The Chicago Cubs may not sign any big name free agents this winter, but even without making a splash, the Cubs will still be one of the best teams in the league next season.
With the sun setting on 2018 and calendars flipping into the new year, the Chicago Cubs couldn’t be happier for the fresh start, albeit with a largely similar roster.
At the winter meetings, Theo Epstein reportedly urged Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, to check back with the Cubs before his client accepted a long-term deal from another team. Epstein needs time to be able to move money off the payroll and then check again with ownership for the go-ahead to spend the absurd amount of money it’ll take to land Harper.
While the Cubs have long been rumored to be one of the frontrunners to sign the former NL MVP, it’ll be tough for the front office to make the necessary moves to clear the space in the budget to pay Harper.
Pressure for the Cubs to make a significant addition is mounting as fans have watched the division rivals St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds notably improve their teams this winter. Not signing Harper will certainly be met with fierce backlash from the fan base.
The disappointing finish to the 2018 season has marred this offseason with an onslaught of negative headlines and opinions on social media about a broken Cubs team on the verge of collapse. That couldn’t be more exaggerated.
While the Cubs would obviously benefit from a big addition, they don’t have to make one. This Cubs team in its current state would still be a frontrunner for a World Series title next season.
Now, I’m not denying that the Cubs should pursue Harper. In fact, I’ve written about it here. He’s the best bat available this winter, would fit great in the lineup, and could be the key to the Cubs offense finally finding some consistency. However, it still seems like a longshot that Harper will be roaming the outfield in Wrigley in 2019.
Without Harper, what do the Cubs have? Just the young, talented core of a team that won 95 games last year and made their fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.
The logic in seeing this Cubs team as a force to be reckoned with is simple. Why was the 2018 season so frustrating when the team finished one game away from entering the playoffs with the top seed in the National League? Because they were capable of so much more, and they still will be in 2019.
Just think of how much went wrong for the Cubs last season. Yu Darvish was never himself and started just eight games. Brandon Morrow didn’t pitch in the second half. Tyler Chatwood hurt the team more than he helped it. Kris Bryant started the season on fire, battled injuries, and never got back to his typical form. Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Willson Contreras had disastrous second halves, all posting an OPS well below .700.
Darvish is a question mark heading into the season, but all signs point to him being ready for spring training. Should the Cubs bet on having the Darvish who started eight games last year and had a 4.95 ERA and 15.5 K-BB% or the Darvish who started 131 games from 2012-2017 and had a 3.42 ERA and 20.7 K-BB%? I’ll certainly bet on the career stats instead of an eight-game sample size.
The same question arises with Bryant. What’s more likely next season, getting the Bryant who posted a .252/.338/.382 slash line in 272 plate appearances after getting hurt last year, or the Bryant who hit .289/.391/.532 in his 2,199 career plate appearances before that? Once again, I’m betting on the career stats instead of the injury-plagued numbers.
As far as Happ, Almora, and Contreras go, the odds of them all repeating their measly second-half batting lines seems low. They each had good first halves at the plate, with all of them creating runs at a rate of at least 15 percent above league average.
On top of that, development isn’t linear. It really shouldn’t be surprising to see three guys in their mid-20s in either their first or second full MLB season struggling at the dish.
Chatwood may be a lost cause and Morrow will start the season on the disabled list, but it’s easy to see how much of what went wrong in 2018 could be fixed in 2019.
If Bryant, Happ, Almora, and Contreras all perform as expected next year it’ll be a game changer – especially in a lineup with Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist, and Kyle Schwarber all coming off good seasons.
A healthy Darvish back in the rotation should be nearly as exciting as it was heading into 2018, although there is a risk of re-injury. Pair a typical Darvish with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels and they should be a top 10 rotation.
If those things go relatively close to plan, signing a few key relievers could be all the Cubs need to take home another World Series title in 2019. Of course, this is in a best case scenario, but there is wiggle room. The Cubs have a deep enough roster to be able to weather injuries or underperformance from a few key players.
Should the Cubs sign Harper? Absolutely. He’s good enough to single-handedly move the Cubs from being a World Series threat to being the team to beat in the National League. But even if Harper signs elsewhere, the Cubs will still be an elite team with a good chance at another World Series.