The Cubs Are Slowly Pulling Away

Unlike the other five divisions in the majors, the National League Central has spent 2019 in a constant state of upheaval. Four of the five teams have spent multiple days in first place, with none of the quartet being able to hang on to and solidify their lead. The division’s doormat, the rapidly collapsing Pittsburgh Pirates, spent nearly 15% of the season in first or second place. The Cincinnati Reds, the only team that hasn’t led the Central (I’m not counting the tie the morning after Opening Day), have the division’s second-best Pythagorean record.

In this environment, one might have expected to see significant wheeling-and-dealing at the trade deadline. While most of the National League could rightly claim to be in the Wild Card race, the Central teams jockeying for October baseball had the benefit of also being in a tight race for the division. Being able to draw the straight or the flush, the NL Central teams with 2019 postseason aspirations were incentivized to make an aggressive play for a Zack Greinke or a Trevor Bauer.

And the teams’ closeness wasn’t just a creation of the projections, either. On the morning of July 31, the Cubs and Cardinals were tied for first-place; the Brewers were a game back. ZiPS largely agreed that the Cubs had the strongest roster, enough to make the North Siders the favorite, but hardly a prohibitive one:

ZiPS NL Central Projections – 8/1/19
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff%
Chicago Cubs 87 75 .537 53.0% 20.4% 73.4%
St. Louis Cardinals 85 77 2 .525 25.7% 24.2% 49.9%
Milwaukee Brewers 84 78 3 .519 20.3% 22.3% 42.5%
Cincinnati Reds 78 84 9 .481 1.1% 2.5% 3.6%
Pittsburgh Pirates 71 91 16 .438 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

What ought to have made making significant upgrades more important for the Cardinals and Brewers is that hidden in the projections were signs that the Cubs were more dangerous at the end of July than they had been earlier in the season. Dial back to May 15 and the ZiPS projections only saw the Cubs roster as that of a .531 team, with the Brewers at .525 and the Cardinals at .519. That’s just under a two-game spread from top to bottom over the course of a 162-game season.

By July 31, that state of affairs was no longer. On the eve of the trade deadline, ZiPS had the Cubs as a .549 team. With the Cardinals continuing to get under-performance across the board from their older players, their rest-of-season winning percentage had dropped to .510. As for the Brewers, ZiPS had long been their most optimistic supporter among the various projection systems but the various injuries on the pitching staff effectively neutralized the reasons ZiPS liked them, leaving their rest-of-season projection at .502.

The Cubs had hardly fixed all their holes, but their improvement, quiet and steady, was just as good as making beneficial trades over the course of the year. The starting pitching was healthier and pitching better, Craig Kimbrel provided some additional upside for a struggling bullpen, and Kris Bryant has dispelled the uncertainty about his shoulder thanks to a re-discovery of his power. The team even had some depth moves fall into their lap, being able to pick up Jonathan Lucroy as an emergency catcher after flipping the previous emergency catcher, Martin Maldonado, for the very versatile Tony Kemp.

No better example of Chicago’s slow burn season can be found than in their use of Yu Darvish. After a ruined 2018, the Cubs brought Darvish along slowly and cautiously, rather than entering the season counting on him as a workhorse, and it’s worked. Darvish’s numbers aren’t vintage Yu, but he’s throwing harder and getting ahead in counts, cutting down his walk rate as the weather’s heated up.

Since the deadline, the situation has deteriorated greatly for the Brewers and Cardinals. The Cubs have won six-of-eight games in August, including an important three-game sweep of Milwaukee. The Cardinals dropped two to the A’sm then got swept by the Dodgers, scoring a total of seven runs in those five games. So what do the projections say now?

ZiPS NL Central Projections – 8/9/19
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff%
Chicago Cubs 89 73 .549 81.9% 10.3% 92.2%
Milwaukee Brewers 84 78 5 .519 9.5% 26.1% 35.6%
St. Louis Cardinals 83 79 6 .512 7.7% 22.1% 29.8%
Cincinnati Reds 79 83 10 .488 0.9% 4.8% 5.7%
Pittsburgh Pirates 70 92 19 .432 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

It’s not over yet, but the Cubs have gained roughly a third of a division title in just a week, an alarming amount of movement. Three or four games isn’t a lot of real estate to make up, but it’s tricky to catch up in a footrace when the other person can run faster than you. The addition of Nicholas Castellanos is hardly a pickup on the level of a Greinke or a Bauer, but it was made at exactly the right time by exactly the right team. The move has resulted in getting Heyward more time in center field — ZiPS always thought Heyward was wasted a bit in right field — and taking time away from the disappointing Albert Almora Jr.. As a consequence, ZiPS projected the Cubs would get a larger benefit from a Castellanos acquisition than any other team in baseball. There’s now a 50-point roster projection-edge for the Cubs (.560) over either the Cardinals or Brewers.

Milwaukee and St. Louis failing to address some of their weakest spots can hardly be blamed on a lack of opportunity. Looking at the FanGraphs depth charts, both teams have serious weaknesses that were ill-addressed:

NL Central Depth Chart Rankings
Team C 1B 2B SS 3B LF CF RF SP RP
Cubs 14 2 15 3 4 8 14 18 7 27
Cardinals 18 3 6 11 18 4 18 21 13 6
Brewers 1 21 10 30 12 16 9 2 22 10

(Just for an easy reference, I’ve denoted top five in yellow, top 10 in orange, bottom 10 in red, and bottom five in blue.)

The Brewers were screaming for rotation depth and while I outlined the case for adding Jordan Lyles, in terms of starting pitcher upgrades, Lyles should have been the amuse-bouche, not the entrĂ©e. Marcus Stroman would have looked great in the Brewers rotation, and there’s no prospect that should have been hands-off. St. Louis similarly decided to just go back to the Michael Wacha well rather than pick up a starter. And Castellanos would have not only been an upgrade on Jose Martinez, but a deal for him would also have had the happy side effect of depriving that upgrade from the Cubs.

At the deadline, ZiPS projected Stroman as a 1.3-win upgrade for the Brewers. Let’s remix those current projections with the Brewers getting an additional 1.3 wins:

ZiPS Projected Standings – Brewers Get Stroman
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff%
Chicago Cubs 89 73 .549 76.2% 14.2% 90.3%
Milwaukee Brewers 85 77 4 .525 16.5% 33.4% 49.9%
St. Louis Cardinals 83 79 6 .512 6.6% 19.4% 26.0%
Cincinnati Reds 79 83 10 .488 0.8% 4.0% 4.8%
Pittsburgh Pirates 69 93 20 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The Cubs remain strong, but Stroman adds nearly 15 percentage-points to Milwaukee’s bottom-line playoff-percentage. Not to mention that Stroman would help the Brewers elsewhere. As for St. Louis, you could argue that they should have made an attempt to get both Stroman and Castellanos:

ZiPS Projected Standings – Cardinals get Stroman/Castellanos
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff%
Chicago Cubs 89 73 .549 69.4% 16.7% 86.1%
St. Louis Cardinals 85 77 4 .525 22.0% 31.0% 52.9%
Milwaukee Brewers 83 79 6 .512 7.9% 17.9% 25.8%
Cincinnati Reds 79 83 10 .488 0.7% 2.7% 3.5%
Pittsburgh Pirates 69 93 20 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Such moves would have nearly tripled the Cardinals divisional probability today, adding a fifth of a playoff spot to their expectations. St. Louis is now working on a mini-drought when it comes to the playoffs; the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Giants have all made the postseason since the Cards last played in October in 2015. For a team that’s currently in win-now mode, they ought to be a little antsier about these struggles than they appear to be.

Of course, these aren’t even the only trades that were available. Maybe you give the Mets a reason to part with Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler, as they confusedly were interested in doing. Maybe picking up more money than the Astros makes a Greinke trade work. Maybe you bring in Robbie Ray or Mike Minor or Lance Lynn? July 31 should be an opportunity for creative aggression, not creative apathy.

There’s a common Latin phrase, audentes fortuna juvat, which roughly translates to “fortune favors the bold.” The Brewers and Cardinals may regret being anything but.

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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.

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Joser
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Joser

“Creative apathy”… Thanks for that. I’m going to incorporate that into my explanations for… well, virtually everything in my life. Including the time I spend on Fangraphs.

As it is, I often use the wonderful quote from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”
Colonel Brighton: “Look, sir, we can’t just do nothing.”
General Allenby: “Why not? It’s usually best.”