Earlier this winter, when I realized that the Cubs ZiPS projections would be among the last revealed, I was bummed. After all, ZiPS is one of the best projection systems out there, and I couldn’t wait to see how this year’s squad stacked up league-wide.
But then I thought, Hey, it’s a slow-market anyway, so at least the team should be complete by the time their projections come out! I was wrong. But, hey! It’s still projections day, and that’s still awesome. So let’s dive into the Cubs roster and see how they might fare in 2018.
You can check out the full ZiPS projections here at FanGraphs. We’ll just cover some of the highlights below.
First, the snapshot:
— Carson Cistulli (@cistulli) February 4, 2018
Every single position around the diamond is projected for at least 3.0 WAR … which is, frankly, absurd – and that’s not considering the fact that I’ll *easily* take the over on Willson Contreras and Chris Gimenez behind the plate.
In the rotation, with Mike Montgomery penciled in, the Cubs starters project to be worth about 16 WAR, which would be 4.2 more than everyone who started for the Cubs last season, and would have ranked 6th overall in baseball in 2017. Of course, if you pencil Yu Darvish in and push Montgomery out, the rotation would get a 2.0 WAR bump.
That means that it would be over 6 wins better than it was last season, and would rank as the third best rotation in baseball (again, relative to 2017).
Obviously, that bullpen is an incomplete picture, because there’ll be more than five pitchers there, but even that projects very well. And if/when you move Montgomery into the frame, it’ll look even stronger. I’m just taking broad strokes right now, but my initial reaction is that these are very encouraging projections.
A handful of more specific thoughts …
Kris Bryant is projected to finish with a .272/.381/.522 slash line, including a 134 wRC+, which would actually be a career low for him. In short, ZiPS doesn’t seem to be *fully* buying the further reduction in strikeouts and increase in walks, as both are projected to head in the opposite direction of last year. I suppose that’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet against a 26-year-old Kris Bryant improving upon himself yet again, let alone his numbers heading in the other direction. But remember, projections are conservative on purpose, and if 5.8 WAR is Kris Bryant’s conservative projection … I think we’ll be just happy with his season. Oh, and his player comp … Ron Santo.
So who’ll be the team’s biggest offensive contributor, according to ZiPS? Anthony Rizzo. With a 137 wRC+, Rizzo is expected to bounce back from a *relative* down year at the plate last season and lead the Cubs offensively: .276/.389/.527, 33 HRs. All together, ZiPS is forecasting another near-5.0 WAR season (4.9), which would keep Rizzo among baseball’s elite.
Despite Kyle Schwarber’s struggles last season, he projects to be the Cubs’ third best hitter, with a .231/.325/.496 (110 wRC+) slash line and 31 home runs. Together, Schwarber, Bryant, and Rizzo are projected to come up just short of 100 long balls in 2018. It’s Addison Russell, however, who figures to be the third most valuable player with a 3.0 WAR season.
Ian Happ (107 wRC+) and Willson Contreras (106 wRC+) round out the Cubs’ above average hitters, while Ben Zobrist (96 wRC+) and Jason Heyward (92 wRC+) just miss, but take big steps in the right direction compared to last season.
As expected (yes, this was expected), Jose Quintana is projected to be the Cubs’ best starter next season, and he figures to be really, really good at that. In 186.0 IP, Quintana’s forecast shows 188 strikeouts (24.3%) to just 51 walks (6.6%), plus a 3.19 ERA and 3.13 FIP. Those are great numbers, both of which (the ERA and FIP) would’ve ranked among the top ten in baseball last season. And with 4.9 WAR total, Jose Quintana is likely to be one of the best pitchers in the game next season.
After him? It’s not Kyle Hendricks, but a bounce back for Jon Lester! Which, hey, I want Hendricks to be great again, too, but I wouldn’t mind this outcome either. In 170.3 IP, Lester projects to finish with 3.5 WAR in 2017, with a 3.54 ERA and 3.69 FIP which are nearly 25% better than the league average. But before you get down on Hendricks, note that his 3.2 WAR and 3.48 ERA (3.74 FIP) are right up there with Lester. Together, the current front three of the Cubs rotation appear to be as strong as almost any other trio in baseball. If you add a sure-fire starter to the top of this rotation … well, let’s just say there wouldn’t be many other staffs I’d take instead.
Tyler Chatwood doesn’t quite get the projection love (4.24 ERA, 4.34 FIP) for which I was hoping, but it’s worth pointing out that if he posted those numbers next season, he’d be an above average starter pitching out of the fourth or fifth spot in the Cubs rotation. You can do A LOT worse than that. And, of course, we happen to believe that there’s hidden upside in Chatwood’s arm that the projections might not otherwise pick up (ZiPS accounts for his removal from Coors, but not, say, a change in his pitch mix that accompanies that removal).
For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects Jake Arrieta to throw just 161.7 innings next season, which is not a lot. Of course, when he is out there, ZiPS still really believes in him: 3.67 ERA, 3.94 FIP 3.0 WAR. According to ZiPS, Arrieta is not quite an ace, but he still figures to be one of the top 20-25 pitchers in baseball next season. And if he can remain healthy – which isn’t really that hard to imagine – he might wind up being a 4.0+ WAR pitcher again. That would be very, very good.
I absolutely love the look of the back-end of the Cubs bullpen next season. Just look at how well all of their late-inning options project:
Carl Edwards Jr.: 1.2 WAR
Justin Wilson: 1.2 WAR
Brandon Morrow: 1.1 WAR
Pedro Strop: 1.0 WAR
Steve Cishek: 0.9 WAR
There’s a lot more to like than just these five projections, but oh baby … if this is how the season plays out, the Cubs’ pen is going to be nails.
The best part of the projections has to be Justin Wilson leading the staff with a 3.05 ERA, a 32.8% strikeout rate and 12.6 BB% (2.91 FIP). That’s still a high walk rate, but this is basically the guy Wilson was before coming to the Cubs, and if he’s this guy again in 2018, there’s a chance he could steal some save opportunities from Morrow. Either way, it’d be great to have him reliably in what could become a loaded late-inning mix.
So where does this leave us? Well, there’s obviously so much more to dig into, but I stand by my initial reaction … wow.
If this were the Cubs final roster heading into the season, you’d easily expect them to remain the favorites in the NL Central. The offense is conservatively projected, but I think their upside there is very clear. And in any case, the rotation and bullpen projected far better than I was expecting. The fact that both might still improve – with the addition of a free agent and the bouncing of Montgomery to the pen – is just icing on the cake. This is a nice way to start the week.