In a time that has been marked by the emergence of “super teams,” the Chicago Cubs of the last three years are one of the few clubs worthy of that description. They’ve averaged 97 regular-season wins, won two division titles, advanced to the National League Championship Series three times, and quite famously claimed a World Series title in 2016.
In that context, last season might be regarded as a disappointment. They won “only” 92 games during the regular season and then failed to get back to the World Series, losing in five games to the Dodgers. Much of the Cubs’ lack of success — which, admittedly, is a relative term in this case — has been attributed to a hangover effect from the long and satisfying World Series run. The Cubs were projected for 96 wins at the beginning of the 2017 season. Despite adding Jose Quintana at the deadline, the club finished four games under that mark.
As presently constructed, Chicago remains both excellent and flawed. Projected once again to cross the 90-win threshold, the Cubs’ roster nevertheless features some questions. Yu Darvish is the answer to the most prominent of those — namely, the club’s rotation depth.
Travis Sawchik argued three months ago that the Cubs are the best fit for the best pitcher on the market. Since that time, the team has signed Tyler Chatwood to fill a spot in the rotation. That seems promising.
At the same time, though, the Cardinals have made some moves on the margins and put themselves within striking distance. Entering Last season, for example, the Cubs featured a 10-game cushion over the Cardinals in our projections. As of today, however, Chicago’s projected lead over the St. Louis is just four games. The Cardinals got better, adding Marcell Ozuna to bolster their outfield.
As the forecasts suggest, the Cubs remain in a better position than the Cardinals. All things being equal, that’s good for Chicago. There are some warning signs, though.
Consider, for example, some of the assumptions on which the projections are built:
- That Addison Russell will bounce back offensively, play a full season, and contribute 2.9 WAR. He had an 84 wRC+ and was worth 1.4 WAR in 385 plate appearances last year.
- That Jason Heyward will continue to get closer to his pre-Cubs form and produce 2.4 WAR. He had just an 88 wRC+ last year, a season after recording a 71 wRC+. He contributed 0.9 WAR last year.
- That Ben Zobrist, at age 37, will bounce back and be worth 1.7 WAR. He had an 82 wRC+ last season was barely better than replacement level, with 0.3 WAR.
- That Kyle Schwarber will rebound offensively and produce 2.0 WAR in fewer plate appearances than last season’s 1.5 WAR season.
- That Anthony Rizzo will find his 2016 form and get to five wins instead of the four he contributed last season.
That’s just the position players. The Cubs do still have considerable depth on the hitting side should some of those players fail to rebound, with Javier Baez and Ian Happ representing talent that can play all over the diamond. At the same time, those two are already projected for full-time utility jobs and Jon Jay, who was a solid role player last season, has departed.
Given these projections, it is easier to find downside. If the players above repeat their seasons from last year instead of regressing positively, the Cubs look more like an 86-win team, and that is going to make them vulnerable to missing the playoffs. It’s not a likely outcome, of course, but the possibility is much more real than it was a year ago.
The position-player side of things isn’t the real problem for the Cubs, though. Even if the group above performed five wins below expectations, Chicago would still be a top-10 team. Meanwhile, the bullpen should be fine, even without Wade Davis. The addition of Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow, as well as a full year of Justin Wilson, should address Davis’ absence.
As for the rotation, it should be fine, too. That said, there are some assumptions baked into the projections here, as well. Some are more realistic than others.
- That Kyle Hendricks pitches a full season at last year’s good, but not great, level after losing a quarter of the season to right-hand tendinitis last season.
- That the 34-year-old Jon Lester pitches better than he did last season when he had a 2.7 WAR and 4.10 FIP, and that he remains healthy despite a short stint on the disabled list due to left shoulder fatigue and lat muscle tightness.
- That Tyler Chatwood pitches better now that he’s done pitching half his games in Coors Field.
- That Mike Montgomery can pitch 140 quality innings as a starter, something he’s never done before in the majors.
None of these assumptions is so improbable as to give the team much trouble. The problem is depth — or rather, the lack thereof. After Chatwood and Montgomery, the Cubs have:
- Eddie Butler, who walked nearly as many batters as he struck out last season and is projected at roughly replacement level.
- Luke Farrell, who was picked up off of waivers and projects at replacement level.
- Adbert Alzolay, who is a good prospect, but probably won’t be ready to contribute until 2019.
- Alec Mills, who pitched only 28 innings in the minors last year.
- Jen-Ho Tseng, who doesn’t miss a lot of bats and got shelled in his one MLB start last year.
If the issue were only the starting five, that would be fine. Teams usually need about eight starting pitchers for extended stretches, though — and more just for spot starts. The organization, meanwhile, has had a difficult time developing their own pitchers, as Travis Sawchik noted earlier this month. Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks were both developed by the club, to some degree. Even then, though, they were acquired from other clubs. Either way, the fact remains that there are few internal solutions at the moment.
If the Cubs were to lose even one of Chatwood or Montgomery, the rotation would take a significant hit. If they were to lose one of their top three — that is, Hendricks, Lester, or Quintana — the drop-off would be very steep. The Cubs should add another starter, regardless, and rumors surrounding Alex Cobb make some sense. He would provide stability for the back of the rotation and allow Montgomery to bolster the bullpen while providing the option to step into the rotation should someone get hurt.
We’ve arrived at almost the end of this post without more than a passing mention of the player mentioned the title, but Yu Darvish is a free agent in need of a large contract, and the Cubs are financially able to offer him that large contract. Chicago has only about $160 million committed to the 2018 season and about the same for next season with arbitration raises. They’ve opened each of the past two campaigns about $10 million higher than that amount, and because the Cubs did not go over the competitive-balance tax threshold last season, tax penalties would be lower for the club this season and wouldn’t reach the 50% mark until 2020. They might not even have to go over the tax amount this season if they spread out Darvish’s contract over eight years instead of the six it will likely take to sign him.
If the Cubs offer Darvish six years and $150 million, the tax hit is $25 million. If they offer him that same $150 million over eight years, the tax hit is just under $19 million and the present value of the contract goes down slightly. A trade for a good pitcher doesn’t seem like a plausible scenario for the Cubs. They lack the talent on the farm to pull this off, and while they have depth at the major-league level, most of the depth is already projected for a big role this season, lessening the on-field impact of a trade.
That really just leaves Darvish if the Cubs want to keep pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers and put a healthy distance between themselves and the Cardinals. There are rumors that teams such as the Twins and Brewers have inquired about Darvish, but given the high level of talent on the Cubs roster at the moment and the importance of maximizing their core, there isn’t much a of a reason for the Cubs to be outbid by a small-market team. Darvish only costs money and a rotation slot is readily available. He’s unlikely to be blocking anyone anytime soon.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.