Playing Pepper 2018: Chicago Cubs

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Chicago Cubs
92-70, first in NL Central, lost in NLCS
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

I know, I know.  If you are a regular reader of this corner of the Internet, probably the last thing you want to read about is the team from up north.  Especially now, when they have two division titles, three NLCS appearances, and a World Series title since the Cardinals lost to them in the 2015 playoffs.  However, unlike that Deadspin series a couple of years ago which notably omitted the Cardinals, we’re going to cover all the teams.  Most of these bloggers I’ve dealt with for a long time, so we can humor them as they extol the glories of the baby bears.

Writer Site Twitter
Josh Timmers Bleed Cubbie Blue Cubsminorswrap
Rob Harris Blue Batting Helmet
Neil Finnell Chicago Cubs Online TheCCO
Ryan Maloney Prose and Ivy  proseandivy
Jacob Misener Cubbies Crib JacobRMisener

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Josh: Funny Yu should ask! (And we’ve got up to six years of those lame jokes coming.) The Cubs lost two starting pitchers in Jake Arrieta and John Lackey and replaced them with two free agent pitchers, Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Chatwood is a sneaky good move and I believe that he could thrive now that he doesn’t have to pitch half of his games at Coors Field, although the Cubs didn’t exactly land him at a discount. He’s a big improvement at the back of the rotation over Lackey, who was pretty much pitching on the fumes of his career last season. Signing Chatwood allows the Cubs to leave Mike Montgomery in a swing role, providing left-handed depth to both the starting rotation and the bullpen.

But Darvish was the big fish that Theo Epstein and company landed this winter. He’s no longer the ace that he was before the Tommy John surgery, but he’s still a very good pitcher who was the top free agent available this winter. He’s only a marginal improvement over the now certainly-departed Arrieta, but Arrieta was showing some troubling signs of decline last season. I’m confident that Darvish will be a better pitcher than Arrieta going forward, or at least as confident as you can be with any pitcher.

The bullpen took a big blow by losing closer Wade Davis, although I do understand why the Cubs were reluctant to match what the Rockies offered Davis. The Cubs are hoping that newly-signined Brandon Morrow can step into the closer role. Morrow has been terrific since he made the transition to the bullpen, but he’s 33 years old and was in the minors as recently as 2016. It’s risky move, but the money saved likely went into signing Darvish. On top of that, the Cubs are hoping that Steve Cishek can help stabilize a bullpen that was very shaky at times last year. They’re also counting on a bounce back from Justin Wilson, who oddly struggled after coming over from Detroit last season.

On the offensive side, the Cubs lost backup catcher Alex Avila and signed Chris Gimenez. That’s a big minus on offense but a big plus on defense. But with Willson Contreras as the team’s starter and prospect Victor Caratini (a good-hit, poor-fielding catcher) major-league ready, it was probably better to get a good defensive catcher. Gimenez also has experience working with Darvish, although Darvish joked “I like Contreras better” at his press conference. The rest of the lineup remains pretty much the same because there was very little reason to mess with it. Jon Jay is gone and Peter Bourjos is in. Bourjos, if he makes the team, will probably not play much as Albert Almora Jr. seems ready to handle the everyday center fielding role. Ian Happ will probably also play more in the outfield.

So to finally answer your question, yes. The Cubs did improve this winter when they signed Darvish.

Rob: Time will tell. If Yu Darvish is more like Jon Lester and less like Edwin Jackson, I’ll say yes. But he’s turning 32 this season, and giving him a six-year deal seems ill-advised to me. Tyler Chatwood does nothing for me, either. The loss of Wade Davis, who was as reliable as any closer could be last season, could be significant, too. We’ll have to see if Brandon Morrow can have comparable success in this role. 

Neil: This was the weirdest off-season in my lifetime, possibly history of the game. And there are several free agents that could still impact races this season.

On paper, the Cubs improved over the off-season. The additions of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood give Joe Maddon a better Opening Day rotation, again on paper, than he had a year ago. Darvish has a questionable history of pitching with expectations and that is HUGE concern going into the season. Chatwood is a solid, backend of the rotation starter, that should flourish outside of Coors Field. His road numbers back up the projections.

The bullpen is still a concern, mainly the backend. I did not like the Brandon Morrow signing. And giving him the ninth inning, is an extremely questionable decision. His workload in the post-season and World Series last year is reminiscent of what the Cubs did to Aroldis Chapman. If any organization knows how a heavy, post-season workload can impact the following season it is the Cubs. The wild card for the pen could be Justin Wilson. If he has gotten past the mental aspects of pitching for a contending team, he could be the key to the bullpen being a solid group to start the season.

Ryan: This off-season was certainly a waiting game. No 108 years of course – but MLB sure did take its time situating which names will need to be sewn on the back of jerseys this year. It will feel odd to see Jake Arrieta in a Phillies jersey but as odd as that will feel, it will just as good to see Darvish on the Cubs. I feel the signing of Darvish will bring a needed breath of fresh air to the club. I feel Darvish vs Arrieta is nearly a wash when you look at how they each impact the team, however that breath of fresh air will be the difference, overall. All of last year was essentially spent either celebrating the World Series championship the club tried so hard to bring home to Chicago or recovering from doing so. I think they were spent in the first half of the season from all the different emotions and experiences that came along with winning for the first time in 108 years and then they had to dig down deep to turn it around and have the success they had in the 2nd half of the season in order to achieve their 3rd straight trip to the NLCS. The Darvish signing I believe makes them marginally better however that pressure coming off the team’s shoulders to either win, or repeat, will be the major difference in 2018.

Jacob: I think the Cubs had a very clear plan heading into the offseason and they executed it near-perfectly. We knew replacing both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey might be a challenge – but Theo jumped on Tyler Chatwood early in the offseason, locking him up for three years and capped the winter by signing Darvish to a very reasonable six-year, $126 million deal. (Keep in mind MLBTR predicted he’d get 6/160 before the winter began). The bullpen acquisitions of Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow shore up an already talented corps and the position player group is re-energized for 2018. This is definitely a better team heading into 2018 – or, at the very least, a deeper one.

C70: A bit of a step back for Jon Lester last season. Does that get better in 2018 or was that the start of a trend?

Josh: I’m not too worried about Lester. At 34 it’s clear that his best days are behind him, but I still think he will be a quality pitcher in 2018. His ERA spiked in 2017, but a lot of that because of a poor strand rate and a big spike in the percentage of home runs allowed on fly balls. I think Lester will bounce back in 2018.

Having said that, I think he days of being an elite pitcher are likely over. He’s lost a tick of velocity. He’s probably now more of a #3 pitcher than the borderline ace pitcher he was in the past. He’s likely behind Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks in the Cubs rotation. But he’s still a good pitcher.

Rob: Lester’s first year in Chicago wasn’t too great, either. Maybe he only pitches well in even-numbered seasons. He’s already accomplished what he was brought here to do, but now there’s still three years left on his deal. He’s always going to be the Game One starter in any postseason series.

Neil: Jon Lester will be fine moving forward. He was coming off two trying and long seasons with the Cubs. Add in the fact he had to learn a new catcher in Wilson Contreras then Alex Avila and the natural decline in a player’s career and he was bound to struggle last year. The Cubs’ front office thought he could be their Andy Pettitte over the course of his contract when he signed the long-term deal, and minus the ugly PED admission by Pettitte, Lester is on track to match the projections.

Will Lester ever finish second in Cy Young voting or repeat his 2016 season? Probably not. Will he be a very good starter and help the Cubs win another championship, or championships, over the next three-four years? Yes.

Ryan: I’m not concerned about Lester at all and I’d hardly call it a step back. 2016 was his all-time best season (career best in wins, winning percentage and WHIP, 2nd best ERA of his career, All-Star appearance, finished 2nd in Cy Young Award voting and pitched over 200 innings for the eighth time in his career). Arguably, you could say he had nowhere to go but down. And yet he still managed to put up numbers not all that far off from 2016 and led the team to its 3rd straight NLCS – a playoff position they have reached or surpassed in each of his three years with the team. 2016 was legendary. 2017 was still dominating. I predict Lester to continue as a reliable ace and at least match the numbers from 2017. 

Jacob: Jon Lester isn’t going to come close to 20 wins again, but I don’t think the Cubs signed him with those expectations – at least not on the back end of the deal. Lester will be better than he was last year, but I expect him to a be a mid-3.00 ERA pitcher who takes the ball 30 times and pushes 200 innings this year. If he does that and continues to lead a still-young clubhouse, it’s a win.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Josh: I think it’s hard to say anything about the Cubs is overlooked as they’ve joined the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers as the teams that fans of every other team is sick of hearing about. The only thing I think people might forget is how incredibly young this lineup still is. Because the big core have been in the public eye (and the playoffs) since they first reached the majors, I think most people forget that almost all of these guys were still in the minors as recently as 2014. Even veterans Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward are still both only 28. This group could all end up staying together for years like the Dodgers of the 1970s. 

Rob: The team is set up to contend for at least three more years. Sustained success isn’t something the Cubs have ever had before.

Neil: The Cubs kept the young core intact that has already won a World Series. The front office did not trade any of the position-player depth for starting pitching. One of the positives of the off-season for the Cubs. The market came back to them and they were able to add Darvish without impacting the future of the team. With the young position players still with the Cubs, Joe Maddon will be able to mix and match while keeping players fresh and win games. A must for the Cubs is a quick start so they do not have to ‘flip the switch’ again in the second half and run out of gas in October.

Ryan: I’ll answer both positive and negative. I believe you can only put so much stock in how a team performs in Spring Training. However, the Cubs have dominated all spring which says a lot for how deep not only the club is, but the organization. People dismiss Spring Training records, but I think this may be a sign of things to come in 2018. As for the negative, I think the bullpen could be a concern. We were spoiled to have arms that could be relied on like Chapman and Davis over the past couple of seasons. I have faith in the guys that got us there before (Strop, Edwards Jr, etc) but the new names always bring an element of the unknown with them. Hopefully the front office nails it again with guys like Brandon Morrow joining the effort this season. Good news is, with an offense like this, there should be plenty of breathing room late in the game no matter who comes out of the bullpen. 

Jacob: Chatwood at the back end of the rotation has the potential to be a big positive for this team. His road splits were very favorable outside of Coors (3.49 ERA/.200 OPP AVG) last season and he’s sat in the mid-90s with his fastball this spring. He could be a huge upgrade over Lackey in the number five spot in the rotation.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Cubs to do well?

Josh: I’d say everyone in the rotation, but Jose Quintana stands out. The Cubs gave up a lot for him thinking that he could be their ace for years to come. If he doesn’t perform the way the Cubs believe he can, it’s going to have a major impact on the entire pitching staff. It’s going to mean a lot more innings for a bullpen that underperformed last year and there are no guarantees that they’re going to be any better in 2018.  Quintana has the talent to be an ace. The Cubs will need him to pitch like one if they want to win another World Series in 2018.

Rob: Anthony Rizzo is the beating heart of this team, and always will be as long as he’s with the Cubs. He’ll be the one to watch.

Neil: Addison Russell. He had a bad year on the field and it was even worse for him off the field. Russell has the ability to be one of the best players in the game. But he has not been able to put it all together, or stay healthy, for a whole season. Russell healthy and productive for an entire year would give stability to one of the most important positions on the field. There is a reason the Cubs have won so many games since Russell took over at shortstop. While he might not be as flashy or have the arm that Javier Baez does, Russell is the best shortstop on the roster.

Ryan: I’m going to go outside the box on this one, focus on ‘the guy’ part of that question and say Joe Maddon. With new faces on the coaching staff and the bullpen and a new vibe in the clubhouse – one with a goal of not winning, but winning again – Maddon will again need to use the depth this roster provides and draw up the right matchups day in and day out. Maddon will have to make the right call of when to give guys a day off and which guy comes out of the bullpen on a regular basis. The talent is there. The way Maddon uses it is what will determine whether we win again in 2018. (And for those of you saying that wasn’t question – ok fine – Schwarber.)

Jacob: Outside of Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo, who are givens being the franchise cornerstones, Jose Quintana is my key to 2018. You largely know what you’re going to get from Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. If Quintana continues to be the horse he’s been during his career, you could see him turn in a career season and really add unparalleled depth in the Chicago starting rotation.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Josh: The Cubs should win the NL Central again. In fact, it’s hard not to say that the three NL divisions aren’t already decided and Spring Training hasn’t even opened yet. (Of course, we know that’s not the way it works and baseball has a way of surprising.) I don’t think either the Brewers or the Cardinals have enough talent to hang with the Cubs over 162 games. As many question marks as the Cubs pitching staff has, the Brewers and Cardinals both have more and neither of their lineups are as talented as the Cubs. They should win the division by another 5-6 games over one of those two teams.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The Nationals and Dodgers are both very good teams, but neither one is better than the Cubs. I don’t think they’re worse, either. The Cubs could get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs or they could win the World Series again. There are three elite National League teams and one of them will get a chance to beat an elite American League team.

Rob: I think the Cubs will win the division again, by maybe two games over the Brewers and four or five over the Cardinals. 96-66 sounds about right to me.

Neil:  I predicted the Cubs would win 95 games last season, a NL Central Championship and make a run in the playoffs. I thought they would struggle to start the year and they did. But I did not see it lasting the entire first half. The Cubs ended up three wins short of my prediction. I still think it will take 95 victories to win the NL Central. The Cubs have the best team on paper in the division. Like all of the pre-season contenders, health is the key this year. And unlike last season, the players will not have a problem staying focused on the team’s goals. If the Cubs can avoid the injury bug, a third straight Central title and a fourth trip to the NLCS are realistic for this team. Advancing to the World Series and winning it again … well that is hopefully something we all get to talk about in October.

Ryan: There’s no reason for me to think the Cubs can’t win it all in 2018. I believe the team will win the NL Central by at least 10 games considering how dominant this rotation and lineup should be. Hopefully they play a team in the NL East again this year in the NLDS or NLCS so I can see them play in the postseason as I did last year in DC. (Selfishly, east coast trips are easiest for me so hopefully they end up in the playoffs playing road playoff games throughout October nearby). And while that would work out best for me, one thing I think all Cubs fans would agree on – no matter which teams they have to go through to get there – I think we all feel comfortable saying this year could be the year…again. 

Jacob: With Kyle Schwarber looking like a new player and the entire roster well-rested, it’s World Series or bust. With one of the best rotations in the game and a very, very deep position player group, I think the Cubs lock up the Central with two weeks left in the regular season and square off against the Astros in the Fall Classic come October.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Josh: The Cubs built their current team through a strong farm system. What’s it like now? It’s not very good, actually. They traded two of the best prospects in the game the past two years for Aroldis Chapman and Quintana. They dealt another good prospect for Justin Wilson and Avila. They haven’t had a top ten draft pick since Ian Happ. But along with the aforementioned Caratini, they do have some pitchers who could contribute in 2018. Dillon Maples made his major league debut last fall and he could end up as a major league closer if he can keep his control issues in check. He’s also a great story, as he was a kid who got a huge overslot bonus (back when such things were allowed) and then struggled for years with control problems and injuries. He was ready to quit baseball last year, but his dad talked him out of it and he shot through three minor league levels last year to make the majors. He could be an important bullpen piece this season.

The wonderfully-named Adbert Alzolay is the Cubs best pitching prospect. He’s a starter who came out of nowhere last season. He added about 2-3 mph on to his fastball and his curve got a lot sharper after he worked on developing his legs. He also started yoga and meditation to keep himself more focused on the mound. He could be major-league ready by mid-season and could end up in the rotation if there is a vacancy.

The other pitcher who could take that spot is Thomas Hatch, the 2016 3rd-round pick who impressed in his first season of pro ball last year. He’s more of a #3/#4 pitcher than an ace, but he could shore up the back of the Cubs rotation in the second half if necessary.

Rob: Will Wrigley Field be ready by Opening Day? I hope so, but right now it looks like a crazy mess of construction equipment. 

Neil: What impact will the new coaching staff, especially Chili Davis, have on the young players? Nationally the Cubs are viewed as a much older team than they actually are. Anthony Rizzo is only 28 years old (29 in August) and Kris Bryant (26), Russell (24), Baez (25), Willson Contreras (25, 26 in May), Albert Almora Jr. (23, 24 in April), Kyle Schwarber (25), Ian Happ (23, 24 in August) and Kyle Hendricks (28) are all younger than Rizzo. The Cubs are viewed as having a horrible system which impacts the future. There is some truth to that, but the future is now with the Cubs and for the next four years. There is still a lot of development needed. These players are not a finished product and on the downside of their career. It’s the exact opposite. The coaches the Cubs brought in can help take the players to the next level. And Davis is now in charge of developing arguably the best group of young position players in the game. If Davis can reach and teach the importance of contact and situational hitting, the Cubs’ offense has the pieces to be even better than the last two seasons which will help keep the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates and Reds looking up at them in the NL Central standings for the next several years.

Ryan: “Do you have any gum?” Yes, but it’s my last piece. Sorry. Go Cubs!

Jacob: What will the Cubs get out of Brandon Morrow? They’ll get what they need. If they use him in a traditional closer role – similar to how they did Wade Davis last year – his injuries, etc. from the past are completely irrelevant in my mind. Instead of throwing $52 million at Davis, the Cubs answered the closer role question for the next two years while barely breaking the $20 million mark. Oh, and that allowed them to add Darvish while still staying under the luxury tax threshold. 

In all seriousness, I do appreciate these guys taking the time to talk about the Cubs.  We know that, right now, the road to October runs through Chicago.  Which means, if the Cardinals do win this season, that win is all the more sweet!

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9667.589 -
Cubs9568.5831.0
Cardinals8874.5437.5
Pirates8279.50913.0
Reds6795.41428.5

Last updated: 10/01/2018

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