Thursday, February 25, 2021

Chicago Cubs 2021 Season Preview


 

       Are the Cubs good? Maybe? No one knows. The team was alright last year, and won the NL Central, even without Kris Bryant and Javy Baez producing. But, the rest of the NL Central was bad as well, and the Pirates existed. So, there is skepticism there, but it got worse when the Cubs decided to go into sell mode this offseason, reportedly shopping Bryant, and trading Yu Darvish to San Diego. The team isn't awful, I'll give them that. That's basically all I can give them. They are easily one of the five hardest teams to project for 2021.

Offseason additions: RHP Zach Davies, RHP Brandon Workman, OF Joc Pederson, OF Jake Marisnick, RHP Jonathan Holder, C Austin Romine, RHP Trevor Williams, IF Ildemaro Vargas, RHP Robert Stock, RHP Kohl Stewart, OF Michael Hermasillo, LHP Adam Morgan, IF Matt Duffy, RHP Shelby Miller.

Offseason subtractions: RHP Yu Darvish, OF Kyle Schwarber, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, LHP Jon Lester, RHP Tyler Chatwood, C Victor Caratini, IF Jason Kipnis, OF Albert Almora, OF Steven Souza Jr., LHP Jose Quintana, OF Jose Martinez.


Trade Deadline 2020 summary

Acquired: LHP Andrew Chafin, OF Cameron Maybin, LHP Josh Osich.

Traded: IF Zack Short.

2020 record: 34-26

2020 placement: 1st

2020 WAR leader (batters): Jason Heyward

2020 WAR leader (pitchers): Yu Darvish


Starting Pitchers

The Cubs may not have Darvish anymore, but they still have an ace in Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks is one of the few pitchers in the sport who can go deep into games, not throw hard, not strikeout batters and succeed. Despite a fastball and sinker averaging around 87 mph in 2020, Hendricks had a 2.88 ERA in 81.1 innings over 12 starts with 64 strikeouts. Hendricks succeeds by not walking batters, with a league best 0.9 BB/9, and 8.00 K/BB ratio. Hendricks limited batters to an average exit velocity of 86.2 mph in 2020, marking his fifth consecutive season under 87 mph. As part of the Darvish trade, the Cubs received Zach Davies, another pitcher who fits into the Hendricks mold. Davies had a 2.73 ERA with a career high (by far) 8.2 K/9 and a 1.067 WHIP. Most stats point to Davies being lucky, as he had a .475 xSLG and a 5.01 xERA. It's worked for him in his career, but at some point Davies will likely fall over the cliff. You may have heard of Alec Mills because of his no-hitter last year. Besides that, Mills isn't a particularly great pitcher, and of course he is also a soft-tosser. I swear this breed isn't that common. In his first season as a full-time rotation member, Mills had a 4.48 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 62.1 innings. He throws a wipeout slider that batters hit .077 off of with a 42.4% whiff rate in 2020. Jake Arrieta is back in Chicago, where he had a 2.73 ERA and a Cy Young award in five seasons. It wasn't as sunny in Philadelphia, as Arrieta had a 5.08 ERA in 44.1 innings. His fastball velocity has tanked, from mid-90s to low-90s since he was last a Cub. MLB Pipeline's sixth best Cubs prospect is Adbert Alzolay, who was very successful in six games (four starts) in 2020. Alzolay struck out 29 in 21.1 innings, with a 2.95 ERA. Batters had a .186 xBA against him. Trevor Williams can steal a spot in the rotation from Alzolay or Mills. Williams had a 3.11 ERA in 2018, but he had a 6.18 mark in 11 starts for the Pirates in 2020, allowing a league high 15 home runs. He was still in the 70th percentile in average exit velocity, which is good. 

Relief Pitchers

Jeremy Jeffress left in free agency, so the closer's job will go back to Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel allowed nine runs in 15.1 innings for a 5.28 ERA, but he is redeemable. Kimbrel struck out 28 batters for a 40.6 K%, and his average fastball velocity was 96.9 mph. However, Kimbrel had a 17.4 BB% and a 51.9 hard hit percentage. Righty Dan Winkler was productive in 18 outings, with a 2.95 ERA and a 5.4 H/9. He limited batters to an 85.5 mph exit velocity. Rowan Wick could be delayed for Opening Day with an intercostal injury. He has been a productive option over the past two seasons, with a combined 2.66 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 50.2 innings. Former Red Sox closer Brandon Workman was dominant in 2019, with a 1.88 ERA in 73 appearances, but after he had a 4.05 ERA through seven games, he was traded to the Phillies. Workman suffered from the Phillies bullpen curse, allowing 10 earned runs in 13 innings. Batters' xBA against Workman rose over 100 points in 2020, up to .292 from .178 in 2018. The Cubs traded for Andrew Chafin at the trade deadline, who has been productive in the past for the Diamondbacks, with a sub-4 ERA and 70+ appearances in 2017, 2018 and 2019. After getting off to a rough start in Arizona, Chafin allowed a run in three innings for the Cubs. He struck out 68 in 52.2 innings in 2019. Lefty Kyle Ryan had a 3.54 ERA in 73 appearances in 2019, but he had a 5.17 ERA in 2020. He did have a 4.15 xERA, which isn't too far from his 3.84 xERA in 2019, so the two seasons aren't even that different. Jason Adam has played for a different team in each of his three MLB seasons, but that should change this year. He had a 3.29 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 13.2 innings in 2020, giving him a good chance for the bullpen this year. His fastballl has a high spin rate of 2728 rpm. The Cubs just signed MVP vote-receiver Ryan Tepera to an MLB deal. He struck out 31 batters in 20.2 innings, with a 3.34 FIP for them last year. Jonathan Holder was signed to an MLB deal. He was inconsistent for the Yankees, but was a good late-inning reliever in 2018. He lost trust in 2019 and 2020, as he had a 4.98 ERA and a 5.8 K/9 in 18 games. Sinkerballer Kohl Stewart has a chance to be a long-relief option. The 4th overall pick in 2013, Stewart did not pitch in 2020. 26 year old Duane Underwood Jr. had a 5.66 ERA in 17 games in 2020, but his 27 strikeouts in 20.2 innings could be enough to get him a roster spot. 

Catchers

Willson Contreras escaped some trade rumors, although he wasn't as rumored as other Cubs stars. Contreras hit seven home runs with a .763 OPS in 2020, which was a down year considering his .888 OPS in 2019. He is a good pitch framer who hits the ball hard, at an 89.8 mph exit velocity. Austin Romine had a .281 average with a .748 OPS in 2019, but completely fell off with the lowly Tigers last year. Romine had a .582 OPS with 47 strikeouts and only four walks in 37 games. Yikes. 

Infielders

Despite a mediocre .755 OPS, Anthony Rizzo was able to win his third Gold Glove in a row, and 4th in the past five seasons. He hit 11 home runs with a low 15.6 K% and a high 11.5 BB%. Rizzo has hit at least 25 home runs in the past seven full seasons. Former top prospect Nico Hoerner was disappointing offensively, but he was a Gold Glove finalist and is just 23. Hoerner hit .222 with a .571 OPS, but he had five outs above average and a 28.8 ft/s sprint speed. He can play second base, shortstop, third base and center field. The Cubs may be in trouble if Javy Baez can't return to form. Baez did win his first Gold Glove, but he hit eight home runs with a .203 average and a .599 OPS. He struck out 31.9% of the time, and walked just 3% of the time. Kris Bryant is a free agent at the end of the season, and could be traded midseason. 2020 was his first season with an OPS+ under 120, as it was 73. Bryant played in just 34 games with a surprisingly low .202 xBA. David Bote can play all over the infield, and has a career .753 OPS and a 98 OPS+, which is fine for a backup. Bote hit seven home runs with an average exit velocity of 92.4 mph. Ildemaro Vargas can also play all around the infield. He is a switch hitter with a good chance at making the team. Vargas has a .673 OPS with a 13.8 K% in his career. 

Outfielders

The Cubs parted ways with Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora in the offseason, but they were able to replace them. Schwarber's replacement is Joc Pederson, who hit seven home runs for the Dodgers in 2020. Pederson has a career .808 OPS, and despite his .681 OPS in 2020, he had a career high 93 mph average exit velocity. Ian Happ was hurt for most of 2019, which ironically was a full 2020 season. He had similar stats in 2019 and 2020, with 11 and 12 home runs, and an .898 and .866 OPS, respectively. He has slightly cut down on his K-rate which was a problem coming into the league, but at 27.3%, it still isn't fixed. 2020 was Jason Heyward's best season since joining the Cubs in 2016. Heyward had an .848 OPS, and his 129 OPS+ was above-average for the first time as a Cub. He also walked a whopping 16.6% of the time. Speed and defense specialist Jake Marisnick was the ideal fourth outfielder in Houston. He went 11-for-33 in 16 games for the Mets in 2020. In 2019, Marisnick had eight outs above average with a 29.2 ft/s sprint speed. The Cubs recently brought back Cameron Maybin, who they got at the trade deadline, on a minor league deal. Maybin went 13-for-52 in Chicago. Like Marisnick, he is a versatile defender with good speed. 


Projected Rotation
Kyle Hendricks (R)
Zach Davies (R)
Alec Mills (R)
Jake Arrieta (R)
Adbert Alzolay (R)

Projected Bullpen
Craig Kimbrel (R)
Brandon Workman (R)
Dan Winkler (R)
Andrew Chafin (L)
Rowan Wick (R)
Kyle Ryan (L)
Jason Adam (R)
Ryan Tepera (R)

Projected Lineup
CF Ian Happ (S)
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
SS Javy Baez (R)
3B Kris Bryant (R)
LF Joc Pederson (L)
C Willson Contreras (R)
RF Jason Heyward (L)
2B Nico Hoerner (R)
Pitcher

Projected Bench
C Austin Romine (R)
OF Jake Marisnick (R)
IF David Bote (R)
OF Cameron Maybin (R)


Projection

The Cubs' rotation is really bad. They won't throw hard at all, and only two of them have been successful in the past two years. The bullpen will need multiple redemption arcs to be competitive, and while the lineup is strong, some of them struggled last year and could be traded soon. They definitely aren't the worst team in the division (thanks Pirates!), but they aren't the best. The Cubs won't make the playoffs in 2021. 

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