The Cubs’ season ended in an unexpected and disappointing manner. The team that FanGraphs had projected with a 96 percent chance to win the division failed to do so, falling in a Game 163 to a fun, exciting Brewers team. The Cubs then fell to the Rockies in the Wild Card game to end their season a few short days after the regular season concluded. I am sure that Cubs’ fans were bummed, but at least they have a recent World Series victory to look to.
As I wrote when discussing the Brewers not long ago, the Cubs are in great shape to retake the division in 2019. The Brewers needed a lot to break right for them and a lot to break wrong for the Cubs just to win the division in a tie-breaker this past season. This Cubs team will be returning everyone of note from 2018, including Cole Hamels, positioning them well for the future.
Former MVP Kris Bryant had a down year due to a left shoulder injury. Even in a down year he still hit .272/.374/.460. Anthony Rizzo’s .359 wOBA was down 21 points from last year, mostly due to a drop in power. It might not be reasonable to expect Rizzo to crack a 140 wRC+ again like he did in 2014-2016, but he does not appear to be any different than he was in 2017, when he had a 134 wRC+.
Willson Contreras also had a down year, though being a catcher who can be an average hitter is still really good. As with Rizzo, he suffered a drop in power, albeit a more drastic one. He was hitting well through July, and then had a bad August, hitting .213/.323/.300. He followed that up with a disastrous September that saw him hit .152/.222/.242. His hard-hit rate dropped substantially during the last two months of the season. It does coincide with a hamstring injury he suffered in early August. I don’t see any reason why he should not return to normal in 2019.
Jason Heyward unsurprisingly chose not to opt out of his contract, and I doubt he will do so next year unless he has an outstanding 2019 season at the plate. The good news is that his offense has improved every year in Chicago. He was an average hitter in 2018. His defense appeared to slip a little bit according to the advanced metrics, but that could just be a small sample size anomaly.
Kyle Schwarber turned out to be one of the few players who showed up to Spring Training in unquestionably the best shape of his life, and then had that improved fitness actually impact his on-field performance. His .343 wOBA was a 10-point improvement over the previous season, but his biggest improvement was in the field. He definitely improved his statue-like range in left field, but his defensive metrics improved because of his arm. Obviously as a former catcher, he has a great arm. I still think Schwarber is not suited for left field, but at least he is not a disaster out there anymore.
Of course, there was the wonderful season of Javier Báez. He led the Cubs with 6.3 WAR. Despite his elite bat speed, Báez has never been able to crack a 100 wRC+ as a result of his poor plate discipline. Somehow he hit .290/.326/.554 with 34 HR, good for a 131 wRC+. It was mostly from a big boost in power over the year before. I quite frankly do not know how he did it. There is nothing in his batted-ball profile to explain this, and his plate discipline actually got worse. I am as big a fan of my fellow boricua as anyone, but I am very concerned that he is going to suffer some serious regression in 2019.
Addison Russell has become a huge stain the team, even if just discussing his on-field problems. He is going to miss the first 40 games of the season due to his alleged commissions of domestic violence. His defense keeps him as an average player, but his bat is just not developing at all. He had his worst season at the plate in 2018, hitting just .250/.317/.340. That is a sub-.100 ISO. One has to seriously ask if it is in the Cubs’ best interests to part ways with him. Báez can play shortstop and Ben Zobrist can play second base. They can bring back Daniel Murphy for some depth. It is a drop in defense, certainly, but the offensive improvement could make it worthwhile, to say nothing of the team separating themselves from Russell’s alleged off-field atrocities.
The Cubs’ rotation should be in pretty good shape, especially with the smart decision to bring back Cole Hamels. Spending $20 million for a pitcher who should at least be an average starter is an easy decision for a contending team. Kyle Hendricks is still going strong. Hopefully Yu Darvish can bounce back after a disastrous first season in Chicago that saw him miss most of the season and turn in a 5.40 RA9 when he did play.
There are concerns over Jon Lester and José Quintana. Lester improved greatly over his 2017 season, going from a 5.03 RA9 to a 3.72 RA9. The problem is that his peripherals do not match up with that performance at all. He failed to strike out even 20 percent of the batters he faced, and he was a bit homer prone. He had a 4.44 DRA this year, which was actually much worse than his 3.85 DRA the year before. As for Quintana, his control has dipped, he is giving up too many home runs, and his 26 K% from 2018 looks like an outlier. He had a decent 4.18 RA9 this past year, but his DRA was at 4.93.
The Cubs bullpen was excellent going by RA9, but their peripherals left a lot to be desired. Their 22.6 K% ranked in the bottom half of baseball, and their 11 walk percentage was the second-worst in the league behind only the Braves. A lot of that was Carl Edwards Jr., who walked a whopping 14.4 percent of batters faced. One of their best relievers, Jesse Chávez, is now a free agent. If I were Theo Epstein, I would definitely be looking to bolster the bullpen. As I have mentioned frequently before, that is easier said than done. There are interesting options in free agency, but reliever performance is so difficult to predict. They tend to be high risk, low reward. Just ask the Rockies.
I would not be surprised to see the Cubs make some moves in free agency. With some hefty contracts on he books that have not worked out so far, I would be surprised to see a massive signing like Bryce Harper or even a Patrick Corbin. But Dallas Keuchel or J.A. Happ to bolster that rotation? I could see that.
Unless the Brewers make major upgrades to their starting rotation this offseason, the Cubs will be the better team in 2019, and probably 2020, too. I expect them to take back the division in 2019. The Cubs deserve a lot of credit for assembling such a great team, but it doesn’t hurt that the Brewers appear afraid to spend, even though I guarantee you that they can, they just choose not to. The Dodgers, though, should still offer up some serious competition in the National League.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.