Even as the team’s needs in the bullpen are obvious, the Cubs’ offense has been the main focus of attention this winter among fans, and for good reason. After ranking among the top 10 in walk rate (5th), runs (5th), RBI (5th), AVG (2nd), OBP (1st), SLG (7th), wOBA (4th), and wRC+ (4th) in the first half of the season, the offense absolutely fell off the map in the second-half of the year.
Check it out (and try not to let it hurt you):
Walk Rate: 18th
Yes, the bullpen needs major attention, Willson Contreras needs a veteran backup, and the Cubs still don’t have a bench coach, but seeing an improvement in the offense is clearly priority numero uno.
And yet, I still don’t think we’re appropriately concerned (speak for yourself, amiright).
Obviously, it’s easy to believe those second-half numbers will turn around along with guys like Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras – who had great first-halves, but were injured and/or unproductive in the second half of the year. Guys like Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ also fell off in the second half, and could be more consistently productive next year as they develop. Bounce-backs and turnarounds are certainly possible. Maybe even projectable.
But the Cubs seem to be operating philosophically as though that turnaround is more of an expectation than a hope, and, even if it were guaranteed, that’s really only half of the equation.
We also have to focus on the players who were extreme in the opposite direction last year, and think about the possibility that they won’t produce at quite that same level in 2019. And none of those possible players is more important than Javier Baez.
Baez was an across-the-board positive offensive contributor last season, and he came up just shy of being the league MVP.
Baez came into the season with a career .255/.300/.427 slash line, with an 89 wRC+, and he improved that to the tune of .290/.326/.554, with a 131 wRC+. At age 25 in 2018, that was the kind of improvement we’ve long hoped to see from Baez, and always knew was possible.
But what if that was his one-time career year? We don’t necessarily think it was, but the whole point of offseason planning is to consider reasonable possibilities for the year ahead. What if last season was nothing more than a beautiful blip on the radar for Baez, and the near-league average offensive production he posted in the first 3.5 seasons of his career was what to expect going forward? After all, by his expected offensive metrics at Statcast, Baez was the 22nd most fortunate batter in all of MLB last year, posting a .367 wOBA when the quality of his contact suggested something closer to .331 should have been expected. Of note, Baez’s career wOBA is .327.
What if that’s just who he actually is at the plate?
Well, first of all, and let’s not miss this part … that’d still be a useful player. Baez had settled in as a 2.0-2.5 WAR player before last despite his offense (not because of it) thanks to everything else he does great. Throw in the value that extreme versatility provides to a roster (value that isn’t quite captured by WAR) and Baez is a dude you really want on the team regardless of the offense.
But last season, he was an MVP finalist worth 5.3 WAR, and a huge part of that was because of the offense.
Even if we assume every other aspect of his game held exactly steady, it appears as though Baez’s offensive improvement was worth something like three full wins last season. But here’s the other thing: his defense, metrically, took a step backwards – at least, according to one season of the advanced defensive metrics. And sure, every time we bring those up I have to mention that they can be unreliable, but that was a full season worth of data, and it was his lowest DEF score since 2015. My point there is not to criticize Baez’s inhuman defense. Instead, I’m pointing out that it’s fair to say that his offense had an even larger role in his WAR calculation (and, thus, the Cubs bottom line) than it did the year prior.
Point being: a drop back to his league average-ish offense could make Baez even less valuable than he was in 2016-2017 and hurt the Cubs even more (what a fun post this is!). But what about just raw numbers? What would the Cubs actually be losing?
Well, depending on the playing time, we’re talking about something like 15-16 home runs, 40-50 RBI, 10-ish stolen bases, and 40-50 runs scored. Basically, if you thought the Cubs offense struggled last season, just imagine it with the pre-2018 Javy Baez:
- Instead of 167 home runs (22nd), the Cubs are looking at 162 (25th)
- Instead of 722 RBI (10th), the Cubs are looking at 672 (17th)
- Instead of 66 stolen bases (24th), the Cubs are looking at 56 (27th)
- Instead of 761 Runs (9th), the Cubs are looking at 711 (17th)
By some of the more traditional measures, the Cubs would drop from a top 10-15ish offense to a bottom 15-20ish offense if pre-2018 Baez had been in place.
Long story short? For the offense to turn back into a serious force in 2019, the Cubs don’t just need Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras to bounce back or Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo to hold steady, they also need Javy Baez to be significantly better than he was from 2014-2017. He doesn’t have to be an MVP every year – and his teammates should pick up some of the slack – but 2018 can’t be a flash in the pan if this is going to be a top tier offense without an impact addition in free agency or trade.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.