How the Cubs Dynasty Could Collapse

It’s been about a week since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. A few days less than that since the parade. And while there will always be time for remembering this season and this team’s accomplishments, it’s okay to look forward, as well. After the Cubs won last week, Dave Cameron wrote that the Cubs have a chance at creating a dynasty, not unlike the New York Yankees two decades ago. That possibility certainly exists — and just about all the evidence we have regarding the Cubs right now suggests that they’re going to be a good baseball team for the foreseeable future. There are no guarantees.

Two days ago, Jeff Sullivan turned the FanGraphs Depth Charts numbers, based on Steamer projections, into a way-too-early projection for next season. The Cubs are already situated in the mid-90s for wins — and that’s even after accounting for the loss of starting center fielder Dexter Fowler. When we talk about the future of the Cubs, we focus on the position players, as well we should. The position players are the Cubs strength — and for the most part, they’re young and cheap, allowing the Cubs to spend money elsewhere to fill holes.

So even if the Cubs do nothing, they head to next season with a strong core both on offense and defense. Kris Bryant isn’t likely to be as good as he was this past year, but the projections factor that in. Anthony Rizzo is projected for another good year. Javier Baez and Addison Russell, both of whom retain considerable upside, are projected for similar years. Willson Contreras is expected to continue his promising transition to the big leagues.

There are certainly going to be concerns about Jason Heyward at the plate — and, to a lesser degree, in the field, if he has to play center in a full-time capacity. He’s not going to cost the team runs, but replacing an outfield alignment of Bryant/Soler/Zobrist (in left field), Fowler (in center), and Heyward (right) with Schwarber, Heyward, and Zobrist, respectively, is going to downgrade the defense a bit. The projections assume that 36-year-old Ben Zobrist will also decline just a bit from his solid 2016 campaign.

But even if Zobrist starts aging poorly, Heyward fails to rebound, and Schwarber is unable to return to previous form, the club is still in good shape on the position-player side of things. That said, there’s no guarantee for success. Even if the Cubs hit well again and defend well again, a return to the playoffs isn’t a given.

Last season, Cubs hitters (non-pitching hitters, that is) produced a 113 wRC+ with their bats and 70 runs above average on defense. Both of these numbers were phenomenal. Even if they fall somewhat next year, the team’s chances of making the playoffs are still very good. How good?

Let’s say the Cubs are likely to finish among the top quarter of all teams offensively. Since 2000, the top quartile of offenses have generally produced a wRC+ of at least 105. So we’ll make that one baseline. We also know the Cubs are probably going to be good on defense, as well, so let’s set a baseline of at least 25 runs above average on defense (roughly the top 40% of defenses). Since 2000, 27 teams have met both of those criteria. Of those 27 clubs, 16 have made the playoffs. Of course, that means 11 teams didn’t. So, without knowing anything about the pitching of those clubs, we find that 40% of these excellent hitting and defending teams failed to make the postseason.

And as for that pitching, it was probably pretty bad, right?

Not always, actually.

Teams with Good Hitting and Defense and No Playoffs
Season Team wRC+ Off Def Position Player WAR ERA- FIP-
2008 Cardinals 114 92.5 29.9 31.5 101 104
2012 Angels 114 113.1 42.8 37.5 104 107
2015 Giants 110 64.7 30.9 29.3 101 106
2009 Rays 109 93.9 28.4 33.4 102 101
2008 Mets 108 69.5 26.7 29 97 101
2013 Giants 108 47.3 35.5 27.6 116 108
2000 Angels 106 51 49.9 31 102 112
2005 Phillies 106 54.1 50.7 30 97 98
2007 Braves 106 39.4 42.5 27.4 94 100
2004 Cubs 105 28.6 31.4 25.2 88 89
2011 Reds 105 44.3 37.6 28.3 107 111

Sometimes it’s poor pitching that prevents a playoff run, but sometimes it’s just bad luck. Look, for example, at that 2004 version of the Cubs. They were good in all facets of the game but didn’t make the playoffs. Their Pythagorean record gave them 94 wins, but some bad luck kept them down to 89, and that wouldn’t have even made the playoffs in today’s system. The 2004 Cubs were probably the second-best team in the National League that year, but sometimes 94-win teams only win 89 games and then they miss the playoffs.

So luck could cause the Cubs to miss the playoffs, but if you squint, talent on the pitching side could be an issue, too. Corinne Landrey wrote about the Cubs pitching staff in relation to their curious decision to let Jason Hammel go.

With Hammel gone, here are the returning four members of the Cubs’ rotation: John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. Now here are their respective ages on Opening Day 2017: 38, 33, 31, 27. Lackey is in the final year of his contract, battled a shoulder injury this season, and was good, not great, this season. Lester has been fantastic for the Cubs, but considering that they have him under contract through age 36 or 37, aging-induced decline is a matter of when, not if. Arrieta returned to Earth this year after his phenomenal 2015 season. But, hey, at least there’s Kyle Hendricks.

Jake Arrieta put up a 7.3 WAR season at age 29 and then a solid 3.8 WAR season this past year. While the glass-half-full theory says he might rebound a bit next year, he’s also now pitched 468.1 innings over the last two seasons. The projections say he’ll get better, but guys like Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, and Andy Pettitte all produced a great, heavy-inning season in their 20s followed by a decent year, followed by another drop thereafter. Pettitte recovered decently in later years and Peavy did a little, but Lincecum was finished. Even if Arrieta does post another solid year in 2017, he’ll be a free agent after that and the Cubs will either need to pay a heavy price in free agency for a pitcher in decline or look elsewhere.

Jon Lester has been the team’s best pitcher over the past two years, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and has seen a steady decline in his performance over the last three seasons, going from 5.6 WAR in 2014 to 5.0 in 2015 to 4.3 this past year. In the last 30 years, 10 pitchers have produced between 8.0 and 10.5 WAR at ages 31 and 32 combined, with a good season at age 32. Six of 10 followed with solid seasons at age 33 — and 9 of 10 recorded an average (+2 WAR) season — but only two out of 10 had 4-plus WAR seasons at age 34, four of 10 posting seasons that were below average. These represent some very good outcomes, but there’s some risk with Lester, not unlike all pitchers, going forward.

As for Lackey, he’s projected for a 2.8 WAR, but of the seven pitchers over the last 20 years who put up a WAR between 2.6 and 3.6 (Lackey was at 3.1) at age 37, none of them followed that with a seasonal WAR as high as the one for which Lackey is currently projected — and only Greg Maddux (2.6), Kenny Rogers (2.5), and Andy Pettitte (2.4) put a WAR higher than 1.1 in their age-38 seasons. As for Kyle Hendricks, he was obviously quite good this year, but the projections don’t yet believe his low home-run rate, BABIP, and high LOB% are all sustainable, putting him closer to above-average.

The Cubs pitching should be very good next year, but the rotation has a great deal of risk with little depth. The past two seasons, the Cubs have gotten lucky with starter health as Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Hammel, and Lackey have made 86% (280 of 324) of the team’s starts. The Cubs might give Mike Montgomery an opportunity to start in an attempt to find another Arrieta, but their depth is very thin at the moment, and help is not on the way from the minors. Add in questions in the bullpen with Aroldis Chapman departing and Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon at something less than their best at the end of the season, and a little bad luck might serve to close the margin the Cubs seem to have on the rest of baseball.

The Cubs have the financial wherewithal to spend through any pitching deficiency, but there’s no way to know when that deficiency could rear its ugly head. The team has invested a lot in Jon Lester and John Lackey; turning around Jake Arrieta has been great for player and team; and they control Kyle Hendricks for several more years. All that said, there’s a scenario for each of those pitchers that involves real attrition.

There’s no guarantee that it happens, of course. The Cubs could unearth some more gems. But if the team can’t quite create a dynasty, if things fall apart a bit, it’s because they will have encountered a problem no organization, particularly the Cubs, have found easy answers, and that’s how to send a steady stream of solid starting pitching to the major league ballclub. It’s something from which no amount of position-player talent can make an organization immune. The Cubs took advantage of a fantastic opportunity this season, and if they are going to have that dynasty, they will need to have solid pitching to complement their great young core of position players.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

The postseason seems to finally have brought public attention to the very serious problems which the Cubs’ hitters have with curves, having the lowest contact rate in the majors against curves (32.1%) and, on the rare occasions when they do manage to hit curves, the lowest exit velocity in the majors 84.3mph (see It seems likely that teams will exploit this next year.

7 years ago

Remember that time mike trout wasn’t gonna be great anymore because high fastballs?

7 years ago
Reply to  bananas

So you think the Cubs have basically 8 Mike Trouts in their lineup?

7 years ago

Yes, I think the cubs have (at least) 8 professional athletes who were selected for their ability to make adjustments and hit baseballs to the degree their defensive skills require.

7 years ago

Sure, but just because the public became aware on the biggest stage doesn’t mean teams didn’t know this for all or most of the season and incorporate it into scouting reports. Teams have had plenty of time to scout Bryant / Rizzo – that’s literally their job.

I would expect the league to continue to try to make adjustments and approach them as they would any good lineup. I would also expect the cubs to continue to hit the snot out of the ball.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jimbo

Teams didn’t incorporate it into their usage until the World Series. Just look at curve ball %s. Samardzija didn’t throw a single one the first time through the order in game 2 of the nlds.

Garys of Oldemember
7 years ago

We know how painful this season was for you, you don’t have to keep reminding us.

7 years ago
Reply to  Garys of Olde

That wasn’t my point. My point was to show that teams simply didn’t realize that they could and should take advantage of this weakness until the World Series.

david k
7 years ago
Reply to  Jimbo

Actually, the Cubs issues with hitting curveballs happened to be against some of the BEST curveball throwers in the game (Kluber, Kershaw, Hill, etc.). So if your curve is more ordinary than theirs, you may not be able to take advantage of this weakness.

7 years ago
Reply to  david k

The statistics quoted in the article were the general statistics against curves, not just the best curveball pitchers, and they were miserable.

7 years ago

I wish teams had scouting reports!

In reality it’s really hard to throw quality curveballs for strikes consistently. The loopy change of pace curves for strike one only work once.

Also the offense should only be better. Outside of zobrist and montero every offensive player is under 28, including role players like la Stella and Szcur. Schwarber should be As good if not better than Fowler offensively. Russell and Baez improving should negate any zobrist decline. And heyward can only go up, it’s very easy to see him being an average hitter next year.

This article doesn’t even mention the possibility almora starts in center with heyward in right and schwarber in left relegating zobrist to a Baez like utility role to limit age related decline. This would be an even better defense than last year… Zobrist comes in as a defensive replacement in left, and gets anywhere from 3-4 starts a week when baez, russell, bryant, rizzo, heyward, almora, schwarber need breaks or are injured should get him to about 100 starts + 3 innings a game for about 20-30 games.

7 years ago
Reply to  JediHoyer

You’re right, it depends on pitchers who can throw good curves and their aren’t so many of those. And the hitters are mostly young and should generally improve. But pitchers will also learn to pitch them better.

7 years ago
7 years ago
Reply to  374285942768

LoL – exactly – good curve balls get <> out. The Cubs, I think, may be uniquely dangerous vs hangers.

7 years ago
Reply to  jiveballer

Yes, I would guess that something like that is the case.

Tom Jitterbugmember
7 years ago

Among the six qualifying Cubs batters last year, three had above average wCB/C: Bryant, Zobrist, Fowler; and three had below average: Rizzo — who is above average for his career —, Heyward and Russell. Addison Russell was even worse at hitting curveballs than Bryant was good at hitting them (-2.02 vs 1.87 wCB/C).

If you knock the bar down to 300 PAs to include Baez, he slots in just above Russell at a miserable -1.87 wCB/C. So sure, you can beat up the bottom of the order with curveballs, probably even with bad ones, but good luck curving your way against the rest of the Cubs unless your name rhymes with Tuber. And you can bet your bottom dollar Russell and Baez are going to work on hitting breaking balls over the offseason.

BTW, does anyone know when, if ever, pitch value stats stabilize for batters?