Depending on who you ask, the 2019 Cubs are going to be fine, or they’re totally toast. After winning the World Series in 2016, Chicago was poised to establish a dynasty that was certain to add several championship titles to their mantle...that hasn’t been the case.
They made it to the NLCS in 2017, but they ran up against the Dodgers. In 2018, they couldn’t hold off the Brewers, ultimately losing Game 163 at home and falling to the Rockies in the Wild Card game. This year there’s a real possibility the Cubs could finish in fourth place.
There’s also a real possibility the Cubs finish in first. They’re a great team! They’re also a flawed team that didn’t do anything to get better in the offseason while three other teams in the division got much, much better. The 2019 season is a Schrödinger’s Box. The Cubs are simultaneously dead and alive, and we won’t know which is true until it’s too late.
The Cubs will be fine
There was a lot of hand-wringing over the Cubs offense last season, so much so that Chili Davis was fired because every player not named Javier Báez under-performed, and when that happens, the hitting coach generally takes the blame.
Excluding pitchers, the Cubs had a 107 wRC+ as a team. That was tied for second best in the National League, and that was with Kris Bryant hurt for most of the year and Willson Contreras having a down year. The Cubs have a meat-grinder of a lineup with a core of Bryant, Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber. Contreras should have a bounce-back year and be one of the better hitting catcher again. Not to mention Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ as super utility types. The only “liabilities” in their Opening Day lineup include Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr., but they only project to be slightly below average at the plate and they’ll make up for it on defense.
This is an offense that was ninth in the majors in runs scored, and that’s when they were struggling. The Cubs were extremely un-clutch last season, so with more regular sequencing and a healthier lineup, they should be back to mashing.
On the other side of the ball, the Cubs have one of the more fearsome five-man rotations in baseball. Jon Lester’s dip in strikeout minus walk rate is worrisome, but he still put up a 129 ERA+ in 2018. Kyle Hendricks is unlikely to lead the league in ERA again, but he’s still a solid pitcher with a devastating changeup. Yu Darvish had a forgettable injury-riddled beginning to his Cubs career, but he should still strike out three to four times as many hitters as he walks. Cole Hamels got back to missing bats last year. Maybe the Cubs would rather have Dylan Cease (not to mention Eloy Jimenez) than Jose Quintana, but when Quintana is a arguably a team’s fifth-best starter, they’re doing something right.
Remember, this is a team that won 95 games last year when so much went wrong, with as deep as their lineup and their rotation is, it’s easy to see why FanGraphs projects them to finish first in the NL Central with a modest 88 wins.
The Cubs are already dead
The NL Central could be the most competitive division we’ve ever seen. This offseason was an arms race where each team stockpiled impact players and got demonstrably better. The Brewers added Yasmani Grandal and re-signed Mike Moustakas. The Reds added Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Tanner Roark, not to mention Nick Senzel will be up and ready to contribute. The Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. Here’s what the Cubs did:
- Traded Tommy La Stella for Conor Lillis-White
- Signed Daniel Descalso
- Signed Brad Brach
That’s it. Swapping in Descalso for La Stella is essentially a side-grade, so it hardly even counts as a move. Brach is good reliever, and the Cubs need more of those, but he can’t be the only addition of the offseason.
Not only did the Cubs not make a serious pursuit of Bryce Harper or any other high-impact player, but they didn’t even create a contingency plan in case somebody (inevitably) gets hurt.
Yes, the Cubs have a great five-man rotation, but beyond Mike Montgomery the depth dries up quickly. Tyler Chatwood pitched to a 5.30 FIP which is impressive considering he walked 95 batters in 103 2/3 innings last year. Aside from Chatwood, there’s Alec Mills a command-maven with below average stuff, and Jen-Ho Tseng, a righty who got torched in Triple-A Iowa last year.
If any of the starting five go down for any extended period of time, Montgomery can slide in, but if more than one go down, the Cubs will be in big trouble. Even taking Montgomery out of the bullpen would create issues.
Brach and Steve Cishek are both serviceable. Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards Jr. are a fine enough start assuming they remain healthy. With Morrow, that’s a big if. Even Strop has been dealing with hamstring issues this spring. But the Cubs don’t have strong options to replace them if/when they do miss time. Brandon Kintzler and Brian Duensing both had rough 2018 campaigns and each project to be around replacement level or worse. Beyond them, the Cubs are depending on reinforcements from Triple-A.
The Cubs are hoping that nothing goes wrong in 2019, and that, uh, sure is some strategy in an extremely competitive division. Knowing how quickly things can fall apart, it’s easy to see why PECOTA has the Cubs projected for 79 wins and a last place finish.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.