One team at a time, the 2020 ZiPS projections have been released over at FanGraphs, and today, the Chicago Cubs have finally had their ticket called.
Naturally, we’re going to go over a few of the things that stood out to me, but be sure to head over to FanGraphs to see the full 2020 ZiPS projections for each individual player (including several notable top prospects). There’s a LOT to soak in and we won’t get to it all. Obligatory note: these are projections using data, historical comps, algorithms, and all kinds of analytical bells and whistles. Projection systems are offered up as a take-a-step-back view at the team, without context or narrative.
Here’s the 26(ish)-man overview to get us started:
"It’s hard to feel much excitement about the Cubs." https://t.co/QMMr8KZkNR
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) February 6, 2020
Generally speaking, this isn’t a terrible projection. The top four of the Cubs rotation actually project well, relatively speaking, with Yu Darvish (3.8 WAR) and Kyle Hendricks (3.5 WAR) leading the way. There are question marks in center field and at second base – and the bullpen is one giant mystery – but a right-field platoon and stars at catcher, first base, third base, and shortstop are all good reminders that this team simply does not suck.
What sucks is that this team wasn’t significantly added to. And after that, it sucks that it wasn’t significantly prepared for the post-2020 and post-2021 fall off. And in the meantime, it sucks that despite all of that, the Cubs are still over the Luxury Tax threshold, which – if it stays – would limit them dramatically next offseason. Those are the things that suck right now. Not necessarily the roster. But let’s dig deeper.
I want to start with one of the Cubs top prospect projections, Nico Hoerner, whose expected performance this season could still impact the Cubs offseason plans.
Hoerner is projected to slash just .270/.319/.395 (85 OPS+) as a true rookie this season, with just a .125 ISO and .295 BABIP. The overall production and BABIP actually match what he flashed in his 20-game call-up last season (86 wRC+, .292 BABIP), and his OBP is expected to take a nice jump from not-playable (.305) to a more reasonable zone (.319), but the power does not project to be there
A .125 ISO is already going to be a step down from the middling .154 ISO he posted in his cup of coffee last season, and that was before the league fully began to figure Hoerner out. And while a minuscule 11.6% strikeout rate is appealing – particularly at second base on this team (with so much power elsewhere) – that also concerns me the way Albert Almora’s extreme bat-to-ball skills resulted in a lot of contact, but not a lot of strong contact. I already felt this way before today, but I believe fully that Nico Hoerner needs to begin the season in Triple-A.
The Rest of the Offense
Unsurprisingly, Anthony Rizzo (131 OPS+) and Kris Bryant (125 OPS+) projected to be the Cubs top two hitters, with Kyle Schwarber (118 OPS+), Javy Baez (110 OPS+), Willson Contreras (106 OPS+) and Ian Happ (102 OPS+) rounding out the group of above-average contributors. But I’d actually take the over – soundly – on Kris Bryant if he’s healthy, and the same goes for Contreras and Happ.
I think Rizzo’s projection is VERY strong and would lock that in right now, if I could. Javy Baez is a bit of mystery. I’d like to take the over on that, and probably would at the end of the day, but it’s still not clear if he’s going to settle into that 2018 star offensive zone (~130 wRC+ or greater) or the 2019 solidly-above-average offensive zone (~115 wRC+). With his defense, he’s an All-Star either way, but at 130, he’s an MVP candidate.
As for Schwarber, well, a 118 OPS+ would obviously be quite strong, but if anything he flashed at the end of last season is real, he can be set up for a WELL over on that mark. In other words, I’m not surprised to see him projected there, but he might have the most realistic shot to *obliterate* his numbers.
You know who had a heartening projection: Craig Kimbrel.
While I hope he throws more than his 42.3 projected innings (last season’s numbers play heavily into that projection), his 3.40 ERA is projected to be the best on the team. And although that seems rather high for the closer, it’s probably better to see it compared to the rest of the league: 127 ERA+.
In other words, his ERA is expected to be 27% better than the league average pitcher next season. And while that’s nowhere near his peak performance, it would be an enormous step forward from his relatively disastrous 2019 season.
I decided to single him out, because for a reliever, he actually holds a unique amount of control over the success of the Cubs 2020 season. Indeed, he probably needs to be even better than these projections for the Cubs’ bullpen to succeed on the whole.
The Rest of the Pitching Staff
Shockingly, Brandon Morrow is projected to throw 30.3 innings this season with an ERA+ of 121 despite his age and his missed time. If that happens, I will be over the moon. Unfortunately, I do not quite expect him to throw that often this season. I don’t know how we could count on that after so many injuries and procedures and missed time. Even still, it’s nice to see that ZiPS still projects guys in his situation to perform well if they’re healthy.
ZiPS really believes in Yu Darvish, who’s projected to finish with a 3.56 ERA over roughly 154 innings. By ZiPS’ system, Darvish will carry a 29.8% strikeout rate with just a 7.7% walk rate over the course of the season, both of which would rank right around even some of his best years in MLB.
And if he and Kyle Hendricks (3.67 ERA over 169 innings) come close to those marks, the top of the Cubs rotation will be in fine shape. Unfortunately, Jose Quintana (101 ERA+) and Jon Lester (99 ERA+) are both expected to be just around average, and with no sure-fire fifth starter, that’s not a *great* overall outlook for the rotation. (Which tracks with some other recent analyses of how scary the rotation could be.)
Now, outside the numbers, we know that both lefties have a real shot to outperform those figures. But it’s a whole lot less fair to put that on Lester’s back – at age 36 – than Jose Quintana’s.
Other Notable Marks:
- Brad Wieck (119 ERA+
- Jeremy Jeffress (117 ERA+)
- Rowan Wick (107 ERA+)
- Trevor Megill (106 ERA+)
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.