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 Annualviewing 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.

Ian Happ

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 %
2017 116 23 16
2018 305 6 1
2019 63 84 132

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.

Craig Kimbrel

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.

José Quintana

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.