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The Cubs are at a crossroads

2021 will decide the direction of the franchise.

Seattle Mariners v Chicago Cubs Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs are at a bit of a crossroads. One path has them rebuilding, and they took a few steps in that direction by trading Yu Darvish. Another path has them retooling which they dabbled with in nontendering Kyle Schwarber in exchange for signing Joc Pederson. At some point, the Cubs need to decide what to do with Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and soon Willson Contreras.

The Cubs are in a similar situation as the Giants. Both teams are looking back on a golden age, long championship droughts snapped by excellent cores, and now those cores are in what could be the final years with their teams. The difference is that the Cubs are ostensibly still good. The Giants’ remaining members of Even Year Nonsense are much further removed from their peak than the Cubs who were around in 2016. Part of that is timing—Buster Posey is four years older than Bryant and thus their contention window opened and closed earlier than the Cubs’—but it’s also because the Giants had already signed Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt to extensions.

No such deals have been made with the Cubs’ drafted and developed offensive core, who are either still in their peak years or not that far from them. Bryant and Báez are all free agents next year. Contreras is slated to become a free agent after 2022. In addition, Anthony Rizzo’s contract comes to an end after the 2021 season. When the Giants locked up Posey and the Brandons, there wasn’t a lot of promise on the farm. The Giants were the worst team at drafting future bWAR in the last decade and their system consistently ranked in the Bottom 10. The Cubs’ situation isn’t as dire as that, but it’s not good.

Baseball America ranks the Cubs’ system as 17th-best in MLB. It’s a system headlined by Brailyn Márquez, Brennen Davis, and Miguel Amaya, and only Márquez is close to the majors. He made his debut last year, but that likely wouldn’t have happened without the minor league season being cancelled. Márquez hadn’t pitched above High-A, and he’ll start the year at Double-A.

Considering the Ricketts’ reluctance to reinvest in the team via free agency and the lack of help on the way, without Bryant, Báez, Rizzo, or Contreras, it’s hard to see the team remaining competitive in the near future. If 2021 isn’t a last hurrah, it’s a penultimate hurrah.

The future may be uncertain, but things in the present could be worse. Do the Cubs still have a very good chance of making the playoffs in 2021? Yes! Would it have been a lot easier if they hung onto Yu Darvish? Absolutely.

Once a strength, the Cubs’ rotation is much depleted and full of question marks. Jake Arrieta is back but José Quintana and Jon Lester are also gone. At the top is Kyle Hendricks, consistent FIP-beater and underrated ace. Hendricks hasn’t put up less than 3.0 RA9-WAR since 2015 and that includes the shortened 2020 season. Steamer and ZiPS both think his ERA will balloon up to 4.00 for the first time in his career, but pitchers like Hendricks buck projection models since they have an atypical path to success. Hendriks thrives on his excellent command, tunneling, and ability to suppress hard contact. It’s worked for him for seven seasons and there’s no reason it should stop now.

Beyond Hendricks is where things get dicey. Zach Davies is the direct replacement for Darvish and though Davies is a fine pitcher, that’s a clear downgrade. Like Hendricks, Davies gets by without superlative strikeout stuff, but even Davies has trouble outpacing his teammate on K’s.

He managed a strikeout rate of 22.8 percent in 2020—a pedestrian mark by today’s standards but a career high for him—and that’s thanks to a change in pitch mix. Davies decreased the use of his sinker and upped the use of his changeup last year. The changeup is exceptional in that it’s just as effective against righties as it is against lefties. Generally, pitchers don’t rely on pitches with downward movement against same-handed batters, but Davies still throws his changeup as often as his sinker regardless of the batter’s handedness.

If Davies is looking to bring his success from the last two years into 2021, Jake Arrieta is looking to leave 2019 and 2020 behind him. The former ace of the team has returned from three disappointing years in Philadelphia. From 2019 to 2020, Arrieta pitched to a 4.75 ERA and 4.83 FIP and had a worse strikeout rate than Hendricks.

At the back of the rotation, neither Alec Mills nor Trevor Williams project to be league average, but they aren’t without their potential. Mills, of course, threw a no-hitter in 2020, and his secondary pitches all miss bats. Williams has had a rough couple seasons, but maybe he can regain some his 2018 form.

Offensively, the Cubs are in much better shape. Bryant and Báez are each coming off of down years, but Bryant was playing through injuries and Báez just had a bad couple of months. Whether Bryant can stay healthy remains a concern, but he remains a threat at the plate so long as he can stay on the field.

Willson Contreras has been one of the best hitting catchers throughout his career, but he has consistently been one of the worst framers. That changed last year when Contreras saved 2.7 runs stealing strikes per Baseball Prospectus. That was good enough to tie for eighth in MLB. It’s an enormous improvement over sixth-worst which is where he was the year before.

Jason Heyward’s contract has long been considered a bust, but if his best days are behind him, so are his worst. In 2019 and 2020, he has put up a 104 and 114 DRC+ respectively. All the while, Heyward has continued to play excellent defense ranking in the 96th percentile for Outs Above Average in 2019 and the 68th in the abbreviated 2020 season.

It will be interesting to see how Joc Pederson performs in an everyday role. Pederson has mashed righties in his career to the tune of a .360 wOBA, but it’s a different story against lefties. When at a platoon disadvantage, Pederson has only mustered a .255 wOBA.

If everyone hits like they should, the Cubs are one of the better offensive teams in the National League. With how questionable the pitching staff is, though, the Cubs only have a 23.6 percent chance to make the playoffs according to FanGraphs. PECOTA is a little more bullish and gives them a 28.6 percent chance to win the division. No one has separated themselves in the NL Central which is both a blessing for the Cubs, but it’s also a product of the Cubs not fully committing. One way or another, before season’s end, the Cubs will have to decide what the future looks like.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.