Some may say it was choking. Some may say it’s a new curse. Some may even say it was due to only scoring two runs in 22 innings of two must-win games against the Brewers and Rockies. However it happened, the Cubs were the first team dispatched of the ten playoff teams, baseball’s answer to the point-of-view character in the first chapter of a George RR Martin book.
This may be a bit of obscure trivia, but the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, a matchup against the Cleveland Indians that determined which team could waste enough cheap beer to fill a very disappointing swimming pool.
Following up on a World Series championship is always a bit of a tricky problem to approach for a team. Since new seasons start every year–a very fortunate fact for those of us employed as baseball writers–there’s no final happy ending in which everyone walks off into the sunset. Even championship teams have difficult decisions to make, often centered around how much you’re willing to tinker with a winning roster while also keeping the team’s core more-or-less together.
The 2016 Cubs were lucky in that by-and-large, the team’s biggest offensive contributors were players you’d actually want to keep rather than ones you’d be tempted to cash in as trade chips at the first opportunity. The pitching staff was a bit older and required some work. But the Cubs went full-bore attempting to address those issues, bringing in Jose Quintana in 2017 and, in a very weak market, signing the best pitcher available prior to the 2018 season, Yu Darvish.
It’s weird to call a 92-70 season and a trip to the NLCS a disappointing season, but after winning 103 and looking like a team that could possibly challenge the 116-win mark in 2016, having an ordinary really good team made it seem like greed was no longer good.
While some people might lump the Cubs and Dodgers together as large-payroll teams with sabermetric front offices, there’s a very important difference between them, in that the Cubs are far more willing to gamble and swap their tippy-top prospects than the Dodgers are. Aroldis Chapman was a big part of the 2016 team — though I personally hated the trade and still do — and those flags fly forever. But there’s a downside in that you can’t always trade or buy precisely what you want; LA’s resistance to trading Walker Buehler is what enabled them to play Walker Buehler in 2018, after all.
Chicago entered the 2017-2018 offseason with plenty of money to play with, but outside of Darvish, not a lot in the way of interesting free agent targets. The Cubs were able to fatten up the bullpen with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, but the team would start the 2018 season with the same question marks in the corner outfield as they had at the end of 2017.
The ZiPS projection system was a bigger fan of the Brewers and Cardinals than some, but not to such a degree as to see the Cubs as anything but the clear, if not overwhelming, favorites to win the NL Central in 2018. ZiPS projected a 94-68 record, and a 72% shot at the division, not quite lapping the field. The team was too deep to fall too far and with a broadly talented and young core–at least in the lineup–it was hard to see acquiring the best pitcher available in free agency not pushing the team over the top.
Yu Darvish did in fact pitch for the Cubs in 2018, but only threw three quality starts and never got back into a game after mid-May, despite his constant rehabbing and the team’s insistence that his injury wasn’t considered that serious. The Cubs starting rotation combined for 8.9 WAR, the eight-worst of the 50 Cubs teams to play over the half-century of baseball’s divisional era. It’s even a bit worse than it sounds, as two of the years, 1981 and 1994, were strike-shortened seasons. And for awhile, it was looking worse than that; Chicago ranked 14th in the NL in starter FIP at the All-Star Break behind only the Reds.
Adding to the frustration was how many of the team’s hopes just never worked out. Sure, the odds are increasingly long that Jason Heyward ever looks like the player he provided glimpses of as a rookie again, but even some of the team’s more reasonable desires didn’t come to pass. Kyle Schwarber was run-of-the-mill after a hot April and Ian Happ took a step back with the bat, though he still demonstrated his versatility. Addison Russell may have played his last game as a Cub following a suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy. Even the über-dependable Kris Bryant’s shoulder sapped both his power and attendance.
Two pleasant surprises helped the Cubs finish with 95 wins and make the playoffs, a feat that was hardly a guarantee before the Phillies, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks all struggled down the stretch. Javier Baez continued to grow as a player, finishing second in the NL MVP voting, his glove once again looking like more of a plus than it appeared to be as a prospect. Give Christian Yelich a hot early season instead of a late one–and the Cubs a couple more runs–and Baez could very well have flipped the voters.
And Cole Hamels proved to be a revelation on his return to the National League. Hamels was hardly a hot commodity at the trade deadline; he posted a 4.72 ERA and a 5.20 FIP for the Rangers and his once-dominant changeup no longer embarrassed batters. To bring in Hamels and his 2.36 ERA/3.42 FIP/1.5 WAR stretch run, the Cubs gave up two prospects who likely weren’t in their top 25 and Eddie Butler, who has already been outrighted by the Rangers.
What Comes Next?
No, the Cubs are not planning a fire sale. There was brief panic in some circles when rumors swirled that the team was willing to talk about anyone on their roster, but far more was read into that than was warranted. Good teams should be willing to discuss trades involving anyone on the roster, even their franchise players, though the price for a Mike Trout or Mookie Betts is likely to prove too rich for most. The team’s core ought to be intact in 2019, and short of some earth-shattering move next month, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, etc. will all still be wearing Cubbie Blue.
Chicago isn’t going to start dumping even their expensive talent, but this may be an offseason in which you see the team largely stay out of the pitching market. Darvish is far from done and Hamels is set to return after the club picked up his 2019 option year. A Lester-Darvish-Hendricks-Quintana-Hamels rotation looks stronger in the back end than it did even in 2016, strong enough, in fact, that Tyler Chatwood should only see a significant number of starts if very bad things happen to the Cubs or a wizard tricks another team into acquiring him.
Epstein and Friends have probably reached the point at which they can admit to themselves that Schwarber is unlikely to become one of the game’s premiere power hitters and that Heyward is unlikely to do anything but eke out average seasons supported largely by glovework, which means the team’s interests and cash align in the pursuit of Bryce Harper. Signing him would at least guarantee the Cubs start 2019 as the divisional favorite once again.
Early ZiPS Projection, Kris Bryant
ZiPS can deal with things like shoulder injuries in a rather general sort of way, so Kris Bryant’s weird 2018 isn’t an obstacle to checking in on his long-term projection, though it obviously increases the uncertainty. Coming into 2018, ZiPS projected Bryant to have the largest cache of WAR remaining in his career, ahead of Jose Ramirez, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, and Rafael Devers (in that order), so I was interested to see the projected cost of 2018 for Bryant. After all, Adrian Beltre’s retirement has given me third baseman-related baseball sads.
ZiPS does see a return of Bryant to the star tier and a return of most of his power. But his ceiling is also a bit lower than it was a year ago, and there’s no ironclad law of baseball injuries that says his power must come back. ZiPS expected 5.8 WAR from Bryant coming into 2018. That’s 4.3 now and overall, the difference trims about 10 WAR off of his expected career totals. That’s enough to kick him out of the first-place spot for rest-of-career performance among third basemen (though, since I’m a bad man, you’ll have to wait and see which player or players has passed him in the projections).
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.