“Who doesn’t enjoy going downhill? That’s when you get to stop pedaling.” – Christian Finnegan
Every successful thing has a peak. The Romans had the Pax Romana. Napoleon had the Battle of Austerlitz. The Simpsons had the Who Shot Mr. Burns? cliffhanger. For the early 21st-century Cubs, it was Michael Martinez grounding out on a mild November evening, giving the team its first World Series championship since 1908. Moistened by celebratory alcohol, this was almost certainly the peak for these Cubs, and even a second championship probably wouldn’t touch the magic of this moment.
Since 2016, the Cubs finished each season a bit less successfully than the previous one. The 2017 team dropped four of five to the Dodgers in the NLCS, and the 2018 team’s end came in a wild card game against the Colorado Rockies. The 2019 team didn’t even make it into October.
The club’s dynasty was built on developing players from within and using their big-market financial heft to play in free agency. These two ingredients have faded into the background in recent years as the team’s farm system has been weakened from trades and graduations while ownership has increasingly embraced a more frugal financial strategy. The Cubs are a team in decline, to the point at which they’re just any old NL Central contender, not a behemoth pushing around the Cardinals or Brewers or Reds.
The silver lining is that decline can take a while. As my colleague Craig Edwards noted in a recent piece, the Cubs still have a very potent core, despite their uninspiring 84-78 record. Decline isn’t necessarily collapse. The Roman Empire limped on for 300 years after Marcus Aurelius, and the Byzantine offshoot lasted longer than a millennium. It took a decade after the Treaty of Tilsit to remove Napoleon for good. The Simpsons had memorable episodes for a long time after its peak, and presumably, somebody is still watching the show, now in its 31st season.
The current Cubs are not yet done, but you can see the end on the horizon.
Is there such a thing as a humiliating 95-win season? If there is, the 2018 Cubs may have been the best example of it. After spending the first couple months hovering around the .500 mark, the Cubs surged to reclaim first place in July. In early September, the team opened up a five-game lead in the NL Central and had pulled to within a game of the Dodgers for the best record in the National League. They then collapsed without actually collapsing, blowing the divisional lead despite a respectable 16-12 September record. The Brewers went 19-7 that month, tying the Cubs for first place on the last day of the season. After two months of firm control, it took the Cubs just one game to lose the division and then another loss to end their season.
Faced with a division they couldn’t dominate, the Cubs had a quiet offseason that year. Only two players making more than a million dollars were signed over the winter in Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach. After ranking 10th in the majors in positional WAR and 14th in pitching WAR in 2018, the team spent the offseason only tinkering slightly around the edges. After the Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt, the Cubs’ response was to cheerfully announce they were out of money:
While claiming he’s confident there is no collusion occurring in baseball, Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts explained why his team didn’t spend money — and still won’t — on free agents this offseason.
“That’s a pretty easy question to answer,” Ricketts said Monday. “We don’t have any more.”
The Cubs did not make up for the lack of investment by making trades. Rowan Wick, acquired from the Padres in a quiet November deal, turned out to be a nice addition, but Rowan Wick was never going to determine the fate of the 2019 Cubs.
Despite the lack of offseason vim and vigor, the Cubs still entered the season as the slight NL Central favorite by the ZiPS projections. The 87-win forecast in March just barely edged out that of the Cardinals (86) and Brewers (85) and was the lowest win projection for any divisional favorite coming into the season. Where ZiPS was very confident in the Cubs making the playoffs before 2017 and 2018, the general strengthening of the National League left the club as only a projected coin flip for a 2019 playoff appearance.
ZiPS was especially concerned about the outfield and only projected Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and a center field blend of Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ to combine for just 5.2 WAR. That’s not quite the bleak, empty, Kafka-esque landscape ZiPS projected for San Francisco’s outfield, but it looked like a real weakness for the Cubs that they spent little effort in addressing.
When it came to the starting pitching, ZiPS had a sunnier forecast. Yu Darvish’s bounce-back 2.8-WAR projection was the worst total for a starting pitcher. Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels were all expected to have three-to-four win seasons.
Rather than one season, 2019 for the Cubs felt like several “mini-seasons,” with tones ranging from upbeat bubblegum pop to Black Francis during a particularly mopey week.
The first few weeks felt like a bit of a rerun, as the team struggled out of the gate to a 5-9 record. Not counting 0-1 starts to the season, the Cubs hit the bottom of the division for the first time since 2014. This time, the pitching was to blame; Cubs starters ranked 29th in the majors in WAR with the worst BB/9 rate in baseball. No blame can be assigned to the offense at this point, and Heyward got off to a hot enough start (.375/.460/.700, 0.8 WAR in 50 PA) to start some speculation that he discovered the player left behind in Atlanta and St. Louis. No starting pitcher injuries were causing these struggles either, and the Cubs were left to just wait around for the pitching issues to work themselves out.
With an ERA of 6.00, the bullpen was even worse, but at this point, the team had real hopes that Brandon Morrow would return in the near future. Those hopes were dashed as further elbow soreness kept him from throwing a live a batting practice. Morrow later received an injection of lubricant in his elbow, but the team at this point still believed it could get Morrow back for the second half of the season.
Waiting around for the rotation to fix itself appeared to bear fruit for the Cubs. Over the next six weeks, the team went 25-11, establish a 2 1/2 game lead in the division. The rotation went 13-7 with a 3.16 ERA. Darvish was still struggling with his control, allowing 27 walks in 43 innings, but he was at least staying healthy and not pitching poorly enough to drag down the rest of the starters. Meanwhile the offense kept cruising, with half the team’s lineup posting a wRC+ north of 140 during this period: Kris Bryant (178), Anthony Rizzo (174), Javier Baez (148), and Willson Contreras (147) were all on fire. Bryant hit 11 homers in 36 games, effectively silencing any remaining worries about lingering power issues related to his shoulder.
Most of the team’s “name brand” talent was doing pretty much what was expected, but there were some hints about deeper problems with the team. The bullpen wasn’t a disaster, but with Pedro Strop missing a month with a sore hamstring and no good news about Morrow’s recovery, things looked awfully thin. Heyward returned to earth, and it appeared that ZiPS’ worries about the offense from the outfield were well-founded. Happ, who was demoted in the spring to work on reducing his strikeouts, wasn’t exactly lighting the Pacific Coast League on fire, so he didn’t look like a quick fix.
Chicago’s run didn’t last. The team spent the next two months struggling, going 27-30 into the trade deadline. The Cubs finally took a more active approach to the team’s weak points, addressing the outfield and the bullpen as they ought to have done seven months earlier. Enough money was found squirreled away in the cushions to sign Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million contract. Out of in-house solutions for fixing the outfield issues, Nicholas Castellanos was acquired from the Tigers, forcing Heyward into a center field timeshare with Almora.
Kimbrel alternated between being injured and pitching terribly, but Castellanos proved a revelation for the Cubs. He hit eight home runs in his first 19 games with his new team, and with the Cardinals and Brewers having quiet deadlines, it appeared that he might help enough for the Cubs to pull away. Enough, at least, for me to write a headline that I’ll wince about for the rest of my career.
The good times didn’t last. From the point that the Cubs established a 3 1/2 game lead on the back of a cruising Castellanos, the team went 21-26. A nine-game losing streak in September, punctuated by getting swept the by the Pirates (a collapsing team praying for the end of the season), bombed Chicago’s last chance at snagging the second wild card spot.
What Comes Next?
Despite the negative tone of this piece, the Cubs still retain playoff-caliber core of talent. The 2019 season did not negatively change how we should think of Bryant, Rizzo, or Baez, and the Cubs still have the makings of a solid rotation, especially given Darvish’s improvements over the course of the season (more below). But the supporting talent is on the weak side for a top contender, and with Castellanos a free agent, the fundamental issues surrounding the outfield remain.
The team’s farm system rankings improved over the season, going from 25th to 20th on THE BOARD. That’s undoubtedly good news for the organization, but it remains difficult to see exactly who in the minors would push the Cubs forward in 2020. Adbert Alzolay is probably the name I’d guess is the most likely to break out and make a real contribution, but him replacing Hamels’ 2019 performance strikes me as far-fetched.
Chicago may not want to spend, but they need to spend. They ought to be in the market for a second baseman, at least one outfielder, and about half of a bullpen worth of relievers. These things will not come cheaply, nor do I think they have the prospects to trade to fill all these needs. I agree with Craig that the Cubs look like an 85-to-90 win team entering the winter, but I think this is all they look like. That win total is predicated on the notion that there are no nasty surprises from Bryant, Rizzo, and the rest of the classic Cubsiverse. Life has a way of supplying those nasty surprises, and that win projection feels precarious to me; the current roster has a lot farther to fall than grow.
Complicating the situation is how many key parts of the team hit free agency after 2020 or 2021. Just retaining most of Bryant, Baez, Rizzo, Quintana, and Lester will require a larger payroll than the Cubs have today.
The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Yu Darvish
In April and May, Darvish allowed at least three walks in a game in nine different starts. From July on, he only had a single game in which he allowed more than one. Darvish going from a 12% walk rate before the All-Star Game to 2% after the break is one of the starkest changes for a pitcher that I can recall after following baseball obsessively for 35 years. Batters started swinging at Darvish’s offerings outside the strike zone again, partially due to Darvish adopting a knuckle-curve late in the season to add a harder breaking pitch to his repertoire. Pitchers sometimes struggle for years to add new pitches, and Darvish added his just by having a conversation with Craig Kimbrel and a warmup session.
Darvish, who arguably throws seven different offerings, is a nightmare for pitch classification algorithms, but if the resurgence holds up, it’s a dream for the Cubs. Having Darvish’s big contract work out in the end, unlike Heyward’s, might also have the happy consequence of making the Cubs a bit more willing to spend.
ZiPS is still hedging bets on Darvish’s innings totals — unsurprising given his history — but the computer is confident that his late-season improvements are largely real. Stats like swing percentage and first-strike percentage tend be leading indicators of walk rate, and despite him struggling early in the year, both of those numbers were career-highs in 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when running the final projections, Darvish’s projected WAR/150 IP comes out near the top of the Cubs rotation for 2020.
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.