- The Cubs had a great regular season and a disappointing playoff exit. Can they return to the NL elite?
2018 finish: 95-68, Lost in AL Wild Card Game to Rockies
SI's 2019 prediction: 86-76, second in NL Central
Key additions: Key additions: INF Daniel Descalso, RP Xavier Cedeño, RP Brad Brach
1. 2B Ben Zobrist
2. 3B Kris Bryant
3. 1B Anthony Rizzo
4. SS Javier Baez
5. LF Kyle Schwarber
6. C Willson Contreras
7. RF Jason Heyward
8. CF Albert Almora Jr.
C: Victor Caratini
INF/OF: David Bote
INF/OF: Daniel Descalso
OF Mark Zagunis
LHP Jon Lester
RHP Kyle Hendricks
LHP Cole Hamels
LHP Jose Quintana
RHP Yu Darvish
RHP Pedro Strop* (closer)
RHP Carl Edwards Jr.
RHP Steve Cishek
LHP Mike Montgomery
RHP Brad Brach
RHP Brandon Kintzler
LHP Randy Rosario
RHP Tyler Chatwood
Injured List: RHP Brandon Morrow
Movin On Up! Kyle Schwarber was expected to be one of the next great sluggers in baseball when he hit 16 home runs and posted a 130 OPS+ in 69 games as a rookie in 2015, but most of his improvements since then have come in left field. After missing all but two games with a torn ACL in 2016, Schwarber’s displayed his offensive clout in flashes, but he’s yet to be the live up to the initial hype. Still, all signs point to a breakout 2019 campaign. Schwarber had a 137 wRC+ in low and medium leverage situations, according to Fangraphs, comparable to elite hitters Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve and Matt Carpenter. In high leverage spots, though, Schwarber had a -64 wRC+, by far the worst in the majors. There’s no reason to expect Schwarber to remain 164 runs created worse than league average in high leverage situations again. If he’s even a league average player in high leverage spots, Schwarber will be the feared middle of the order bat we always expected him to be.
Sell! Jason Heyward. Think back to December 2015 when the Cubs lured Heyward away from the Cardinals, who had traded for him the year before with the hope that the Cardinal Way would encourage him to re-sign in St. Louis. The Cubs, with their budding group of young talent––including the reigning rookie of the year Kris Bryant––and manager Joe Maddon, were an attractive suitor, especially with the appeal of helping them win a World Series for the first time since 1908. Heyward hasn’t been a league average hitter (81 OPS+) since he signed with them for eight years and $184 million before the 2016 season. Even though he’s only 29 years old, it’s hard to imagine Chicago will get anything more than Gold Glove defense and leadership from Heyward for the remainder of the contract.
Appreciate This Man! Kyle Hendricks is the pitcher in the Cubs’ rotation never to start on Opening Day, yet he has been the best of the group since his breakout year in 2016. In those three seasons, Hendricks has gone 37-24 with a 2.86 ERA. His 149 ERA+ ranks fourth among starters with at least 500 innings in that span––behind Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, and ahead of Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander.
A Modest Proposal From Joe Sheehan: It’s rare for managers to be cast in a lame-duck role these days, so take the Cubs’ decision to not extend Joe Maddon’s contract past 2019 seriously. Maddon, who led the Cubs to their first World Series win in a century, has regressed tactically, becoming a push-button operator of his bullpen as the rest of the league moves toward more fluid arrangements. It’s not necessarily Maddon’s fault that the Cubs didn’t reach the Division Series a year ago, but some measure of their late-season offensive woes, which cost them the outright NL Central title, is attributable to him. Despite a championship, two division crowns, and the league’s best record through 162 games in 2018, Maddon will be managing for his job.
MLB.tv Rating: 8.1
Keep an Eye Out For...: Dillon Maples isn’t expected to be on the Opening Day roster, and it’s uncertain how much time he’ll see in the majors. However, his strikeout-pitch, a sorcerous slider with tremendous late bite is an A+ attraction that will dazzle at the big league level, so long as he can locate it consistently. Randy Rosario's name is definitely familiar to Cubs fans. He appeared in 44 games last season, logged 46 ⅔ innings and posted a 3.66 ERA. His role with the Cubs this year is up in the air, but two things favor an extended stay for Rosario in the big leagues once he returns: 1) The Cubs’ bullpen has some injury concerns before the season even begins. Closer Brandon Morrow will begin 2019 on the injured list, and Pedro Strop, the de facto closer in Morrow’s absence, suffered a right hamstring injury last week and is questionable for Opening Day. 2) Rosario has just one option remaining, so once he’s on the big league roster, the Cubs can send him down to the minors just one more time. If they call him up again, they either have to keep him in the majors or designate him for assignment and risk another club claiming him.
A rival scout previews the 2019 Chicago Cubs.
What is the key question surrounding this team in 2019?
The health of Yu Darvish. I think that was a big blow to them, signing him, expecting him to get to the top of the rotation, and they signed Darvish and [Tyler] Chatwood and got nothing out of either one of those guys. And also obviously Kris Bryant and if he can stay healthy for a full season. He is the key player to that team offensively. They aren't going to win a World Series without him.
Who is the most overrated player on the team?
Willson Contreras. He had a really good year two years ago, and then he’s gotten a little careless in his game. He’s recommitting himself but it really was just not a great year last season.
Who is the most underrated player on the team?
You always want to say Ben Zobrist, because he flies under the radar with a team surrounded with stars like Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Bryant. This is a guy who got big hits in the World Series and he can play multiple positions.
What young player(s) is/are on the cusp of stardom?
Two guys you look at who are going to share time in centerfield this year are Ian Happ and Almora. Happ has a chance to be a star, but it's going to take a little bit of time to develop his swing. He's got power. He's just young. The one thing with this team is they've traded away a lot of players, so they're kind of thin. When the Cubs go to make trades at the deadline, they may have to trade one of either Almora or Happ, just because their minor leagues have been picked pretty clean.
Who gets the most out of his talent?
Definitely Kyle Hendricks. He led the team in innings pitched, and he topped out at 88 miles an hour. It's kind of a Greg Maddox-esque type approach, where he's definitely not lighting up any radar guns, but he can flat out paint the corners. He’s got a great mind for a pitching.
Who gets the least out of his talent? Yu Darvish. I mean, he’s got number one starter stuff, but he's just never pitched up to that. He has four above-average pitches. I know he was hurt last year, but even when he was in Texas, and with the Dodgers, he just pitches underneath this stuff.
Who has the best baseball instincts/IQ?
Javy Baez, easily, the guy's unbelievable. You’re amazed at the things he does on the bases and in the field. He probably tries to do a little too much in the batter’s box, but he's gotten better there as well. You see him with his slides, when he'll miss a tag, just his ability to run the bases and do those things on the field, I mean, he's probably one of the most instinctual players in the league. He comes to play every day and he's a pleasure to watch. You just get frustrated watching him at times because he could be a much better hitter and tries to hit too many home runs and doesn't cut his swing down. But day in and day out, he comes to play. He loves the game.
Who has the nastiest stuff on the team?
I mean, you'd love to say Darvish here. Carl Edwards has nasty stuff, but when you think about the whole package together, when you watch Darvish pitch, you're like, how does this guy not win 20 games every year?
Whose batting practice makes your jaw drop?
Bryant. Bryant hits with Baez, and he'll hit with Rizzo and Schwarber, but Bryant's BP is impressive, he's almost got light tower power.
Name the guy (or guys)on this teams that you would never want in your clubhouse.
I think with other teams, you could probably point to that for sure, but just trying to go through their roster right now, they have a pretty, pretty good group of guys. I don’t think they have one of those guys.
Name two guys on this team that you would immediately trade for.
Baez and Bryant. They're so versatile, too. They can play different positions. They may be stars, but Baez will move to different positions, and Kris Bryant has played left field, and you never hear them complain. They’re so professional. These two are untradeable, at least until they get to that last year before free agency.
Whose effort could use a jolt?
Wilson Contreras, for sure. He’s the one guy. He's out of control sometimes — .he’s a very emotional player and that just gets in the way of his ability to perform. Mentally he needs more focus from inning to inning.
Is Joe Maddon the right manager for this team?
Yeah, I know there's a lot of heat on him, saying that if they don't go to the World Series that he has a chance to lose his job, but this is a veteran team, and he’s the right guy for it. Maddon lets the guys do their thing, he's not going to hover over them and he lets the players kind of run everything.
The only thing is that if they don't win this year, they might have to go and get someone in the opposite direction. He runs such a loose ship that they might feel the need to get somebody who runs a really tight ship.
What is the ceiling for the team this year? What about the next three years?
You know what, Milwaukee's got a really good team, but if these guys stay healthy, I still like them to win the division. But health is a big question mark. They are a little bit older and they've had some injuries and don't have a lot of depth in the minor leagues.
I think for the next three years, they should be good. The Cubs have young controllable position players, and they can buy pitching. I mean, you look at the pitchers, they've all come from other organizations or they've gotten them in free agency. So they have a unique situation where their position players are not making a ton of money, so they can spend money on pitchers. But their core of position players is excellent.
Emptying the notebook:
It'll just be interesting because, more than likely, they're going to have to add at the trade deadline. They’ve made good trades at deadlines in the past, but my question is: are they going to get beat by other teams that can offer more? They don't have a deep minor league system and they don't want to trade off the major league roster, so when it comes to getting these guys that everybody wants to improve the team, are they going to be able to outbid some of these other teams?