Contending Teams Which Have Had Worse Offseasons Than the Cubs So Far
Here is a chart of the mood of Cubs Twitter since Mark Feinsand’s report that the Cubs might sign two free-agent shortstops this winter: 📉
Since that report, Aaron Judge (née Arson) re-signed with the Yankees, pushing the Giants further into the mix for Carlos Correa, and the Padres signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year deal. More reporting has come out that, while the Cubs are still in on Correa and Dansby Swanson, they appear reluctant to sign free agents to long-term deals.
It’s possible that the Cubs meet Correa’s demands (they should). It feels more likely at this moment that they sign Swanson (who I’m a bigger fan of than most) or are shut out of the free-agent shortstop market entirely. Regardless, the offseason is far from over, and I wanted to illustrate that by looking at six contending teams who have done less than the Cubs this offseason so far.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers brought back Clayton Kershaw while losing Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Tyler Anderson, and Andrew Heaney. They aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs; teams that win 111 games can afford to lose some players. We’re used to the Dodgers improving continuously, however, and they have taken a step back while indicating that they’re wary of signing Correa.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants feel like the most likely destination for Correa, but unless or until they sign him, their biggest move is signing Mitch Haniger. The Giants have been indicating a willingness to spend big for a while now without actually doing so. If they go another winter without making a big acquisition, it will be frustrating for the fan base.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have traded from a position of strength (their outfield) to shore up a weakness (their bullpen). The net effect of their moves is replacing Teoscar Hernández with Kevin Kiermaier and Erik Swanson, which seems like a largely lateral move. The Blue Jays have a good team that could be a great team, and it’s odd that they haven’t made a bigger step toward that goal.
After achieving their first winning season in years and beginning to graduate prospects from what remains the top farm system in baseball, the Orioles have signed…Kyle Gibson. I was expecting the Orioles to make a big splash this winter, with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls and an up-and-coming young core. They still seem like a logical landing spot for Carlos Rodón, but their offseason has been a big disappointment.
The Brewers exchanged Kolten Wong for Jesse Winker and Abraham Toro and dumped Hunter Renfroe for relief prospects. It’s hard for me to believe that either of those moves will significantly help the 2023 team as their two aces take another step toward free agency.
Boston Red Sox
Unlike many of the other teams on this list, the Red Sox have made moves to improve their team, bringing in Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen to fortify their bullpen and Masataka Yoshida as significant upgrade in left field. However, two years after losing Mookie Betts (and one year before potentially losing Rafael Devers), the Red Sox have let another star player head west.
The Red Sox are the most debatable entry on this list. If the Cubs do nothing more significant over the winter it’s possible that the Red Sox will end up with the better offseason. Still, losing Xander Bogaerts hurts the team more than losing Willson Contreras hurts the Cubs, and I didn’t love the Yoshida signing from a value perspective.
I intend this post to serve two purposes: first, to point out that there is a lot of offseason left, which applies to the Cubs as well as the above teams. Second, misery loves company, and the Cubs are not alone in their lack of significant upgrades thus far.
They should still sign Carlos Correa.
“Do you know where “policeman” comes from, sir? Vimes hadn’t. “Polis” used to mean “city”, said Carrot. That’s what policeman means: “a man for the city.” (Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms)
“A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.” (Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms)
I finished reading my first Discworld novel last October. I’d been meaning to read the series for a while, but was intimidated by how many books and storylines there were.1 I liked the book I started with, and I’ve since read several other entries in the series, my favorite so far being Men At Arms. Pratchett’s writing is notoriously clever, and each book strikes me like an indie rock song bursting with hooks.
The Discworld City Watch novels largely center around Samuel Vimes, a member of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Vimes is an excellent character, and one of his best qualities is how in tune he is with the city of Ankh-Morpork. He’s not blind to the city’s faults, but he fully inhabits it nonetheless. He’s walked the streets so much that he can tell where he is just by the feel of the streets through his boots, a polis-man in the original sense of the word.
It was while reading the third book in the City Watch series, Feet of Clay, that I finally made the connection between Vimes and a new habit I picked up at the beginning of the pandemic.
I’ve been working from home since March of 2020. After the initial jolt of the transition from a blissfully short commute to a non-existent one passed, I felt myself becoming unmoored from the outside world. I’ve never spent much time out on the town or roaming the countryside; I spend most of my time inside, looking at a screen. The world I construct inside my home has significantly more impact on my life than the environment which surrounds it. This generally isn’t a problem for me, but as the dreariness of doing the same thing every day set in, I realized I had to change something. I had been relying on my commute to get me out of the house, and now, without that, I was losing touch with my surroundings to a level I hadn’t before. To remedy this, I started making an effort to get outside every day, even just for a walk to the mailbox and back. I was exercising indoors separately and continued to do so; the express purpose of this walk was to serve as a reminder that my inner world was not the whole world, and it worked wonderfully.
Last October I moved from Austin back to Western Massachusetts, and I’ve continued my habit in the year since, with a few new wrinkles. The past several months, I’ve lengthened my daily walks, and I’m beginning to understand what Vimes feels as he patrols the city streets.
The impetus for these longer walks has been the transition from summer to fall.
Seasons are a new experience for me. Texas has seasons, but they’re less distinct. A large part of the year is spent in summer, and a short fall bleeds into a mild winter, which transitions into a spring that, while lovely, is overshadowed by the looming 100-degree temperatures. Even when I lived Western Massachusetts for college, I didn’t experience the full depth of its seasons. I was able to avoid the worst of New England winter with nearly a month’s respite in Austin each year, and was still subject to Austin summers. The college campus is a bubble of its own, separate from the towns surrounding it.
In many ways the past few months have been the first time I’ve been able to enjoy the changing of seasons, and I couldn’t enjoy it as much without feeling connected to this place by my walks.
It helps to encourage my walking habit that even in Texas, fall was always my favorite season. The first crispness in the air is refreshing. At the risk of sounding like Jeff Winger giving a campaign speech, I like rainy days, I like pumpkin flavors, and I like hoodies.
Being in a place subject to seasons has also helped me enjoy the baseball postseason more. The postseason is an October affair, and as the teams progress closer to the World Series, fans and players dress warmer and their breath begins to show against the dark autumn sky. As I become more attuned to the rhythm of my neighborhood, I feel more aligned with the rhythm of the sport that I love.
By walking outside each day, I pick up on small daily shifts in the environment. Some days, a cat eyes me warily from a sun-dappled patch of grass (best admired from afar). The stream under the bridge is louder after a rainy day, but not deafening. Halloween decorations have sprung up, gradually at first, then all at once. I’m allowing myself to experience the weather; some days the fall wind is crisp enough to hurt my ears, and some days my jacket is relegated to a familiar position over my shoulder halfway through.
This is not a love letter to a specific place, but to having a sense of place. I have no doubt that this habit will stick with me as I connect more to the places I inhabit and develop my own sense of place. I still spend most of my time indoors, but for a little while each day, I know exactly where I am: here, in the city, a polis-man, walking my beat.
The Cubs Have the Most Horizontal Pitch Movement in Baseball
Baseball Savant provides pitch movement leaderboards for each pitch type. As I was looking through the leaderboards for various pitch types, I noticed that several Cubs pitchers stand out in terms of negative horizontal movement compared to average. For instance, Justin Steele’s four-seamer gets the third most cutting movement in the league, and Marcus Stroman and Rowan Wick are also both within the top 20. Having recently read a North Side Bound article about cut-ride, I was curious to see if my observations had any statistical backing.
First, I downloaded a CSV from Baseball Savant of all pitchers a pitcher has thrown at least 50 times this season. I then imported that CSV into my local database and ran a query on it to see the average absolute value of pitch movement per team across both axes. Getting the absolute value is key here so that pitches with a lot of glove-side movement aren’t canceled out by those with a lot of arm-side movement.
The results show that the Cubs are the top team in terms of horizontal pitch movement, and sixth in vertical movement.
This is certainly not the most rigorous method of measuring pitching development on an organizational level. Notably, the query could be improved by using a weighted average, since this analysis didn’t take into account how often specific pitches were being thrown. It’s also not necessarily true that these rankings are correlated with pitching success. It does, however, back up the belief that the Cubs are prioritizing pitchers with outlier horizontal movement.
View the full spreadsheet here. I’ve included the (messy) SQL query I used to calculate these values below as well as a copy of the full table for posterity.
SELECT team_name, avg(abs(diff_z::float)) avg_abs_diff_z, avg(abs(diff_x::float)) avg_abs_diff_x, dense_rank() OVER (ORDER BY avg(abs(diff_x::float)) DESC) AS diff_x_rnk, dense_rank() OVER (ORDER BY avg(abs(diff_z::float)) DESC) AS diff_z_rnk, (dense_rank() OVER (ORDER BY avg(abs(diff_x::float)) DESC) + dense_rank() OVER (ORDER BY avg(abs(diff_z::float)) DESC)) / 2.0 avg_rnk FROM pitch_movement GROUP BY team_name ORDER BY avg_rnk ASC;
Cubs Statcast Tidbits: Hoerner Hits It Hard, Hendricks Induces Whiffs, and Roberts Spins It Well
Here are the ten hardest-hit balls of Nico Hoerner’s career so far:
|Game Date||Event||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||Pitch Type|
Three of his highest exit velocities came in this weekend’s series against the Brewers, and he set a career high on Saturday’s game. Either Hoerner has gotten even stronger over the offseason or he’s tweaked his swing to utilize his recent strength more.
Two other things stand out from this table; the first that most of these have come off of fastballs, and the second that only his home run on Opening Day and his single on 8/26/22 are in the launch angle sweet spot of 8-32 degrees. This tracks with the eye test–Hoerner is strong, but he often beats the ball into the ground and struggles with breaking pitches. The Cubs don’t need Hoerner to provide power for him to be a useful player, but his increased exit velocities this year are a trend to watch.
Ethan Roberts made his major-league debut on Saturday, during which he threw three sliders. The slider topped out at a 3081 RPM spin-rate, which is the 30th-highest spin rate of any pitch in the majors this year.1 This year, his slider has the second-highest average spin rate of any slider in baseball. It’s early, and the sample size is small, but as long as Roberts can command the slider it’s worth watching.
Kyle Hendricks was excellent on Opening Day, outpitching the reigning NL Cy Young award winner by striking out seven and allowing just one run in 5 1/3 innings of work. Not only were the results impressive, they were well-earned. Hendricks' 17 whiffs on Friday were three more than he had in any start last year, and his 13 changeup whiffs were the most he’d had since July 2019. He has as many whiffs on his changeup this year in one appearance as the next two best appearances combined. Of course, this is influenced by who has pitched this early in the year, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Hendricks to be this good every time out. Still, it was nice to see Hendricks provide some reassurance after a rough 2021.
Coincidentally, one of Kyle Hendricks' curveballs from Opening Day ranked 32nd on this list. You don’t think of Hendricks as a spin-rate guy, but his curve has always ranked highly in that category–it was in the 91st percentile of curveballs last year, and 6th overall early this year. ↩︎
Automating Trello, Things, and Obsidian with Shortcuts
We use Trello to track projects at work. I like to keep track of my own tasks in Things, and I like to keep notes and research for my projects in Obsidian. It can be hard to keep all three references to a single project in sync, so I wrote a little shortcut that lives in my menu bar and lets me take a card from Trello and set up a project in Obsidian and Things.
When you run the shortcut, it pulls the latest cards from your preferred Trello list for you to choose from. Once you select a project to set up, it creates a task in Things, which links to the Obsidian note for the project, as well as a note in Obsidian which links to both the original Trello card and the Things task.
Here are examples of the resulting Obsidian note:
And Things task:
This shortcut lets me navigate directly to the same project in all three systems, which makes it easier to keep information flowing between them.
You can download the shortcut here to use as a starting place for a similar system. The shortcut makes use of the Advanced Obsidian URI plugin, which adds useful actions to Obsidian’s URI scheme, so you’ll need to have that installed in Obsidian for it to work correctly. Reach out to me with tips or questions! I’m looking forward to further exploring the intersection of automation and Obsidian.
Cubs Seek Relief
I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if Brad Wieck were healthy. Wieck was one of the best relievers in the league down the stretch last season, and he looked to be a key piece of this Cubs bullpen. However, Wieck is now on the 45-day IL, and the team can’t count on a heroic late September return. With Rex Brothers having struggled in his big-league stint at the beginning of the season, Kyle Ryan is the lone lefty in the bullpen. Here are his percentile rankings in key categories via Baseball Savant:
Ryan has lost substantial velocity on his main pitches, and although it ticked up in his latest outing on Friday, he didn’t have much margin for error to begin with. Ryan was good last year, and he could certainly regain his 2019 form, but it would not be wise to count on that and not seek help from outside the organization. Brailyn Marquez and Burl Carraway remain options, but the Cubs seem hesitant to call them up, leaving them on the market for a reliever who can get lefties out.
It’s hard to figure out where those reinforcements could come from this year, as most teams are still in the race–the only team in the National League with playoff odds under 20% according to FanGraphs is the Pirates. The American League is more striated, with the Red Sox, Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Rangers, Angels, and Mariners all having playoff odds under 20%. Even so, many of those teams are only a few games out of a playoff spot, and may be reluctant to sell off key pieces, especially if they’re under team control past the end of this short season.
When it comes to the teams that are out of it, I wouldn’t expect any reliever on an expiring contract to cost much this year. Given Friday’s trade of Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree for Connor Seabold and Nick Pivetta, the market doesn’t seem in the sellers' favor.
To find names for this list, I looked at three different leaderboards:
- Qualified relievers in 2020, sorted by strikeout rate minus walk rate against all batters
- Left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 batters as a reliever since July 2018, sorted by strikeout rate minus walk rate against all batters over that period
- Pitchers who have faced at least 50 batters as a reliever since July 2018, sorted by strikeout rate minus walk rate against lefty batters over that period
I narrowed down the list to pitchers currently on teams unlikely to make the playoffs, and are realistically available to the Cubs. The list I’ve come up with doesn’t sound particularly inspiring, but I believe any of these pitchers would improve the Cubs' bullpen, and the team shouldn’t have to give up a lot for them.
Tony Watson: (FanGraphs | Baseball Savant)
Watson seems the most likely trade candidate of any on this list. He was only set to make $3M this season, which was prorated down to $1.1M, and the Cubs would be on the hook for a little under half of that. The problem with Watson is that he’s similar to Kyle Ryan, except Ryan was better last season and Watson has been better this season. Watson has similarly lost 2-3 MPH on his sinker this season. Ryan had the left-most release point in all of baseball last year, and Watson had the 6th-farthest left (min. 200 pitches). Like Ryan, Watson doesn’t walk or strike out many batters, and thrives when he’s generating soft contact. Watson has a longer track record than Ryan, but I don’t think he has substantially more upside. The main reason to acquire him is as a Kyle Ryan insurance policy and veteran bullpen presence.
Sam Howard: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
The Pirates haven’t traded much with the Cubs in the past, but it’s possible that with them so far out of the race and with a new front office they’ll consider it. Howard’s surface numbers aren’t great, but he’s struck out 13 of the 37 batters he’s faced and walked only 3. He’s given up a fair amount of hard contact, and he was a bargain bin pickup for the Pirates, so I would assume he would be cheap for a team to acquire. Howard doesn’t have much service time and still has two options, so the Cubs could also hold on to him after the season is over. Regardless of the hard contact, it could be nice for David Ross to have someone who can throw sliders like this to Christian Yelich in his arsenal.
Sam Selman: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
Selman is the pitcher I’m most excited about on this list. He was bad in 2019 (4.35 ERA/6.12 FIP in 10.1 IP), but he’s been good thus far in 2020 (2.70 ERA/2.77 FIP in 10.0 IP). He gained 1.5 MPH on his fastball over the offseason, and its spin rate increased accordingly. Selman doesn’t even have a year of service time yet, so he might be more expensive than other pitchers on this list, but given his lack of track record I wouldn’t think he would be prohibitively expensive for the Cubs. Here’s a video of him striking out Cody Bellinger.
Tanner Scott: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
Scott probably has the best stuff of the lefties on this list. He doesn’t have a long history of success, but his slider speaks for itself. Like Selman, he still has a lot of team control left and has higher upside than a pitcher like Watson, so it would probably take more to persuade the Orioles to trade him. Seeing how bad his slider makes lefties look makes me think it could be worth it.
Josh Taylor: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
The Red Sox already traded two relievers, so it’s possible they’d consider trading a third. Taylor has been roughed up in 2.1 innings of work so far this season, but he was great last year. If the Sox are okay with trading him for a low price, he could be worth taking a flyer on.
Potentially cheap righties
Trevor Rosenthal: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
Rosenthal is sure to be traded, as he’s on a cheap one-year deal. The only questions are where, and for how much? Rosenthal was awful last year with the Nationals after returning from Tommy John surgery, and not much better with the Tigers. This year, however, he’s been excellent with the Royals, striking out 14 of the 38 batters he’s faced, while allowing just one run. Whether the Cubs are in on him depends on his price tag. If a team more desperate for bullpen help wants him, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs beating their offer.
Taylor Williams: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
Williams is off to a good start after being claimed off waivers by the Mariners in February, striking out 16 of the 47 batters he’s faced. He isn’t going to be one of the best relievers in a contending team’s bullpen, but he probably won’t be the worst, either.
Ian Kennedy: FanGraphs | Baseball Savant
Kennedy is certainly available, but money is an issue; his prorated salary for the year is $6.1M. While he enjoyed a career resurgence in 2019, putting up a 3.41 ERA and 2.99 FIP in 63.1 innings, Kennedy has struggled this year, with an 8.49 ERA and 9.16 FIP in 11.2 innings. While I would expect him to turn his season around to an extent, and he would likely be available for nearly nothing at this point, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs taking a risk on his contract.
There’s no guarantee the Cubs will acquire any of these particular relievers, but I would be surprised if they didn’t get any bullpen help. If they do make some moves before the August 31st trade deadline, I’ll profile the new pitchers here. See you then!
Debut Review: Kyle Hendricks
Kyle Hendricks wasn’t supposed to be this good. He was never one to blow you away with stuff, and touching 90 MPH with your fastball doesn’t exactly make you a top prospect. Nevertheless, Hendricks performed well in the minors in both 2012 and 2013. After being named the Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013, Hendricks was called up to make a start on July 10th, 2014.
The first thing I realized when watching this game was how different both rosters were. In the 12-inning affair, six pitchers and 12 hitters appeared for the Cubs. Seven pitchers and 11 hitters appeared in the game for the Reds, and only catcher Tucker Barnhart remains. Only 15 of the 36 players in this game played a single MLB game in 2019, and, besides Hendricks, only Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo remain on the team they were on when this game was played. Both teams would go on to finish at the bottom of the division, with the Reds three games better than the Cubs.
Hendricks' major-league career had an inauspicious beginning: he started the game with seven straight balls and two walks. After getting Todd Frazier to pop out, Hendricks allowed three straight hits, and all nine Reds came to the plate in the inning. His final line after one inning? 3 runs, 3 hits, 3 walks (one intentional), 0 strikeouts.
Over the next five innings, Hendricks posted the following line: 1 run, 2 hits, 0 walks, 7 strikeouts. As odd is this is to say about Hendricks, it definitely seems like there were some nerves going on in the first (he was also hurt by some calls that didn’t go his way). He struck out the side in his final inning of work, and left the game behind by a run, 4-3.
Hendricks also scored the Cubs' first run of the game, on a surprisingly close play at the plate in the top of the 3rd. The Cubs pulled within one on an Arismendy Alcántara double—Alcántara was a consensus top-100 prospect going into 2014, but ended up being traded for Chris Coghlan in 2016. In the second game of his career, Alcántara went 4-5 with a double, a triple, and 3 RBI. Unfortunately, his major league career was marred by strikeouts, and he hasn’t featured in a game in the majors since 2017 (with the Reds) due to his career 49 wRC+. He did, however, have a 117 wRC+ with the Mets in AAA in 2019, and a 1.022 OPS with the Angels this spring.
The Cubs tied it in the top of the 8th on a Starlin Castro single, and the score would remain tied until the top of the 12th, when Luis Valbuena knocked in two runs on a triple before being thrown out at the plate. Blake Parker returned to the mound after a scoreless 11th and worked around a single to pitch a scoreless 12th, closing the game out.
Hendricks went on to earn the NL Rookie of the Month award in August after giving up just seven earned runs in 37 1/3 innings. Despite posting the lowest strikeout-minus-walk rate of his career, Hendricks still had an ERA below 3 and a 3.32 FIP on the year—and he’s never had an ERA or FIP above 4. A relative non-prospect transformed himself into one of the most consistent and underrated starters in the league, and this game was just the beginning.
Cubs Mount Rushmore
Inspired by this recent episode of the Cubs Related podcast, I thought I would put together my own Mount Rushmore of the 2011-2019 Cubs: the four players who best represent the Theo Epstein era. First, a quick disclaimer–there are, of course, more than four Cubs without whom this era would not have been what it was. I’ll cover notable omissions after my list.
- Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo is unquestionably the first Cub on our Mount Rushmore. He was with Epstein’s Cubs before they were good, and he leads in home runs, runs, RBI, has nearly 1800 more plate appearances than the next-closest hitter (Starlin Castro), and even ranks third in stolen bases. Not only that, Rizzo has the second-highest wRC+ of any Cub with at least 300 plate appearances over that time (by just five points). The new Mr. Cub is an excellent ambassador of the franchise off the field, and I can’t imagine any reason why he wouldn’t be one of the four most important Cubs of the last decade.
- Kris Bryant
The other half of “Bryzzo” is nearly as essential. Bryant edges Rizzo in all three triple slash categories (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), and is just a few WAR behind Rizzo in three fewer seasons. He’s accumulated the most baserunning value of any Cub in that time despite only stealing 34 bases, and watching him run the bases is a delight. Bryant is also the only current Cub to have won an MVP award. The main reason Rizzo gets the nod over Bryant is longevity; Bryant has been a better player, but Rizzo has been more consistent and was with the team in its down years. The Cubs have only missed the playoffs once when Bryant has been on the team, and since Bryant came up in 2015, only two hitters have produced more fWAR: Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.
- Kyle Hendricks
This is probably the most controversial choice here. It’s not the easiest argument to make, but Hendricks pitched the most innings for the Cubs of anyone during this time span and accumulated the most fWAR. He has a better ERA and FIP with the Cubs than Jon Lester, and the second-best ERA and FIP of any Cubs starter who pitched at least 400 innings, second only to Jake Arrieta. Hendricks started the series-clinching Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS against the Dodgers, and outpitched Clayton Kershaw, giving up just two hits while walking none and striking out six, facing the minimum through 7.1 innings thanks to a pickoff and a double play. He then went on to start the most important game in Cubs history, and outpitched Corey Kluber, giving up two runs (one earned) in 4.2 innings of work. Over the whole 2016 postseason, he started five games, pitched 25.1 innings, gave up 19 hits, five runs (four earned), seven walks, one home run, and struck out 19, good for a 1.42 ERA and a .216/.278/.284 slash line allowed. Hendricks won the NL ERA crown in 2016 and finished third in Cy Young voting.
While Jake Arrieta was undoubtedly better at his peak, Hendricks has provided an incredible level of consistency. Not only that, but from 2016-2019, Hendricks led both Lester and Arrieta in FIP every year, never posting a FIP above 3.88 in that stretch. Only 12 other starters had a FIP under 4.00 those four seasons; only 10 other starters had a FIP under 3.89 in all four seasons.
I don’t think the Cubs win the World Series in 2016 without any of Lester, Arrieta, or Hendricks, and you could easily make an argument for any of the three to be on the Cubs Mount Rushmore. But I’ve enjoyed watching Hendricks the most (the command, the changeup, the 81-pitch complete game!), and I think he’s the most underrated of the three, and, as a tiebreaker, he’s accumulated the most WAR, so he’s earned a spot on my Mount Rushmore.
- Pedro Strop
This could also be a controversial inclusion. By fWAR, Strop was worth just 5.7 wins during his time with the Cubs, less than a third of Kyle Hendricks' WAR total. However, he accumulated the most WAR of any Cubs reliever, and posted an ERA under 3.00 five consecutive seasons, from 2014-2018. With how today’s game is played, it felt like there should be a reliever on Cubs Mount Rushmore, and Strop is by far the best and most iconic. Even though he rarely pitched as a closer, and was therefore often overshadowed, Strop’s consistency and clubhouse presence make him stand out. He wasn’t the same in 2019 after rushing back from a hamstring injury to pitch in the 2018 Wild Card game, and though his tenure didn’t end as well as it could have, the team wanted Strop back (though not enough to make room for him in their payroll). Strop was obviously close with Javier Báez, on several occasions telling him he was going to win the game for the team (and on at least two occasions he was right), and the club even did a Strop-themed road trip. While Strop’s on-field contributions don’t match the other three, this era of Cubs baseball wouldn’t have been the same without him, and he deserves a place on the mountain.
Three other players just missed my Mount Rushmore. I wouldn’t have any problem with seeing any of these three on there:
- Jake Arrieta
Arrieta had a stretch where he was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. He won a Cy Young award with the Cubs and threw two no hitters. However, while Arrieta was better than many realized in the latter part of his Cubs tenure, he wasn’t as good or consistent as Hendricks or Lester then, and the increase in wildness could make his starts frustrating to watch.
- Jon Lester
Lester will go down as one of the best free agent pitching signings in Cubs history. The main reason Hendricks gets the nod instead is that both Hendricks and, to a lesser extent, Arrieta were developed by the Cubs, while Lester was brought in as a free agent. Additionally, Lester has been prone to occasional blowups: from 2017-2019, he’s tied for the most starts allowing seven or more runs with ten such starts. Lester is a Cubs legend and a leader of the team, but Hendricks has been more consistent and enjoyable to watch.
- Javier Báez
Báez is by far the most entertaining Cub, and should be considered part of the team’s core. However, he became a star later in the decade than Bryant and Rizzo. In terms of overall status, it doesn’t help that his development has coincided with the team’s overall decline. Báez is the current Cub most likely to make the next decade’s Rushmore, but I couldn’t put him on this decade’s mountain over any of the four that I chose.
Finally, for reference, these are the top five Cubs by Fangraphs WAR from 2011-2019:
- Anthony Rizzo — 29.7
- Kris Bryant — 27.8
- Kyle Hendricks — 19.2
- Jake Arrieta — 18.3
- Jon Lester — 16.7
Sorry for the delays in getting posts out the last few weeks; it’s been a little hard to find motivation, for obvious reasons.
This newsletter wouldn’t be possible without the data and the wonderful words at FanGraphs. The site is struggling now and could use your help. I won’t be able to say it better than the site’s founder, so if you have the means, you can read founder David Appleman’s reasons for asking for funding here. It would mean a lot to everyone involved if you were to purchase a membership to the site.
I hope you are all staying safe and isolated to the best of your abilities. Be understanding with each other, and remember: there will be baseball on the other side.
The Next Five Years of Cubs Baseball, Simulated
As we are currently without baseball, and will be for the foreseeable future, I decided to simulate the next five Cubs seasons in the recently-released Out of the Park Baseball 21. Note that this simulation was run with the public beta version of the game, so there are some minor quirks, like the Angels signing José Quintana to a two-year contract and then releasing him days later. It’s also important to remember that this is a simulation, not a projection. I first simulated the next five seasons (without intervention–all decisions were made by the AI for all teams). It didn’t turn out great for the Cubs, so I decided to run a second five-year simulation, which turned out a little better, though still not great. Before we get to Cubs-specific things, some interesting tidbits from the simulation.
The most surprising thing which happened during the simulation was the Dodgers, who in 2023 set a major league record with 124 wins. They overperformed their expected record by seven wins, but even taking away seven wins has them breaking the previous record by one. From 2020-2024, the Dodgers averaged 113 wins both in terms of results and expected record as well. In this simulated world, the Dodgers now hold the top three team records in the NL for runs scored (1214, 1047, 1034) as well as home runs hit (345, 339, 306). At their peak, the Dodgers hit 66 more home runs than the current record holders, the 2019 Dodgers. Their pitchers also set NL team records for strikeouts in 2021, 2023, and 2024.
How, exactly, did they do this? Let’s take their record-breaking 2023 as an example. Cody Bellinger had a 192 wRC+ (as high as 1962 Mickey Mantle, and the fifth-highest since 2000, min. 500 PA). Seven members of their starting lineup had a wRC+ of at least 140, and every starter besides the pitcher hit at least 20% better than league average. The wildest thing may be that that season wasn’t even Bellinger’s best–in 2021 he had a 12.2 WAR season. Dodgers players won four of the five NL MVP awards, and three of the five Reliever of the Year awards. Despite all this, the Dodgers only won one World Series during this period. The Angels won the 2020, 2022, and 2024 championships, and the Diamondbacks won the 2021 championship. The Dodgers finally won in 2023.
Nico Hoerner hit for the cycle on 4/23/21, the Cubs' first since Mark Grace on 5/9/93.
Rangers reliever Brock Burke set a single-season record for pitchers by appearing in 125 games and pitching 119.1 innings. I’m not sure why they kept throwing him out there, however, as he allowed an 8.52 ERA, good for -2.1 WAR.
So, how did the Cubs perform over these five years? It started out excellently–they went 103-59 in 2020. They failed to make the World Series, though, and in 2021 they mirrored their previous record, going 59-103. They haven’t had a winning season since, although the most recent was their best effort, with an 81-81 expected record (which they underperformed by five wins).
The Cubs made three major free agent signings during the simulation, all to shore up their pitching staff:
- They Aaron Nola to a 5/$109.4M contract on 1/4/23, and he’s become the ace of the pitching staff, though that’s not saying much for the 2024 Cubs.
- They signed Noah Syndergaard to a 5/$96M contract on 12/6/23 coming off a 4.7 WAR season, and on 5/24/24 he sustained a career-ending injury.
- They signed Zack Greinke to a 2/$52M contact on 12/13/23, a bold move considering 2024 would be his age 40 season. Greinke was below average and missed the last half of the season with a torn labrum, even though he had pitched quite well for the Angels the previous two seasons, leading the league in innings and having the lowest walk rate both years.
In the midst of a third consecutive losing season, the Cubs fired Jed Hoyer and David Ross on June 28th, 2023, replacing Hoyer with former Cardinals reliever Kelvin Jiménez (?), and Ross with Tom Thobe, a former Braves reliever. Anthony Iapoce remains the hitting coach, and Dan Krantovitz the scouting director, but the rest of the coaching staff was turned over. Note: OOTP doesn’t know how to deal with front offices with titles like President of Baseball Operations, so people in positions like Theo Epstein start the game unemployed. He took a job with the Braves in 2021 as their scouting director, and they’ve finished in 1st place all four seasons and won 119 games in 2024.
Here are the biggest trades the Cubs made over these five years:
- Cubs receive: Mike Montgomery
- Royals receive: Wally Browning, Famin Moseley, Derek Casey
Montgomery was excelling as a starter for the 2020 Royals, but the Cubs put him back in the bullpen, where he struggled for two years before becoming a free agent.
- Cubs receive: Sam Tuivailala, Ljay Newsome
- Mariners receive: David Bote
Bote was hitting well in 2020 when they traded him to the Mariners, but he has put up -1.1 WAR in his time with them so far. Tuivailala had been excellent for the Mariners (2.0 WAR in 45.2 innings), but struggled with the Cubs in 2020 and 2021, after which the team non-tendered him. Ljay Newsome, meanwhile, was a good swingman for the Cubs in 2024 in his age-27 season.
- Cubs receive: Wilmer Flores
- Giants receive: Alec Mills, Jake Burlingame
Flores put up a 136 OPS+ for the Cubs in 2021, but was a below-average pinch-hitter in 2022. Alec Mills was a good swingman for the Cubs in 2020, but finally had an above-average season as a full-time starter in 2024 with the Giants.
- Cubs receive: Jeff McNeil
- Mets receive: Kurt Suzuki, Kohl Franklin
Suzuki caught fire in the second half with the Mets after putting up a lackluster performance with the Cubs in the first half of 2022. Kohl Franklin has developed the tools to be an ace reliever, but has yet to put it together in the big leagues. McNeil struggled with the Cubs after coming over in the trade, but had good seasons in 2023 and 2024.
- Cubs receive: Jeremy Jeffress
- Royals receive: Kyle Karros, Stephen Hansen, Owen Short
Jeffress was fine with the Royals but dreadful with the Cubs in 2022. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since.
- Cubs receive: Carlos Vargas (young reliever)
- Cleveland receives: Victor Caratini, $500K
Caratini had been declining since putting up 2.5 WAR in 2020, to the point of a 54 OPS+ in 2022. He rebounded to average with Cleveland in the years that followed.
- Cubs receive: Amed Rosario
- Mets receive: Nico Hoerner
Hoerner struggled in 2020 before blossoming into a solid major leaguer in the next two seasons. However, he reached just 0.6 WAR in limited playing time in 2023 (likely due to the addition of JEff McNeil), so the Cubs traded him before the trade deadline for Amed Rosario, who had an OPS+ of 89 at the time. Luckily for the Cubs, he had a career-best season in 2024, posting nearly four WAR.
Having covered the team-level stats, we can check in on a few current Cubs. This next section might be rough for Cubs fans due to where some favorites have ended up, but I think it’s interesting regardless. First, the rotation.
Tyler Chatwood didn’t find much success with the Cubs in 2020. He bounced around a few teams on minor league contracts over the next several seasons before sustaining a torn flexor tendon in 2024 and retiring at the end of that season.
José Quintana was above-average in 2020, but a rotator cuff strain prevented him from pitching a full season. From 2021-2023, he appeared in major league games for eight different teams, including four teams in 2023. He retired at the end of the 2024 season.
Jon Lester acquitted himself nicely in the final major league season of his career, with a 4.38 ERA in 191 innings for the Cubs in 2020. He reached 2500 strikeouts that September, and retired after not appearing in the majors in 2021 due to injuries.
Kyle Hendricks turned into a slightly above-average pitcher from 2020-2022, though he bounced back in his final season with the Cubs with a 3.81 ERA in 179.1 innings in 2023. He then signed a 3/$34.8M contract with the Mets and was claimed off waivers soon after by the Astros, where he had the worst season of his career to date in 2024. He was also suspended twice for brawls, amusingly.
Yu Darvish won the National League Cy Young in 2020, posting a 2.56 ERA in 214.1 innings. He was above average in 2021 as well, though nowhere near as good, and then missed most of 2022 due to a ruptured UCL. He pitched some in 2023 before tearing his rotator cuff, and retired after appearing in seven games as a reliever for Cleveland in 2024.
On the positive side, Ian Happ signed a 5-year extension for $43.42M in July of 2021. While he regressed offensively in 2020, he was still nearly an average player, and from 2021-2024 averaged 3.8 WAR per season.
Jason Heyward had his best season as a Cub in 2020, with 2.6 WAR. He declined sharply after that, however. He signed a minor league contract with the Cubs in 2024 before retiring at the end of that season, last appearing in the majors in 2023.
Kyle Schwarber had an excellent 2020 and 2021 before falling off in 2022. He signed a 4/$30.8M contract with the Angels before being claimed off waivers by the Tigers.
Willson Contreras signed an extension after the 2020 season worth $50.3M over the next five years. Unfortunately, he’s been at least 20% worse than league average offensively for the first three years of his extension.
Javier Báez had a great 2020 season, but hasn’t been an above-average player since 2021. He signed a 3/$24.4M contract with the Rangers, then was claimed off waivers by the Athletics.
Perhaps the most depressing player of this simulation, Kris Bryant had a great 2020 (4.6 WAR), but only had a 78 OPS+ in 2021, leading the Cubs to not even offer him a qualifying offer. In a cruel twist of fate, he signed a 3/$54.4M with the Cardinals and had a bounceback year in 2022 with 3.3 WAR. Bryant steeply declined afterward, however, posting negative WAR in each of the following seasons. This must be one of the lower-percentile outcomes for Bryant in the game—unfortunately, it happened in this simulation.
Anthony Rizzo put up the second-best season of his career in 2020, with 5.7 WAR. After that season, Rizzo signed a 6/$114M extension to stay with the Cubs He had a down year in 2021, but bounced back in 2022 before suffering a ruptured MCL which cost him his 2023 season. Rizzo was a below-average hitter in 2024, though he did hit his 300th home run in September.
So, there you have it, a dispatch from the simulated baseball future. I wish the simulation had been a bit more positive for Cubs players, but I hope reading this has provided a small distraction for you in these difficult times. Stay inside, stay well, stay kind, and I’ll see you next week.
2020 Cubs Season Preview
Note: This piece was originally published as part of Banished to the Pen’s season preview series. The blog is a site for fans of the Effectively Wild podcast. You can check the rest of the series out here. I’ll be back with a more normal article next week. Enjoy!
This wasn’t the trajectory this Cubs team was supposed to follow. The team came out of the rebuild ahead of schedule in 2015, and, of course, won it all in 2016. The Cubs were on the precipice of becoming a dynasty. Then, due to a slow start in 2017, the team had to make up ground in the second half, and were steamrolled by the Dodgers after narrowly defeating the Nationals in a memorable Game Five. In 2018, the Cubs won 95 games, but that only earned them a one-game playoff for the division title and a ticket to the Wild Card game, which they lost in extra innings.
The offseason after that early exit began with Theo Epstein proclaiming the offense broke, and was marred by moral and public relations blunders. Despite the general sense of restlessness surrounding the team, the Cubs signed only one position player to a major-league contract (Daniel Descalso, who was the least valuable position player on the team in 2019 by fWAR). While the team managed to battle back from an uncharacteristically rough start, a surprise Craig Kimbrel signing move wasn’t enough to put the Cubs over the edge. They finished third in the division and missed the playoffs after a September collapse precipitated by injuries to several star players.
If you look only at results (making the NLCS twice, winning a World Series, and reaching the playoffs four seasons in a row) there’s little to complain about. Looking at the seasons in order, though, the Cubs have gotten worse results each year since they won the World Series. So, after last season, the team hired a new manager, replaced much of their coaching staff, and restructured their front office.
The winds of change didn’t make it to the major league roster, though. After yet another consecutive end-of-season press conference expressing disappointment and a desire to improve the team, the Cubs signed only two players to guaranteed major-league contracts: $1M to Steven Souza Jr. and $850K to Jeremy Jeffress. The main storylines of the offseason were the launch of the team’s new cable television network (which many fans remain unable to access) and whether they would trade their best player to save money and shake up the roster.
Come spring, the core of the team remains intact, for better and for worse. The team has staked their season on rookie manager David Ross’ ability to get more out of the players and their new and improved player development system. It’s a risky strategy.
The 2020 Cubs could still be a great team, but the reason fans are upset, and what may ultimately sink their season, is the large amount of risk and variance in this roster. Sure, Ian Happ could emerge as an above-average center fielder, the Kyle Schwarber breakout could have finally arrived at the end of last season, Jason Heyward could hit well enough outside of the leadoff spot to make up for his slowly declining defense, and Nico Hoerner could be the high-contact bat the Cubs have been looking for and provide plus defense at second. Willson Contreras’ framing could improve, Yu Darvish could repeat his second half to become a legitimate Cy Young contender, Tyler Chatwood could finally harness his stuff as a starter, the Pitch Lab could transform anonymous relievers into dominant set-up men, and Craig Kimbrel could regain his velocity and control after a normal spring training. All of these things are possible, but the likelihood of several of them happening at the same time is slim.
What if David Ross has more of a tactical learning curve than we expect? What if a member of the rotation regresses or gets injured? What if Javier Báez suffers another injury, forcing Nico Hoerner to rush his development?
As we’ve seen the last few seasons, what makes the best teams great isn’t just that they have great players, it’s that they have great options to back them up. When people thought the Cubs would be a dynasty, this was what set them apart, like the Dodgers of the past several years. The frustrating part for fans is that, yes, the upside to this group of players is clear, but the downside is too, and the spending hasn’t been there to shore up the depth. The Cubs didn’t need to sign Anthony Rendon, but they could have used someone like Eric Sogard or César Hernández.
Could this team win the World Series? Yes. Could they be sellers at the trade deadline? I think it’s more likely. Big market teams like the Cubs shouldn’t have to roll the dice, but due to a confluence of circumstances, they’re going to in 2020. Here’s hoping it works.
How do the Cubs define success in 2020?
Many would be satisfied with winning the division and playing a full round in the playoffs. Some may accept nothing less than another World Series appearance, but while any team can beat any other in a playoff series, it was difficult enough to imagine the Cubs beating the Dodgers before they traded for Mookie Betts. Especially in Ross’ first season as manager, and after two years of earlier exits, playing in the NLDS would be a success and a step in the right direction.
However, there’s another, more divisive way to define success for the Cubs: falling out of the division race before the trade deadline. This would allow the front office to shop Bryant, Schwarber, Quintana, Chatwood, Kimbrel, and any of the utility players they brought in on short-term deals. Trading these players would also get them under the lowest luxury tax threshold, something they tried to do all winter. Whether this constitutes success is debatable, but ownership would prefer it to another September collapse.
Who is one Cub who will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
This has to be Yu Darvish. There are many reasons to love Darvish, from his dizzying array of pitches (including a knuckle-curve that he picked up from Craig Kimbrel) to his Twitter account, but it’s easy to forget the rough start to his time in Chicago. His 2018 was marred by injury and he didn’t pitch particularly well when he was on the field. Despite increased confidence going into 2019, Darvish started the season with an unsustainably high walk rate. Then, in the second half, he struck out 118 batters and walked only seven. As Darvish’s results improved, his personality came out more in interviews and on social media, completing his transformation into a fan-favorite entering 2020. The one knock on his second-half performance was a high home-run rate, but the Cubs will take his 2.37 FIP any day. Darvish is one of the most fun pitchers to watch in the game, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season.
If the Cubs were ice cream, what flavor would they be?
Rocky Road–it’s a potentially ominous portent of the season ahead.
What is one food item at Wrigley Field that you MUST try?
I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but if you haven’t had it elsewhere, it’s worth trying the Impossible Burger at Wrigley.
Win total prediction
Early Spring Training Notes
Note: I just finished writing the Cubs season preview for Banished to the Pen. I’ll link to the whole series here when it’s published!
We have over a week of spring training games to dig through. Without further ado, notes from the first week-plus of spring.
- Tyler Chatwood remains the favorite for the fifth-starter job, but as José Quintana has yet to pitch in a game due to illness I could see Alec Mills starting the season in the rotation. Alternatively, the Cubs could go with a four-man rotation the first time through.
- Some relievers that have stood out:
- Duane Underwood is out of options and has shown good enough stuff to start the season in the majors as far as I’m concerned.
- Manuel Rodriguez was added to the Cubs' 40-man roster despite spending all of 2019 at high A-ball as a reliever. This clip should give you an idea as to why:
February 28, 2020
- Jeremy Jeffress looked pretty good in his first outing of the spring on Friday night. If he could even approximate his 2018 performance he would be a great pickup for the Cubs.
- Ian Miller has hit well (against AA-quality pitching according to Baseball Reference) and shown off his speed. I have no illusions that he’ll be a regular outfielder, but he could be promising as a bench option. It’s doubtful he’d get the fifth outfielder spot over Albert Almora though, and they profile similarly.
- P.J. Higgins has also impressed with the bat (also against AA-quality pitching), and has shown the ability to play third and first base as well. If the Cubs do want to carry three catchers on their roster, he could be an intriguing option. He may not have the veteran experience of Josh Phegley, but he does provide positional versatility–he can play at third and first base as well. Higgins was an above-average hitter in AA and even better in AAA in 2019.
- Brandon Morrow just can’t catch a break. After recovering from a minor chest strain, he’ll be out for 10-14 days with a mild calf tear.
- It’s good to hear Brad Wieck is okay after undergoing a heart procedure. I hope he takes his time to heal and is able to emerge as one of the club’s most trusted relievers this season.
- I still wouldn’t be surprised if Daniel Descalso makes the roster out of spring training because of his clubhouse presence and the amount of money owed to him, but the more we hear about Jason Kipnis' leadership abilities, as well as his ties to quality assurance coach Mike Napoli, the more it seems like he’s being pushed out a bit. Kipnis provides more defensive value, too. Descalso’s at-bat against Drew Pomeranz on Friday just looked unfair.
- It was exciting to read Sahadev Sharma’s article at The Athletic about how the Pitch Lab convinced Rule-5 pick Trevor Megill to add a spike-curve to his pitch mix. It’s obviously still a work in progress, but his willingness to make adjustments means that the Cubs might like to keep him around instead of having to offer him back to the Padres.
- Another encouraging dispatch from Sharma following Yu Darvish’s Cactus League season debut yesterday revealed that Darvish worked to increase the spin efficiency on his four-seam fastball over the offseason, which could add more vertical rise to the pitch. The spin efficiency on that pitch last season was 71.9%. Because Darvish has elite raw spin on his fastball, increasing the efficiency even slightly could make it much more difficult to hit. That, combined with improved command, could help limit the amount of home runs he allows.
- Is Hernán Pérez a better defensive shortstop than David Bote? If not, I don’t see him making the roster. If Javier Báez needs more time off I’m sure the Cubs would reconsider, but I would assume as things stand now that Bote will be the backup shortstop and get the lion’s share of playing time at second base until Nico Hoerner is called up. Assuming Pérez' defense isn’t substantially better than Bote’s at short, I’d rather see someone with more promise like ex-Fringe-Five favorite Zack Short, Trent Giambrone, or even Carlos Asuaje get that roster spot.
- I’m liking Kris Bryant in the leadoff spot, and I’m appreciating that David Ross made the decision so early in spring. Hopefully this means that Jason Heyward will get a full season outside of the leadoff spot, which seems to disagree with him. This will also hopefully put an end to Albert Almora and Daniel Descalso leading off games.
That’s all for this week. Happy Opening Month!
Early 2020 Cubs Roster Predictions
Since pitchers and catchers reported this past week, and with spring training right around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to try to predict which players will make the Opening Day roster. There will be a few more positional battles for the Cubs this spring than in recent years, so it will be interesting to see how the roster shapes up. In case you were unaware, teams will be able to carry an additional player on their active roster all year, bringing the total up to 26 (for anyone who’s wondering, the name of this site will remain the same).
Since neither catcher was traded, I’d assume a similar playing-time split as last year, though maybe new manager Ross will give Contreras a few more off days, especially due to his recurring injuries.
The first three players are the Cubs' three best players. The next three are all vying for a second-base/utility role. Bote is the only one among them who projects as an average hitter, so I assume he’ll get the majority of playing time, especially in favorable matchups.
If Almora struggles this spring, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start the season in the minors. Outside of that, this group seems pretty stable. As a side note, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nico Hoerner get a fair amount of playing time in center field in the minors in case both Happ and Almora fail to develop further.
The first four spots are guaranteed barring injury, and it seems like Chatwood is the early favorite for the fifth starter spot. There’s not too much intrigue here.
- Craig Kimbrel
- Rowan Wick
- Kyle Ryan
- Jeremy Jeffress
- Brad Wieck
- Alec Mills
- Duane Underwood Jr.
- Trevor Megill
The only locks for this group are really the first three names, but Jeffress and Wieck both have pretty high upside. Mills is out of options so if he doesn’t get the fifth starter spot I’d expect him to lock down the long relief role. Underwood is also out of options and flashed good stuff out of the bullpen last season, so it makes sense to give him a long look. If Megill doesn’t make the roster out of spring training, he’ll have to be offered back to the Padres. The scouting report on him is good enough to make me believe that the Cubs will give him a chance to stick in the majors.
- Nico Hoerner — I think that Hoerner will be the Cubs' starting second baseman by the end of the year, but the front office has assembled enough infield depth that I think it’s pretty clear they’d like him to spend more time in AAA first. It’s hard to argue that it’s worth rushing his development to have him start the season in the majors.
- Daniel Descalso — If Descalso does make the team, it will likely be at the expense of Pérez or Kipnis. Descalso has an advantage because he has a guaranteed major-league contract, but he doesn’t provide the defensive value of Kipnis or the versatility of Pérez. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a small salary dump trade, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Descalso make the roster.
- Dillon Maples — Maples has just one more option year, but unless he shows improved command all spring, I’d expect the Cubs to keep him stashed in the minors.
- Adbert Alzolay — It seems likely at this point that Alzolay will end up as a reliever. Regardless, he’ll probably need a little more time in AAA to refine his secondary offerings before he gets the call.
- Jharel Cotton — Cotton was a nice starter/swingman pickup for the Cubs, but since Chatwood has a large guaranteed contract and Mills is out of options, I doubt he’ll make the roster to start the season. I expect to see him at some point this season, though.
Next week we’ll have a couple spring training games to talk about. Enjoy baseball being back!
Three Players the Cubs Can't Win Without
Because the Cubs have stubbornly refused to add substantial major-league depth to their roster, there is a greater amount of variance in their possible season outcomes than in years past. After two consecutive offseasons of insisting that they can’t just count on internal improvement, the Cubs have signed just three players to guaranteed major league contracts: Daniel Descalso, Steven Souza Jr., and Jeremy Jeffress. For the Cubs to win, they’ll need their stars to perform like stars. However, I’d like to look at three players whose performance could have a huge impact on the season due to the lack of depth in their positions.
This post makes use of three projection systems: Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA. ZiPS and Steamer projections can be found at FanGraphs, while PECOTA projections are sourced from the 2020 Baseball Prospectus Annual–viewing them online requires an annual membership.
Each of these projection systems uses different methods to project players, and each also uses different stats to convey predicted outcomes. Readers of this site will recognize wRC+, OPS+, ERA, FIP, and fWAR, but DRC+, DRA, and WARP might be unfamiliar. Put simply, DRC+ (Deserved Runs Created Plus), and measures offensive performance like wRC+ and OPS+, while DRA (Deserved Run Average) tries to remove variance from pitcher performance like FIP. WARP, like fWAR, is a measure of Wins Above Replacement. There are interesting philosophical differences between the metrics, but you need know only the basics for this article.
Why do the Cubs need him to perform?
Albert Almora Jr. has been the worst hitter in baseball since July of 2018 (minimum 500 plate appearances). Jason Heyward has improved his wRC+ in each season of his contract, but only reached above-average in 2019 while hitting just .205/.258/.295 against lefties last year. Although both are touted for their defense prowess, the defensive metrics didn’t love either in center field last season, and Heyward is a much better right fielder. From 2018-2019, Cubs center fielders rank 16th in wRC+, but in 2019 alone they ranked just 22nd. Outside of the possibility of Nico Hoerner switching positions, the Cubs have very few good internal center field options. For an above-average center fielder, the team has just one promising possibility–Ian Happ.
What do the projections say?
Steamer: 101 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR (457 PA)
ZiPS: 102 OPS+, 1.8 fWAR (552 PA)
PECOTA: 98 DRC+, 1.6 WARP (539 PA)
What is his outlook?
Upon returning from his Iowa exile, Happ posted some of the best underlying numbers of his career–his lowest strikeout rate, highest WOBA and xWOBA, and highest barrel rate. Below are Happ’s rankings in several important plate discipline stats (minimum 150 plate appearances, data from Baseball Savant, roughly 400 players each season):
|Year||Swing %||Whiff %||In-Zone Whiff %|
Happ decreased his in-zone whiff rate on every pitch type from 2018 to 2019, but most importantly he decreased his whiff rate on four-seam fastballs in the zone from 45.6% to 27.3%. However, his chase rate on all pitches increased from 20.9% in 2018 to 30.5% in 2019. That chase rate is not all that high on its own–it’s below that of a variety of great hitters, including Anthony Rizzo. The main offensive concern with Happ is that pitchers will adjust to his new, more aggressive approach by throwing him more pitches outside the zone where will have trouble getting to his power. If Happ’s plate discipline numbers stay where they were at the end of last season, I believe he could have a breakout (re-breakout?) year. If pitchers are able to take advantage of his new approach, though, Happ will still be a valuable player, but not an essential one.
The main other concern about Happ is his defense. Over a small sample, 2019 was the first year he graded out as average defensively by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, and he was actually rated above-average in the outfield. Happ probably shouldn’t play the infield except in dire circumstances, and it’s important to remember that just one year ago he was a below-average fielder at every position. However, I think there’s hope that he could be a slightly-below-average defensive center fielder, and if he could combine that with a batting line closer to his 2019 than his 2020 projections, he could fill a hole in the Cubs' roster that has been there since they won the World Series.
Why do the Cubs need him to perform?
The bullpen came out looking good overall in 2019, but as a unit they tended to perform worse in high-leverage situations, something which cost them quite a few games throughout the season.
If Kimbrel doesn’t return to something close to his former self, the Cubs' next best bullpen options are Rowan Wick, who was a great success story last year but is a prime regression candidate, or Jeremy Jeffress, who was released by the Brewers last September.
What do the projections say?
Steamer: 3.58 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 0.8 fWAR (65 IP)
ZiPS: 3.40 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 0.7 fWAR (42.3 IP)
PECOTA: 3.51 ERA, 3.69 DRA, 1.1 WARP (56 IP)
What is his outlook?
The good news is, none of the projection systems think that Craig Kimbrel will repeat his 2019. In 2019, his whiff rate was down almost ten percentage points from 2017, and his average four-seam fastball velocity was down over two MPH from 2017. While there’s little question that Kimbrel’s stuff is declining, there were points last season where Kimbrel looked much closer to his old self.
I don’t think Kimbrel will reach his 2017 level again, but he should still be an effective pitcher. He won’t be the best reliever in the league, but he should be the best reliever on the Cubs even with slightly diminished stuff.
Why do the Cubs need him to perform?
Yu Darvish is coming off the best half of a Cubs starter since Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks was his consistent self. After that…Cole Hamels is on the Braves. Jon Lester is 36 years old, and it’s hard to project an improvement on his 2019. Tyler Chatwood was valuable out of the bullpen but still has control concerns. Adbert Alzolay seems destined for a relief role. Jharel Cotton hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017. Alec Mills has shown promise, but has low upside and no minor league options remaining.
What do the projections say?
Steamer: 4.31 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 2.5 fWAR (177.0 IP)
ZiPS: 4.27 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 2.1 fWAR (164.3 IP)
PECOTA: 4.69 ERA, 4.85 DRA, 1.6 WARP (143 IP)
What is his outlook?
PECOTA thinks the Cubs' third-best starter is not Chatwood, Lester, or Quintana but instead Mills, projecting him to pitch 12% better than league average. Quintana, meanwhile, is projected to be 5% worse than league average. While Mills' projection is inspiring, it’s also indicative of the lack of rotation depth that could sink the Cubs.
I’m generally of the opinion that the Quintana trade was not a bad one, but the lefty’s 2020 outlook remains a mystery to me. I would generally expect him to repeat his 2019, but all three systems project him to be worse. The problem is if Quintana pitches like an okay #4 starter, and Lester continues to regress, the rotation has very little depth behind them. Because of this, the rotation is the area I’m most concerned with going into the season–which is why so much depends on Quintana.
It isn’t fair to put the whole season on these three players, and their seasons alone won’t determine whether the Cubs win the division. However, there’s enough upside and downside with each of these players that great or poor performances out of any of them could swing the team’s playoff odds substantially in either direction. The Cubs' ownership and front office put the team in this risky position–all that’s left to do is see if the risk is worth the reward, something that will be determined in large part by the above players.
The Cubs Hope Spin Class Pays Off
Since I wrote the 2020 Cubs bullpen primer, Steve Cishek signed with the White Sox, Brandon Kintzler with the Marlins, and it came out that the Cubs are reportedly out on Pedro Strop. Meanwhile, the Cubs have signed only one player to a major league deal, and Steven Souza can’t pitch. Due to budgetary restrictions, the Cubs' front office was tasked with rebuilding a large portion of their bullpen without signing any pitcher to a major league contract. This is a monumental task, but I’m encouraged by the bulk approach they’ve taken thus far. The likelihood that any one of these pitchers individually will be the Cubs' next great reliever is low. However, the odds that at least one of these pitchers will be a good reliever in 2020 seem high.
The Cubs have a mixed track record with high-spin pitchers–spin isn’t a guarantee of success. Just ask Dillon Maples, who had the highest four-seam fastball spin rate last season. Or Carl Edwards Jr., who ranked ninth. The Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood partially because of his high-spin arsenal, to mixed results. However, the team also saw success in 2019, using their new Pitch Lab to Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck into high-spin, high-leverage relievers.
In looking through the pitchers the Cubs have acquired this offseason, a clear pattern emerges: each has an arsenal which consists primarily of a four-seam fastball and a curveball (like both Wick and Wieck), and each has a better-than-average spin rate on at least one of those pitches. In other words, perfect Pitch Lab candidates.
What follows is a look at what the player development staff might see in each of the new relievers the Cubs have signed.
Dan Winkler (Baseball Savant | FanGraphs)
Winkler ranked 21st out of all pitchers in fastball spin in 2019, and had 71st percentile curveball spin. However, to say his results in 2019 were lackluster would be an understatement. Winkler has had the best major league season of any of the pitchers on this list (a 3.43 ERA and 2.76 FIP over 60 1/3 innings in 2018), so it wouldn’t be too surprising if the bounced back from a rough 2019 season without making too many changes. If the Cubs do get him in the Pitch Lab, though, there’s plenty of room for improvement: he reached only 39.7% active spin (the percentage of spin that contributes to the movement of a pitch) on his curve–Wick was at 91.9% last season, and Wieck was at 86.9%. If more of Winkler’s elite spin contributed to the movement of his curveball, it could be a truly devastating pitch.
Casey Sadler (Baseball Savant | FanGraphs)
Sadler split his time between the Rays and the Dodgers in 2019, which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it–analytically-inclined teams picked him up intentionally, but they also were okay with parting with him. Still, since both of those teams have deeper rosters than the Cubs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t be a valuable major league pitcher. Sadler has the best spin numbers of any of the pitchers the Cubs have acquired this offseason, ranking 29th in curveball spin, and with 90th percentile fastball spin. Like Winkler, the active spin on his curveball is on the lower end at 60.1%. I would expect the Pitch Lab to look to improve that.
Jason Adam (Baseball Savant | FanGraphs)
While Adam didn’t pitch as well as his 2.91 ERA last season would suggest, he did manage to keep his FIP just below 4.00. Adam ranked 15th in fastball spin, which is elite. Like the other pitchers in this group, he throws a curveball, though there isn’t as much room for improvement in terms of active spin, as he was already at 80% in 2019. Still, Adam’s fastball could play up nicely, and I’m curious as to what the player development staff could do with his secondary pitches.
Tyler Olson (Baseball Savant | FanGraphs)
Olson has a great year in 2017 with Cleveland, posting a 0.00 ERA and 2.41 FIP over 20 innings, then underperformed his peripherals in 2018 with a 4.94 ERA and 3.45 FIP over 27.1 innings. He was worse in more playing time in 2019. So why are the Cubs interested? Although Olson only averaged 87 MPH on his fastball, he also had 87th percentile spin on his curveball. That, combined with the potential shown in 2017 make him a solid depth piece.
Travis Lakins (Baseball Savant | FanGraphs)
Lakins has similar curveball spin to Olson, and 70th percentile fastball spin. The main concern with the former Red Sox is his lack of command, which can be harder to fix. Still, the raw stuff is there, and it’s intriguing.
You’ll notice two newly-acquired relievers missing from this list: Trevor Megill and Ryan Tepera. I omitted Megill due to his Rule 5 status. As for Tepera, he just doesn’t fit into this group nicely. He doesn’t throw a curveball–his most-used pitches in 2019 were his sinker, cutter, and four-seam fastball in that order. While he does have above-average fastball spin, he seems like more of a bounceback candidate than a Pitch Lab candidate. Tepera’s absence from this list isn’t a reflection of his talent–he has a better major league track record than many of these pitchers–but rather of his lack of Pitch Lab potential.
Winkler and Sadler are the most interesting to me due to the low active spin and high total spin on their curveballs–if the Cubs can translate more of their high spin rate into movement, the pitches should become more dominant, and they could translate that into greater success. This bulk approach to relief pitching is risky for a contending team, but it will at least be interesting to see how many of these guys pan out.
As the Cubs have yet to sign a player to a major league deal, it’s looking more and more like the team will have to hope for improvement from within. Here, I’m going to examine how three role-players from 2019 could enhance the team while receiving more playing time in 2020. All three of these players ended the season with an above-average wRC+, meaning they hit better than the league on average. All three also ended with around 1.5 FanGraphs WAR in part-time roles, suggesting they could be at least league-average given the playing time.
The real question is whether these players' rate stats would suffer if they were deployed less selectively. The answer to that is difficult to determine, as teams don’t platoon players in quite the same ways as they used to. For instance, Joe Maddon would pencil in Albert Almora against a righty sometimes if that pitcher threw high fastballs, despite Almora being a righty. Whereas simpler left/right platoon splits would make it easier to project how a player would fare in greater playing time, it is hard for a public analyst to determine how each of these players would be exposed when their weaknesses are more complicated than the handedness of the pitcher they’re facing. Because of this, I’ll focus more on the strengths of each player below to imagine what they could provide the Cubs in a realistic best-case scenario.
After starting the season in the minors, Ian Happ slashed .264/.333/.564 for a 127 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances with the big league club. This was obviously a small sample, but that would have been his best season mark (compared to 114 in 2017 and 106 in 2018). Happ had a high walk rate in 2018 (15.2%), but it was paired with an unsustainably high strikeout rate (36.1%). Both of those decreased in 2019 to 9.6% and 25.0% respectively. The strikeout rate decrease is encouraging, as that’s one of the main reasons Happ was sent down to begin the season. If Happ found a more sustainable approach, he could be one of the best non-Bryzzo hitters on the Cubs.
The other knock against Happ has been his defense. Advanced defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable over a small sample size, but Statcast thought Happ was an above-average outfielder in 2019, though he remained a below-average infielder. Happ accrued -5 outs above average in center field in 2018, but after his stint in the minors, he was slightly above-average there (1 OAA). The other two major defensive metrics, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating also had 2019 as Happ’s best defensive season in the outfield on a rate basis. If Happ could hit and field as well in a full-time role as he did after returning from Iowa, he could be the Cubs' starting center fielder, and one of their most valuable position players.
Victor Caratini had a bit of a breakout season in 2019. The backup catcher posted a 108 wRC+ in 279 plate appearances, a sizable improvement from his 65 wRC+ in 200 plate appearances the previous year. Caratini started the season hot (a 1.647 OPS in 17 plate appearances) before fracturing his hamate bone on April 11th. He struggled mightily after coming back from the injury before rebounding with a couple of hot stretches in the latter half which salvaged his season numbers.
Caratini provides an offensive profile which the Cubs lack as a high-contact bat. This, in addition to his status as Yu Darvish’s personal catcher and a better framer than Willson Contreras, makes him a valuable part of the team. Caratini impressed the front office enough that they considered trading Contreras, their All-Star catcher, over the winter. I’m not quite sold on Caratini as a starting catcher, but if he manages to be more consistent offensively while maintaining his solid defense, he could once again be a quietly essential part of the team.
David Bote is one of only two players who the Cubs have managed to extend in the past couple years (along with Kyle Hendricks). The utility infielder is signed through 2024 for a total of $15M, with two club options in 2025 and 2026 for $7M and $7.6M respectively. While his contract alone is enough to make Bote valuable to the team, he’s exceeded expectations in production as well. Despite his defensive miscues and tendency to whiff on high fastballs, Bote was still worth 1.5 FanGraphs WAR over just 356 plate appearances in 2019, meaning he profiles as an average major leaguer if he were given a full season of playing time.
Bote sneakily had the highest on-base percentage of any Cubs hitter in 2019 outside of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. He also continued to hit the ball harder than average last season and increased his average launch angle, although it didn’t show in his expected batting line. As with Happ, Bote’s defense has been questionable at times. Bote has actually rated fairly well according to some defensive metrics, but there isn’t a consensus. From watching him, it seems like he has the general skills to be a good defender, though he is susceptible to odd misplays. I’m curious to see if he can reduce those and, if not completely remove, at least patch up the hole in his swing. If so, he could reach the ceiling his high exit velocity suggests.
These players are far from sure things, which is why the Cubs would have been wise to sign some players this offseason. However, it’s not difficult to imagine any or all of Happ, Caratini, and Bote excelling while getting more playing time in 2020, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do given the opportunity.
Statcast Says Báez Baseball's Best
Statcast recently released a version of their “outs above average” (OAA) defensive metric for infielders. Previously, OAA was limited to outfielders, but now it’s available for infielders, too. For more information on how the metric is calculated, you should read Mike Petriello’s excellent article at MLB.com. Of course, if you’re a Cubs fan, you may have already heard about this new metric, as it says that Javier Báez is the best defensive infielder in baseball. Báez has always rated positively by advanced defensive metrics, but this is the first that has placed him so highly. If you’re interested in more details about what makes Báez so good according to OAA, David Adler has a good deep dive, again at MLB.com.
If you just look at the year-by-year numbers, Báez' 2019 seems like an inexplicable outlier. In 2017, he was worth 5 OAA, then only 1 in 2018, before increasing all the way to 19 in 2019. Upon closer inspection, a pattern emerges: Báez hasn’t gotten better at making difficult plays, but he got much better at making more routine plays. The table below shows how many outs above average he garnered on plays that were less than 50% likely to be made, compared to plays that were easier to make:
|Year||< 50%||> 50%|
The numbers show that Báez made a huge improvement this year in terms of defensive consistency, a fact that I feel is backed up by the eye test.
On the other side of second base, Addison Russell’s defense has declined over the past three years according to OAA. By normalizing his OAA totals to a 300-attempt (fielding chance) basis, we can see that he’s declined each year, which also fits the general perception.
A divisive defender, David Bote was worth 3 OAA in 2019, but goes down to 0 when looking at plays with a > 50% chance. This makes sense when you remember the odd errors Bote made last year on what seemed like routine plays, despite his ability to make difficult ones. Bote was worth 5 OAA in 2018, though, so it’s possible something weird was going on with him last year.
Kris Bryant has gone from 4 OAA in the infield 2017, to -4 in 2018, back to 2 in 2019. I would be curious to know how much his injuries over the past two seasons affected his defensive metrics, but going month-by-month doesn’t reveal a stark pattern. Bryant is one player whose numbers here don’t make a lot of sense to me.
The main everyday infielder that infield outs above average looks down on is, perhaps surprisingly, Anthony Rizzo, who has gone from 3 OAA in 2017, to 1 OAA in 2018, to -3 OAA in 2019. This goes against most fans' view of Rizzo’s defense, but another advanced defensive metric, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) sees a similar decline over the last three seasons. In Rizzo’s defense, OAA doesn’t yet include “scoops” on low throws from infielders (although analysts generally feel the importance of that skill is overstated). Rizzo may also suffer if pitchers didn’t cover first base on plays where he touched the ball first, but generally it makes sense that a first baseman with a recurring back injury would decline slightly as he ages.
Finally, Daniel Descalso was -4 OAA in 2019, and in a small sample, Nico Hoerner rated average at 0 OAA. Oh, and if you’re interested, Nolan Arenado is the second best defender in baseball in this metric–a left side of Arenado and Báez would be by far the best in baseball according to Statcast.
Here’s hoping there will be more Cubs news next week–until then, we must let thoughts of Bryant patrolling center field at Wrigley tide us over.
Quintana, Dwindling Free Agents, and Donaldson
Welcome to the new year! Since there haven’t even been many rumors about the Cubs over the last week, this will be a bit of a shorter post with three tidbits I’ve been thinking about over the holidays.
The José Quintana trade made sense
There has been a lot of talk over the past two seasons about how the Cubs' front office must regret their cross-town blockbuster trade of Eloy Jiménez, Dylan Cease, and two minor-league infielders for José Quintana. I disagree for several reasons:
- Jiménez and Cease were not sure things in 2017.
Entering 2017, Jiménez was the 15th prospect in baseball at a 60 future value (FV), and Dylan Cease wasn’t in the top 100 as a 45 FV pitcher (the Cubs' seventh-best prospect). Now, both became better prospects after the trade, which you could fault the front office for not foreseeing, but I believe this only looks bad if you ignore the next point. Jiménez was still a great prospect, but Cease was valued lower at that point than, say, Adbert Alzolay was in the middle of 2019.
- Quintana was better before the trade than many realize.
In the three seasons prior to the year of the trade (2014-2016), Quintana was the eighth-most-valuable pitcher in baseball at 14.1 FanGraphs WAR, just behind Jon Lester and ahead of Madison Bumgarner and Zach Greinke. During that period, he threw the ninth-most innings of any pitcher.
Quintana averaged 4.7 fWAR per year from 2014-2016, and 4.23 rWAR. No Cubs pitcher has reached that fWAR mark since 2016, and the team has only seen three pitching seasons more valuable since 2014: Jake Arrieta’s 2015 and 2014, and Jon Lester’s 2015. The Cubs were trading for a pitcher who had been one of the best, most durable, and most consistent pitchers in baseball for three years. Even better, Quintana was only in his age-28 season when the trade occurred, and he was on a team-friendly contract.
- Quintana has been better as a Cub than many realize.
This is partially due to a WAR discrepancy. By FanGraphs WAR (fWAR), Quintana was the Cubs' second-most-valuable pitcher last season with 3.5 WAR, a full 0.7 WAR better than Jon Lester. According to Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR), however, he was worth just 1.2 WAR in 2019. He’s accumulated 4.7 rWAR in his time with the Cubs, but 7.3 fWAR. This discrepancy is largely due to Quintana’s FIP being better than his ERA in 2017 and 2019. Obviously, we can’t ignore one metric in favor of the other, but it’s important to acknowledge that neither is definitive, and that Quintana’s true value is likely somewhere in between. I generally prefer fWAR, though, and from 2017-2019, Quintana has been the 24th-best pitcher in baseball, while thrown the 15th-most innings. This, combined with his team-friendly contract, means he has provided good value for the team despite public perception.
I’m sure the Cubs would rather have Jiménez and Cease going into 2020, but Quintana was still more valuable than the pair even last season. The Cubs traded one top-100 prospect for one of the best starting pitchers in baseball at the time, and while Quintana hasn’t lived up to expectations on the north side, the trade that brought him there wasn’t a mistake.
The dwindling free-agent market
After a faster offseason than many expected, Josh Donaldson is the best free agent left on the market, followed by two similar outfielders, Nick Castellanos (who the Cubs remain linked to for some reason) and Marcell Ozuna. They are the best established position players remaining. By 2019 fWAR, the best pitcher remaining is Ivan Nova, followed by Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas, none of whom would start in a playoff series. Alex Wood is the only pitcher left who projects to be better than Nova, and he’s coming off a -0.2 fWAR season. Top-reliever-remaining Will Harris signed a three-year, $24M contract with the Nationals on Thursday. There are still a few good relievers available, like World Series champion Daniel Hudson, Brandon Kintzler, and Collin McHugh, but the names further down the list are uninspiring at best.
This is mostly to say that it’s very possible that, barring a surprise Castellanos signing, the Cubs will not sign a single free agent to a non-split/minor-league deal over the offseason. This would have sounded outlandish after the season ended, but the offseason is shaping up that way.
If Donaldson returns, where does Bryant go?
The sense is that Josh Donaldson wants to return to the Braves. If he ends up there, the Kris Bryant trade market could look a little grim. The Braves are by far the best trade partner for the Cubs when it comes to Bryant, due to their deep farm system and need for a third-baseman. The Twins are in on Donaldson, but I haven’t seen them connected to Bryant at all. Discussions with the Nationals have apparently “gone nowhere”, as the Cubs apparently insisted Victor Robles be included in any deal. That leaves just the Phillies and Rangers as potential destinations for Bryant, and neither match up particularly well with the Cubs. The asking price for Bryant is understandably high, and I don’t think the front office should lower it. However, if Donaldson signs with the Braves and a Kris Bryant trade doesn’t happen, the Cubs could be left with a strikingly similar roster to last year. In that case, they will enter the season as contenders, but it is eminently possible they’ll be sellers at the trade deadline, having squandered another year of their window of contention.
The Rumored Ask for Bryant Makes Sense
According to a rumor out of Atlanta, the Cubs have told the Braves that if they’re willing to part with any three of Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Austin Riley, Kris Bryant can be theirs. Obviously, there are reasons to be skeptical of this report, especially considering no other sources have confirmed this information. However, that type of package seems plausible for the Cubs to ask for.
Let me first get this out of the way: the Cubs shouldn’t trade Kris Bryant to shed payroll. As I wrote two weeks ago, a mathematically-reasonable return doesn’t make sense for the Cubs. In that article, I calculated Bryant’s surplus value to be somewhere between $46.4M-$68M. If they do feel they must trade him, though, I would expect them to want to get more value than that in return.
Any three of the players mentioned in this rumor would exceed Bryant’s surplus value. Even if you assume Riley’s value dropped all the way down to a 50 FV after having a rough stint in the majors, a package of Anderson, Riley, and Wright would still be worth $83M, and I doubt Riley’s stock dropped quite that far.
The most exciting prospect in the group of four is Waters. According to FanGraphs, Waters has “a solid chance to stick” at center field, and according to MLB he has a strong enough arm and good enough bat to be a valuable corner outfielder as well.
It seems like the Braves would be most likely to include Wright in a trade. Wright was still the 60th-best prospect in baseball in mid-2019 according to FanGraphs, but he was moved down the list due to concerns about his fastball missing bats. Wright is generally closer to major-league ready than Anderson, but the expectation is that both should be able to contribute at some point in 2020. FanGraphs projects Anderson as a #3/4 starter. MLB Pipeline is much higher on Wright than FanGraphs, ranking him just four spots behind Anderson as the 35th-best prospect in baseball.
I’m not sure what to make of Riley. At first glance, he’s a highly-ranked prospect who could partially fill the void left by Bryant at third. However, there seems to be an obvious hole in his swing, as after a torrid May, in which he slashed .356/.397/.746, he slashed .191/.248/.395 over the rest of the major-league season. The power was certainly there, but Riley’s power/strikeout profile is something the Cubs seem to be trying to get away from. Still, it seems likely that Riley can be a contributor in the majors in 2020.
If the Cubs got Waters, Anderson, and Riley from the Braves for Bryant, the trade wouldn’t look too bad. I’m not saying the Cubs should trade Bryant at all, but if they’re going to, this is the type of return they should and would be looking for. Waters could join the Cubs sometime in 2020, and could be their starting center fielder for several years. Anderson would be able to fill part of the void left by the departures of Cole Hamels after 2019 and Jon Lester, José Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood after 2020. Riley would join Ian Happ, David Bote, and Nico Hoerner as versatile players, some combination of which would slot in at second and third and rotate through the corner outfield spots along with the established regulars there. None of the players in this trade are likely to surpass Bryant’s production individually, but a trade like this could diversify the roster and extend the Cubs' window.
However, the return could look rough if you took the three least valuable prospects from this group of players and looked at their possible floors. Riley could continue to strike out nearly as much as Robel Garcia and end up as a bench bat with pop. Wright and Anderson could fail to develop their command and be good relievers or swing-men. These are all valuable profiles, but certainly not what you would want in return for Kris Bryant.
There’s also the fact that even if this rumor is accurate, there is likely room to negotiate on the Braves' end, especially because the Cubs seem to be unable to do anything without clearing payroll. For instance, I’m sure the Braves would like to include center fielder Ender Inciarte instead of Waters. Inciarte hasn’t been a league-average hitter since 2015, but in the three-year stretch from 2016-2018 he averaged 3.0 fWAR due to his excellent defense. Inciarte’s strikeout rate in that three-year period peaked at 13.1%, which would have been the lowest on the Cubs in 2019. His 2019 was cut short due to injury, limiting him to just 65 games, but a bounce back year wouldn’t be surprising in the least, though he will be entering his age-29 season.
The money and team control, however, are an issue. Inciarte has two years remaining on his contract, along with a club option for 2022. He’s owed $16.4M over the next two seasons combined (although his luxury-tax salary hit is just $6.1M/year), and his club option is $9M. To be clear, this is a team-friendly contract. If we project Inciarte to be worth 2.5 WAR each of the next two seasons, he would have $28.6M of surplus value (even without factoring in the club option). However, if the Cubs are in such dire need of clearing salary, acquiring Inciarte doesn’t make much sense. It would mean a Bryant trade would only save the Cubs $12M as opposed to $18M in 2020, when, apparently, every dollar counts.
While getting Inciarte, Wright, and Anderson would give the Cubs a starting center-fielder and two intriguing pitching prospects who are near major-league ready, both things the team needs. The three players coming from the Braves actually surpass Bryant by basic surplus value calculations. The Cubs' ask in this rumor is plausible, and even after negotiating down a bit from there, the theoretical return isn’t bad. It’s still hard for me to move past the fact that the Cubs would be trading their best player for salary reasons after a season in which they finished third in their division.
A 2020 Cubs Bullpen Primer
The bullpen was an area of concern in 2019, enough so that the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel mid-season. While the Cubs haven’t made any major acquisitions this offseason, they have added several pitchers on minor-league deals. I thought it would be interesting and useful to look at each of the in-house candidates the Cubs have who could end up in the bullpen in 2020.
As it stands now, the Cubs have lost three important relievers from 2019:
Pedro Strop – Strop is one of the best relievers in Cubs' history, but he had a rough 2019, which saw all of his pitches drop in velocity. His fastball, in particular, has lost almost 3 MPH since 2017. I’d like to see Strop back on a minor league deal to see if he can reinvent himself as a slider-splitter reliever, but I wouldn’t count on Strop coming back and contributing like his former self in 2020.
Steve Cishek – Cishek certainly earned the trust of Joe Maddon, as he appeared in 150 games for the Cubs over his two years with the team. He was quite good in 2018, with a 2.18 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 70.1 innings, but broke down a bit toward the end of 2019 with a 6.46 FIP and identical strikeout and walk rates in the second half. He also went on the injured list and seemed to come back too quickly. I really enjoyed watching Cishek pitch, but it might be best for the Cubs to move on next season.
Brandon Kintzler – After pitching to a 7.00 ERA in 18 innings with the Cubs after the 2018 trade deadline, many fans were disappointed that Kintzler would return to the team in 2019. We were wrong, as he went on to be the Cubs' most valuable reliever, posting a 2.68 ERA and a 3.56 FIP in 57 innings, his most valuable season since 2013. Kintzler serves as a reminder that relievers are an inconsistent bunch, something to keep in mind as we evaluate the 2020 bullpen. If the Cubs can afford Kintzler, a reunion would be in their best interest, but given that they can’t spend $1.5M on Alex Claudio, it seems unlikely.
The Cubs have a couple different groups of pitchers who they hope will fill the gaps left by the departures above.
These pitchers are virtually guaranteed to be in the bullpen all year, and will hopefully form a solid core.
The Cubs' closer had a rough 2019. Kimbrel pitched just 20.2 innings, but he was the least valuable Cub, worth -1.0 fWAR. Mike Montgomery pitched poorly for the Cubs in 2019, but Kimbrel was twice as bad in 6.1 fewer innings. His 6.53 ERA was rough, but his FIP was even worse at 8.00. Luckily, Kimbrel’s lack of success was due in large part to his impossibly high 36.0% home run per flyball rate (his previous career high was 13.6% in 2015), which should regress in 2020.
The most concerning thing with Kimbrel is that his velocity peaked in 2017: 98.3 MPH on his four-seamer, and 87.3 MPH on his curveball. Those numbers were down to 96.2 and 85.9 MPH on average, respectively, and they fluctuated a fair amount between outings. Kimbrel still had the same strikeout percentage as Yu Darvish, which is quite good, but he had a higher walk rate than Tyler Chatwood, and while his strikeout rate was high for a Cub, it was the lowest of any season of his career. The Steamer projection system projects him to be the 36th-best pitcher in baseball next season by FIP, which isn’t bad, but the projection of 3.58 would be the worst of his career. Still, that would make him more valuable by WAR than any Cubs reliever in 2019, so I’m guessing the team would take it. It seems he’s not the lock-down closer he once was, though, so the team needs to fill out the bullpen behind him.
Wick may have been one of the best parts of the Cubs' season. He ended up pitching 33.1 innings for the Cubs, with a 2.43 ERA and a 2.82 FIP. Wick probably won’t be as good as that again in 2020, considering he didn’t give up a single home run. While the underlying numbers don’t quite match up with Wick’s stellar 2019 performance, he did post the 30th-highest groundball rate in the majors among relievers who pitched at least 30 innings. Even if Wick regresses, he should still be a very useful reliever for the Cubs.
Ryan was a pleasant surprise as a groundball machine. He had the 13th-highest ground ball rate among qualified relievers, and while he didn’t miss bats or even necessarily limit hard contact, he limited hard contact in the air, ranking in the 88th percentile of expected slugging percentage. Ryan was notably better against lefties: he allowed just a .571 OPS against lefties, but .736 OPS against righties. He’s good enough to still be quite useful despite the new three-batter-minimum rule coming into effect in 2020, but one thing to watch is that he gave up five homers all year, and all were to righties. In his last three outings of the season against the Cardinals, he gave up six runs, walking four and striking out just two. Excluding those final three appearances, his ERA decreases from 3.54 to 2.79, and his OPS allowed decreases from .669 to .619. Obviously, you can’t just throw out those appearances, but I’m not too worried about Ryan going forward–he’ll be a valuable member of the bullpen in 2020 and beyond.
These are pitchers we saw with the Cubs in 2019 who are poised to potentially play a bigger role in 2020.
As much as I loved Carl Edwards Jr., it’s looking like trading him to the Padres could end up paying dividends for the Cubs. Edwards was released and signed with the Mariners, while Wieck made some tweaks to his curveball. With the Cubs in 2019, he faced 38 batters and gave up just two hits and four walks while striking out 18. That’s a 36.8% K-BB rate, which would have been behind only Josh Hader among qualified relievers. You certainly can’t expect Wieck to keep up those numbers over a full season, but it’s a promising sign. His curve spin rate increased by 233 RPM after he was traded to the Cubs. Wieck also provides a nice contrast to the Cubs' other established lefty, Kyle Ryan, in that Wieck’s delivery is over the top and he throws harder than average, while Ryan has one of the left-most release points in baseball and tops out in the low 90s.
Underwood finished his major league season with an ugly line: 11.2 IP, a 5.40 ERA, and a 4.24 FIP. However, he also struck out 13 batters while walking only three. He had an amazing debut, striking out six consecutive batters over two innings, and while he didn’t live up to that potential the rest of the season, during that appearance it was easy to picture Underwood being useful out of the bullpen. Underwood is out of minor league options, so this could be his last chance with the team.
Ah, Dillon Maples. I’ve given up hope that he’ll be an effective major league reliever with the Cubs, and it seems as if the Cubs may have as well. Maples threw three different pitches in the majors this season: his four-seamer ranked first in average spin (minim um 100 pitches), his slider was fifth, and his curveball was fourth. However, his active spin percentage on his fastball was just 52.4%, and his slider was just 58.0%. He doesn’t get substantial movement on his fastball, but his slider is another story, and it seems particularly tough on righties, as I catalogued here.
Maples faced 54 batters in the majors this year and only gave up six hits and struck out 18 batters. He also walked 10. Over a full season, Maples' 33.3% strikeout rate would have tied him for 21st among qualified relievers, which is quite good. However, his 18.5% walk rate would have been the highest among qualified relievers. It is very difficult for a reliever with a walk rate that high to be good, though not impossible.
Maples has faced 110 batters with the Cubs, with a line of 19 hits, 20 runs, 4 home runs, 21 walks, 6 HBP, and 38 strikeouts. He probably wouldn’t be the worst reliever on the Cubs, but it’s hard to imagine Maples being a cornerstone of the bullpen.
A great story and not a bad pitcher, Hultzen is on a minor league deal and will probably be up with the Cubs at some point, provided he stays healthy. Considering no team offered him a major league contract, however, my expectations remain low.
Norwood has a lively arm, but hasn’t shown much in his time in the majors. He’s a good bullpen depth piece that could develop into more, but seems limited to seventh-inning upside.
The Cubs have brought all of these pitchers into the organization at a low cost. They’re either coming off of years in which they were bad or injured, or they haven’t proven themselves in the majors. Still, if just one of these pitchers is a league-average reliever for the Cubs in 2020, it will be considered a success.
Winkler had 93rd-percentile spin on his four-seam fastball in 2019, but he pitched poorly enough to be released by the Braves. In 2018, though, he put up a 3.43 ERA and a 2.76 FIP in 60.1 innings. At such a low cost, the Cubs will be happy even if he split the difference between his previous two seasons–his average FIP of 4.30 would have been better than both Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop in 2019.
Tepera pitched poorly in 21.2 innings with the Blue Jays last year, but he was pretty good in 2017 (3.59 ERA/3.75 FIP) and durable (77.2 innings). He was worse in 2018 in all three of those categories, and then spent much of 2019 injured. The Cubs took a flyer on him and will hope he can regain his 2017 form.
Megill was a Rule-5 draft pick from the Padres, which means he needs to stay on the active roster or the fifteen-day IL for the whole season, lest he be offered back to the Padres. He pitched well in both AA and AAA in 2019, striking out 71 batters in 50.1 AAA innings. The ZiPS projection system projects Megill to be an above-average reliever, and according to FanGraphs, Megill can touch 96 with his fastball while his 6'8" height provides a difficult arm-angle. The main problem with Megill is that if he struggles he can’t be demoted to AAA without risking losing him.
Cotton spent all of 2018 and part of 2019 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and when he pitched in the minors in 2019, he was bad. However, he was acquired at a low cost and used to be a fairly well-regarded sleeper pick as a prospect. Cotton could start in a pinch, but I’m guessing the Cubs picked him up to see what he could do in relief with his devastating changeup.
Pelham is a tall 6'6" lefty who sits in the mid 90s with his fastball and touches 99. However, his command is rough. In 2019, Pelham walked three more batters than he struck out across AA and AAA with the Rangers. Pelham has obvious upside with low-risk, but I wouldn’t count on him making an impact with the Cubs this season.
This group of pitchers could either fit into the fifth spot in the rotation or in long relief.
Chatwood was surprisingly good last year, and useful in a variety of roles. I wrote about Chatwood a couple times in 2019, and I think he will continue to be a valuable pitcher for the Cubs, whether in relief or as a starter. As it stands now, he seems to be the favorite for the fifth-starter role, and I’m curious to see how his success from last season will translate.
Mills is very intriguing to me. He fits in great as a back-of-the-rotation starter, or as a long-man. Mills is fun to watch, as he pairs plus command with a slow curve–his average curveball was the slowest (67.6 MPH) among any pitcher who threw at least 250 pitches last year. It’s hard to imagine Mills ever being dominant, but I believe he’ll be a valuable major league pitcher in 2020. The only issue is that he’s out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs can’t send him to the minors without first placing him on waivers. I expect that Mills or Chatwood will get the fifth rotation spot, and the other will be the long man in the bullpen.
Alzolay had a fantastic debut with the Cubs in 2019, but his overall season line was not great (7.30 ERA, 7.75 FIP in 12.1 innings). Following his last start (an ugly 2.2IP 10H 7R 1BB 3K line), he was demoted back to AAA and then got injured. Alzolay made one unremarkable relief appearance in September with the major league team to finish his year. He has a pretty good fastball and a great curveball, but a mercurial changeup, which would lead me to expect he’ll be tried out as a reliever in 2020. This next season will be Alzolay’s last option year, so the Cubs need to figure out how he’ll fit into their roster going forward. Alzolay could still be a starter, but the lack of a consistent third pitch, injury concerns, and unspectacular command suggest a relief role in his future. Still, he could excel there.
Rea is 29 years old, and the Cubs felt confident enough in his future that they added him to their 40-man roster in November. Judging by his minor-league numbers, it doesn’t seem likely that Rea will be a great starter or reliever in 2020, but he is a good depth piece, and it would be nice to see him make it back to the majors after being injured in his previous start.
With the team under a mandate to move money and get cheaper, it seems like some combination of these players will constitute the Cubs' bullpen in 2020. In fact, it’s very possible that we’ll see all 17 of these pitchers with the Cubs next season. While it doesn’t look like a dominant unit like the Yankees or the Rays, there’s enough upside that I’m intrigued to see what the bullpen provides.
The Math of a Kris Bryant Trade Doesn't Add Up
Most of the Cubs-related news from the Winter Meetings centered on the possibility of a Kris Bryant trade. I was hoping not to have to write about this, but since the rumors persist, I’m going to break down the reasons why the team’s star player is on the trading block, and estimate a possible return based on player valuation numbers.
Why would the Cubs trade Kris Bryant? If we’re being generous, the argument goes like this:
Bryant probably wants to test free agency, and the Cubs and Scott Boras have been unable to agree on an extension. He’ll be going into his age-28 season, and it seems doubtful he will repeat his MVP-level 2016. Bryant has suffered nagging injuries in both of the previous two seasons, and while he doesn’t seem fragile, he hasn’t proven to be super durable. Trading Bryant now would maximize his value and allow the Cubs to get players in return that would allow them to still compete in 2020 and protect them against falling off a cliff after 2021. The team could then reinvest the money saved by trading Bryant in a reliable starting pitcher and a couple of bullpen arms.
However, the uncharitable argument paints a much bleaker picture:
The Ricketts family desperately needs to cut payroll after their Wrigleyville renovations exceeded their budget by around 100%. The team suddenly doesn’t have as much money as they expected, and can count on Cubs fans to still attend games, especially after they won the World Series in 2016. They’re not willing to meet Bryant’s asking price on an extension, and figure they can save over $40M by trading their best player.
The uncharitable argument isn’t likely to win over any fans, and while it is certainly possible that’s the reason for these rumors, I don’t believe it’s particularly compelling, so I’m going to focus on the generous argument here. Initially, I was somewhat persuaded, but if teams value players in the same way that public analysts do, I don’t think the return for Bryant would be anything close to satisfying for most Cubs fans.
To estimate a potential Kris Bryant trade, we first have to get into some baseball evaluation math. Note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that Bryant loses his service time grievance, and thus remains under team control through 2021.
On the free agent market, one win above replacement is currently estimated to be worth about $9M. By combining projected WAR and projected salaries, it’s easy enough to reach a rough estimate of the “surplus value” of a player with this formula:
Surplus value = projected WAR * $9M - projected salary
According to the Steamer projection system, Bryant is projected for 4.8 fWAR in 2020. We’ll assume he’ll produce that much in 2021 as well, which would mean he would produce 9.6 wins over the next two seasons. Bryant is projected to make around $18M in arbitration in 2020, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to make a little over $40M over the next two years. That would mean Bryant would produce $86.4M of value and get paid $40M, giving him $46.4M of surplus value. In a more optimistic estimate, if Bryant instead returned to near his 2015-2017 levels and produced 6.0 fWAR over each of the next two seasons, he’d produce $108M of value, leaving him with $68M of surplus value.
We can use this math to evaluate current major leaguers, but evaluating prospects is a bit trickier. At FanGraphs, prospects are assigned a “future value”–“a grade on the 20-80 scale that maps to anticipated annual WAR production during the player’s first six years of service.” Last November, Craig Edwards did a study and developed a method of determining the dollar value of each prospect tier. To give a general idea of the future value scale, before the 2019 season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was assigned a 70 FV as the top prospect in baseball, valued at $112M. The Cubs' Miguel Amaya was the 97th best prospect in the league, with a 50 FV, valued at $18M.
There are, of course, drawbacks to this method of valuing players, the most obvious of which is that you’re assigning a dollar value to a player based on one distilled number. Different teams also value different things; the Cubs gave up a hefty package for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 because they felt he would be able to secure their first World Series victory in 108 years, while a team like the Rays with a tighter budget consistently trades good, established major leaguers for less-established players that are owed less money. However, for the purpose of this article, valuing players like this makes it easier to see what kind of return we could expect from a Kris Bryant trade.
As a reminder, we estimated Bryant’s surplus value to be $46.4M based on current projections. According to FanGraphs' prospect valuations, that would put him around the value of a 55 FV position-player prospect. That type of prospect produces, on average, 5.1 WAR, and at $9M/WAR he’d be worth $45.9M. For position players, that ranges from 15th in the top 100 all the way down to 36th. Looking at FanGraphs' prospect rankings, the Braves' center-field prospect Drew Waters fits into this tier, and he would certainly be a compelling target for the Cubs. Alternatively, it’s possible that the Cubs would instead trade for two prospects of lesser value, in order to spread their risk among multiple players. You could combine a 50 FV position player ($28M, 38th-104th) and a 50 FV pitcher ($21M, 44th-106th) to get to $49M, about what Bryant’s surplus value is. That’s a position player around Nico Hoerner’s level, and a pitcher like the Braves' Kyle Wright.
In our optimistic valuation of Bryant ($68M surplus value), he could be worth a 50 FV pitcher ($21M) and a 55 FV position player ($46M), a package like Drew Waters and Kyle Wright. I think that’s probably close to a best-case scenario for a Bryant return, at least based on the standard math. In this scenario, the Cubs could instead go all in on one 65 FV player they really liked, someone who would be one the top ten prospects in baseball. Still, even if the Cubs got someone like Jo Adell from the Angels (and I doubt they’re still in the running for Bryant), even Bryant’s somewhat-pessimistic projection of 4.8 WAR is a near-best-case scenario for prospects. There’s always the possibility that Adell becomes one of the best players in baseball, and in that case the trade would be well worth it, but with non-established players, Bryant’s consistent production is on the far-positive side of the distribution of outcomes.
Even though it felt like Bryant had a bit of a down year in 2019, he was the most valuable player on the Cubs, and the 24th-best position player in baseball by WAR, practically tied with Juan Soto. It’s important to keep in mind that the reason prospects are valued so highly is because of the much-vaunted “financial flexibility” they provide, not necessarily because of how much WAR they’ll produce. Any prospect turning into a 4.8-win player is a massive success, and if you already have a 4.8-win player and you’re trying to make the playoffs, you should keep him.
If the Cubs were in the Dodgers' position in their division, trading Bryant might be more acceptable, but this isn’t a team with wins to spare. While the underlying numbers suggest they were better than a third-place team in 2019, they still finished in third place. If the Cubs won’t reinvest the money they save from a Kris Bryant trade in the team (and it doesn’t seem like they would), it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the move makes the team better in 2020, and if the team isn’t willing to invest money in making the 2020 team better, then they may as well trade other players as well.
It feels like you would be hard-pressed to find many Cubs fans who would be happy with getting Waters and Wright for Bryant, and that return is on the high end, at least according to the math above. I don’t think even the optimistic return makes sense for a team that’s trying to compete in 2020 and 2021, and the more numerically-realistic one-for-one trade of Bryant for Waters only makes sense if the front office was going to reinvest Bryant’s salary in the major league roster. Drew Waters could be a great major league player! The Cubs would definitely benefit from having him in center field. But it’s unlikely he’ll produce 10 WAR over the next two seasons. Trading Kris Bryant for a mathematically-reasonable package would hurt the Cubs' chances of winning in each of the next two years, and not substantially increase their odds in the following years. It’s easy enough to avoid this problem: don’t trade Kris Bryant.