyes, and limiting the load on each of the team’s two catchers by having each catch just half of the games will help each catcher stay fresh and healthy. Then, in days where Schwarber plays the field, Almora can take the bench and Happ, also above average in center field, can slide over there. I can’t accurately predict what the team will do with a DH spot in the order, but this appears to me to be the best option.

Projected starting rotation:

RHP Yu Darvish

RHP Kyle Hendricks

LHP Jose Quintana

LHP Jon Lester

RHP Tyler Chatwood

Projected bullpen:

RHP Craig Kimbrel

RHP Rowan Wick

LHP Kyle Ryan

RHP Jeremy Jeffress

LHP Brad Wieck

RHP Casey Sadler

RHP Trevor Megill

RHP Ryan Tepera

RHP Dan Winkler

RHP Colin Rea

RHP Duane Underwood Jr.

RHP Alec Mills

On the pitching side, the Cubs have a lot more volatility. Of all 17 pitchers listed above, the only one that’s guaranteed to be at least 15 percent better than league average is Kyle Hendricks. Still, that doesn’t come close to doing the rest of the pitching staff justice. Among the starters, Darvish was one of MLB’s most dominant pitchers in baseball in the second half of last season after making adjustments to curb his walk rate, and he allowed just seven walks in his last 14 starts after he was a command disaster in the first season and a half of his Cubs contract. Quintana, while not being the ace that the Cubs might have hoped for when acquiring him, remains a solid 3/4 starter and curbed his walk rate last season to post a solid 3.80 FIP last season despite his worst ERA in a Cubs uniform. Jon Lester, though also not the starter he was when he signed with the Cubs, should be good for another 67 innings (180 in a full season) of an ERA around 4, just as he has been in the last two seasons. Tyler Chatwood was highly underwhelming in his first season, but in a long relief role last year was solid for the Cubs, and still has some very good stuff, including some of the best spin rates in MLB. Even if one of those five struggles, Alec Mills is perfectly capable of filling in a hole in the rotation, last year posting a 2.75 ERA in 36 innings in the majors after supplementing his arsenal with a curveball that he has slowed down in order to better throw off hitters.

In terms of the relievers, Wick, Wieck, and Ryan also had success after being added to the bullpen late last season. Sadler has bounced around quite a bit, but posted a 2.14 ERA in 46 ⅓ innings last season. Jeffress was an elite reliever for the Brewers not too long ago, and the Cubs hope to recapture at least some of that greatness. Beyond that, the Cubs will mostly hope for replacement level from the rest of their bullpen altogether; oh, and there’s that Kimbrel guy, who was just one of MLB’s most dominant relievers for a full nine seasons before atrocious (and unsustainable) home run rates torpedoed his 2019 season. The bottom line of the Cubs bullpen is that it didn’t flash much success last year, but the worst case scenario for Ross is a few good bullpen options; best case, most of the bullpen can post ERAs around 3.50 or better. Ultimately, even 60 games may not be enough to truly tell, but the Cubs have enough options to compile a bullpen to supplement the rest of the team.

Notable other players in the 60 man player pool:

Catcher: Josh Phegley and Miguel Amaya

Infield: Robel Garcia, Hernan Perez, Christopher Morel

Outfield: Mark Zagunis, Brennen Davis, Ian Miller

Starting Pitchers:

RHP Adbert Alzolay

RHP Jharel Cotton

LHP Brailyn Marquez

LHP Justin Steele

Relief Pitchers:

RHP Dillon Maples

RHP James Norwood

LHP Danny Hultzen

LHP Rex Brothers

RHP Dakota Mekkes

Ultimately, there aren’t many players here that will conceivably make a difference on the major league level. Ideally, the only players here that will even see major league action are Phegley, Garcia, Zagunis, Cotton, and Maples. Phegley has shown success both in the initial spring training and now in training camp, so he may even crack the 30-man roster to give the team three options at catcher, but other than that the roster is likely set and these players will wait for their call if necessary. Maples is a notable exclusion from the presumed 30 man roster after he has posted very strong numbers in AAA and failed to translate that to the major league level yet, but he will very likely see the majors at some point this year and get a chance there.

Prediction

If I were to bet on an over/under on PECOTA’s projected 31.5 wins for the Cubs, I’m taking the over every day and twice on Sunday. Of all ten teams in both central divisions, there isn’t a team more loaded with pure talent than the Cubs. Still, they’ve struggled to convert that talent to wins over the last several seasons, and there’s no guarantee that that won’t once again be an issue. It’s also conceivable that in a division with such parity as I mentioned before, the Cubs will struggle to separate themselves; even last season, when the Cubs appeared to take control of the NL Central, they crashed hard, losing nine games in a row to sink their playoff hopes in September. Nine consecutive losses tanked the Cubs in a 162 game season – it would murder them in a season of just 60 games. Ultimately, it’s hard to know which version of the Cubs we’ll get, but I’m betting on the continued success of guys like Darvish and Baez and improvement from a lot of other spots on the roster. If I had to provide an exact win total for the Cubs this season, I would say they’ll go 34-26, and I think that will be enough to win the division (call me an optimist). No matter what happens there’s a lot to watch for in 2020 should a season happen, and I’m ready to take it all in.

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University Psychology/Music Performance Major and Pre-Med, class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button
Close
Close