by Steven Ortlieb

Opponent Preview: Chicago Cubs

There is no team I dislike more in professional sports than the Chicago Cubs. Maybe it’s more that I dislike the fans than the team itself. I think Anthony Rizzo is a likable guy, Javier Baez is fun and should be a centerpiece of MLB marketing, and rumor has it, Kyle Schwarber is from Middletown. On the other hand, I’ve had far more negative experiences with Cubs fans in my life than all other MLB teams combined and the better the team is the more of their fans show up to GABP and become more and more insufferable with each game. When the RC+ team was discussing which writer would scribe a round-up of each of the Reds opponents this year I thought to myself, “I’ve already been watching Bill Burr rants and listening to Metallica all morning. I think I may be in the right rage-filled headspace to write about the team that draws my ire the most.” So, here we are; let’s dive into this year’s rogues gallery from Wrigley Field.

2019 Recap

2019 saw Chicago’s North Siders miss the postseason for the first time since 2014, finishing in third place in the NL Central with an 84-78 record, 5 games behind second place and Wild Card team Milwaukee Brewers. Interestingly, the Cubs lost the season series to all NL Central opponents in ’19, save for the lowly Pirates, including going 8-11 against fourth-place Cincinnati.

Pitching was the crux of the Cubbies season. In what should have been a very formidable rotation of Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, and Cole Hamels, only one of these pitchers (Darvish) finished with an xFIP below 4.00 — and it took a barn-burner of a second half for him to accomplish it. The bullpen suffered as well, with the six pitchers who appeared in the most games — Kyle Ryan, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop, Brad Brach, and Tyler Chatwood — each with an xFIP near 4.00. All but Kintzler had BB% in the double digits. Free agent Craig Kimbrel was signed in June after holding out for the early months of the season but was largely ineffective in his 20.2 innings, sporting an fWAR of -1.1 and an xFIP of 4.75.

The bats were clicking for the most part, with the young core of Schwarber, Ian Happ, Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant, and Rizzo all finishing with a 120 or higher wRC+. The team leader in that category was Nick Castellanos, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, with a 154 wRC+ and a .408 wOBA in his 51 games with the club.

The Offseason

Over the winter, the Cubs chose to not renew the contract of manager Joe Maddon. Maddon went on to California to manage the Los Angeles Angels of Troutaheim, taking third base coach Brian Butterfield and strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss from the Cubs with him. The Cubs installed former Redlegs catcher David Ross as manager. Ross, who retired from playing after winning the 2016 World Series as a member of the Cubs, has played for the independent league Kansas Stars, been runner-up on Dancing with the Stars, worked as a color analyst for ESPN, and worked as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations in the Cubs front office since playing his last game. If you’ll note on his resume, he has not managed at any level before being named Cubs skipper. Andy Green, who spent 2016 to 2019 as manager of the San Diego Padres amassing a 274-366 record in that span, was installed as Ross’ bench coach. Former major leaguers Mike Napoli and Chris Young were added as Quality Assurance Coach and Bullpen Coach, respectively.

On the roster side of the winter, notable free agent losses include LHP Cole Hamels to Atlanta, relievers Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler to the White Sox and Marlins, INF Ben Zobrist to retirement, noted domestic violencer Addison Russell to the KBO, and — most excitingly — free agent slugger Nick Castellanos and RP Pedro Strop to our beloved Cincinnati Reds. Additions include pitchers Jharel Cotton, Dan Winkler, and Jeremy Jeffress, second baseman Jason Kipnis, and outfielder Steven Souza Jr.

Stories to Watch

The Cubs may be in an interesting position this season. With so much uncertainty surrounding he 2020 season, it will undoubtedly affect the trade market and deadline. 32-year-old SP Jose Quintana will be a free agent in 2021, and the Cubs have options on 31-year-old 1B Anthony Rizzo and 37-year-old SP Jon Lester. It seems all but inevitable that they will pick up Rizzo and decline Lester, but what’s more interesting is that the team’s core almost all become free agents after the 2021 season. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber, and Rizzo (should his option be picked up) would all become free agents in that same offseason. In a normal year, the trade deadline of the 2020 season would be the peak value of Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber if the Cubs were far behind and seeking prospects in return for them. When MLB.com ranked all 30 team’s farm systems in March, Chicago’s farm system ranked 23rd overall and 3rd among the NL Central teams. Being that depleted, it could have been an ideal time to renew the system should they have stumbled again this season .

But with the COVID-shortened season, it may be hard to gauge when you may be out of the playoff picture, which teams are buying or selling, and what value each player can bring back. The players listed above have the benefit of a full year of control in 2021, so if the Cubs find someone willing to pay up, they may be willing to make a big deal if they fall out of the race. I don’t see it happening, personally, but it’s fascinating to speculate.

Pitchers

Adding to the question marks surrounding the Cubs season, free agent to be Jose Quintana lacerated a digital sensory nerve in his throwing hand while washing dishes on June 27th. He had the stitches removed this past week and is working on a throwing program. The Cubs hope he’ll be ready by late August. Rizzo has also been sidelined with a back injury, while issues with COVID protocols have caused some unease among players, prompting Rizzo to speculate to the media that more players may still opt out of the 2020 season.

Pre-COVID ZiPS projections had the bullpen being much improved, with Craig Kimbrel leading the team’s ERA+ projected leaderboard at 127 and free-agent addition Jeremy Jeffress (117) making for a formidable backend. Bounce-backs from Yu Darvish (121) and Kyle Hendricks (118) lead the rotation, which was originally projected as Darvish, Quintana, Lester, Hendricks, and former starter turned reliever re-turned starter Tyler Chatwood as the fifth starter.

With Quintana’s injury, it seems that 28-year-old Alec Mills may become part of the rotation. Mills was the #17 prospect in the Cubs lowly rated minor league organization in 2019 according to FanGraphs, pitching 140 innings between Triple-A and the majors. His arsenal contains a low-90s four-seam fastball that he relied on about 31% of the time in 2019, as well as a sinker (24%), change-up (19%), a curveball (16%) and slider (11%). His Triple-A xFIP in ’19 was 5.26, but he managed to shave it to 3.98 in his 36 innings with the big club. Even though Quintana has never been the pitcher the Cubs envisioned they were getting in 2017, when they sent Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, and 2 other minor leaguers to the White Sox to get him, adding Mills to the rotation to replace Quintana still feels like a major blow in a season with very little margin for error.

Position Players

The projected lineup should still be potent with Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Schwarber, and Contreras as the usual 1-5 when all healthy. Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. will form the outfield, and left-handed hitting veteran Jason Kipnis and young top prospect Nico Hoerner in a righty/lefty platoon at the keystone filling out the rest of the lineup. The big impact here is the DH spot that Schwarber can now occupy instantly upgrades the team defense while keeping his high-level bat in the lineup everyday. Schwarber finished the 2019 season fourth in all of baseball in hard hit rate (50.7%) and average exit velocity (93.5 mph), while his 9% barrel rate was good for 18th in the league. On the other hand, his -9 Outs Above Average was tied for 8th worst qualified outfielder (slightly ahead of Jesse Winker, who was tied for 12th at -8).

W-L Projection

The latest ZIPS projections show the Cubs having the easiest projected schedule among the NL Central. Their projected opponent winning percentage is .489 (the Reds have the 3rd-easiest in the division at a projected .493), granting them a division title at 32-28; the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds are tied for 2nd, a single game behind Chicago. Ironically, the Cubs’ playoff chances sank by 5.9% from the full season to the 60-game projections, while the Cardinals (+10%), Reds (+9.4%), and Brewers (+6.7%) increased their playoff odds with the 60-game sprint.

I think it’s safe to say that anything can happen this season. If the Cubs can stay healthy, they should be in the thick of it. But already losing a key starting pitcher is not a great foot to start on when this season will be a tightrope walk to begin with. And with a number of key pieces becoming free agents soon and a desolate farm system, their window is closing quickly. It seems to be a truly desperate season on the North Side of Chicago, and I, for one, would love to see their failure to re-sign Nick Castellanos be the final nail in their competitive coffin.

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Cubs/status/1281757126415851522/photo/1]

Steven Ortlieb is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up in the heart of Reds country. Although this is his first chance to write at length about the club he loves, he has been screaming into the void about them on Twitter @stevenortlieb for a number of years. He has been to every playoff game that GABP has hosted and is excited to be at more in the near future.