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How bad would the Cubs be if every player hit their 10th percentile projections?

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Exploring another universe we (probably) don’t belong to.

MLB: NLCS-New York Mets at Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

When I say that the Cubs are the consensus best team in baseball, I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. Yes, Baseball Prospectus might have the Dodgers winning a few more games, but if you polled the average baseball fan, the Cubs would be the most common answer to who will win the 2017 World Series.

I could go on and on about how impressive a feat that is, and wax poetic about the culture the organization has cultivated; about the incredible talent Theo Epstein has amassed; about how they finally broke the curse. But you’ve heard that a thousand times before — if there is one thing the Cubs don’t lack, it’s praise.

Like you, I expect the Cubs to be excellent in 2017. They would be my pick to win the whole thing, and I’m genuinely in awe at the dynastic possibilities they seem capable of fresh off of their first title in 108 years. As exciting as that is, it’s something that’s been covered over and over.

But what if Chicago came out and just totally sucked this year? What if every player on their roster responded to expectations like Jason Heyward did in his first season on the North Side? That’s a much more interesting, if less likely, scenario.

So after writing about what it would be like if the Padres played to their absolute maximum potential a couple of weeks ago, I’d like to explore the other side of the coin today. The premise is simple: I want to see what the Cubs would look like if every player currently in line for big league playing time sunk to their 10th percentile PECOTA projections. Just as the Padres — spoiler alert — became the best team in baseball under these batshit parameters, would the Cubs be the worst? There’s only one way to find out.

First, let’s set a baseline. Here are the Cubs’ current team projections from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs:

Cubs 2017 Projections

Projection Wins Losses Win% RS RA Rdif
Projection Wins Losses Win% RS RA Rdif
Baseball Prospectus 93 69 0.574 765 651 114
FanGraphs 95 67 0.586 765 630 134

That’s, again, telling you what you already know: the Cubs are really damn good. And, of course, we should reiterate that projections are usually conservative — if the Cubs really are the best team in baseball, it would not be a surprise to see them win several more games than this.

Regardless, that’s not what this exercise is about so let’s begin exploring our alternative universe. Just as we did for the Padres, we’ll take a look at the starters and bench/bullpen guys from both the position players and pitchers, in order, and then tally everything up at the end. Here are the 10th percentile projections for the Cubs’ current starting lineup:

Cubs starting position players 10th percentile projections

Name Pos. PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Name Pos. PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Willson Contreras C 464 421 48 97 63 19 2 13 159 53 36 100 4 3 3 2 0.231 0.296 0.378 10.1 0.2 -8
Anthony Rizzo 1B 615 545 78 132 75 28 2 27 245 86 60 110 6 4 7 4 0.242 0.321 0.449 16 2 1
Kris Bryant 3B 560 493 75 118 67 22 2 27 225 82 58 160 5 4 8 3 0.239 0.323 0.456 27 3.1 2
Ben Zobrist 2B 604 528 70 122 80 27 3 12 191 55 67 87 5 4 6 4 0.231 0.322 0.362 13.1 1.4 -1
Addison Russell SS 550 502 55 106 66 22 1 17 181 63 39 141 5 4 4 2 0.211 0.273 0.360 0.4 0.5 4
Kyle Schwarber LF 541 474 73 100 58 16 2 24 192 67 59 157 5 4 3 2 0.211 0.303 0.405 13.2 1 -4
Jon Jay CF 389 359 35 78 60 13 1 4 105 31 24 73 4 3 3 2 0.217 0.271 0.293 -3.7 -0.4 0
Jason Heyward RF 566 506 63 116 77 23 2 14 185 57 51 99 5 4 12 3 0.229 0.304 0.365 1.9 1.7 14

This is another signal of just how strong the Cubs lineup is. Even the absolute floor for these guys is still pretty high. You could probably have a real debate about whether you’d rather have this version of the Cubs or the Padres actual lineup.

Of course, that is not to say that this version of the Cubs’ hitters is good. This team would definitely struggle to score runs, even if Kris Bryant is still a borderline All-Star. The bottom of the lineup, with Russell, Heyward, and Jay, would be absolutely dreadful. But that’s the game we’re playing, obviously.

Moving along, let’s take a look at the Cubs’ bench and AAA call-ups:

Cubs bench hitters/AAA call-ups 10th percentile projections

Name Pos. PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Name Pos. PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Miguel Montero C 104 92 9 17 12 3 0 2 26 10 10 25 1 1 0 0 0.184 0.269 0.281 -1.3 0.4 5
Jeimer Candelario 3B 59 54 5 9 6 2 0 1 14 6 4 14 1 0 0 0 0.166 0.229 0.259 -2 -0.2 0
Javier Baez 2B 387 363 44 76 48 14 1 13 131 42 18 120 3 3 10 3 0.209 0.252 0.361 -3.8 0 3
Albert Almora CF 144 138 12 29 19 6 1 3 46 13 4 26 1 1 1 1 0.211 0.238 0.334 -4.8 -0.4 1
Matt Szczur CF 57 53 5 10 7 2 0 1 15 5 3 12 1 0 2 1 0.188 0.237 0.282 -2 -0.2 0

This would still be a fairly effective group if they were to be used as defensive replacements, but good God, what a disaster they would be if ever asked to take a plate appearance. This version of Javier Baez would probably send half of the baseball internet into a crippling depression.

Next, let’s take a look at the Cubs’ starting rotation and projected spot starters. Shield your eyes, Chicagoans:

Cubs starting pitchers 10th percentile projections

Name Pos. G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Name Pos. G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Jon Lester SP 29 29 13 11 0 186 188 63 198 104 7 111 33 0.311 1.35 5.05 5.46 4.6 0.5
Jake Arrieta SP 30 30 13 11 0 184 169 77 192 97 7 104 26 0.292 1.34 4.75 5.14 11.3 1.2
John Lackey SP 29 29 12 11 0 177 183 65 167 103 6 109 31 0.305 1.41 5.23 5.66 0.3 0.0
Kyle Hendricks SP 29 29 11 10 0 148 154 50 136 82 5 88 24 0.306 1.37 4.98 5.39 4.9 0.5
Mike Montgomery SP 36 19 7 8 0 100 114 46 84 62 4 65 15 0.324 1.60 5.54 5.96 -4.4 -0.5
Brett Anderson SP 11 11 3 4 0 42 55 17 32 28 2 29 8 0.344 1.71 5.88 6.38 -4.3 -0.5
Aaron Brooks SP 5 5 2 2 0 13 17 4 10 8 0 8 2 0.341 1.60 5.41 5.86 -0.5 -0.1
Pierce Johnson SP 3 3 1 1 0 2 2 1 1 1 0 1 0 0.325 1.75 5.82 6.23 -1.6 -0.2
Eddie Butler SP 5 5 1 2 0 14 16 6 9 9 0 9 2 0.305 1.58 5.84 6.34 -1.8 -0.2
Alec Mills SP 3 3 1 1 0 2 2 1 2 1 0 1 0 0.335 1.57 5.28 5.65 0.0 0.0

For the portion of the baseball-watching fanbase that’s already sick of the Cubs — and that’s a faction of the population that’s growing with each passing day — this would be some quality schadenfreude.

This would also be, obviously, a complete unmitigated disaster. Jake Arrieta is far and away the Cubs’ best starter in this scenario, and he’d still be getting pummeled every five days. In an effort to find any sort of quality pitching after the starting five imploded, the Cubs would be giving starts to Pierce Johnson and Eddie Butler, who would perform like even worse versions of Pierce Johnson and Eddie Butler. It would be like a traveling circus version of turn-of-the-century Coors Field.

Now, let’s wrap up the individual projections by taking a look at the bullpen, which is probably the weakest part of the club here in real life:

Cubs bullpen 10th percentile projections

Name Pos. G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Name Pos. G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Wade Davis RP 50 0 3 2 41 38 37 18 48 19 1 20 6 0.329 1.44 4.40 4.96 1.6 0.2
Koji Uehara RP 38 0 2 2 3 24 25 9 30 16 1 17 7 0.307 1.39 6.11 6.33 -4.6 -0.5
Hector Rondon RP 50 0 3 3 2 37 42 14 39 22 1 24 7 0.326 1.50 5.41 5.79 -3.1 -0.3
Pedro Strop RP 42 0 2 2 0 29 28 14 36 17 1 18 5 0.313 1.46 5.24 5.67 -2.0 -0.2
Felix Pena RP 25 0 1 1 0 13 14 6 12 7 0 8 2 0.324 1.58 5.25 5.65 -1.2 -0.1
Jake Buchanan RP 21 0 1 1 0 11 13 4 7 6 0 6 1 0.326 1.59 5.16 5.51 -0.6 -0.1
Justin Grimm RP 46 0 2 2 0 34 36 18 39 18 1 20 5 0.338 1.59 4.89 5.36 -0.6 -0.1
Carl Edwards Jr. RP 46 0 2 2 0 33 30 19 37 17 1 19 4 0.304 1.48 4.80 5.36 -0.6 -0.1
Caleb Smith RP 21 0 1 1 0 8 10 5 6 6 0 6 1 0.327 1.78 6.63 6.63 -3.3 -0.4
Rob Zastryzny RP 13 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 0 0.325 1.68 5.88 6.12 -1.2 -0.1
Brian Duensing RP 38 0 2 2 0 25 34 12 19 20 1 21 6 0.337 1.83 7.31 7.38 -9.0 -1.0

There’s so much blood. I really cannot stop staring at that Brian Duensing line. Unsurprisingly, the bullpen — as the most vulnerable part of the team already — is hit the hardest under this 10th percentile projections scenario.

Alright, so now for the fun part: comparing these Cubs to the rest of baseball’s actual projections. First, because these 10th percentile projections take big chunks out of playing time, we need to normalize both the plate appearances and innings pitched to league-average levels. Here are those figures for both position players and pitchers:

Cubs position players normalized 10th percentile projections

Group PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Group PA AB R H 1B 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB K HBP SF SB CS AVG OBP SLG VORP WARP FRAA
Position Players 6153 5529 698 1233 779 241 21 193 2094 696 529 1372 55 40 72 33 0.223 0.295 0.379 78.3 11.1 21

Cubs pitchers normalized 10th percentile projections

Group G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Group G GS W L SV IP H BB SO ER UER RA HR BABIP WHIP ERA DRA VORP WARP
Pitchers 734 210 107 103 59 1443 1508 580 1424 831 53 884 238 0.322 1.56 5.18 5.85 -20.7 -2.6

Yeah, this team is not good. But just how bad is it? Let’s find out by plugging those runs scored and runs allowed numbers back into the current PECOTA projections:

2017 projections w/ 10th percentile Cubs

Team W L RS RA Run Diff. AVG OBP SLG FRAA
Team W L RS RA Run Diff. AVG OBP SLG FRAA
Boston Red Sox 90 72 749 665 84 0.272 0.335 0.431 11.2
Tampa Bay Rays 84 78 723 692 31 0.245 0.31 0.407 15
New York Yankees 82 80 739 731 8 0.253 0.321 0.416 13.7
Toronto Blue Jays 81 81 768 767 1 0.257 0.332 0.432 12
Baltimore Orioles 74 88 728 804 -76 0.256 0.318 0.433 -16.3
Cleveland Indians 92 70 797 683 114 0.268 0.337 0.435 7.1
Minnesota Twins 80 82 733 745 -12 0.251 0.318 0.422 23.1
Detroit Tigers 79 83 743 769 -26 0.262 0.322 0.427 -26.6
Chicago White Sox 76 86 699 752 -53 0.256 0.309 0.404 -28.7
Kansas City Royals 71 91 680 780 -100 0.257 0.311 0.398 -3.3
Houston Astros 93 69 768 647 121 0.258 0.321 0.421 19.2
Seattle Mariners 87 75 770 712 58 0.258 0.32 0.42 46.9
Texas Rangers 85 77 775 736 39 0.259 0.329 0.427 3.3
Los Angeles Angels 78 84 718 749 -31 0.252 0.318 0.403 2.6
Oakland Athletics 75 87 676 737 -61 0.243 0.305 0.391 -17
New York Mets 88 74 714 647 67 0.242 0.309 0.405 -3.1
Washington Nationals 86 76 742 689 53 0.252 0.32 0.411 -15.8
Miami Marlins 78 84 683 717 -34 0.254 0.312 0.39 -25.3
Atlanta Braves 76 86 661 708 -47 0.251 0.31 0.382 3.7
Philadelphia Phillies 74 88 666 730 -64 0.244 0.298 0.387 -39.9
Chicago Cubs ?? ?? 698 884 -186 0.223 0.295 0.379 21
Pittsburgh Pirates 80 82 725 733 -8 0.262 0.327 0.408 -3.1
Milwaukee Brewers 76 86 719 767 -48 0.241 0.301 0.4 9.2
St. Louis Cardinals 76 86 705 759 -54 0.253 0.317 0.411 -32.1
Cincinnati Reds 75 87 737 801 -64 0.248 0.31 0.409 -4.5
Los Angeles Dodgers 98 64 760 597 163 0.252 0.322 0.422 29
San Francisco Giants 86 76 702 652 50 0.258 0.321 0.399 21.1
Arizona Diamondbacks 77 85 709 744 -35 0.258 0.317 0.423 -19
Colorado Rockies 76 86 733 787 -54 0.265 0.316 0.443 -7.6
San Diego Padres 69 93 659 776 -117 0.242 0.297 0.392 17.1

Hey, what do you know? This team totally sucks. For comparison’s sake, the 2013 Houston Astros, winners of just 51 games, had a run differential of -238. So as bad as this version of the Cubs might be — and they’d be the worst team in the league, no doubt — they’re still not historically bad. In order for your team’s worst case scenario to avoid that distinction, you have to be pretty good, which the Cubs certainly are.

Just as the Padres will almost certainly — hell, let’s get crazy and just say certainly — not be the best team in baseball this year, the Cubs will not be the worst. But there is a plausible, if not probable, scenario in which every player on the roster collapses, and presto, the Cubs fall to the back of the pack. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.