State of the Cubs heading into Spring Training 2018

Cubs Spring Training

I honestly cannot believe the last thing I wrote on this blog was a comparison of Alec Mills to Kyle Hendricks. Nothing against Alec Mills in the least, I believe the comparisons were real, but that has to be the least click-bait worthy title to a blog in 2017. It helps to have an extra year of perspective, but Kyle Hendricks is just a special pitcher. His ability to change speeds, hit his spots and play chess master on the mound makes his inevitable comparisons to Greg Maddux much more reasonable in comparison than the Mills/Hendricks comp. Mills did end up with very Hendricks-like numbers last year, with a 2.57 ERA, 6.43 K/9 and 1.61 BB/9, although in just 28 injury-shortened innings spread across Triple-A, Rookie Ball, and High-A.

Time will tell if Alec Mills can make his way to the Majors. More importantly, with pitchers and catchers having reported this week, baseball season is officially here.

I think someone should remind Scott Boras what the date is, because his high-profile clients still don’t have teams to play for. J.D. Martinez, Cubs World Series Champion Jake Arrieta, and former Royals World Series teammates Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are all still available halfway through February. I don’t know if it’s the stubbornness, or the ego of players not willing to accept their current value in 2018, or if it’s Boras’ hard-line holdout tactics. In reality there is no single reason for the current state of free agency, if you’d like to take a dive into the deep end on the issue I highly recommend this article by Jeff Passan.

Jake Arrieta’s market has been a complete mystery. At one time there was the rumor that the Cubs were willing to go 4-years for $110 million which at $27.5 million per year would have paid Arrieta significantly more than the $21 million Yu Darvish is receiving. Then there’s the fact that Theo came out and said that Darvish was their number one target all along. As the team that knows Arrieta better than anyone else, the Cubs lack of pursuit of their very own Cy Young award-winning pitcher carries a lot of weight. Anyone but the Brewers or Cardinals, Jake. Please.

For the Cubs, after a series of bullpen and rotation additions this off-season, the roster is set heading into spring training. With a total payroll of $172,777,381 the Cubs are a little over $16 million under the $189 million luxury tax threshold, which will give them room to add payroll in a trade mid-season if necessary. As for the roster, it’s an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball. Seeing Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ projected for bench roles is both frustrating and beautiful at the same time. The reality is that Maddon is going to mix and match all year long, keeping everyone fresh and involved (while neutering their fantasy baseball value). Here’s the projected starting lineup from Roster Resource:

  1. CF – Albert Almora
  2. 3B – Kris Bryant
  3. 1B – Anthony Rizzo
  4. C – Wilson Contreras
  5. LF – Kyle Schwarber
  6. SS – Addison Russell
  7. RF – Jason Heyward
  8. 2B – Javier Baez

I’m glad Maddon has to make these decisions. While I would love to see Almora play every day, I think the optimal lineup may be with Heyward and Almora platooning in center field, where Heyward’s bat wouldn’t hurt as much. This would allow Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist to take over right field and see some occasional starts at second base.

Which brings us to another problem: you never want to see Javier Baez’s glove come off the field. It just simply shouldn’t happen, and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that’s been tossed around of him moving to shortstop permanently.

Baez is the Cubs best infield defender, and he can more than handle shortstop. Beyond that there really isn’t much more to discuss. Baez has also moved past Addison Russell on the offensive side of the ball and it should be Russell that has to earn his playing time, competing with Happ and Zobrist for at bats at second base.

The lineup and defense construction is also going to depend a lot on how Kyle Schwarber progresses against left-handed pitching, because his glove cannot be on the field if his bat isn’t more than making up for it. In 98 plate appearances last year, an admittedly small sample size, Schwarber hit .171 with a wRC+ of 74 against lefties, compared to a 109 wRC+ against right-handers. A Schwarber and Happ/Zobrist platoon could potentially work out nicely if Schwarber can’t show adjustments against left-handed pitching.

Another Cub who struggles mightily against left-handed pitching is Jason Heyward, the only elite athlete I’ve seen who can somehow lose his ability to hit in the prime of his career. The J-Hey Kid burst onto the scene in 2010 with an opening day home run against Carlos Zambrano in his first ever MLB plate appearance, and finished the year with a career best wRC+ of 134 (meaning he was 34% better than league average on a rate of park-adjusted Runs Created). For a prospect hailed as a phenom, the hype train had gone off the rails from the jump. Heyward had a sophomore slump that sent his trajectory back onto a more reasonable course with a 96 wRC+, so about league average offensively. The next three seasons saw him go 121, 120, 109, and then 121 again in his final season before joining the Cubs. The Cubs thought they were signing an elite defender who was well-above average offensively. In retrospect it was still a bad contract, but not nearly as bad as it should have been.

Upon joining the Cubs, we all know the painful story, but I’m going to dig into it just to express how confounding it is that Heyward lost his ability to produce on offense. In his first season with the Cubs at 26-years-old, the first theoretical year of Heyward’s prime, he plummeted to a wRC+ of 71, making him the fourth worst offensive player in baseball that year behind the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Alexei Ramirez, and Alcides Escobar. Heyward did improve slightly last year, bringing his wRC+ up to 88, but still nowhere near his previously established norm.

It’s impossible to know which Heyward will show up this year, but it’s also impossible to expect him to be an above league average hitter. On a championship-caliber team, that just doesn’t cut it as an everyday player in my book. It may sound crazy, and unlikely, that a team would bench a player making over $28 million as a 28-year-old, but I don’t think this Cubs team really cares about contracts as much as they do about winning another world series.

At best, Heyward should have to earn his at bats in the same way Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russel and Kyle Schwarber do. In my mind, the day-in, day-out regulars on this team should be limited to Rizzo, Bryant, Contreras (to the extent that a catcher can), and Baez.

On the pitching side of the ball, things are much more settled. It’s fun to play with starting rotation combinations but there is a clear top five, and Roster Resource has it projected as:

  1. Jon Lester
  2. Yu Darvish
  3. Jose Quintana
  4. Kyle Hendricks
  5. Tyler Chatwood

I’m in love with that rotation. While I worry about Chatwood’s walk rate, and lack of big strikeout numbers, he has great stuff and a lot has been written this off-season about a possible breakout for him. At the very least his numbers are going to improve purely from getting out of Colorado. The rest of the rotation consists of potential #1’s on another staff. While Lester had an off-year last year, and Yu’s ERA’s in the mid-3’s haven’t been elite, each of those four pitchers could cruise to 200 innings with a sub-3 ERA and no one would be surprised.

As for the bullpen, after adding Brandon Morrow the Cubs have their new fireman. Whether or not he stays as the closer all year long is not as important as Morrow being the ace-reliever that can be deployed during the highest-leverage situation in the game. As we saw in all seven games of the World Series, Brandon Morrow can be that guy.

Morrow is a 33-year-old former top pitching prospect, and failed starter, who signed a 2-year, $21 million contract after an incredible 2017 season with the Dodgers. In 43.2 innings last year Morrow put up 10.31 K/9 against a minuscule 1.85 BB/9, and did not allow a single home run the entire season. His 2.06 ERA was a full half run above his 1.55 FIP, and I expect him to have a better season this year than Wade Davis who departed to the Rockies for over $50 million.

The Cubs also signed former closer Steve Cishek to a 2-year, $13 million deal which further stabilizes the late innings. Alongside Morrow and Cishek will be the always entertaining Pedro Strop and the always agonizing Carl Edwards, Jr. Carl has some work to do to regain the trust of any Cubs fan after his four-pitch, bases-loaded walk to Yu Darvish in the NLCS last year, but he does have incredible stuff and hopefully will continue to develop. Another disappointment, but a player who has late-inning potential is lefty Justin Wilson who the Cubs traded for at the deadline sending Jeimer Candelario to the Tigers. Two more lefties round out the pen; Brian Duesing was re-signed after his resurgent 2017, and Mike Montgomery remains as the swing-man or potential sixth starting pitcher.

The main question as far as roster construction goes heading into spring training is the backup catcher job, which is likely to go to Chris Gimenez. The Cubs signing of Gimenez was seen as a strategic move by some, as Gimenez has spent time in the past catching Yu Darvish for the Texas Rangers. His competition is Victor Caratini, who had a fantastic season at Iowa last year hitting .343/.393/.558 in 326 PA. Caratini, however, has two options remaining so he can still be shuttled in and out of Iowa. He could also benefit from regular plate appearances, and may be a potential trade chip at the deadline, making Gimenez a strong favorite for the backup catcher job.

While there won’t be much drama as far as who makes the team this spring, there are still plenty of questions to be answered as far as lineup construction and who will take the field on a daily basis. This team is constantly evolving, and luckily for Cubs fans the men shaping this evolution have resumes highlighted by multiple championships.

It’s kind of insane how every year has turned into World Series or bust for the Cubs. Fans of all ages should savor this era while it lasts. Hopefully this is still just the beginning, but no matter how it plays out I can’t wait for another season of baseball.




Categories: Cubs, MLB

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