Around this time every year, the various pre-season projections are released for every player and team in MLB.
Among the most anticipated, you’ll find the recently released Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections.
Alongside the league-wide team projections – which view the Cubs as the fourth best team in baseball (we’ll get to that in a minute) – the individual player projections are worth a discussion.
So, let’s examine how well a handful of the most prominent Cubs position players project to perform in 2017. We’ll follow up with the pitchers another time. The full PECOTA projections offer quite a bit more on each player, so you’ll want to subscribe to BP for the whole kit and caboodle.
But first, I’d like to point out some of the team projections, because they’ll serve to express a broader point for the rest of today’s discussion.
Here are the top five teams (by projected record) for the 2017 season:
- Los Angeles Dodgers: 98-64
- Houston Astros: 93-69
- Cleveland Indians: 92-70
- Chicago Cubs: 91-71
- Boston Red Sox: 90-72
Most fans were probably a bit taken aback by the fact that the Cubs are only projected to win 91 games and that they aren’t projected to be the best team in the National League, let alone all of baseball. But to that end, I have some thoughts.
First, it’s important to remember that all projections are conservative by nature. The Chicago Cubs won 103 games last season, but projecting them to win that many would’ve been nuts – because that’s an outlier, and it was also the product of trades and roster changes that a pre-season projection cannot contemplate. And to take it a step further, the PECOTA projections are historically even more conservative than some of the other systems around baseball. So, 91 wins is not anything to sneeze at.
Second, the Cubs may not be projected to be the best team in baseball next season, but that’s not the most important take away. Instead, their relative positioning is more important. They are, by this account, one of the top two teams in the National League, one of the top four teams in all of baseball, and far ahead in the NL Central. Sometimes, the relative pecking order in these projections tells you more than the win totals.
So with that in mind, let’s move onto the projections of the key Cubs contributors for 2017, starting with the position players. Below, I’ve included the projected slash lines and WARP (BP’s WAR) totals for the 11 players who are expected to contribute most often during the 2017 season, plus some thoughts of my own.
We’ll go through these players by position, with the understanding that everyone will move around a lot throughout the season (For the full set of projections, head over to Baseball Prospectus):
Wilson Contreras (C): .268/.343/.440; 2.2 WARP
Miguel Montero (C): .232/.329/.365; 1.0 WARP
Immediately, the two lessons we are supposed to keep in mind become relevant. Willson Contreras is projected to have a pretty solid season at the plate (you’d probably lock that line down right now if you could), but is projected for just 2.2 WARP. Without much context, that WAR total feels a little light. But when you consider that Anthony Rizzo (4.1 WARP) and Kris Bryant (5.2 WARP) are projected for just 2-3 more wins above that, the number makes a lot more sense, especially when you factor in playing time.
Overall, in terms of production, the catcher position figures to be strong in 2017.
Anthony Rizzo (1B): .270/.362/.499; 4.1 WARP
Anthony Rizzo is becoming a model of consistency. Although I’d expect him to outproduce that slash line at every stop, projections are conservative and that’s still a great line. Combine that offense with his Gold Glove caliber defense at first base, and you have the Cubs’ second most valuable player.
Ben Zobrist (2B/OF): .260/.353/.407; 3.0 WARP
Javy Baez (2B/INF): .243/.294/.422; 1.7 WARP
The playing time at second base figures to be split between Ben Zobrist (70% according to BP) and Javy Baez (20%). But it’s worth pointing out that Baez is also expected to see 20% of the playing time at third base, 15% of the playing time at shortstop, and 25% of the pinch hitting opportunities. You’d obviously hope for a better slash line than that, but that’s where we are right now.
And as for Zobrist, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a low-ish slugging percentage like the projected value above, but I’ll take the over on his average and on-base percentage in 2017. He was great in 2016, and arguably got unlucky on his BABIP.
Kris Bryant (3B): .273/.369/.522; 5.2 WARP
Once again, I’ll take the over across the board. Kris Bryant is unlike any player the Cubs have had in recent memory. His ability to make adjustments over the offseason – and during the season – appear to be unparalleled and I’m expecting another huge season at the plate.
Addison Russell (SS): .242/.311/.415; 2.6 WARP
PECOTA does not seem to be sold on the widely-anticipated breakout for Addison Russell, so we’ll have to see. His defense is plenty good enough to support a slash line like the one above, but I’m expecting much more stick than that next season.
Kyle Schwarber (LF): .248/.346/.477; 2.9 WARP
Kyle Schwarber, on the other hand, has the full confidence of the PECOTA system. Despite having played in only a half a season (2015) and a handful of playoff series (2015, 2016), PECOTA is expecting Schwarber to be the Cubs’ third best hitter behind Bryant and Rizzo. That’s a lot to ask, but I’m ready to watch him prove it.
Jon Jay (CF): .262/.330/.354; 0.9 WARP
Alber Almora (CF): .250/.277/.386; 0.3 WARP
And it’s a good thing that left field projects to be an offensive strength in 2017, because center field will likely take a step backwards vis a vis 2016. Even still, the combined efforts of Jon Jay and Albert Almora (not to mention the expected defensive bump) should keep this position above average throughout the season. As the Cubs weakest position, this isn’t too bad.
Jason Heyward (RF): .257/.336/.410; 3.7 WARP
How about that? Not only is the conservative PECOTA projecting a .115 point increase in Heyward’s OPS (seems very plausible), it’s projecting him to be the third most valuable position player on the Cubs next season. That’s how valuable his defense can be. If Heyward manages to follow that slash line in 2017 (basically the 2016 version of Jason Werth), the Cubs will be sitting pretty.
So that’s the forecast for the key Cubs position players in 2017. For more on the players above and the projections for the remaining contributors, head over to Baseball Prospectus. And remember to keep an eye out, because we’ll be tackling the pitchers very soon.