Earlier this week, we finally got a look at the Cubs’ ZiPS projections from Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs and they were good! Like really good. Like, that’s pleasantly surprising, even for a team we already suspected to be good good – especially the pitching staff.
And today, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have been released, though it’s fair to say they’re decidedly less bullish on the Cubs’ pitchers, but a bit higher on the hitters (the reverse of ZiPS).
So let’s dig right in and see what’s what. You can check out the full PECOTA projections here, as we’ll go position group by position group, identifying just some of the highlights below.
The Position Players
Before we get into some of the less encouraging projections, I want to start with something positive, and that’s all Jason Heyward. According to PECOTA, Heyward is projected to slash .263/.341/.400 this season, with 11 homers, 52 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. Compared to his time with the Cubs so far, that would be a 20-point jump in batting average, 26-point jump in his OBP, and a 47-point jump in his slugging percentage – please, oh, please, let this play out.
Comparatively, that would inch Heyward’s offensive production right up against the league average, which would, of course, be a HUGE improvement for him over the last two years and also make him a generally valuable player overall.
Moreover, if you told me you could lock in a .263 batting average and .341 OBP from Heyward right now, I’d say the Cubs might’ve just solved their leadoff problem, at least against righties. Heyward’s left-handed bat fits in perfectly ahead of Kris Bryant (R), Anthony Rizzo (L), Willson Contreras (R), and Kyle Schwarber (L), and his low strikeout totals and tendency to hit ground balls (which could lead to too many double plays in the wrong spot) would fit better at the top of the order than anywhere else. Unfortunately, we don’t know if this is how good Heyward will be, so don’t expect to see him at the top when the season starts.
PECOTA is also fairly high on Ben Zobrist, who projects to slash .259/.347/.397 in 2018, after a very down year at the plate last season. And while that overall slash line (particularly the slugging percentage) is not good in this current offensive environment, you’d love to see Zobrist add something close to a .350 OBP in a complementary role next season. That’s got a ton of value if deployed strategically.
Naturally, Kris Bryant is projected to be the Cubs’ best hitter next season, with a .281/.381/.519 slash line and that actually falls almost exactly in line with what ZiPS projected. I happen to think both projection systems are being overly conservative with Bryant, but that’s sort of the nature of these projections.
Elsewhere, three of the Cubs young hitters aren’t expected to make a ton of noise at the plate, relative to their upside: Albert Almora (.734 OPS), Addison Russell (.737 OPS), Javy Baez (.746 OPS). While three others actually project quite well: Ian Happ (.780 OPS), Kyle Schwarber (.839 OPS), Willson Contreras (.844 OPS). Contreras and Schwarber, in particular, are projected for pretty great seasons at the plate, and, if they do that well, combined with Rizzo and Bryant, the Cubs’ offense should be in very good shape.
Obviously, like ZiPS, PECOTA was forced to stick Mike Montgomery in the rotation, but we still fully expect him to end up in the bullpen with another starter from outside the organization stepping in.
In a broad stroke, PECOTA is not super high on the Cubs rotation, especially in terms of staying on the mound.
Jon Lester: 28 starts, 196 IP
Jose Quintana: 29 starts, 174 IP
Kyle Hendricks: 29 starts, 165 IP
Tyler Chatwood: 24 starts, 137 IP
Mike Montgomery: 26 starts, 148 IP
First of all, if Lester makes only 28 starts, he’s not going to approach 200 innings. And second of all, if Quintana is second in innings pitched this season with just 174, I’m guessing we’re all going to have a pretty bad time. With that said, it’s not all bad. Quintana (3.59 ERA), Hendricks (3.83 ERA), and Lester (3.92 ERA) are each projected to trot out ERAs that would’ve ranked among the top 30 in baseball, which means the performance of the Cubs’ top three would be strong.
Moreover, Lester (182 Ks) and Quintana (177 Ks) are both projected to finish with a number of strikeouts that would’ve ranked among the league’s top 25 last season – and with relatively low innings counts, to boot. (As Brett looked at recently, Quintana may have flipped the switch a bit on being more of a strikeout pitcher.)
The Tyler Chatwood experience, however, is not looking great according to PECOTA: 4.76 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 61 walks, and 131 hits in just 137 IP. ZiPS wasn’t super high on Chatwood either, but they certainly figured things would go a half-run smoother (4.24 ERA) over slightly more innings (143 IP). We’re suspecting that the way Chatwood will be able to pitch outside of Coors Field – not just the park effects, but his pitch selection and the movement of his pitches – will make him a much better starter than the projection systems are thinking.
Once again, Quintana is projected, by WAR, to be the Cubs’ top starter in 2018 – this is a good bet.
Here’s where things get even uglier.
As of now, Brandon Morrow is projected to be the Cubs closer, but if his PECOTA projections come true, it’ll be a rough season: 4.23 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 2.17 K/BB ratio. Last season, Morrow had a 2.06 ERA (1.55 FIP), 0.92 WHIP, and a 5.56 K/BB ratio, so while it’s unfair to expect him to repeat those all-star numbers it’s more than fair to say the Cubs are hoping for a WHOLE LOT more than his PECOTA projections. (Remember, he’s had something of an odd path to breaking out last year.)
Carl Edwards Jr. (2.74 ERA, 1.2 WARP), Pedro Strop (3.52 ERA, 0.7 WARP), and Justin Wilson (3.17 ERA, 0.9 WARP) are projected to have good seasons, but Brian Duensing (4.95 ERA, 0.00 WARP) and Steve Cishek (4.39 ERA, 0.3 WARP) are not.
Put differently, the Cubs’ three free agent bullpen additions/retentions (Morrow, Duensing, and Cishek) are projected to perform quite poorly next season, which is troubling given that in 2017 – even with Wade Davis and a really good version of Brian Duensing – the Cubs’ bullpen was just middle of the pack.
But like I said, as low as PECOTA is on the Cubs’ pitching staff – from rotation to bullpen – ZiPS was high. So depending on your level of optimism … maybe they’ll wind up back in the middle of the pack or better this season?
Dig through the projections yourself when you have time, because there’s obviously a lot more to peruse than what we’ve discussed above. But in short, note that the Cubs, according to PECOTA, project to have a very strong offense and plenty of questions on the pitching side in 2018.
It’s almost like adding another quality starting pitcher, and bumping Mike Montgomery back into a swing role, would be a huge help …