by Ilyas Adnane
2020 Record: 34-26 (.567 win%, 1st in Division)
2020 Payroll : $218,072,563 (3rd)
Projected 2021 Lineup:
1. CF Ian Happ, .246 AVG/.346 OBP/.464 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
2. 1B Anthony Rizzo, .265AVG/.376 OBP/.476 SLG, 3.2 fWAR
3. 3B Kris Bryant, .253 AVG/.353 OBP/.461 SLG, 3.3 fWAR
4. C Willson Contreras, .250AVG/.345 OBP/.441 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
5. LF Joc Pederson, .244 AVG/.331 OBP/.490 SLG, 2.0 fWAR
6. SS Javier Baez, .261 AVG/.300 OBP/.479 SLG, 2.3 fWAR
7. RF Jason Heyward, .253AVG/.343 OBP/.409 SLG, 1.2 fWAR
8. 2B Nico Hoerner, .268 AVG/.330 OBP/.388 SLG, 1.5 fWAR
Projected 2021 Rotation:
1. Kyle Hendricks, 178 IP/4.14 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 3.1 fWAR
2. Jake Arrieta, 134 IP/4.81 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
3. Zach Davies, 152 IP/4.64 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
4. Alec Mills, 119 IP/4.94 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
5. Trevor Williams, 117 IP/4.82 ERA/1.42 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR
The Cubs 2021 offseason was a taste of their possible future in 2021: a rebuild. Following Theo Epstein’s departure, the direction of the team was in the air. Big names were going to be due for free agency in a year, with the Cubs potentially having to rebuild their entire core. With that being said, this team was coming off of 3 division crowns in 5 years and 5 playoff appearances in 6. Fans were clamoring for the front office to add, in hopes of attempting possibly a last run with their current core of players.
Instead, fans were treated to a 2-month long class on how to save their money. Kyle Schwarber was non-tendered, a shocking result considering his recent improvement at the plate and the relatively low-price tag attached to him. Another outfielder, Spring Training Champion and perennial breakout candidate Albert Almora was also let go. For the staff, Jon Lester was not retained, and Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana found greener pastures elsewhere. Jeremy Jeffress, after a standout performance, was not resigned either.
The real gut-punch for Cubs fans came at the end of 2020, when it was announced that Yu Darvish and Victor Caritini were being sent to the Padres for Zach Davies and 4 young minor league talents. This move infuriated fans of the team. Darvish was coming off a Cy Young candidacy with an ERA around 2.00, and Caritini was a solid backup catcher with a serviceable bat and improving framing metrics. While trading Darvish at his peak trade value might have been okay, what wasn’t was the lack of major league talent coming the other way. Davies had 5 seasons under his belt with okay numbers as a starter, but his club control expires after this season. Aside from him, the Cubs received 4 young prospects with the oldest just turning 20. While they are all currently listed as top 20 prospects within the organization, there is no telling where their development may be headed, and for a Padres farm system that had MacKenzie Gore, Ryan Weathers, and Reggie Lawson as MLB-ready arms, and 4 players in the top 65 prospect list, to not get a single player who has an ETA within the next 2 seasons is a poor decision. This appeared to mark the organization’s stance this season as one of sitting back and making sure all their books look okay, without attempting to be competitive.
As the winter months winded down, the Cubs did add a few pieces. Joc Pederson and Jake Marisnick appeared to take the spots of Schwarber and Almora. Joc was coming off a rough 2020 but had improvement in his numbers the two seasons before. Marisnick was hampered last year with a hamstring injury and played well in the limited number of games he had. In the rotation, the Cubs brought back Jake Arrieta for a “feel-good” move, in what appeared to be an attempt to make up for not signing Lester. Another Phillie, Brandon Workman, was brought in as well. Pirates cast-off Trevor Williams was also brought in as competition, as he looks to bounce back from a rough 2020. Andrew Chafin, a deadline deal last fall, was retained.
2021 Season Preview:
Let me deliver a hot take: this Cubs lineup firing on all cylinders is top 5 in the MLB. 4 perennial All-Stars in Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, and Contreras are in the middle of it, 4 players in the MLB Network Top 100. Happ made considerable strides the last couple of years, and any improvement against lefties will place him as a top 10 center fielder. Pederson is very much Schwarber-esque, but with a better track record, as he is coming off of 2 complete seasons in ‘18 and ‘19 with 125 and 127 OPS+, respectively, as well as being an above-average defender. Heyward was by far the Cubs best bat last season, and if spring training is any indication, Nico Hoerner has taken a huge step forward in his development. Off the bench David Bote seeks to continue to improve his .251/.346/.425 slash line against righties. Having Jake Marisnick filling the role of 4th outfielder is a welcoming sight, and Austin Romine as the team’s 2nd catcher adds a nice veteran presence. This lineup is not as deep as some others, but the stars at the top are hard to ignore, and the progress made by surrounding pieces raises the ceiling a little higher. This lineup will have the team in winning position day-in and day-out.
The same cannot be said for the staff. Hands down, this may be the worst group of arms in the MLB. Yes, Kyle Hendricks is still on the team, and he is a lock for having a sub-4 ERA on this staff. He may be the only player that ends up with that achievement. Davies, the centerpiece in the Darvish trade, is a promising young pitcher, with a career ERA of 3.79 and coming off 2 years of going 17-11 with a 3.30 ERA. He is built from the same mold as Hendricks, pitching to initiate weak contact. However, his peripherals suggest that he has gotten away with giving up harder contact than he would like, particularly against lefties. He may give the Cubs a real 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, but that is not entirely guaranteed.
After Davies, however, the rotation completely falls apart. Returning starters Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay will certainly get looks this year. Mills is returning after a solid season, making 11 starts and going 5-5 with a 4.48 ERA, topped by the no-hitter he threw against Milwaukee. Another guy without blow-by-you stuff, his numbers look even worse than Davies’, especially considering he gave up 13 homers, good enough to tie for 9th most in the MLB. He had a league-average WHIP for pitchers with at least 60 innings tossed and posted the second worst FIP out of any starter. Alzolay, on the other hand, had tremendous year last year, posting a 2.95 in 21 innings. His retooled slider became a whiff pitch, having a 37.7% whiff rate to go along with a xwOBA of .155. The key for both guys will be to continue to make improvements throughout the year, as well as being able to pitch well enough to win in around 30-40 games combined as opposed to just the 15 they threw together last year.
To end this rotation, we get the free agent flyers: Williams and Arrieta. Williams led the MLB with 15 homers given up, posted a 6 ERA while making 11 starts, and was let go by a Pirates team projected to lose over 100 games. Arrieta, after dominating for a few years with the Cubs, left for the Phillies and in 3 years has managed a 4.64 ERA, has had his sinker hit for .304 average and .474 slugging in 2019 and .402 average and .634 slugging in 2020, and has watched his Sweet Spot/Barrel/Hard Hit % go from 4.8/30.2/30.8 in 2016 to 7.8/38.3/35.5 in 2020. Fans may be hoping Alzolay and Mills can be at least 4 and 5 starters, respectively, but if these two have an ERA under 5 in 175-200 combined innings worked, that may be the real prize.
Finally, the pen, which is not a strength or a weakness of this team. Dillon Maples, Jason Adams, Andrew Chafin, and Brandon Workman are the big names that look to carry this pen, in addition to 2020 MVP vote-getter Ryan Tepera. Dan Winkler is a secondary option as a multiple inning reliever. Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan, two arms that were projected to carry the bullpen, are looking to bounce off an injury-riddled year and a sudden drop in velocity, respectively. Craig Kimbrel, the real wildcard of this pen, will get his first normal spring training in 3 years. He’ll hope to pick up where he left off, striking out 26 of the last 49 batters he faced in ‘20. In the minors, Brailyn Marquez, Corey Abbot, and Justin Steele are all likely to appear in the event of an injury, with the first two hoping to provide reinforcement to the starting rotation. Considering the possibility that 4 out of the 5 arms could have trouble going 5 innings, this bullpen will need to consistently perform well to have any shot of making the playoffs this year.
Record Prediction: 85-77
The Cubs are hard to predict because this team could go in so many different directions. If you just look at the names – Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Pederson, Contreras – it looks like a lineup for a contending team. Sprinkle in Happ and Hoerner’s development, add in Heyward’s return to form and instantly this becomes a top lineup with multiple All Stars. The rotation could have the best 1-2 punch in the division with Hendricks and Davies. The bullpen can definitely be around league average to above average, and if the Cubs can find ways to have their other starters put up at least league average numbers, this team can win the division easily.
However, the reality is that 4 of the big-name players are coming off career worst lines. Arrieta and Williams have taken a large step back, and Mills and Alzolay do not have the track records of 3 and 4 starters on a playoff team. Kimbrel is still a question mark, as are Wick and Ryan, which leaves the pen a bit disheveled. If this team suffers a few injuries or enters June behind in the wild card or division races, there is a good chance that players will be traded, meaning that the team could be a dumpster fire for the last 80-100 games. This team has equal chance of being a 90-win team and a 90-loss team. It only depends on how a few key players perform and the patience the front office has before they decide to go into rebuild mode. Fans will be on edge the entire year, as a good or bad week can quite literally make or break this team and this core of players.
Player to Watch #1: 1B Anthony Rizzo/SS Javier Baez/3B Kris Bryant
Yes, these are three different players. However, their circumstances are very much the same: 3 leaders of this organization; 3 core members of the 2016 World Series winning squad; 3 top 10 players at their position; 3 players coming off bad years; Most importantly, 3 players with no guarantee of returning to Wrigley in 2021. Rizzo’s team friendly deal expires this year, and Baez and Bryant hit free agency for the first time. Rizzo and Baez are currently projected to get somewhere around the $15-20 million a year range, while Bryant may be pushing $30 mill with an All-Star performance this year. While it wouldn’t be surprising for the first two to return, Bryant’s status as a Scott Boras ClientTM is going to decrease the chance that he comes back. These 3 could all be gone even earlier if this team struggles out of the gate. Even if this team makes a deep playoff run, given their lack of long-term commitment to these players and the financial standing of the Ricketts family, this may be the last year they all wear Cubbie Blue.
Player to Watch #2: LHP Brailyn Marquez
One glaring hole in this team is their lack of quality left-handed pitchers. Andrew Chafin and Kyle Ryan are the only two expected to break camp with the team, meaning that 2 of the 13 arms, including 0 in the starting rotation, will be lefties. This appears to be an ideal situation for Marquez to get his first real taste of big-league baseball. The 22-year-old is currently the 60th rated prospect according to MLB Top 100 and has been the cream of the crop of the Cubs minor league system for a few years. His 80-grade fastball is his most eyepopping tool, topping off at 102 mph. His breaking ball makes him a challenge for lefties, but in order to have success at the next level, his change-up will need some improvement to keep righties off. After struggling immensely in his debut last year (67.50 ERA), he is sure to get plenty of opportunities to make spot starts and relief appearances this year. Tracking his progress this year will be key in identifying the long-term future of this organization.
Player to Watch #3: RHP Craig Kimbrel
Craig Kimbrel is the embodiment of the meme where a man wakes up after being in a coma and asks how something or someone is doing while he was in the coma, with the joke being that thing having a tremendous fall from grace. Back in 2018, Craig Kimbrel being a Hall of Famer would be all but guaranteed. 9 seasons with a career FIP of 1.96 and 4 years of posting a sub 2.00 ERA, with only one year even getting to 3.00. Now, he’s coming off 2 years of posting a combined 6.00 ERA with a BB/9 of 6.0. This could be chalked up to signing in the middle of 2019 and having to go through the postponement of the 2020 season, so expectations are that a normal spring training would give him the time needed to prepare for the 2021 season. His last few games where reminiscent of his dominant days, with him tweaking his curve to produce swings and misses and his fastball becoming more unhittable. His xwOBA on his fastball went from .489 in 2019 to .367 in 2020, showing signs of him recapturing his prime form. David Ross has already committed to him beginning as the closer this season. If he keeps trending in this direction, he may be able to put these past two years behind him and restart his Hall of Fame hype train.