Last Updated: 2018-03-28
It seems a bit unfair that the 2017 season started on the road for the Chicago Cubs. They had to wait until April 10 to hang a flag that means a hell of a lot more than a ‘W’ at Wrigley Field. As it turned out, the W didn’t fly a whole lot in the first half and flew 11 fewer times in 2017 than it did in 2016. Of course, that was still enough to win the NL Central and head into the playoffs. A repeat was not in the cards, as the Cubs fell in five to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It should come as no surprise that the World Series hangover was real and not at all spectacular for the Cubs. It seems like winning 103 games and ending a 108-year drought is a big deal. The Cubs were a pedestrian 43-45 at the All-Star Break, but reeled off 49 wins in 74 games after the Midsummer Classic to seize control of the division and march into the postseason. When all was said and done, the Cubs won the Central by six over the pesky Milwaukee Brewers and, incredibly enough, won consecutive division titles for just the second time since the 1900s. A third straight division title would tie a franchise record set from 1906-08.
The Cubs are certainly in good position to do that, as the NL Central’s top team. They were 92-70 last season, with a 93-69 Pythagorean Win-Loss record and a 92-70 BaseRuns record. The tale of two halves does make it a little bit difficult to figure out this team. How much of the first half was truly a World Series hangover and how much of it was a regression to the mean?
Like most World Series seasons, it takes a perfect storm. The Cubs were one of the best defensive teams of all-time in 2016. That regressed in 2017. Players that had career years in 2016 took a bit of a step back. There is also something to be said about the long season. Playing high-stress games for an extra month means one month less of training and recovery. The Cleveland Indians were also a slow starter in 2017 and then the best team in baseball in the second half.
Without a World Series hangover, the Cubs should be in better position to start well and set the pace in the division. On the other hand, the division is improved, with a much better version of the St. Louis Cardinals and a better version of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are still going to struggle, but the Cubs have more competition at the top.
With high expectations leading to a high season win total line, the North Siders have a lot of work ahead of them.
Season Win Total Odds:
5Dimes: 93.5 (110/-130)
BetOnline: 93.5 (-110/-110)
Bovada: 94.5 (100/-130)
Additions: Chris Gimenez, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Drew Smyly, Efren Navarro, Ryan Court, Peter Bourjos, Jacob Hannemann, Williams Perez, Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Donn Roach, Shae Simmons, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Randy Rosario
Losses: Jake Arrieta, Alex Avila, Wade Davis, Jon Jay, John Lackey, Rene Rivera, Koji Uehara, Leonys Martin, Hector Rondon
The Cubs probably jumped the gun on Tyler Chatwood. They signed Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal early in the free agency process, before it was clear just how much the market would bottom out. But, patience was a virtue with Yu Darvish, who took a contract that is probably close to market value, but the Cubs won the staring contest between Darvish and his other suitors. Darvish replaces Arrieta and Chatwood replaces Lackey. That feels like an upgrade.
The position player side was largely untouched in this winter’s flurry of transactions. Chris Gimenez will serve as a player/coach if he makes the roster. Brandon Morrow will slot in as closer in place of Wade Davis. Steve Cishek is a solid relief arm and the Shae Simmons gamble is particularly interesting to me.
Why bet the over?
One of my biggest considerations from a season win total standpoint is depth. The Cubs have a ton of it. Years of smart drafting and savvy trades have allowed the Cubs to build up quite a core group of position players. Many players that have graced the bench for the Cubs during this three-year run would be starters for other teams. The Cubs are certainly willing to deploy their depth. Eleven players had at least 323 plate appearances last season and the Cubs really didn’t deal with too many injuries.
Kris Bryant is a stud. Bryant posted a career-best .409 OBP and a career-best .399 wOBA, but he went from 8.3 fWAR to 6.7 fWAR. He actually dropped across the board in a few categories. He went from 39 HR to 29 HR, which was particularly noticeable in a season in which everybody seemed to hit 30 home runs. He did cut down his strikeout rate for the second consecutive season and drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances. The defensive metrics took a bit of a tumble, but Bryant was still an elite player, just not as elite as he was in 2016. Whatever 2018 holds for him, barring injury, he will remain an elite player. We’ll see if the power returns and the defensive metrics look more favorably on his performance to increase his WAR, but he’s a terrific starting point for a contending team.
Anthony Rizzo did take a bit of a step back, as he failed to hit at least 5.1 fWAR for the first time since 2013. He still had an excellent season with a .380 wOBA and a 133 wRC+. His contact quality went down a bit, as he had a .273 BABIP, which was 36 points below his 2016 season and 16 points below his 2015 season. Rizzo was a bit unlucky with that BABIP, as Statcast had him down for a .281 BA. An eight-point increase would have given him a .400 OBP for the first time in his career. Basically, Rizzo is a safe player to bet on and the projection systems are predicting bumps across the board. I tend to agree. His consistency has been remarkable during this four-year run and there’s no reason to expect anything else.
The fact that Willson Contreras was able to sustain his performance from 2016 was a big deal for the Cubs. Getting offense from the catcher position is a luxury that few teams experience. He’s also a quality defensive catcher, though baserunners were a lot more effective last season than in 2016. Contreras slashed .276/.356/.499 in 428 plate appearances. With so much depth on the infield and in the outfield, getting offense from the catching position is such a nice boost. There is nothing that would suggest Contreras will drop off either.
Here’s where it gets interesting and kind of fun. The Cubs really don’t have any weaknesses. Albert Almora Jr. had a 103 wRC+ in 323 plate appearances and played solid defense. Javier Baez is a fielding wizard with a well-rounded offensive game, except for when it comes to drawing walks. He makes up for it with power and decent speed. Ian Happ has prodigious power and the ability to play multiple positions. Kyle Schwarber also has immense power than obscure his lack of range in the outfield. Jason Heyward isn’t much of a hitter, but he’s a quality outfielder. Ben Zobrist had a down year with some contact quality issues, but his versatility creates the opportunity for a lot of value.
The Cubs have a lot of versatile players. Bryant plays some outfield. Zobrist can play anywhere. Happ is an outfielder and infielder. Baez can play three infield positions and can also run around the outfield a bit if need be. While a lot of these guys fell short of the 2.0 fWAR it requires to be “average”, most of them didn’t accumulate full-season stats because they were part-time players. Bryant and Rizzo each accumulated over 660 plate appearances. Baez was the only other player with more than 500. WAR is still a counting stat because you need games and plate appearances to keep adding to the total. The fact that the Cubs have so many players capable of being average or better regulars sets them apart from most of the league’s teams.
A huge reason why the Cubs struggled last season, especially in the first half, is that their pitchers were not able to sustain their 2016 performances. Some of that had to do with fielding. In 2016, Cubs pitchers allowed a .255 BABIP against, which was the best in the league by 27 points. It was the best BABIP against since the 1982 Padres posted a .254 BABIP against. The Cubs were still one of the better teams in that department in 2017, but fell back to a more normal .285 mark. That was the sixth-best. The Cubs also went from a 77.5 percent LOB% to a 74.2 percent LOB%.
Natural regression had a lot to do with why the pitching staff came back to earth. Those two metrics were not sustainable in any way, shape, or form. On an individual level, it hurt guys like Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta. This season, though, the Cubs have full seasons of Jose Quintana and now Yu Darvish to go along with Lester, Hendricks, and Tyler Chatwood.
In Lester’s case, an unexpected spike in his HR/FB% wreaked havoc, but not nearly as much as the 68.7 percent LOB% he posted. Lester’s 2016 mark was unsustainably high at 84.9 percent. He also allowed a lot more home runs, with a career-high 15.8 percent HR/FB%. That led to a 4.33 ERA. Lester’s 3.85 xFIP seems like a better barometer for 2018, which is still an xFIP that he hasn’t had since 2013. ZiPS has Lester down for a 3.54 ERA with a 3.71 FIP, which seems like a pretty reasonable projection. No matter what, he’ll be better this season because he won’t post a 68.7 percent LOB% again.
Kyle Hendricks had another strong year with a 3.03 ERA, a 3.88 FIP, and a 3.76 xFIP. One of the problems with advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP is that they don’t really have the controls in place to evaluate contact management. Hendricks has some of the best command in baseball, if we consider command to be the ability to throw quality strikes that hitters cannot barrel. Among pitchers with at least 190 batted ball events last season, Hendricks was sixth in average exit velocity against. He doesn’t rack up the gaudy strikeout totals, but he stays out of the middle of the plate and really uses the bottom of the zone effectively. We’d have to dig really deep into some of the alternative stats at Baseball Prospectus to find a good run metric for Hendricks and that command profile, so I don’t want to confuse you, but take my word for it that he’s special, even if some of the stats I like to use don’t paint a complete picture.
Jose Quintana was strong in his 14 starts with the Cubs, as he posted a 3.74 ERA with a 3.25 FIP and a 3.24 xFIP. He also saw some big strikeout gains, that may not stick around, but there are a lot of things to like. Prior to last season, Quintana hadn’t posted an ERA above 3.76 in his MLB career and that came in his rookie season. His 3.68 FIP was a tad higher than his career mark, but his 3.73 xFIP was right in line with his career averages. Those all add up to a well above average starter.
Now Yu Darvish has been added to the mix. Darvish has been worth at least 3.5 fWAR in four of his five season and the one season in which he wasn’t at 3.5 fWAR, he had 2.7 fWAR in just 17 starts. Darvish improved across the board when he went to the National League and should be a good fit with this quality Cubs defense and his high strikeout rates. Tyler Chatwood is another guy that will benefit from this defense and being out of Denver can’t hurt. Both Darvish and Chatwood are trading up in the ballpark department relative to where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
The bullpen is solid. I don’t think that it’s spectacular by any means, especially with Brandon Morrow closing. But, Morrow is coming off of a phenomenal season with a 2.06 ERA, a 1.55 FIP and a 2.94 xFIP in just 43.2 innings of work. Pedro Strop is a solid setup man and Carl Edwards Jr. has K% of 37.7 and 35.9 over the last two seasons. The bullpen also has good balance with a veteran with a quirky arm angle in Steve Cishek, two solid lefties in Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing, and a swingman innings eater in Mike Montgomery that can also provide starting pitcher depth.
Why bet the under?
Let’s start with the starters here. To do that, we’ll start with Jon Lester, who gave us the BSOHL, last week as the Cubs got things going in camp. The 34-year-old had a higher K/9, but did have a lower K%. It wasn’t a significant decrease, but coupled with his highest walk rate since 2011, it is a concern. The biggest concern that I have is contact quality. Lester allowed a .256 batting average, which was his highest since 2012. He also allowed the highest HR/9 of his career since his rookie season in 2007. For just the third time in his career, he posted a SIERA north of 4.00. He also had the lowest Zone% of his career.
Three key factors that I look for in terms of pitcher decline are Zone%, fastball velocity, and any signs of declining command. Lester had disappointing marks in all three areas. His fastball velocity fell down 1.4 mph with the four-seamer and across the board with everything but the changeup. He had his worst season from a fastball command standpoint ever per the Fangraphs Pitch Values. His cutter still registered as an above average pitch, but that was the only one per PITCHf/x. Maybe it was the long 2016 season, but Lester failed to throw 200 innings for the first time since 2011. He didn’t really get much better as the season went along, so I don’t think it was a hangover thing. I’m actually worried about Lester this season. He crossed the 2,000-inning mark late in 2016 and we typically see pitchers start to have some problems when they reach that point. I think he’s a guy that could struggle this season.
Kyle Hendricks operates on such thin margins because he doesn’t miss bats. The same can be said about Tyler Chatwood, who is a guy that the Cubs isolated because of his low exit velocities against and his ability to miss barrels. Any drop in command, be it from an arm slot problem or an injury, could mean really bad things for those two pitchers. Hendricks has a deeper arsenal, so I think he could still maintain some measure of performance, but I’m not so sure about Chatwood.
Jose Quintana trended in the wrong direction a little bit in some areas. He did strike out a lot more hitters, but I’m not buying the K% spike. Quintana’s swinging strike rate of 8.4 percent was right near his career average of 8.5 percent. His O-Swing% wasn’t any higher than usual. Hitters missed at a higher rate outside of the zone, but took a lot more pitches in the zone. His Z-Contact% fell to a career-best 61 percent, so he simply sequenced well. Hitters took a lot of called strikes. I don’t expect a 26.2 percent K% this season. Something closer to his 20.9 percent K% makes more sense. At that point, we have to wonder if the higher HR/FB% is something to worry about. That spiked to a career-high 13.2 percent. It was the fourth straight season with a higher FIP for Quintana than the previous year.
These guys aren’t going to become bums or anything, but minor regressions add up to bigger regressions. When you’re talking about a win total in the 90s, these are potential problems. You need a lot of things to go right for a team to post that level of consistency. The Cubs needed a huge second-half run to get to 92 wins last year. If they’re chasing this number again, you’ll have a lot of reasons to be concerned.
I’ve got bullpen concerns as well. I’m totally on board with the stuff of Brandon Morrow. I am not on board with the health of Brandon Morrow. Morrow has made 299 appearances covering 828.1 innings since his debut in 2007. Since 2013, Morrow has not worked more than 54.1 innings in a season. He pitched in all seven World Series games last year after working 45 games in the regular season. I have no doubts about the stuff, but I have serious doubts as to whether or not he can endure a full season.
Pedro Strop saw a sizable drop in his K% and a sizable spike in his BB%. Strop went from a 32.1 percent K% to a 26 percent K%. His walk rate took a one-year tumble in 2016 to eight percent, but he returned to a double-digit walk rate last year. He was still a solid reliever, but he did allow more hard contact last season. Hitters didn’t chase at the same rate. It may have been one-year noise, but I’ll be watching closely.
Carl Edwards Jr. has to outpitch his ugly walk rate. With .162 and .192 BABIPs, it’s certainly possible, so we’ll see if he can sustain those. He did induce a ton of weak contact last year with an 82.5 mph average exit velocity against, but I still find it hard to believe that a .192 BABIP is sustainable. After all, Statcast had him down for a .166 batting average against when he actually had a .134. Again, still great numbers, but with his walk rate, any additional balls in play that go for hits can be problematic.
This is the thing about the Cubs. It may look like I’m nitpicking. It may look like I’m just trying to stretch to make a case. But we’re finding little things that add up into bigger things. The Cubs were still a very good team in 2017, but these little things added up into a loss of 11 wins from the previous season. That’s not to say that the Cubs are going to fall to a .500 team, because they’re not, I’m just saying that you can make a very strong case that 93-95 wins is a best-case scenario for this team. And when the ceiling is that close to the line, I have a very hard time looking to go over the total.
The depth on the position player side allows the Cubs to be able to withstand and endure a lot of adversity, though there would be no way to replace Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo. Still, a formula like this requires a lot of moving parts to live up to expectations. Among the 14 players with at least 100 plate appearances, 10 of them posted above average wRC+ marks. Three that didn’t are everyday players in Javier Baez, Jason Heyward, and Addison Russell. A lot of these part-timers picked up the slack last season when called upon. Once again, minor fluctuations adding up to bigger things. With a high win total and a stronger division at the top with improved rosters in Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Cubs are in a tighter spot.
Pick: Under 94.5 (-130, Bovada)
This is a pretty easy one for me and I do like this one a fair amount. The magical run that the Cubs had in 2016 was exactly that. They get to fly a flag forever and a lot of players had career years and the Cubs were one of the best defensive teams we’ve ever seen. When that regressed back to a normal level last season, we saw a team that won 92 games. While the Cubs are still the front-runner for the NL Central in my opinion, this is not going to be a run away. You’ll see my thoughts on the other teams as you move forward, but the Cubs should have some challengers this year and that means fewer wins to go around.
This is still one of the deepest teams in baseball, but there are a few chinks in the armor with the rotation and the bullpen doesn’t inspire as much confidence as past bullpens have. I just don’t see a 95-game winner here. It could very well happen and the Cubs certainly have the talent to get to that point, but I’m confident to bet the under here. If the Cubs play .587 ball for six months to beat me, so be it, but they’ve got a lot of competition for wins.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
The curse is officially over. The most talented team in baseball took down the hardware and has the opportunity for more. The Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of disappointment and futility to make a bunch of fans that had made the trip to Cleveland and millions watching around the world happier than they ever thought they could be. It’s really hard to top that, but an encore presentation is definitely not out of the realm of possibility.
The Cubs won 103 games in the regular season, but it was those 11 wins in the postseason that mattered the most. The Cubs certainly had to earn it, as they erased a 3-1 deficit against an Indians team that basically had nothing left to give after defying the odds to even get to that point. With a loaded roster and a handful of key acquisitions, the Cubs are poised to make another run at November and could very well do it again.
The North Siders were 103-58-1 during the regular season in what was a display of sheer dominance. Winning 103 games and still having a better record via Pythagorean Win-Loss is ridiculous, but the Cubs outscored opponents by 1.6 runs per game and posted a 107-54 Pyth W-L record. They were 107-55 per BaseRuns as well. Per 2nd Order Win Percentage at Baseball Prospectus, which is a variation of Pyth W-L, the Cubs were 115-47. By 3rd Order Win Percentage, the Cubs were 113-49. Basically, they weren’t just the best team last season, per the underlying metrics, they were one of the best teams of all time. The last team to have at least 107 wins per Pythagorean Win-Loss was the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who finished the year 116-46.
So, what’s next? Breaking a drought that lasted over a century has to lead to a letdown right? A postseason hangover? A lot of guys played a lot of games and pitched a lot of innings. The division seems to be there for the taking with relative ease, but how many wins will the Cubs come up with during the 2017 season?
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 96.5 (-110/-110)
BetOnline: 96.5 (-125/-105)
5Dimes: 96.5 (-115/-115)
Additions: Jon Jay, Brett Anderson, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing, Carlos Corporan, Jemile Weeks, Eddie Butler, Williams Perez
Losses: Jason Hammel, Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler, David Ross, Joe Smith, Travis Wood, Brian Matusz, Jorge Soler
Some key components from last year’s World Series champion left town, but the Cubs have a lot of financial resources to go out and get competent replacements. They also have a ton of organizational depth that allows them to give up a talented player like Jorge Soler to take a little bit of a gamble on Wade Davis. Davis is an elite reliever when healthy, but he battled a lot of injuries last season.
The rental of Aroldis Chapman paid off for both the Cubs and the Yankees, who got Gleyber Torres and then re-signed Chapman anyway. Jon Jay replaces Dexter Fowler, who was on a one-year deal and then bounced to Chicago’s archrival in St. Louis. Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing come in as bullpen depth to replace some of the other losses. Brett Anderson replaces Jason Hammel. Eddie Butler is a lottery ticket and a depth starter for a rotation that worked a ton of frames last year.
Why bet the over?
The champs didn’t exactly get worse over the offseason. They entered the 2016 season without Aroldis Chapman and now have what they hope is a full season of Wade Davis. Brett Anderson probably has more upside than Jason Hammel if he’s healthy. Jon Jay isn’t the hitter that Dexter Fowler is, but he’s a competent defensive player. It’s not like the Cubs are suddenly 10 wins worse from a personnel standpoint. Considering they actually underachieved with a 103-58 record per the alternate standings metrics, that’s pretty damn scary for the rest of baseball.
There are simply no weaknesses on this team. They have average or better position players at every single position. They have four well above average starters and can plug and play with the fifth spot. They have at least five above average relievers in the bullpen. Are there some areas in the foundation that might need a little bit of patchwork to cover up some minor cracks? Absolutely, but we’re hardly talking about the possibility of collapse. You can go a very long way with talent in Major League Baseball and it’s very hard to find a team more talented than the Chicago Cubs. In fact, I honestly don’t think that you can.
Aside from that Mike Trout guy, Kris Bryant is the best position player in baseball. He posted a .292/.385/.554 slash in his SECOND FULL SEASON in the big leagues. In two seasons, he’s already a .284/.377/.522 hitter with 65 HR. He’s accumulated 15 fWAR over two seasons at the MLB level. Not only does he rake as a hitter, and of course the signs are great that he improved greatly from his rookie year to his sophomore year, but he’s also an above average fielder both at third base and in the outfield. He’s 25 years old. We’re looking at a player in the prime of his career and basically the only position player capable of challenging Mike Trout for the league lead in WAR. As nuts as it is, there’s room for improvement. He already cut his K% from 30.6 percent to 22 percent. His walk rate actually went down a bit, but he barrels a ton of balls and could crack 40 dongs this year.
The guy at the other corner is pretty damn good, too. Anthony Rizzo now has three straight 5+-win seasons per Fangraphs. He’s been remarkably consistent in those year. He posted a .397 wOBA with a 155 wRC+ in 2014, a .384 wOBA with a 145 wRC+ in 2015, and a .391 wOBA with a 145 wRC+ in 2016. He’s hit 32, 31, and 32 home runs in those seasons. He even popped 17 steals into the mix in 2015. He ran less last year, but he also had the best season of his young career with a .544 SLG, so he racked up extra-base hits with regularity. He’s an exceptional hitter in the prime of his career and you can write in another five-win season.
The upside guy is 23-year-old Addison Russell. Many are looking at him as a breakout superstar this year, which is exactly what the Cubs need. Another star player. Russell carried a .277 BABIP because his contact quality wasn’t great, but he hit 21 HR and increased his walk rate to 9.2 percent. He posted a 95 wRC+, which was a few ticks below league average, but he’s also an elite defensive player at the most important position in the field. While Russell has been finding his way at the plate, he’s been busy saving 29 runs defensively over two seasons at shortstop with quality UZR marks. Remember that he split his time between 2B and SS in his rookie season and saved nine runs defensively at the pivot, too. I think he cracks the four-win mark this year and shows more improvement offensively. He already cut his K% by nearly six percent from ’15 to ’16.
Projection systems and analysts are looking for a bounce back season from Jason Heyward. Heyward was so good defensively last year that he managed 1.6 fWAR, even though he was 28 percent below league average offensively. He kept walking, but his contact quality plummeted. He had a .230 batting average with a .266 BABIP. Heyward hadn’t posted numbers like that since his 2011 season. Perhaps it was the pressure of the contract, but Heyward returning to a league average hitter would add at least a win and probably more like 1.5 wins to his final tally.
Ben Zobrist continues to be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He hung a four-win season last year with a .360 wOBA and serviceable defense at second base. His versatility in the field and the fact that he is a switch hitter is so valuable. A full season of Willson Contreras’s offense should be fun. He batted .282/.357/.488 in 283 plate appearances last season. His great BB% and low K% from the minors didn’t translate in his rookie year, so expect improvement here, too. Kyle Schwarber’s defense will leave something to be desired, but a full year of his bat doesn’t hurt. He’s going to bat leadoff as the Cubs look to maximize his OBP skills. Jon Jay simply has to be adequate defensively with all the production around him and guys like Javier Baez and Albert Almora provide above average bench production.
As for the pitchers, I’m starting with Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks was an emerging star last season on the strength of a .250 BABIP against and one of the league’s best changeups. He posted a 2.13 ERA with a 3.20 FIP and a 3.59 xFIP. From the start of July until the end of the regular season, Hendricks allowed 17 earned runs in over 100 innings pitched. Even with some likely regression built in, we’re talking about a masterful control artist with more than enough strikeouts to get by and improving fastball command.
Jon Lester shouldn’t miss David Ross that much, so expect another strong year from the southpaw. Lester, like the other Cubs hurlers, enjoyed the embarrassment of defensive riches to post a career-best 2.44 ERA with a 3.41 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP. Like most pitchers around the league, Lester’s gopher ball frequency went up, but he’s stunningly reliable with at least 31 starts every season dating back to 2009. He’s a high-floor, four-win pitcher.
No, Jake Arrieta didn’t replicate his Cy Young Award winning season, but he wasn’t going to. His walk rate climbed, likely as a result of the heavy workload from the year before, and yet he still posted a 3.10 ERA with a 3.52 FIP. Like Lester, and basically every other pitcher around the league, his home run rate also went up. He’ll be fine. Father Time seems to skip John Lackey’s house every time he’s looking for fresh meat, so I’m sure Lackey will work 180+ innings again with good peripherals and something around three wins above replacement. There’s also good depth here with Mike Montgomery, Brett Anderson, and Eddie Butler. The Cubs have toyed with a six-man rotation, which is something to watch as we get closer to the year.
The bullpen should be quite good again. The Cubs are using guys in the sixth and seventh innings that most teams would kill to have in the eighth inning. The league change for Koji Uehara should cut into his home run rate, which ballooned last season. Wade Davis, if healthy, should be really strong again. He worked 43.1 innings last season. He wasn’t as dominant as the previous two seasons, but he has a lot of upside. Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr., and Justin Grimm are all above average relievers.
The biggest edge for the Cubs over the rest of the league is that they are phenomenal defensively. We’ll see how the Kyle Schwarber experiment goes in left field, but the Cubs accumulated 31 more defensive runs saved than any other team in baseball last season and still have guys like Heyward, Bryant, Russell, and Rizzo at their respective positions. They blew away the rest of the league in UZR. We simply cannot overlook that because it leads to a lot of great run prevention metrics. Just take a look at the starters’ ERA-FIP discrepancy and LOB% stats. It gives pitchers a margin for error and allows the offense to win games when they don’t light up the scoreboard. The Cubs should lead the league in these numbers again or be very close.
Why bet the under?
What the Cubs did last season was historic and it probably cannot be topped. As mentioned, they did things from a run differential standpoint that hadn’t been done in 15 years and obviously cracked the curse that had plagued the fan base and the organization for 108 years. In terms of a postseason hangover, the results are a little bit hit or miss, to be honest.
Ben Lindbergh wrote on October 31, 2014 about how things had gone to that point. As we know, the Kansas City Royals went right back to the World Series in 2015 and won it. They were a .500 team the following year. Per Lindbergh’s research, the drop in winning percentage is noticeably bigger for teams that won the Fall Classic as opposed to those that lost.
Make no mistake. The Cubs roster was designed in a way so that the team would win the World Series. That goal has been achieved. It’s simply human nature to relax a little bit after accomplishing a goal, so it’s fair to wonder how long the Cubs will spend trying to make up ground on a number like this. Winning 94 games requires a .580 win percentage. Starting 10-10, it takes a .592 win percentage to get to 94 wins. Starting 15-15, it takes a .598 win percentage. You can see where I’m going with this. If the Cubs get off to a slow start, induced from a postseason hangover or whatever else, the degree of difficulty in terms of winning 94 games gets greater and greater. As epic as Chicago’s season was, the Cubs were 35-15 after 50 games, which put them in a great position to win a ton of games. It’s not easy to be 20 games over .500 after 50 games. They were 18-20 over the next 38 games heading into the break before having a ridiculously good second half.
But, there will be lulls. The Cubs had a losing record in July. Things happen. Injuries happen. The Cubs stayed remarkably healthy last season. Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, and Addison Russell all had 592 or more plate appearances. The five primary starting pitchers for the Cubs (Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey, Hammel) all made at least 29 starts. We don’t often see that. Yes, Kyle Schwarber was lost for the season, but that was the only real bit of injury adversity that the Cubs faced. That probably won’t be the case this season, based solely on simple variance. It may also be a factor that the Cubs have had two long playoff stints in back-to-back seasons.
Five relievers had at least 50 appearances and Carl Edwards wasn’t called up until June 22. He made 36 appearances after that. The Cubs are good, but it takes a lot of luck to win 103 games and it is generally injury luck that becomes the standout factor. Some extremely talented teams go nowhere because of injuries. The Cubs were very fortunate on that front this season. It helps to have a young core of players, but there are some risk factors.
Season Win Total Pick: Under 96.5 (-115; BetDSI)
Injuries are really the only case that I can make for the Cubs to come in under the win total, but that’s good enough for me with a total this high. The Cubs may start off a bit slower than last year’s 35-15 start, but talent eventually rises to the top and they have so much more of it than most of their opponents. This is a very young core group of players and there are signs of guys that had great seasons having better ones and of guys that had bad seasons improving.
I don’t know the domination will be as noticeable. I don’t know if the Cubs will go out there win 42 games by five runs or more. They had a +200 run differential in games decided by five or more runs. They hammered the American League in interleague play. They won over 70 percent of their home games. But, that’s not to say that this is a team that is somehow going to drop off by 10 wins. The roster is largely the same with similar talent replacing guys that left.
I simply can’t pick a team to win at least 97 games. Too many bad things can happen. Should the Cubs win 97 games? With their talent, yes. But, there’s no margin for error with something like this.
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