AnalysisNL Central

2021 Season Preview: Chicago Cubs

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Ryan Ruhde takes a look at the Chicago Cubs! 

Despite the general feeling of decline around the Cubs in recent years, it’s beneficial for me to take a step back and appreciate the 2020 season: the Cubs won the NL Central for the third time in five years, even if their postseason appearance was brief and forgettable. This performance from the team was especially interesting given the downright disappointing performances of three of the team’s most important offensive pieces in Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber. Much of the 2020 team is sticking around at least for 2021, though, and there’s no reason to believe that the Cubs are out of hope in the NL Central just yet. Beyond this year? It’s complicated, to say the least. But hey, we’re not there yet!

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 34-26, 1st Place in NL Central

Team MVP: Yu Darvish

Team Cy Young: Yu Darvish

2020 was a successful season for the Cubs, though their 13-3 start was hardly an indicator of the team to come, which went 21-23 the rest of the way as the offense all but fell apart in September. The pitching was a positive surprise for the team, as was the resurgence of Jason Heyward, but when Heyward and Ian Happ cooled off, there was nobody left to carry the offense as no one else heated up towards the season’s end. Yu Darvish was easily the best player on the team, proving unequivocally that his second-half performance in 2019 was no fluke. Kyle Hendricks had a great season as well. Still, the team came away from another postseason appearance without a win, leaving fans looking ahead to 2021, and not loving what they see.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020:

Yu Darvish, Kyle Schwarber, Victor Caratini, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood, Jeremy Jeffress, Albert Almora, Jason Kipnis

Notable Free Agent Additions:

LF Joc Pederson (1 year/$7M w/$10M mutual option for 2022)

SP Jake Arrieta (1 year/$6M w/$10M team option for 2022)

SP Trevor Williams (1 year/$2.5M, eligible for final year of arbitration in 2022)

RP Brandon Workman (1 year/$1M)

C Austin Romine (1 year/$1.5M)

OF Jake Marisnick (1 year/$1.5M w/$4M mutual option for 2022)

IF Eric Sogard (1 year minor league contract)

RP Jonathan Holder (1 year minor league contract with three years of arbitration eligibility remaining)

Notable Trades: 

Traded SP Yu Darvish and C Victor Caratini to the San Diego Padres for SP Zach Davies, SS Reginald Preciado, OF Owen Caissie, OF Ismael Mena, SS Yeison Santana

Jed Hoyer’s first offseason calling the shots was largely spent plugging holes in the roster (nothing new for the team over the last five years), but he certainly did so in an interesting way. Non-tendering Kyle Schwarber left an opening in Left Field, so the team signed Joc Pederson, the textbook example of “lefty who can’t hit lefties,” but a fun and notable player nonetheless. Next, to fill the large void in the rotation left by the departure of four starting pitchers, Hoyer brought in old friend Jake Arrieta as well as former Pirates starter Trevor Williams, and also acquired Zach Davies as part of the return in dealing Yu Darvish. The inclusion of Caratini in the San Diego trade left the team without a backup catcher, hence the signing of Romine. Marisnick and Sogard come in largely to fill backup/utility roles, much like Almora and Kipnis before them. Finally, Workman and Holder serve as options with quality Major League experience to fill out the bullpen. 

The narrative of the offseason can be written entirely with only the Darvish trade to serve as context. The aspect of the offseason that I haven’t yet mentioned, but that is implicit in what I typed above, is that the goal was to cut down on the cost of the Major League roster this season. Comparing every single free agent signed by the Cubs for $2M or more this offseason with the player who filled their same position last year, the Cubs are spending less money at every position. Pederson signed for less than Kyle Schwarber did in Washington, Davies is on a cheaper contract than Darvish, Arrieta signed for less than Quintana did in Anaheim, and even Williams signed for half a million less than Tyler Chatwood did with the Blue Jays. 

While the difference between Darvish and Davies in salary is easily the most significant of all of the examples I just cited, the Cubs payroll for 2021 is over $20M cheaper just with the differences in players I cited above. Factor in that Jon Lester’s contract is gone and that Quintana and Chatwood both cost a lot more in 2020 than they have now signed for in 2021 and the Cubs 2020 payroll of $233.8M (before adjusting for the shortened season) has dropped by over $90M to the current projected 2021 payroll of $143.7M, with the team going from having baseball’s third largest payroll to its 12th largest. Such a drastic cut in payroll is not actually representative of the team that will take the field in 2021, but it is certainly more than most fans likely would guess.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup:

1) CF Ian Happ (S)

2) 3B Kris Bryant (R)

3) LF Joc Pederson (L)

4) 1B Anthony Rizzo (L)

5) C Willson Contreras (R)

6) LF Jason Heyward (L)

7) SS Javier Baez (R)

8) 2B Nico Hoerner (R)

9) Pitcher

Lineup construction with this group of starters is an interesting endeavor, as the lineup could shift around in many ways depending on how well each player performs. Almost all that is known is that Ian Happ will lead off after he has looked very strong in his last 387 plate appearances between 2019 and 2020. Beyond that, almost any combination of players is plausible, and many combinations will likely be tried throughout the year. I have Bryant hitting second both because he still has the potential to be the team’s best hitter and because he breaks up what could otherwise be four left-handed hitters at the top of the order against right-handed pitchers (Happ, Heyward, Pederson, Rizzo). The variance in this group of hitters is wide, and this was clearly exemplified last season with the offense starting out hot before going cold in September. Still, every hitter in this lineup is realistically capable of posting a wRC+ in the 120 range, so there’s plenty of potential for a deep lineup if everyone hits.

The most notable difference in this lineup from 2020 to 2021 is the addition of Joc Pederson in place of Kyle Schwarber, and the general consensus is that overall this will more or less be an insignificant change. Both are slugging left-handed hitters who don’t hit for average but take their fair share of walks, and both provide defense in left field that is slightly below average. One thing to watch with Pederson is that he has traditionally struggled mightily against left handed pitching, meaning that he has been part of a platoon for most of his time with the Dodgers. As such, facing left-handed pitching full-time with the Cubs may weigh him down a bit from his career wRC+ of 118 until this point, but he should still be a productive offensive player for the Cubs and there’s an option for 2022, should he perform well.

Projected Bench:

C Austin Romine, IF David Bote, IF Ildemaro Vargas, OF Jake Marisnick, (OF Cameron Maybin, IF Eric Sogard)

The lineup has plenty of big names and bounceback potential for the Cubs, but the bench is far from overwhelming. Romine is a standard backup catcher with mediocre defense and a poor bat, Vargas has never played well enough to earn significant playing time, and Marisnick is a great defender with a poor bat who will likely see the field primarily as a late-game defensive replacement. Bote has the best bat of the bunch and will undoubtedly see the most playing time, but he is also yet to prove that he’s anything more than average on both sides of the ball. Maybin and Sogard are also experienced backups, but there’s nobody here that should make a serious impact on the team this season in either a good or bad way.

Projected Rotation:

  1. RHP Kyle Hendricks
  2. RHP Zach Davies
  3. RHP Jake Arrieta
  4. RHP Adbert Alzolay
  5. RHP Trevor Williams
  6. RHP Alec Mills

One thing probably stands out when looking at this group of pitchers, even if it’s because it’s prominently capitalized and aligned: every single starting pitching option that the Cubs have is a righty. What really makes this group unique, though, is that the hardest thrower of the bunch (Alzolay) averages 95 MPH with his fastball. After Alzolay, no pitcher in this rotation has a fastball that will touch 94 on a good day. I previously wrote about the similarities between Hendricks, Davies and Mills as soft-throwing righty starters, and then the Cubs went and added Arrieta and Williams to the mix as well. Hendricks, Davies, and Arrieta are locks to make the rotation, but the final two/three spots are up in the air. 

Many teams have indicated that they’re going to a six man rotation to start the year, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Cubs do the same with six guys who are hypothetically starting pitchers that will be on the Major League roster come Opening Day. I think Alzolay is a clear choice to make the rotation as well, given that he can clearly throw harder than the rest of the bunch, and that he added a slider last season that has looked good and given the team high hopes for him this season. Mills and Williams are both candidates for either the rotation or the bullpen, and Mills has worked out of the bullpen before, so if the rotation is cut to five guys Mills may be the first to go to the bullpen. Either way, it will certainly be interesting to watch how the Cubs manage a group of pitchers who all lack velocity relative to their Major League counterparts, and it is certainly fair to wonder whether their similarity as a unit will hinder the performance of any individual pitcher. 

Other potential rotation options are limited, but they include Kohl Stewart, Justin Steele, and top prospect Brailyn Marquez. With six starting options in the Majors, the Cubs shouldn’t find themselves scrambling to fill a 5-man rotation, but with multiple starting pitching injuries the rotation could become rather thin in a hurry.

Projected Bullpen:

  1. Craig Kimbrel
  2. Brandon Workman
  3. Jason Adam
  4. Andrew Chafin
  5. Ryan Tepera
  6. Dan Winkler
  7. Dillon Maples
  8. Jonathan Holder
  9. Alec Mills/Trevor Williams (if not in starting rotation)

The bullpen is potentially the weakest part of this team, especially if Craig Kimbrel does not pitch like the closer he once was. Hoyer chose to part ways with Jeremy Jeffress after he was the team’s most reliable reliever in 2020 despite shaky peripherals. The rest of the bullpen is largely the same, with Workman and Holder being the two notable additions from the off-season. While no arm in this bullpen is a well-established effective reliever at this point, it is actually a fairly solid group. After a poor start, the Cubs bullpen turned things around quite a bit, and they were especially good in September. During the month of September, the Cubs had the second-lowest bullpen ERA and the fourth-lowest bullpen FIP in baseball. Kimbrel pitched well after several rough outings to open the season, providing some hope for his abilities to anchor the bullpen in 2020. Tepera and Adam were two of the team’s more reliable relievers last season, so they will continue to be important in 2021. Rowan Wick was also an important part of the bullpen’s success in 2020, and he will return to the group once he ramps back up from an intercostal/oblique injury that has hampered him throughout the off-season.

Other players that may challenge for spots in the bullpen include Shelby Miller, Brad Wieck, Brailyn Marquez, Kyle Ryan, James Norwood, Pedro Strop, and Robert Stock. The team has plenty of borderline-MLB relief arms that will serve as options should anyone in the Major Leagues struggle, but it is unlikely that anyone from this group really stands out aside from Marquez, whom the team still hopes will fill a starting role long-term.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 79.3-82.6, 3rd place in NL Central

PECOTA Projected Record: 85.2-76.8, 2nd place in NL Central

Personal Projection: 87-75, 2nd place in NL Central

Record projections are a difficult endeavor that generally can’t be taken with too much merit, and that is especially true for this Cubs team. Half of the batters in the starting lineup were significantly worse than their career averages on offense in 2020, which likely shouldn’t be taken too seriously as an indication of their production moving forward, while Jason Heyward existed on the other end of the spectrum as a hitter who seriously outperformed his career numbers as a Cub. Similarly, the results from the bullpen that I mentioned above aren’t likely to continue with a relief corps that still feels very shaky and unsettled, and the rotation is noticeably worse in the absence of Yu Darvish, even if Lester, Quintana, and Chatwood didn’t ultimately move the needle much for the team in 2020.

Still, it feels like a lot went wrong in 2020, and it’s hard to believe that all of that will be the case once again. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, the three biggest contributors of this Cubs core in Rizzo, Baez and Bryant were absent relative to the last five seasons. Bryant’s MVP form vanished, Rizzo went from being perennially well above average to just league average with the bat, and while Baez took several years to reach his offensive peak, he was never much worse than league average before dropping all the way down to his 2020 status as one of just three qualified hitters in baseball with a wRC+ under 60. It’s unfathomable that this group of players can struggle so mightily once again; if their offensive production doesn’t rebound in 2021 it would certainly require a large-scale reconception of their value as individual players and as a unit.

So really, while the pitching will take a step back, I’m banking my personal projection on almost surefire positive regression from the offense that will keep this team closer to its 2020 pace of roughly 92 wins over a full season than the projections suggest. This core of players has never won less than 84 games in a full season, and the 84-win season was the result of a collapse across the board late in the season in 2019. Once again it simply feels like there’s too much talent on this roster for so much to go wrong, even if no result may ever fully change my mind on that assessment. Still, it’s entirely possible that the Cubs fail to come up with enough to win the division, and that’s the reality of sticking with this roster until this point where the team feels limited in its options. Ultimately, it’s difficult to see the Cubs as serious contenders for anything beyond the NL Central, and winning the division is almost certainly their only shot at making the playoffs.

Final Thoughts

The prevailing assessment of this Cubs team is that this season will provide closure on the recent chapter of Cubs baseball, either in a “fun last ride with this core while they prove that they’ve still got it” way, or a “not so fun proof that the regression was legitimate” way. It’s tough to say which will really be the case, but as a Cubs fan I’ll hold out hope that it’s the former. Still, the lack of success over the last three seasons now makes it difficult to place too much hope in the hands of the Cubs. I lament the mismanagement of this core which has resulted in the current ambiguity of direction for the team, but I appreciate that I get to watch the most important players from one of the best moments of my life play together at least another year.

Ryan Ruhde

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

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