There are a lot of people that are ready to give the World Series to the Chicago Cubs without a regular season game, a playoff series, or even one meaningful pitch. In some respects, it’s easy to see why. The Cubs went from a road wild card to a NLCS competitor in pretty quick, and impressive, fashion last season and the team got stronger this past winter. An influx of exceptional, young talent has created a major buzz in Chicago the likes of which has not been seen in a long time.
If this group can lead the team to the promised land, they will have broken the most notorious drought in professional sports. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. The Steve Bartman was the closest that they have come. Realistically speaking, it’s hard to find a Cubs team in the last 100 years that is as good as this one. The 1935 Chicago Cubs went 100-54, a mark that this season’s team probably won’t top, but last year’s Cubs club won 97 games. That tied the 2008 team for the most wins in a season and was the most wins since the 1945 Cubs won 98 games.
Recent history is not on Chicago’s side. Can you remember the last team that was heavily favored and won the World Series? That was the 2009 New York Yankees. They were a +300 favorite in March prior to the season. Hype often leads to disappointment. It leads to a lot of pressure. A World Series title is the only outcome that matters. Winning 102 games, getting to the NLCS or getting to the World Series isn’t enough. Only one thing matters. A title. That’s a lot of pressure on a team and this, for all intents and purposes, is still a pretty young Cubs bunch.
Raining on the parade, which is already being planned through Wrigleyville, this is a team that overachieved last season. Their 97-65 record was accompanied by a 90-72 Pythagorean W-L record. The Cubs were 34-21 in one-run games, including 13 walk-off wins. They were 49-32 at Wrigley Field, even though they were just +20 in run differential. To Chicago’s credit, they were 42-18 over the final 60 games of the season, which is just an incredible run. Going 27-11 against Cincinnati and Milwaukee was a big help and that same luxury is available again this season. By BaseRuns, the Cubs were a 94-68 team.
A 94-68 record would be good enough this season to go over the win total and should be good enough to make the playoffs. You won’t find many detractors of this Cubs team and I won’t even pretend to be one. However, as good as they are, winning 93+ is hard. Remember when everybody piled on the Nationals last season with a win total in the mid-90s? They won 83 games. After winning the 2013 World Series, Boston was supposed to rock everybody’s world. They finished last in the AL East and won 71 games.
We’ll see how it plays out, but there’s no denying that this could be the year.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 93.5 (-135/105)
5Dimes: 93.5 (-110/-120)
Bovada: 92.5 (-130/100)
Key additions: Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Adam Warren, Rex Brothers
Key losses: Starlin Castro, Chris Coghlan
This was the offseason of a team that is going for it. Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist were two of the best free agents available and all it costs to get free agents is money. Small-market and mid-market teams have to build up farm systems and trade for proven Major League talent. Teams with money can buy them and surround them with young talent. The Cubs did that and, in the process, seriously upgraded center field and second base.
Not nearly celebrated as much were the additions of John Lackey and Adam Warren. Lackey provides stability in the middle of the rotation, something the Cubs were lacking, and Warren is a great swingman that can slot in the back of the rotation or work in middle relief. He’s a really valuable asset on a team that has good position player depth, but could use a little more pitching depth.
Starlin Castro needed a change of scenery and Chris Coghlan was a platoon bat with better players in front of him. All in all, this was one of the most successful winters in Major League Baseball and the win total market certainly reflects that.
Why bet the over?
Why not bet the over? Everybody’s doing it. Atlantis Sportsbook got laughed at for a bad number on the Cubs at open and the rest of the market opened right around where the number is now. It’s tough to find reasons to be against the Cubs. Fangraphs’s Depth Charts projections have them as the team with the most WAR this season with 52.2 wins above replacement player.
This is what happens when you draft well and develop better. The Cubs got a perfect storm situation last year when Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Kris Bryant all emerged in the same season. Anthony Rizzo was already a proven Major Leaguer. With these guys on a good development path, the ball was in motion last offseason with the acquisitions of Miguel Montero and Jon Lester. Now, with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist added to the mix, there are no discernible weaknesses on this roster.
It’s hard to find a starting point, but we’ll start with the most proven young hitter of the bunch in Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo is signed to a real sweet deal and piggybacked his 2014 season with an equally-impressive 2015 campaign. His numbers dipped slightly from really, really awesome to really awesome, as he posted a .286/.387/.512 slash. His wOBA dropped by 13 points, but that wasn’t enough to take away much of his value. He also cut his strikeout rate, which should help this season. Oh, and he very quietly stole 17 bases with new, more aggressive manager Joe Maddon. Oh, and he’s very useful in the field.
Kris Bryant struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances, but did a ton of damage when he put balls in play. He had a .275/.369/.488 slash with a .371 wOBA and a 136 wRC+. Not bad at all for his rookie season. Bryant has incredible power, which showed with 26 home runs and three more in seven games at the minor league level. Bryant was held back in an effort to avoid qualifying for Super Two status and a fourth year of arbitration, but that seems to be water under the bridge now and he’ll rake this season, probably improving across the board.
Jason Heyward got paaaaaaaaaaid this winter, signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. He deserves it. He’s an elite defensive outfielder in right field, which is where he should return with Dexter Fowler back in the mix. Heyward also owns a .268/.353/.431 slash for his career and had one of his better offensive seasons last year with the lowest strikeout rate of his career. In 6,756 innings in right field, Heyward had amassed 119 defensive runs saved. That’s the kind of value you pay for.
Kyle Schwarber’s power was really on display, as he hit 16 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He’s passable in left field, so his power bat will definitely play well in the corner. He worked a lot of counts, with over 41 percent of his plate appearances ending in a strikeout or walk. He struck out more as he faced better pitching, but, as a polished college bat out of Indiana, he could see some gains in the contact department. If that happens, he might be a .260/.375/.490 guy, which is incredible production.
Ben Zobrist’s best days may be behind him, but he won’t be bounced from position to position all that often this season and the switch-hitting second baseman is coming off of his best offensive season since 2012. He didn’t run as much last year, but he walked more than he struck out and hit 13 home runs. The thing about Zobrist is that he really deepens this lineup. Who knows where he’ll hit in the order, but if its sixth or seventh, it’s rare to have an NL team that has this many guys that walk and hit for power.
Addison Russell scuffled offensively, but the power was there. The 2B/SS hit 13 home runs in 523 plate appearances and played spectacular defense. Behind second and short, he accumulated 19 defensive runs saved. He’ll almost exclusively play short this season and should keep growing offensively. He’s only 22.
Depth isn’t an issue here, with Dexter Fowler in center, Jorge Soler, world-class defender Brendan Ryan, and a super utility man with absurd power in Javier Baez all very capable of playing and contributing.
Jake Arrieta’s second half of 2015 won him a Cy Young. In Arrieta’s 67 starts with the Cubs, he is 36-13 with a 2.26 ERA and a 2.62 FIP. He has a 3.89 K/BB ratio. That’s a really special pitcher. Even with some regression, which will happen because his second half was so historic, we’re still talking about a 2.50-2.75 ERA/FIP/xFIP with an elite cutter and terrific peripherals.
The first 32 starts in the NL went about as you would expect for Jon Lester. Victimized by some bad defense early, Lester settled in for his usual season with an ERA in the 3.30-3.50 range, a FIP better than his ERA, and more than 200 innings of work. He’s remarkably consistent, outside of a tough 2012 season, and he and Arrieta make a very formidable 1-2 punch. He’s not a great fielder, but that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.
John Lackey won’t repeat his 2015 season. And that’s perfectly fine. As a middle of the rotation guy for the Cubs, Lackey will probably post a 3.50 ERA and eat up 200 innings. He benefitted from an 82.6 percent strand rate in 2015, so that’s why his 2.77 ERA won’t happen again, but he’s got a good defensive team behind him as his strikeout rate gradually drops later in his career. He’s a great addition to this team and has a good bit of postseason experience, something the Cubs were missing last season outside of Lester.
Kyle Hendricks is a guy I really like. He had above average K/BB rates last season and got unlucky with some sequencing. A 69.9 percent strand rate bumped a 3.25 xFIP and a 3.36 FIP into a 3.95 ERA. He worked 180 innings in his first full big league season. This year, as he takes another step, it’s not hard to see the Cubs having four 200-inning starters and all of them will have above average production. The lineup gets a lot of love, but the rotation is strong, too.
Jason Hammel has some injury issues, so Adam Warren is a great safety net. Travis Wood is another guy with starting experience, so the Cubs run seven deep right now. That’s good enough, as somebody else should emerge later in the year.
The bullpen is really deep as well. Hector Rondon is the anchor and the closer, but Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm were excellent in middle relief last season. Trevor Cahill seems to have found a niche in relief after being a failed starter. Adam Warren will probably end up back here unless he beats Hammel for the rotation. There’s a lot of good right-handed relief depth, with the possibility that Rex Brothers is healthy enough to be a shutdown lefty.
The schedule helps the Cubs immensely. They smashed bad teams last season to the tune of a 53-33 record. There are six bad teams in the National League and two of them are in this division. The Brewers finished 29 games behind the Cubs for third place last season and are in a rebuild. The Reds were 33 games behind the Cubs when it was all said and done. Many believe that the Cardinals and the Pirates will take steps back this season. It’s all setting up well for Chicago.
Why bet the under?
This is really hard to do. Making a case for the under with this kind of talent is difficult. Earlier in the piece, I cited the Washington Nationals as a team with high expectations that fell short, but they didn’t have the talent or the depth that this team has. I can reach for things like “sophomore slumps”, but these guys are way too good to fall into that trap. Sophomore slumps happen when hitters or pitchers don’t adjust. These guys are talented, but also have very high baseball IQs.
But, I’ll do the best I can do dissuade you. For one thing, four teams in MLB won 95 or more games. Three of them were in this division and the other was the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Three teams won 95+ in 2014. Four teams did it in 2013. It’s not easy over the course of 162 games to sustain a .580 or a .586 win percentage. Things happen. Variance happens. Injuries happen. Betting a number this high leaves no margin for error. Almost everything has to go right. Limiting risk is the goal of any futures play. Betting on a team to win 95 games, no matter how high the ceiling is, carries a lot more risk than playing a more manageable number on another team.
The Cubs put it all together in the second half, when Jake Arrieta went on his tear. A lot of these guys were up by the All-Star Break when Chicago was 47-40. They were 50-25 after the Break. A 34-21 record in one-run games is prone to regression, since most teams, save for those with truly elite bullpens, are generally within three or four games of .500.
The other two non-rebuilding teams in this division combined for 198 wins last season and nobody had a better run differential among NL teams than the Cardinals. Even if St. Louis and Pittsburgh do regress a little bit, they are still very good clubs. I would expect the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants to be better. Most anticipate that the Arizona Diamondbacks will be better and the Miami Marlins aren’t going to lose 90 games again. All of the wins from the Central should get spread out a little bit, creating a little bit more parity among the top teams.
Defensively, the outfield could be an adventure. Jason Heyward is great in right field, but he could see time in center if Dexter Fowler gets hurt or struggles. Heyward, in a small sample, hasn’t had nearly the same success in center as he has in right. Kyle Schwarber is something between a statue and a large caterpillar in left field, so he may not be a great fit out there. Ben Zobrist is on the wrong side of 35, so any outfield appearances for him may not go as planned.
The starting rotation looks great on paper and has a lot of potential, but four of the five projected starters are on the wrong side of 30 and Jason Hammel has had all sorts of injury issues throughout his career. Jake Arrieta worked 229 innings plus 19.2 more in the playoffs. He had never worked more than 156.2 innings in the Major Leagues in his career. John Lackey is in his age-37 season and had Tommy John a few years ago. I expected him to fall apart last season after working so many innings, but maybe this is the year. Starting pitching depth is the one thing that this team lacks, in that if any of the top four go down, they’re hard-pressed to find somebody. They either take away a reliever like Adam Warren or Travis Wood or use a replacement-level guy like Dallas Beeler.
Like most young(ish) teams that make a run, some guys really reached new highs in innings, plate appearances, and other things that can have a hangover effect. Former starter turned reliever Hector Rondon set career highs in innings and appearances. Pedro Strop worked 76 games in the regular season and added on in the playoffs. Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta set new career highs across the board. Hitters had long seasons and less recovery time. Everybody’s body heals different. Guys have different training regimens. I’m sure there are more tangible studies out there about how these things affect teams the following season. I’m going to go on the common sense assumption that they do and do so in a relatively big way in terms of injuries and performance.
Pick: Chicago Cubs Over 92.5 (-130 – Bovada)
As much as I want to do it, I just can’t take the under. Injuries could happen and turn a promising season and a World Series contender into an 82 or 83-win team, but I don’t see a better team in Major League Baseball on paper. Between the offseason acquisitions and the continued development of very good, young hitters, I just can’t get myself to expect the worst for this team.
Because of the offensive depth, the floor is high enough for me to buy in. The starting rotation concerns are very real, especially about Lackey and Arrieta, but this is a team without weaknesses when healthy. There are viable replacements here, especially in the National League and especially with elite-to-above average defense at the majority of the positions on the field.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
The hype machine is spinning wildly for the Chicago Cubs this season. And why not? The Cubs haven’t won a playoff series since 2003 and haven’t won the World Series since 1908. They’re probably not going to win the World Series this season either, but the best minor league system in all of baseball has brought a lot of optimism to the long-suffering fan base.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have brought in quite a bit of talent already and the minor league talent left over by the previous regime has given the Cubs a big window in which a World Series title is certainly possible. The first step, however, is getting to .500 for the first time since 2009. This is projected to be that season and the Cubs certainly have plenty of assets coveted by other teams in the trade market. A spot in the playoffs with one of the two wild cards isn’t as ludicrous as some people might think for a team that won just 73 games last season.
The Cubs gave up way too many runs last season and didn’t score enough, but the second half of the season gave us a glimpse into what the future may hold. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara all spent significant time in the big leagues and the Cubs were a 33-35 team after the All-Star Break. It’s hard to ignore the fact that they were outscored by 63 runs over those 68 games, so their expected win-loss record was a lot lower than 33-35, but the talent is there and it will sporadically make the jump from the minor leagues throughout the season.
With the exception of a terrible 5-14 record against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs held their own against the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds with a 28-29 record. Oddsmakers are buying into the hype this season, as the Cubs win total is 10 games better than their record from last season. BetOnline has the line at 83. 5Dimes and Bovada are both at 82.5, but the over is juiced at Bovada, while the under is juiced at 5Dimes.
Key additions: Miguel Montero, Jon Lester, David Ross, Chris Denorfia, Jason Hammel, Felix Doubront, Dexter Fowler, Daniel Bard, Jason Motte
Key losses: John Baker, Wesley Wright, Dan Straily, Luis Valbuena
It was a big offseason for the Cubs. Theo Epstein took advantage of the changing landscape in Tampa Bay and was able to entice Joe Maddon to become the manager of the Cubs. Tampering allegations have been brought up against the Cubs since Maddon opted out of his pact with the Rays with one year remaining on his contract.
Epstein is reunited with Jon Lester, who is also reunited with personal catcher David Ross. Jason Hammel is back on the north side after he was traded to Oakland along with Jeff Samardzija last season. Miguel Montero provides a better all-around player behind the plate for the Cubs. Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard are two more signings that have Epstein’s fingerprints all over them.
The losses are fairly small, with backup catcher John Baker and matchup lefty Wesley Wright in different locales this season. Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily were the price for acquiring Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros.
Why bet the over?
We’ll start with the practical instead of the hypothetical. There are a few really good, established players on this roster. Anthony Rizzo was spectacular in his second full season with the Cubs. He posted a .286/.386/.527 slash with 32 home runs and played well defensively. There’s nothing outlandish in Rizzo’s profile that would suggest regression. He was the victim of bad batted ball luck in 2013 with a .258 BABIP that led to a .233 batting average and a .323 on-base percentage. With a better BABIP, Rizzo was 53 percent above league average offensively. He’ll be a solid five-win player as long as he stays healthy and could see a bump in his counting numbers with a stronger lineup and more than 616 plate appearances.
Starlin Castro had the bounce back season that Cubs fans were hoping for. After a horrible 2013 season in which Castro fought with his identity as a hitter, he put together a .292/.339/.438 slash with 14 home runs and above average contact skills. The BABIP was back to his 2010-12 figures, which suggests that it could be fairly sustainable at .337. It was a big season for Castro with some big prospects like Javier Baez and now Addison Russell pushing their way up the ladder.
Miguel Montero has fallen off a bit as a hitter, but a change of scenery could be huge for him. The Diamondbacks organization has been toxic for the last few seasons and Montero was right in the thick of it. Things are moving in a better direction, but he’s out of the desert and with the Chicago Cubs now. Montero is a great pitch framer (best in the league in 2014) and a sabermetric, progressive front office like the Cubs will certainly pay close attention to the details. His offense may gradually come back with some better batted ball luck.
Jon Lester should enjoy National League baseball. The longtime Boston Red Sock was traded to Oakland and pitched well for the A’s, but now he finds himself $155M richer and in the friendlier National League. Lester has been great for a while now, with the exception of a major blip in 2012. That’s in the past now and Lester posted the best K/BB ratio of his career last season en route to a 2.46 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 3.10 xFIP. Those numbers may regress a tad because he’s in a park that can be hell on pitchers when the wind is blowing out, but he should reliably be worth four or more wins.
How good was Jake Arrieta for the Cubs last season? He accumulated 4.9 wins above replacement player in just 25 starts with a spectacular 2.26 FIP. For whatever reason, the Baltimore Orioles organization does not allow their pitchers to learn to throw cutters. The cutter became Arrieta’s best pitch last season. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings last season, only Adam Wainwright had a more effective cutter per Baseball Info Solutions. It was even better than Corey Kluber’s cutter, and he won a Cy Young.
Jason Hammel has to be happy to be back with the Cubs after he blew up in the faces of the Oakland A’s front office. Hammel was great for the Cubs in 17 starts with a 3.19 FIP and a 3.21 xFIP. He also had the best K/BB rate of his career. Unfortunately for him, he went to Oakland and posted a 5.10 FIP in the American League with a major spike in home runs, which was odd because O.co Coliseum suppresses long balls. With Lester and Arrieta in front of him, Hammel should have some good value as a middle of the rotation guy.
Any preview of the Chicago Cubs for 2015 has to include their massive collection of prospects. The one with the highest ceiling for 2015 should be Jorge Soler. Soler had 97 plate appearances last season and slashed .292/.330/.573 and picked up 0.7 wins above replacement player in just 24 games. Soler is 22 and rose from rookie ball to Triple-A and then the bigs last season, but he slugged .618 in 32 games for the Cubs Triple-A team. He posted excellent walk ratios last season in the minors, albeit in small sample sizes at each stop. Big league pitchers will prey on his big swing, but there’s some big power in that bat and he hits the ball exceptionally hard, so he could be a BABIP overachiever.
Javier Baez is a slugger. He has ridiculous power, but also a lot of holes in his swing. He hit .169/.227/.324 last season with nine home runs in just 229 plate appearances, but he struck out 41.5 percent of the time. He’s slated to be the starting second baseman for the Cubs this season. You’ll have to take the bad with the good for Baez. He’ll strike out in a lot of key situations, but he can also hit a rooftop seating area with a flat slider or belt high fastball. If he starts making more consistent contact this season, he’ll be a very potent hitter.
Kris Bryant should be patrolling third base by the summer for the Cubs. Bryant hit 43 home runs in 594 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He also strikes out a fair amount, but he also walked 86 times. He hit .355 in 297 PA at Double-A and .295 in 297 PA at Triple-A. I’ve yet to use this term for a hitter, but Kris Bryant has pure #rig. He has bat speed that scouts salivate over and can hit a ball into orbit. Oh, and he stole 15 bases last season in the minors. He’s a monster of a human being at 6’5”, 215 lbs and he’ll be here before you know it.
The Cubs wound up with a pretty decent bullpen once failed starter Hector Rondon slid into the closer’s role. Almost everybody that pitched in a setup role or middle relief put together a solid season for the Cubs and this actually looks like a strength entering the season. Edwin Jackson may try his hand in the bullpen given Chicago’s starting pitching depth and Jacob Turner may also be used in short bursts out of the pen with his standard four-pitch mix and solid ground ball rate.
The Cubs have a lot of pitching depth this season and they’ve added some extra arms to compete for jobs on minor league deals. The starting rotation runs at least six deep with Travis Wood, Kyle Hendricks, and Tsuyoshi Wada behind Lester, Arrieta, and Hammel. Jackson can also start in a pinch. Teams with good depth are good over bets because they can collectively withstand any big injury that comes along. Not to mention, there’s a lot of talent on the farm that is just a phone call away.
Why bet the under?
The hype has already overshadowed reasonable expectations. The Cubs have a tremendous collection of young talent, but the chances of it developing together at the Major League level are really small. More than that, not every one of these guys is going to be a big hit. Javier Baez could be a gigantic bust because he can’t make contact. Arismendy Alcantara really struggled against big league pitching. There are defensive question marks attached to almost every one of these prospects. Kris Bryant may not be able to handle third base. What does that mean with Anthony Rizzo at first base?
Oddsmakers and bettors seem to be forgetting that the Cubs got 97 plate appearances from Soler, zero from Bryant, and Baez was a bad hitter over his 229 plate appearances. The jump from Double-A or Triple-A to the Majors is the biggest gap in all of sports. It takes time for these players to develop. Sometimes video can be hard to find on players in the minor leagues and pitchers aren’t adequately prepared. That’s never the case in the big leagues. Young hitters that have never experienced failure get to the big leagues thinking they are invincible and they’re not. It’s about making adjustments, not just from game to game or at bat to at bat, but pitch to pitch. That’s the biggest curve that promising young hitters struggle with. These guys are going to do that, no matter how much talent they have. Not many players come up and rake right away. It’s best that you don’t expect that from this group either.
While the Cubs have starting pitching depth in the sense that there are capable bodies, it doesn’t mean that they are good. Jason Hammel’s outlier was the 17 starts he made with the Cubs. For his career, Hammel has a 4.60 ERA, a 4.27 FIP, and a 4.12 xFIP. Those numbers would all be well below average in the light-hitting National League. Hammel is probably more like a 3.75 ERA guy with a FIP somewhere in the low 4.00 range. That’s not middle of the rotation caliber in the NL.
Travis Wood made 31 starts, which is all well and good because innings are important, but he posted a 5.03 ERA, a 4.38 FIP, and a 4.51 xFIP. That’s not good. In any league. Kyle Hendricks posted a 7-2 record with a 2.46 over 13 starts covering 80 innings, but he’s a major regression candidate in year two. He had a low strikeout rate and a lot of batted ball luck, including a low rate of home runs allowed. He had a 3.32 FIP because of the low walk rate but a 3.92 xFIP. He might be around league average, but he probably needs to be better than that given the uncertainty surrounding Hammel.
Jake Arrieta was great, but it was his first trip around the National League and the first time he had that kind of success. The cutter was a big weapon, but hitters have seen it now. Arrieta will probably stay above average given that he has always had raw potential and good stuff, but a five-win season is a major stretch.
Miguel Montero is probably done being a productive hitter. He’ll provide pitch framing value, which will help a marginal starting rotation, but don’t expect much offensively from him. Regarding Dexter Fowler, he’s a pretty decent on-base and contact guy, but he has crippled his offensive value by being atrocious defensively. Fowler has also been in Colorado and Houston, two of the better hitter’s parks in the game, so temper your expectations for his offensive numbers.
Don’t expect Addison Russell until September, if at all this season. The 21-year-old is still working out a lot of kinks in his game. The potential is there, but he will spend a lot of time in Double and Triple-A this season. He should be on the scene in 2016, but don’t count on anything from him this season.
The Cubs aren’t going to provide much “hidden” value. They won’t steal many bases and they’re not going to be a particularly good defensive team. That hurts because everybody knows about the offensive potential of their prospects and knows about what Jon Lester brings to the table as a starter. Hidden value is where the value is in betting win totals. It’s about finding things that the oddsmakers cannot see with a cursory glance at the roster or the teams. It’s hard to find that sort of thing with the Cubs.
Pick: Under 83
The Cubs have a bright future, one of the brightest in Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, it’s not the future yet. There are going to be growing pains for a lot of the players on the roster. They’re going to look like world beaters on certain days, but they’re going to look like the young, inexperienced team that they are on other days. Consistency is important in these win totals and I really don’t think that they have enough of it.
The back of the rotation has the potential to be really bad. While the offense can improve, there are some high strikeout guys on the roster that might score 13 runs one night and two runs the next night. With a starting rotation full of landmines at the back end, they better hope that they score 13 on those days. Lester and Arrieta could be tough luck losers against good pitchers that can neutralize this talented, but flawed lineup.
The Cubs could fly over this win total if everything goes right, but I’m confident in taking the under, even though the NL Central is a shaky division this season. The Cubs aren’t ready to take a 10-win step forward. Not this season. Next season they could be in the mid-80s, but it’s going to be a process to get to that point.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
For the fourth straight season, the Chicago Cubs were awful, losing 96 games in the top-heavy National League Central Division. It’s been a work in progress for Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox General Manager who built the team that ended the Curse of the Bambino in Boston, but the Cubs did improve five games from the season before and their Pythagorean Win-Loss record suggested that they were actually a bit unlucky, as their run differential suggested a 71-91 record as opposed to the 66-96 mark in the actual standings.
The Cubs went through a league-high 31 pitchers last season as a result of trades, injuries, and ineffectiveness. Nine different guys made starts for the Cubs last season even though three of the Cubs starters made over 30 starts each. A large part of why the Cubs lost 96 games is because they went just 25-51 against divisional opponents. The big three, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, posted a combined record of 38-19 against the Cubs. To the Cubs’ credit, despite operating at a pretty big talent deficiency in the division, and the league as a whole, the Cubs entered August just nine games below .500. Over the final two months, as younger players got extended playing time and trades gave the team a different look, the Cubs went 17-38.
The Cubs bullpen was atrocious last season, evidenced by the team’s league-worst mark of 20-33 in one-run games. Another area where the Cubs struggled was against right-handed pitching. The Cubs were just 44-74 in games started by a right-handed pitcher, with the league’s third-worst OBP and fifth-worst wRC+ against righties. Teams generally face a right-handed starter in somewhere around 70 percent of their games, so an inability to hit righties makes for a long season.
Sportsbooks are projecting another long season for the Cubs in 2014. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV posted the lowest total at 65, with LVH Superbook opening 68 and William Hill opening at 69.5.
Key additions: Wesley Wright, Ryan Roberts, Jose Veras, Jason Hammel, James McDonald, Emilio Bonifacio
Key losses: Dioner Navarro, Kevin Gregg, Scott Baker
Theo Epstein has made it clear this winter what he wants to improve with the ballclub. He added Wesley Wright and Jose Veras to a bullpen in desperate need of help. He added Major League caliber starting pitching depth to a team in dire need of competent arms to be used at the back of the rotation. Both Jason Hammel and James McDonald have Major League experience and the potential to be better than the other in-house candidates. Ryan Roberts and Emilio Bonifacio fit nicely as middle infield depth and one of them could easily beat out Darwin Barney for the starting spot at second base.
Dioner Navarro was a pleasant surprise for the Cubs, batting .300 with an .856 OPS in his 266 plate appearances. Navarro moved on to the Blue Jays, as the Cubs are content to go with Wellington Castillo. Kevin Gregg had a nice season as the closer, converting 33 saves with a 3.48 ERA, but at 35 with a pitch-to-contact style, the Cubs moved on. Scott Baker only made three starts in his return from elbow surgery. It was a big waste of money for the Cubs, who gave Baker a $5.5M deal before the season with up to $1.5M in performance bonuses.
Overall, the Cubs didn’t lose much, in part because they didn’t have much to lose. The team enters 2014 with more depth in key positions.
Why bet the over?
The Cubs offense ran into a lot of problems last year for a myriad of reasons. For starters, the Cubs had the league’s lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) at .275. The usual range for BABIP is between .290-.310. When talking about a sample size averaging around 5,500 at bats, just a 15 point improvement in BABIP would account for about 110 more hits. The Cubs had the fourth-worst batting average in the league at .238, due to their very low BABIP. It’s important to note that home runs are not factored into to BABIP and the Cubs had one of the league’s highest percentages of hits as home runs, so that played a role. Also, the Reds, Pirates, and Brewers were among the league’s best in defensive runs saved, likely costing the Cubs some hits in those division games.
Overall, however, one would expect that the Cubs would be a little more fortunate on balls in play this season. Starlin Castro was the biggest victim of that team trend. Castro entered the season as a free-swinging contact hitter with three straight seasons of .283 or better on his resume. In 2013, Castro took more pitches, lost his aggressiveness at the plate, and batted just .245. His slugging percentage also dropped precipitously, falling nearly 90 points. There appear to be differences of opinion within the Cubs organization about how to approach Castro, especially with Epstein, one of the earliest subscribers to the theories of Moneyball, running the organization. If Castro is allowed to be himself following 2013’s very disappointing returns, he should be a much more valuable player.
The additions of Ryan Roberts and Emilio Bonifacio should be enough to take Darwin Barney out of the lineup. Barney was one of the league’s worst offensive performers last season, posting a ghastly .252 wOBA in 555 plate appearances. In each of his three full seasons in the Majors, Barney had been a strong defender and a below average offensive performer. For a team that struggled to score runs last season, guys like Roberts and Bonifacio, with better offensive skill sets, should signify an upgrade.
Big things are expected from former top-50 prospect Anthony Rizzo this season. Rizzo finished his first full season in the bigs with a .742 OPS, but really tailed off in the second half as the grind of the season wore him down. Better equipped for the rigors of 162 games, Rizzo, who had great success in the minor leagues, should start to see some of his talents translate more at the Major League level.
The Cubs will be one of the teams to utilize the concept of the platoon advantage again this season. The theory behind platoons is to use the strengths of two players to create one above average player. The most-utilized platoon is obviously one where one player excels against right-handed pitching and the other excels against left-handed pitching. The Cubs will likely go with that format at third base with Luis Valbuena, who hits righties well, and either Donnie Murphy or Ryan Roberts, who posted a .785 OPS against lefties last season, against southpaws.
This approach will also be used in the outfield with guys like Justin Ruggiano, Junior Lake, Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, Casper Wells, and whoever else may make the ballclub out of camp. Most of these players have very sharp splits depending on the handedness of the pitcher. It’s a very “Moneyball”-esque approach to lineup construction and it’s no surprise that Epstein would use this approach to keep the team afloat while waiting on a very strong pool of prospects to make it to the big leagues. Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks ranked the Cubs as the second-best system in the Major Leagues just last month.
On the pitching side of things, Jeff Samardzija continues to be one of most underrated starting pitchers because he plays on a bad team. In his two full seasons as a starter, Samardzija has accumulated 5.8 fWAR despite a 17-26 record. There was a lot to like about Samardzija’s 2013 campaign as his strikeout rate remained the same and a spike in walks was mitigated by an increase in ground balls. Samardzija’s 4.34 ERA may be scary to old school baseball thinkers, but his 3.77 FIP, 3.45 xFIP, and 3.60 SIERA suggest that Samardzija was significantly better than the traditional numbers would indicate. Expect Samardzija’s overall line to improve this season.
Travis Wood seems to have figured something out as his home runs allowed per nine innings dropped from 1.44 to 0.81. His home runs allowed total dropped from 25 to 18 even though he threw 44 more innings. The biggest difference for Wood was how he mixed his pitches, inducing more infield pop ups than ever before. Pop ups are essentially strikeouts, since there’s very little chance of a runner reaching base or a baserunner advancing. Wood’s control numbers are around league average, so he could be a serviceable starter again in 2014.
Edwin Jackson, like Samardzija, was better than traditional numbers would indicate. His ugly 4.98 ERA is lessened by a 3.79 FIP, 3.86 xFIP, and a 4.04 SIERA. Jackson sacrificed a little velocity for more downward movement, posting his best ground ball rate since 2006. That also led to his decrease in home runs allowed. It’s hard to say what Jackson’s 2014 season holds, but his sabermetric numbers suggest a better season.
The back-end of the Cubs rotation has plenty of possibilities. Carlos Villanueva will be used in Spring Training as if he is going to start. Villanueva lowered his walk rate and increased his ground ball rate last season. James McDonald is a wild card. Once a highly-touted prospect, McDonald ran into injuries and struggles at the big league level before having a decent season for the Pirates in 2012. If the Cubs can harness his command, he may be valuable. Chris Rusin showed the ability to get outs at the Major League level and could be a league-average fifth starter. Jake Arrieta, another former top prospect, may have some untapped potential left. Jason Hammel is looking to resurrect his career and a change to the National League and getting out of the American League East could be very beneficial.
The bullpen, which posted the second-worst FIP last season, has better depth with the additions of Wesley Wright and Jose Veras. Wright has struck out 23 percent of the batters he has faced in his Major League career, many of them lefties. That gives the Cubs a very reliable matchup lefty for use in the late innings. Veras will likely take the closer’s role, a role he fulfilled with some success for the Astros last season. Veras lowered his walk rate and increased his first-strike percentage in 2013, two developments that can keep him an effective reliever if they continue.
Crafty lefty James Russell will join Wright to help neutralize lefties. Fireballer Pedro Strop will likely be the primary setup man, at least until Kyuji Fujikawa returns from injury in June or July. Strop posted a 2.83 ERA in 37 appearances for the Cubs last season, benefitting from a league change and a big improvement in his K/BB ratio. One of the starters that doesn’t make the rotation will likely slot into the bullpen in long relief.
Why bet the under?
The Cubs offense looks like it will still be decidedly below league average, even if the team’s BABIP regulates. The Cubs walk at a poor rate and are going to be heavily reliant on platoons to succeed. While platoons do have a clear benefit, any injuries that arise will create significantly more playing time to players that are offensively flawed. The Cubs project to be average or below at nearly every position offensively, except maybe catcher, depending on how Castillo’s development progresses.
The Cubs hit the second most home runs in the National League with 172 and had the third-most doubles with 297. In spite of that, the only team the Cubs outscored was the Miami Marlins. The Cubs were shutout 16 times last season and the offense really doesn’t seem to be improved at all.
The strength of the organization’s prospect pool is with position players, so the Cubs are just trying to piecemeal whatever they can to have some semblance of a competent Major League offense. That looks to be difficult this season. You’ll notice that the Cubs did very little to address their lineup in free agency, even though their ownership does have money to spend. It’s a wait-and-see approach because there’s no reason to block young, up and coming talent with older players. If you do expect the Cubs to be better than last season, you would be anticipating on the development of players that are going to be easily replaceable when better options graduate from the minor league system.
The pitching staff shows some signs of improvement in some areas, but signs of regression in others. While Wood posted a 3.11 ERA in his 200 innings, his FIP was 3.89 and his xFIP was 4.50, indicating that any spike in home run rate will dramatically inflate Wood’s numbers. Fly ball pitchers are always a scary proposition in Wrigley Field with the swirling winds and warm summer conditions. Wood also stranded over 77 percent of baserunners. League average for starters is around 72 percent and Wood’s below average strikeout rate means that his left on base percentage is likely unsustainable.
While Jackson’s advanced metrics indicate improvement, it’s no guarantee because his strikeout rate dropped while his walk rate increased. Jackson has stayed remarkably healthy over the last seven years with consecutive seasons of 31 or more starts. His durability is one of his main assets, but the workload may catch up with him. If it does, the collection of guys vying for the back of the rotation spots, like Hammel, Rusin, and Arrieta, are complete unknowns at this point. The Cubs really don’t have a lot of quality depth in their starting pitching ranks and no help coming from below.
The Cubs bullpen has some talent, but there are some inconsistencies that will be at play. Not to mention, this is a group that may not have that many leads to protect, so their margin for error would seem to be pretty small when they do get an opportunity.
Pick: Over 68
The Cubs should improve this season in certain areas and this is a team that was on pace to win 74 games through the end of July. Once the Cubs started to trade parts of their team away, it was clear that they were just playing out the string and the 17-38 mark in the final two months of the season indicated that. The biggest concern to playing the over is that the Cubs may trade Jeff Samardzija to maximize his trade value with one season of team control remaining.
The Reds and Pirates seem like they’re going to be taking a step back this season, which should open up some possibilities for the Cubs who managed just 25 wins against the four teams in their division last season. Help could start to come from below late in the year as some of the team’s most promising prospects might get a look in late August or in September after rosters expand. That will keep the team playing hard, something that didn’t happen in 2013.
It’s a bit risky, but with a better bullpen, the promising sabermetric stats for Samardzija and Jackson, as well as another year of experience for guys like Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs only have to be two wins better this season to at least get to 68 wins. That’s not a long shot by any means.