In 2016 the cubs were by far the best team in baseball from day one until game 7 of the World Series. In my opinion they were generous to not beat the Indians in 5 games last year. You’d think that this year the cubs would be even better? Right?
I mean not much was different, they lost Fowler, and Chapman, but that’s about all in terms of impact players, and then you add Schwarber back from Injury, Quintana halfway through, Davis who is better than Chapman, (at least this year) and then guys like Jon Jay who exceeded expectations, Ian Happ who could have won rookie of the year if it wasn’t for Cody Bellinger and Josh Bell having insane years. So what happened?
It’s been a weird year, all throughout the season the offense performed well, the bullpen was good for the most part, but the starting pitching struggled. This post season? The exact opposite. So what was the real problem for the cubs?
Last year the cubs had 2 starting pitchers with sub 3.0 ERA’s and then John Lackey and Jake Arrieta, a 3 time world champion and a guy coming off a Cy young. They had a guy in Anthony Rizzo who hit .292, 32 HR, and 108 RBI and a gold glove, plus Kris Bryant who had all of those stats but slightly better. The cubs had a guy in Addison Russell who nearly hit 100 RBI, Wilson Contreras and Javy Baez having breakout years. Veterans like Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler having career years, and a deep bench. The cubs also had a deep bullpen with Edwards Jr, Montgomery, Chapman, Rondon, Strop, etc. all getting hot at the end of the year.
Everyone knew it would be impossible to match those numbers across the board but what really changed?
First off the cubs never found a lead off hitter that could consistently get on and produce runs like last year. The cubs weren’t able to get early leads and give the starting pitchers early run support. The second problem was health. Looking back at 2016 no major contributors missed extended time besides Fowler missing around a month midway through the year. This year…how about these names, Contreras, Lackey, Lester, Hendricks, Arrieta, Heyward, Russell, and Uehara, all spending time on the DL. Then guys like Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Almora, and Schwarber all missing a few games here and there due to day to day injuries. I don’t have the numbers but I would estimate that about 60% of the year the cubs had at least one starter on the DL, Including the inability to find a 5th starter until the All Star break.
There were the obvious reasons why they struggled this year like what I previously mentioned, but just watching this team they just didn’t have that same MOJO that they had last year, maybe the World Series win relaxed them some but I never really saw that sense of urgency or belief that they were better than everyone else like they had last year. Guys struggled at the plate, like Schwarber, Russell, Zobrist, Heyward, and even Bryzzo each had their cold streaks this year (including the playoffs). This inconsistency made the lineup look entirely different from day to day. Now Joe Maddon is known for switching things up but even last year they had the top 5 set for 90% of the year with Fowler, Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist, then Russell, the only consistency this year was KB and Rizzo at 2/3. You gotta imagine that at some points players want some consistency in the lineup and feel more comfortable with the same guys in front of them.
Now then, where are we at now? Starting the year people were thinking this was a team that could win 3 out of 5 championships, maybe 4 or 5 in the decade because of how they stack up with their youth. Now everyone is saying that this team needs a major make over, so which is the right opinion? I’m still a firm believer that Bryant, Rizzo and Contreras have the ability to be the best 2-3-4 combo in the game, and I think they will be eventually. But where do the rest of the guys fall in?
Let’s break it down by position, I think it’s safe to say that the pitching needs the most work in the off season. Let’s start with the bullpen, Davis is a guy you obviously want to keep, not sure if that will happen but the cubs have a good chance of keeping him. I think Duensing, Montgomery and Edwards Jr are above average pitchers despite struggles at some points this year. Besides that the bullpen is wide open, Strop, and Rondon? Who knows, they have flashes of greatness and some flashes of giving up grand slams in the NLCS. I think for the cubs to succeed next year the 4 guys I mentioned at first need to perform at their ability, the cubs also need one or two more solid arms to put pressure on those guys to improve.
Moving on to the starting pitchers. Quintana, Hendricks and Lester will all be back next year and should all be solid. Let’s see about Lester but I think he still has a few good years left. Arietta probably won’t come back, and I’m ok with that. Let’s be honest, he has been all but consistent this year and is looking for a max contract. I think the best move for the cubs is to find a younger better pitcher that they can sign for a few years. Who knows who that will be but if I know Theo Epstien, he will get a good one. Lackey will probably stay in the rotation for another years but maybe someone else will emerge from the minors or a trade deadline acquisition that could relieve him if he struggles.
Now with the lineup, the most complicated piece. Here are the obvious locks, Bryant at 3B, Rizzo at 1B, and Contreras at C. That’s it. Rizzo is one of the most consistent hitters in the game, he actually hit 32 HR and 108 RBI in each of the last two years. Kris Bryant is Kris Bryant and Wilson Contreras had a breakout year and should be one of the best catchers in the game in the near future. Now after that, this is what I would love to see happen, however it’s all dependent on performance. I would love to see Russell and Baez be the everyday SS/2B and show a little more consistency, they have been really good when they have been good, but they have also had very cold streaks, most notably Baez starting the post season 0-20. Now here is the big problem, which really isn’t a problem at all for the cubs. This is what you have in the outfield, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr, Jon Jay, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward. Now Zobrist will still get some time at 2nd base but I think it would be best if Baez got the majority of the starts, I would love to see Schwarber get back to how good he can be and be the everyday LF, I would love to get Ian Happ an everyday position but that’s only going to happen if the cubs can get rid of Heyward which they need to do. I don’t care how much they have to pay him or give up but they need to dump him somehow. I don’t think Jon Jay will spend too much time with the cubs but I would love to have him back another year. I think Almora can be an everyday player but he still has another year or so of growth. So here is where we are. I think the outfield can and should rotate for another year and figure things out but by 2019 assuming the cubs can keep everyone this is what I think the lineup should look like ideally by the start of 2019
Ian Happ- RF
Wilson Contreras- C
Kyle Schwarber- LF
Addison Russell- SS
Albert Almora Jr- CF
Javy Baez- 2B
Saying this who knows? This would be ideal but who knows how it will go, maybe Jason Heyward becomes the player he used to be and Ian Happ becomes the everyday CF, maybe Russell and Schwarber never get back and they have to find replacements, this could go a million ways but either way I think the Cubs are set to be very good for the next decade and if the young players can find their place in this league after ups and downs in their first few years the cubs will be more than alright.