Playing Pepper 2021: Chicago Cubs

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Chicago Cubs
34-26, first in the NL Central, lost in the Wild Card Round
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

It was an offseason marked more by who left than who arrived, which is not what we Cardinal fans feared about a half-decade ago.  The specter of a dynasty on the north side worried us quite a bit and while that may not have panned out completely, there’s still enough wearing the logo of the baby bears to give any team in the NL Central fits.  Will they?  That’s why we talk to the experts.

Blogger Site Twitter
Evan Altman Cubs Insider DEvanAltman
Josh Timmers Bleed Cubbie Blue JoshFTimmers
Jacob Misener Cubbies Crib
Neil Finnell Chicago Cubs Online TheCCO
David Miniel Cubbies Crib DavidAMiniel

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Evan: The 2020 season felt like a waking dream, and not in a good way. While it was great to have baseball back, nothing ever quite felt real and it always felt like the other shoe was going to drop. Maybe that’s just the Cubs perspective since they felt like imposters when it came to being real contenders. As for the rule changes, I actually enjoyed the 7-inning doubleheaders because the pace was so fast. Not to sound like Rob Manfred or anything, but it was great to knock out two games in short order. The runner on second in extras was a little weird, but I liked that too. In fact, I’d rather they just load the bases and spur some really wild scoring. I couldn’t care less about pitchers batting and I wish they’d have figured out a way to maintain the universal DH.

Josh: Unless you’re a Dodgers fan, it’s best for everyone to probably just forget 2020. The entire nation was a complete mess and baseball was just so unimportant in the larger scheme of things that it was hard for me to care about what happened. My interest in baseball was massively decreased during the pandemic.

As far as the rules changes go, I hate the runner on second rule. But my solution of just having games end in ties after 11 innings seems to have minimal support. I think 15 and 16 inning games are a thing of the past (outside of the playoffs) and that’s probably for the best. The 3-batter minimum on pitchers did not seem to have the intended effect of shortening games, so it should probably be axed. I actually didn’t mind the 7-inning doubleheader rule. In a normal year, doubleheaders are likely to be so rare that it wouldn’t have much effect on the game. The DH is the DH. I like to see pitchers hit, but I’m resigned to the notion that the universal DH is coming eventually. I really would like to see a pitch clock. I’ve seen it operate in the minor leagues and it works.

Jacob: I had no issues with anything from last year because I honestly didn’t know if we’d get a season at all. By the time Opening Day came around, I felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief seeing baseball being played amidst a truly unprecedented year. The rule changes made sense – and even as a fan of National League baseball, after 2020, I don’t care if I ever see another pitcher take an at-bat again (although it looks like we will in 2021). I feel like it’s harder to follow baseball given everything else that pulls at our attention, but this spring feels more normal.

Neil: Baseball in 2020 was a much-needed distraction. Selfishly I was so glad to have the game back to get my mind off everything in the world and in my life. I think MLB handled it the best it could under the circumstances of the world changing around it seemingly by the hour.

I did not care for the rule changes. I understood why, but did not like them. The runner on second base in extra innings must go. And the seven-inning doubleheaders I did not like either.

Following the game last year was easier when only listening to the games on radio. I am a big radio play-by-play guy. So that was pretty much the way it had always been. It was rather difficult for me to watch the games. Seeing the action in empty stadiums was a reminder of what was actually going on. Give me play-by-play on the radio anyway, especially without fans in the stands.

David: It wasn’t so much just following the baseball season. Last year was pretty dark across the board. We’re still in dark times, having to deal with the pandemic and everything else that had unfolded during. After everything, I’m still surprised these professional organizations decided to get back to what they do. I’m thankful at the same time because they offer a distraction. Having baseball on television/radio was great but it didn’t have the same feel with fans not being allowed to attend games. Which was and is completely understandable given the increasing amount of COVID cases in our country. You could not follow or cover baseball the same. Minor league affiliates were axed, All-Star game, basically everything we were used to was temporarily removed and some rules were implemented at the same time. The Universal DH was interesting with Kyle Schwarber on the roster last year. On the other hand, I like watching pitcher’s step into the batter’s box trying to help themselves out. As far as the other rules are concerned; not a fan of the three-batter minimum or runner on second in extra innings. 

C70: Yu Darvish and Jon Lester both will be on different teams this year. What will the rotation look like without them and how good will it be?

Evan: The Cubs’ rotation without Darvish, Lester, and others is going to be…interesting. They’ve still got Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, and maybe Adbert Alzolay, they got Zach Davies in a trade, they brought Jake Arrieta back and signed former Pirate Trevor Williams. Shelby Miller has a shot to make it as well, which would be really odd because he could be their only starter throwing consistently in the mid-90’s. The rotation will probably be 7-8 deep and I’d wager we’ll see some piggyback starts here and there as some of the organization’s young pitchers come up to lend a hand. That might be necessary to provide a different look as well; all of the main starters are right-handed and most of them live at or under 92 mph. It looks like the pitching infrastructure is targeting a sinker-heavy approach meant to generate a lot of grounders.

Josh: You don’t lose one of the best pitchers in the majors like Darvish without it leaving a mark. Lester is near the end of his career so while it’s a blow to the clubhouse and the fanbase, his actual production can probably be replaced. I think rookie Adbert Alzolay will probably have a better season than Lester will in 2021, but he can’t replace Lester as a team leader. How much difference that makes, we’ll never know. That clubhouse factor may be a reason the Cubs brought back Jake Arrieta.

The Cubs rotation will probably be some combination of Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, Zach Davies, Alzolay, Arrieta and Trevor Williams. Hendricks is an ace and we are only now just starting to figure out how anyone can throw so softly and still get so many people out. Mills threw a no-hitter last year so he’s got promise and he has modeled his game after Hendricks. There’s just not much roof for error in that approach and it will be difficult for Mills to replicate Hendricks’ success.

Davies is a similarly-styled pitcher to those two, but more established in his ways. I’m worried that opposing teams will get too many looks at similar pitchers. Williams’ velocity is pretty average and Arrieta doesn’t throw as hard he used to either. The real beneficiary of this may be Alzolay, who will likely be the only hard thrower in the Cubs rotation. It’s going to be a challenge for David Ross to make sure opposing teams don’t get too comfortable with the Cubs rotation. They’re also all right-handed, which could be a problem.

Hendricks is an underrated ace, but beyond that there are a lot of question marks. The rotation could be anywhere from solid to dreadful. Is solid enough to compete in the bad NL Central? Probably. But it won’t be a surprise if they turn out to be dreadful outside of Hendricks as well.

Jacob: The rotation boils down to Kyle Hendricks and a whole lot of question marks. Can Zach Davies replicate his breakout success from 2020? And, if he does, will Jed Hoyer end up trading him at the deadline? Then you’ve got an aging Jake Arrieta, who feels more like a service to fan’s nostalgia than a sure thing given his last three years. Rounding out the group is some combination of Alec Mills, Trevor Williams and Adbert Alzolay. Of the three, only Alzolay seems to have real upside. So, in short, this is a staff that’s completely dependent on inducing soft contact and relying on its defense.

Neil: David Ross faces a lot of challenges with the projected rotation. He will have to construct his lineup with defense in mind. The Cubs will likely not be able to outhit any mistakes in the field. I really did not want to see Jon Lester pitch for another team. He deserved to finish his career with the Cubs. He is the best free agent signing in team history and should have been able to walk off the field at Wrigley for the last time in a Cubs’ uniform to a standing ovation. The Cubs’ rotation could be decent, depending on the defense, but it is a middle of the league, or a second-division rotation at best.

David: Watching both Yu Darvish and Jon Lester land with different teams was rough to see. Given the direction this team is going (rebuild), it was expected. This front office still has a ton of work in front of them and more tough decisions will be made. But obviously, the rotation is going to have a different feel to it compared to previous campaigns. Now that Yu and Jon are out of the picture, that puts Kyle Hendricks at the top of the rotation. Of course, bringing Jake Arrieta back into the mix was huge and desperately needed. Not only did this club lose Darvish and Lester but Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana as well. So, it was like gutting the entire rotation minus Hendricks, throwing Arrieta into the gameplan again following his stint with Philadelphia. There’s a strong possibility David Ross opts to use a six-man rotation this year with Mills floating between a spot and long relief role. Consistency is the biggest question when it comes to this rotation. Hopefully, it won’t be terrible. 

C70: Javy Baez took a nosedive last year, at least offensively. Is that a product of the weirdness that was 2020 or are there legitimate concerns?

Evan: Javy’s 2020 issues are manifold, but I think we can chalk them up largely to the nature of the season messing with his preparation. That includes the lack of in-game video, which he admitted messed with his ability to adjust. Plenty of people find that to be a dubious claim, but I liken it to losing your air conditioning or whatever other creature comfort you’ve grown so used to that living without it seems unbearable. Rather than fixate on the idea that you don’t think a player should need that particular amenity, consider that they have been using it for years and it’s become an important piece of their preparation and approach. So getting video back could be huge for him. That said, Javy’s struggles ran deeper than just the lack of access to a tablet during games. He was trying to force the issue far too often rather than following the same strategy that saw him lead the league in opposite-field homers by taking what pitchers gave him. We should know pretty quickly whether a “regular” season helps him to correct a few things.

Josh: Baez is always going to be a streaky guy. I’m more willing to chalk it up to 2020. Baez himself complained that a big problem for him was that he wasn’t able to watch video of his at-bats between innings. But there will be video in 2020, so let’s see if that was the problem. I guess the answer is that it’s a legitimate concern, but it might just have been 2020 and there’s no need to panic yet.

Jacob: All signs point to it being a product of everything that was happening in 2020. The big thing he – and other players around the league – point to was the lack of in-game video. Baez relies on that pretty heavily and not having it at his disposal clearly hurt him at the plate. That being said, I think it definitely makes you a little less sure about what you’re going to get from him in 2021, a critical year for both him and the team.

Neil: Javy Baez is one of the most-exciting players in baseball. With that said, I am concerned about Javy moving forward. It appears to me he is reverting to old habits that really hurt him in the minors. It took Joe Maddon to get Javy to be Javy. And with Maddon gone, I don’t know if Javy can play up to expectations, at least offensively. This is a huge season for Javy. He has to prove last year was just a horrible season in what was a nightmarish year.

David: Javy had some obvious issues at the plate last season but he was not the only one. We can definitely give credit to how the 2020 campaign came together and unfolded. The man is a prime example of a hardworking individual who wants nothing more but to improve every aspect of his game. I would strongly advise against tabbing him as a weak at-bat based on the odd-year of 2020. 

C70: Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are both free agents at the end of the year. Assuming they both make it to that point as Cubs, which would you prefer they bring back?

Evan: Man, this is like asking which of your kids you love the best. Rizzo has been the team’s de facto captain for years now and Bryant is their most talented player, but one’s getting older and the other hasn’t been completely healthy since 2017. Cubs fans will probably hate me for this, but I’m going with Bryant simply because I believe in his ability to play at an MVP level for longer into the future. Of course, the Cubs’ payroll drops off so steeply after this season that they should be able to keep both.

Josh: Wow. Talk about Sophie’s Choice. It would obviously depend on what kind of contract the two were willing to agree to. In a vacuum, I think the Cubs would have an easier time replacing Bryant than Rizzo. There isn’t another good left-handed power hitter in the system but there are a few promising third basemen. But Bryant is two years younger than Rizzo, so it might make more sense to keep Bryant.

So Rizzo, probably? But it’s going to hurt bad to lose either one.

Jacob: This is tough. Bryant has the higher ceiling and probably more to offer over the long haul considering he’s two-plus years younger. But the last few years haven’t been kind to the former All-Star and as much as I’d love to see him in Chicago the rest of his career, I really feel like he’s going to be the guy who ends up somewhere else with a clean slate that he really needs. I suspect Rizzo sticks around for the rest of his career (or most of it, at least) given his consistent production and leadership both on and off the field.

Neil: Anthony Rizzo is the captain. If the Cubs’ front office can only sign one of the two, to me it has to be Rizzo.

David: This one is difficult but if I had to choose to bring retain one of the two it would be Rizzo. Anthony has been a consistent member of this ballclub since his arrival. Bryant has hit a few injury walls that really watered down his offensive production. His value has slightly decreased over the years. Also, money would play a factor. The organization may focus on extending Javy and Willson Contreras out of the World Series corps, leaving Bryant’s future in question. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Evan: My expectations have been tempered by the last few seasons and the lack of spending over the winter. While I believe the Cubs could get big rebounds from several hitters and have a very potent lineup, the rotation has a lot of question marks and very little diversity. The NL Central is enough of a toss-up that they could still make a little noise in the division, but that will require a lot of things to go right.

Josh: I don’t know if I really have an expectation yet. The Cubs are clearly in decline, but the NL Central is so weak, they could end up winning the division anyway. I guess I’ll say they’ll win 84-85 games, give or take six wins. My guess is that they’ll finish above .500 but out of the playoffs, but anything is really possible, other than finishing behind the truly wretched Pirates.

Jacob: This is a .500 team. There are too many questions when it comes to the pitching staff for me to have real faith. And if they somehow outperform expectations and head toward the All-Star Break in a good spot, I still expect Hoyer to trade anyone he can to jump start his re-tooling efforts. It’s an imperfect roster, as we’re all well aware. Like I said, it’s not that I don’t have faith that key guys will bounce back. I just feel like even if that happens, it won’t change the front office’s approach come the deadline.

Neil: As much as it pains me to admit this, the Cubs are a third place team in the Central looking up at both the Cardinals and Brewers. This is a pivotal year for the big league club. And likely a transitional season. There is talent on the team that could be traded if the team underperforms to the front office’s expectations. Jed Hoyer has a lot of work to do in order for the Cubs to become legitimate contenders again.

David: I expect them to fight for another postseason appearance. David Ross did an amazing job last year in his managerial debut, leading the Cubs to a division title. There is nothing on paper that tells us that the Cubs plan to coast through the campaign and sell big prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Evan: It’s hard to give the Cubs a grade before seeing how things will play out, but I’m leaning towards something in the C range after initially being at a D or maybe even F. The Darvish trade still sticks in my craw because they also moved Victor Caratini mainly to save money. Opening up the budget a little bit enabled them to pick up a few players after what was looking like a very barren offseason and, even though some of those players look very similar to the guys they’re replacing, there are some incremental improvements that may become evident over a larger sample. Grading on a curve would help, so I’m sticking with a C. Just meh.

Josh: This past offseason was probably a D. They spent much of the winter shedding salary and picking up prospects who won’t be ready for the majors until 2023 or 2024. This is clearly part of Jed Hoyer’s overall plan. If this past offseason was just a bump in the road and the Cubs return to being a perennial contender in the 2020s, then it was clearly the right move. If it backfires and costs the Cubs one last shot at a title with the current core without any brighter future, then it was a disaster. Jed Hoyer was right by Theo Epstein’s side when they came up with a plan in 2012 and it worked brilliantly, Can Hoyer do it again without Theo? Who knows? So I guess the overall grade is an incomplete until we see how the Hoyer era turns out.

Jacob: C- / The front office operated most of the offseason with its hands tied behind its back, trying to cut payroll per instructions from ownership. Then, late in the winter, things changed and Hoyer had more funds at his disposal. But by that point, the impact free agents had come off the board and you’re left turning to a mid-30s Jake Arrieta and a true platoon player in Joc Pederson to be your ‘big’ additions? Chicago is trying to balance competing and looking toward the future and this season will tell us whether or not they’ll be able to do so.

Neil: This is a really tough question to answer because the Ricketts family delivered on the promise of a World Series Championship while rebuilding Wrigley Field. It has only been four full seasons since the Cubs won the World Series. And a majority of this leadership is responsible for the most coveted title in all of professional sports.

The problem is after the parade the front office became extremely reactionary. Those poor/awful decisions depleted the farm system. Couple that with the lack of development, horrendous free agent signings and you have an organization that is in the shape it is right now. The organization probably deserves a failing grade but that championship felt so, so good. So a ‘D’ might be the best grade for the Cubs as the season quickly approaches.

David: Right now I would give them a C. Mostly because of the starting rotation and bullpen. Losing Jeremy Jeffress was a massive blow to their bullpen. You’d think Jed would want to keep him on board given his dominant short season. Hoyer is really going to catch some more heat from this fanbase moving forward. Tough choices were made (departures of Lester/Schwarber, Darvish trade) but this is only the beginning. Fans don’t want to go through another rebuild but it appears we may have no choice in the matter. Believe in Jed the way we believed in our beloved Theo. Continue showing up to road games and packing Wrigley Field. 

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