The Chicago Cubs were painfully eliminated at home from the NLCS in an 11-1 rout by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their mid-season acquisition José Quintana gave up six runs in only two-plus innings pitched, recording just one strikeout. Clayton Kershaw continued to rewrite the silly playoff narrative surrounding him by giving up one run in six innings and striking out five. My fellow boricua Kiké Hernández was the hero of the day by hitting three home runs, one of which was a grand slam in the third inning that blew the game open.
The potent Cubs offense that scored 5.07 R/G during the regular season averaged a paltry 1.6 R/G in the NLCS. In fact, they scored only one run in three out of the five games, and they scored more than three runs just once in the entire postseason. They were very lucky to advance to their third straight NLCS in the first place.
So what happened with the offense? Nothing happened. These are the same players they have always been. Anthony Rizzo did not all of the sudden become a true-talent .135/.200/.243 hitter who strikes out 35 percent of the time. The Cubs faced elite pitching, and anybody can perform at any talent level over such microscopic sample sizes. Barring any injuries that we do not know about, it is really not any more complicated than that. And even if it were, there is no shame in losing to a 105-win team.
The window of contention for the Cubs is still open and will probably stay open at least through 2019. That said, they certainly have issues to address this offseason.
The Cubs have two key players entering free agency: Wade Davis and Jake Arrieta. Davis is coming off his worst year as a full-time reliever since 2012, and he still had a 2.45 RA9 and struck out a third of the hitters he faced. My guess is that he is going to want a three or four-year deal at a minimum of $15 million per year, roughly the going rate for elite relievers nowadays. The thing is that Davis is 32 years old and his fastball has declined ~2 MPH since 2015, per Brooks Baseball, meaning he might not really be elite.
I am loath to give a reliever more than two years, but I can see the argument behind the Cubs doing so. They can and probably will extend him a qualifying offer, but remember that the rules with that have changed. The QO does not have the value-depressing powers it once did, nor the value to the offering team.
The Cubs bullpen performed very well in 2017. Their combined 4.06 RA9 ranked fifth in baseball and second in the NL. Their 26.3 K% ranked sixth in baseball and second in the NL. (Coincidentally, the Dodgers beat them out in both categories.) Even without Davis, the rest of the Cubs relievers combined for a 4.24 RA9. Still, he is a hard guy to replace.
Like Davis, Arrieta is also going into his age-32 season, but he is going to command a much bigger deal as a starter. Two years off of his Cy Young season, he struggled with injury and inconsistency. This year he had a 4.38 RA9 and an unremarkable 23.1 percent strikeout rate. It is worth mentioning that from July through August, he had a 2.38 RA9 over 11 starts. However, he also had a high strand rate and .217 BABIP during that period, while his strikeout and walk rates remained the same. I guarantee you that the Cubs know this, too.
I do not know what to make of Arrieta at this point, which would make me terrified of re-signing him for anything close to what he is likely to ask for. I would have no problem extending him a QO, but I would be hesitant to sign him for more than three years given his age and given his performance the past two seasons.
The drawback of not bringing back Arrieta is the hole it will leave in the Cubs’ starting rotation. There is Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and then a drop-off. Furthermore, Lester had a 5.03 RA9 in 2017, and one has to wonder how much longer Hendricks can succeed with an 86 MPH sinker. The Cubs’ starting rotation ranked fifth in the NL with a 4.49 RA9, just barely behind the divisional rival Brewers at a 4.45 RA9. Even if Arrieta returns and performs well, the rotation’s run average is probably going to get worse next year unless the Cubs find some way to address it.
Other than Arrieta, there is not a lot in the free agent market to address the rotation. They could try getting C.C. Sabathia or Jason Vargas for cheap, and then hope that they do not regress much. Or they could just break the bank and sign Yu Darvish. Neither option is wholly appealing.
The best forecast lies with the position players, most of whom are under contract for at least another couple of years. The infield looks pretty good. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras will still be great next year. Addison Russell struggled with injuries this year and took a small step back offensively, but he will only be 24 next year, so there should still be optimism. Javier Báez was good this year, but his poor plate discipline continues to be a concern.
It looks good that Jon Jay will return next year, but he was not great in 2017. A league-average hitter in center field is a good thing to have, but his defense is not very good. He was certainly a downgrade over Dexter Fowler (who actually was not much better this year by bWAR because his defense rated very poorly).
Jason Heyward’s defense is great, but despite improvements at the plate he still is not hitting enough. Given that he was 26 years old when he signed his current deal, I believed that he would certainly opt out after this third or fourth year. I am much less certain of that now. If I were a Cubs fan, I would start getting concerned that the team will be on the hook for the entirety of that $184 million deal, and that Heyward’s performance won’t match the price tag.
The biggest problem is with Kyle Schwarber. He was just a league-average hitter who strikes out 31 percent of the time while playing terrible defense in left field. He is barely a major league-quality player as long as he plays that position with that kind of offense. The Cubs just do not have any better options for where to play him. They have no DH, Rizzo blocks first base, and it looks like he can’t play catcher even in a back-up role. If they traded him, they would be selling low. The Cubs’ best solution might be to just hope he makes a big improvement at the plate in 2018.
What about Ian Happ? He deserves to play everyday, but where does he play? Schwarber or Heyward would have to fall off a cliff offensively for either of them to lose their starting jobs. I would try starting him as the everyday center fielder and hope for the best defensively.
Happ could also be used as trade bait for some starting pitching. The Cubs could also sell high on Báez if they are concerned that his bat will get worse, and then make Happ the starting second baseman.
Help will not be coming from the farm system any time soon, either. The Cubs’ best prospects the last couple of years have been either promoted or traded away to bolster the major league club. To their credit, other than trading Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman, the team excelled at using a great farm system to create a great team either by trade or directly.
Despite the issues laid out here, the fact of the matter is that this Cubs team is still really good. They won 92 games this year, 103 games last year, and 97 games the year before. The Brewers have proven themselves to be a force to reckon with, and one should never count out the Cardinals, but the Cubs will likely win the division again with ease. That does not mean that the team should rest on its laurels, though. The Dodgers and Nationals will still be elite next year, and the Cubs will need every advantage they can get.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.