In previous offseasons, I was happy to find Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs holding back the Cubs ZiPS projections as one of the last teams to be revealed, because it usually meant their roster – and, thus, the projections – were more complete/reflective of what we’re going to see on the field come March/April.
Obviously, the free agent and trade markets used to be more complete by now anyway, but this ZiPS process gets going in January and there’s usually still more to be done at that point – even under the old, normal circumstances. But this winter, well, let’s just say I was ready for the projections a whole lot earlier, as not much was gonna change with the Cubs.
Indeed, the Chicago Cubs roster picture has basically long been finalized, so I’ve had a lot less patience waiting for the ZiPS projections (my personal favorite). Fortunately, I have to wait no longer. They’re here. Check them out.
First, with a high-level snapshot:
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) February 20, 2019
With broad strokes, Szymborski is effective at explaining the Cubs’ 2019 outlook, vis à vis his projections: “The outfield remains the primary weakness of the team, at least in ZiPS’ digital eyes … the group is serviceable, but unimpressive.” Szymborski continues: “If only an outfielder was available in the free agent market, one who could bring a significant boost to a contending team!”
But the real money quote comes shortly thereafter: “The Cubs can win the division without spending more, but they can’t put any prognosticating daylight between themselves and the Cardinals or Brewers without doing so.”
Doesn’t that just about nail how we’re feeling? The Cubs could stand to add in the outfield – and there’s an obvious and immediate upgrade available – but it doesn’t look like they’re going to do do that. And if they don’t, they may just be fine, but there’s no way you can have the sort of pre-season confidence to which we grew accustomed from 2016-2018.
Szymborski offers similar 10,000-foot takes on the bench, bullpen, and rotation, so be sure to head over to FanGraphs for more ZiPS-led narrative discussion.
In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at a few cherry-picked players, starting with the offense.
Anthony Rizzo – 4.0 WAR
Anthony Rizzo is projected to lead the Cubs offense this season with a 129 OPS+ and a slash line of .277/.383/.492 and 26 home runs. The slash line is above his career averages across the board, though the home run total feels a little light. Rizzo has proven himself among the most consistent offensive forces the Cubs have ever had and I think you’d be happy to lock in this sort of production right here and now, even if his upside is probably a bit better than this (remember, he went on an absolute tear in the second-half of the season).
Kris Bryant – 4.5 WAR
Kris Bryant (123 OPS+) may trail Rizzo in offensive projections with a .270/.365/.493 slash line and 28 homers, but his 4.5 projected WAR total is the highest on the team, including the pitchers. If he really is as healthy as he reports – and is capable of deploying his OG swing – I will gladly and easily take the over on these projections from A to Z. Bryant was on pace to shatter his career marks early last season before the injury, and I suspect he’ll return to that level in 2019 (obviously, projections are conservative in nature, so I don’t fault the system for having its reservations).
Javy Baez – 3.8 WAR
Javy Baez projects to take a subtle step backwards this season, but I’m not actually all that discouraged by a .275/.318/.514 projected slash line. The 114 OPS+ is certainly beneath his potential, but he basically has only one season of high-level production at his back, so that doesn’t feel unfair. Together with Bryant and Rizzo, Javy Baez completes the Cubs obvious “All-Star” position player projections.
Kyle Schwarber (112 OPS+) projects to be the Cubs next best hitter, and although that’s more or less in line with his career numbers, it actually strikes as a bit too conservative. Of course, these projections are objective and don’t take into account how we feel about Schwarber as a hitter. More unfortunately, Ian Happ is (101 OPS+) is the only other above-average offensive contributor projected by ZiPS. Willson Contreras (98 OPS+) is next in line and then … Mark Zagunis (93 OPS+).
Yes, that means Ben Zobrist (90 OPS+), Jason Heyward (89 OPS+), Albert Almora (81 OPS+), Daniel Descalso (87 OPS+), and everyone else is expected to take some pretty significant steps backwards this year. If Contreras’s, Zobrist’s, and Descalso’s forecasts come to pass, the Cubs offense might be in some serious trouble come mid-season.
#Cubs ZiPS Projected Home Run Leaders for 2019:
1. Javy Baez – 30 HRs
2. Kris Bryant – 28 HRs
3. Kyle Schwarber – 27 HRs
4. Anthony Rizzo – 26 HRs
5. Ian Happ – 21 HRs
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) February 20, 2019
Now how about the pitchers?
Jose Quintana – 3.6 WAR
It’s become common to see Jose Quintana projected as the Cubs most valuable starter (by fWAR) over the past two years, despite the sentiment among most fans, given his age and history of success. Remember, Quintana’s 23.1 fWAR from 2013-2018 ranks 10th best in all of baseball during that stretch – ahead of Jon Lester, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Carrasco, Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, and so on. ZiPS thinks he’ll start 30 games and pitch to a team-leading 3.67 ERA. That would be good for a 120 ERA+ and, with the exception of a low projected inning total (176 IP), would constitute a wonderful year for the Cubs lefty.
Kyle Hendricks – 3.3 WAR
Kyle Hendricks is projected to finish just behind Quintana in 2019 – and his 3.3 fWAR would be a fine season – but I’ll take the over on him pretty much across the board. Given Hendricks’ style, he’s almost always under-projected, in my experience, and usually outperforms his peripherals. He’s had enough seasons of high-level success for me to be confident in him going forward.
The Rest of the Rotation
Cole Hamels (3.1 WAR) receives a wonderful projection by ZiPS, relatively speaking, as I would lock in his 115 ERA+ (tied with Hendricks) right now if I could. Obviously, you hope he topples the 167.3 IP projection, but with Mike Montgomery (109 ERA+, 1.6 WAR over 111.0 IP) as the sixth starter, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. Then again, the Cubs will need Yu Darvish (124.3 IP) to vastly exceed his projected inning total next season if they want to win the division, especially because his 118 ERA+ is the second best among the starters. And finally, Jon Lester (108 ERA+) is projected to get better-than-average results, but I think he’d be disappointed with just 2.5 fWAR and only 165.3 IP (the former would be tied for the second lowest WAR total of his career and the latter would be the fewest innings he’s ever thrown in a season).
#Cubs ZiPS Projected Rotational ERA Leaders for 2019:
1. Jose Quintana: 3.67 ERA
2. Cole Hamels: 3.71 ERA
3. Kyle Hendricks: 3.72 ERA
4. Yu Darvish: 3.76 ERA
5. Jon Lester: 3.97 ERA
Mike Montgomery: 4.05 ERA
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) February 20, 2019
And the bullpen …
The bullpen is a tough positional group to write about succinctly, because there aren’t eight obvious guys taking the reins, and I’m not sure the projected inning totals are going to actually happen. For example, Alec Mills (122.3 IP, 1.3 WAR) and Duncan Robinson (131.3 IP, 1.1 WAR) are projected for big year volumes as starters, but I don’t think they’ll come anywhere close to those totals in 2019 (I mean, hopefully they don’t). But among the pleasant surprises, you’ll find …
Xavier Cedeño – 0.7 WAR
Cedeño is projected for a modest WAR-total in 2019 largely because he’s projected to complete only 46.0 innings. However, his 3.33 ERA (133 ERA+) is projected to lead the entire team. Clearly, ZiPS likes him. We, too, see the potential.
Pedro Strop – 0.7 WAR
Pedro Strop is projected to toss a solid 51+ innings next season, but his 3.48 ERA is fair bit worse than we’ve come to expect out of him. Strop has been a model of consistency (if you laugh at that, read a book) for the Cubs over the years, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But at some point, his age (33) might catch up with him.
The Rest of the Bullpen
The Cubs nominal closer, Brandon Morrow, is projected to wind up with the third best ERA on the team when all is said and done (3.37), but that’s obvious much worse than what he probably should be as the team’s best reliever. ZiPS is guessing he’ll finish just 37.1 IP this season, which is actually more than he posted last year (and would be his second-highest inning total since 2013). New guys Tony Barnette (3.35 ERA, 43.0 IP) and Brad Brach (3.41 ERA, 63.3 IP) come across as more than serviceable relievers. And if they were to reach those forecasts in 2019, you’d feel pretty good about the Cubs pen.
They’ll still need one of Pedro Strop/Carl Edwards Jr./Brandon Morrow to be dominant if they want to last deep into the postseason, but there’s definitely a large group of arms you could imagine succeeding.