It’s weird to be digging into a set of projections for the Chicago Cubs 2021 season before they’ve really done anything this offseason, but, hey, at some point publications have to pull the trigger. Also, it’s not actually true that the Cubs haven’t done anything yet this offseason – they’ve done a lot of subtracting! Also, reliever additions!
That is to say, I do expect the final Cubs roster to look different come Opening Day (whenever that is), but for now, you can still get a lot of insight into how the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs is eyeing the current composition of the roster, and how it sees 2021 playing out for certain players.
It ain’t great!
2021 ZiPS Projections: Chicago Cubs https://t.co/xXXTIe8y5I
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) December 21, 2020
Head over to FanGraphs to see the particulars on each player, because I’m planning to just discuss the groups more generally.
A blanket caveat, I guess, is that because the NL Central figures to suuuuuuck in 2021, the Cubs don’t have to look like a behemoth to be competitive. Indeed, it kinda seems like they’re banking on that. And in the aggregate, FanGraphs sees the Cubs as more or less competitive. Is that good enough to keep the band together? Good enough to make additions? Or should the Cubs sell further from here?
An extreme version of what we say narratively, what with two very good starting pitchers at the front, and then a whole bunch of questions thereafter. Even Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills project horribly (more than 15% worse than league average), Alzolay presumably because of the limited track record of success, and Mills presumably because of the rough peripherals. You can have reasons to be more optimistic than the system on each, but it’s a reminder that these guys are not sure things. And they’re the third and fourth starters!
The system is not a fan of any of the Cubs’ upper-level minor league starters either, and for you to be optimistic on that front, you’d have to believe the Cubs did more than the average team in developing those guys over the lost minor league season.
Any way you slice it, you come to the same conclusion we’d already been at for a while: if the Cubs want to be competitive in 2021, they’re going to need to add a quality starting pitcher or two. Especially because we already know that the innings are going to have to be spread around to more guys this year. At least the starting pitching market is extremely deep this offseason in the buy-low, reclamation pool where the Cubs will be swimming.
Craig Kimbrel projects decently well, and that’s about it. But what did you expect for a positional group where the Cubs have made it an affirmative strategy not to load up on guys whose on-paper projections would necessarily look great? By way of example, Jason Adam projects as 10% worse than league average, which seems pretty reasonable when you look at his statistical body of work. But we know that he’s pretty dramatically changed his pitch mix with the Cubs, and thus have reason to suspect that the version of Adam we see in 2021 could bear very little resemblance to the guy he was before 2020, and on which most of the projections are based.
That said, you would nevertheless like to see a lot more rosy projections for your young, upper-level arms who figure to be rotating in and out of the bullpen. A lot of those guys, plus additions like Jonathan Holder and Robert Stock, project as just around average.
Whatever the forecasts here, though, I’m less worried about the bullpen over the course of a full season than I would’ve been four years ago if you’d shown me the group. The Cubs’ pitching system has just been very, very good at this recently.
ZiPS is deeply unimpressed by the improvements in Willson Contreras behind the plate in 2020, which is understandable because it was a small sample … but also, we know that framing is one of those skills that can develop rapidly, and then you tend to have it until/unless there is a physical issue. I’m comfortable projecting Contreras to be much better defensively than ZiPS says (and also, frankly, much better than merely 4% better than league average offensively).
Victor Caratini is right there where you’d expect him, below average offensively overall (but solid for a catcher), and about average defensively. There’s probably upside in the bat from here, but even at what he is right now, that’s a valuable player to have.
Bounce-backs from Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, and Kris Bryant, yes, but none project to be particularly great offensively. So deep were the down years in 2020, plus the aging curves, plus years previous that were trending down, I reckon. Here is probably the best place for the reminder that projection systems are aiming for 50th percentile outcomes, which means fans will almost always see them as “conservative.” It would be kinda crazy to project – as your expected baseline – better than 10% over league average for Kris Bryant next year, right? Even though you know he’s probably as likely to be a 140 wRC+ as he is a 90 or whatever.
Give me the over on David Bote as a 90 wRC+ type, though. He’s never been that low in his career, so … ?
Nico Hoerner projects as a pretty playable .261/.325/.366 (82 OPS+), though you’d obviously like to see him doing a lot better than that by the time he’s an everyday player.
Ah, this is where the system really had to have some fun, since the Cubs have just two outfielders on the roster. The system pegs Jason Heyward at league average offensively (fair enough, given his trajectory the last four years), and pegs Ian Happ as among the Cubs better bats (also quite fair).
From there, it has to give some starts in left field to Bryant and some to David Bote, while also giving starts in left and center to minor league signee Michael Hermosillo (whom the system projects to hit just .210/.288/.352, or significantly worse than Albert Almora, for example).
If there’s an area of the roster where the Cubs could easily see the most bang for their buck by making a solid addition, it’s in the outfield. Maybe they can find a guy who projects to hit 13% better than league average, and play average defense?
Oh, who am I kidding. That guy is Kyle Schwarber, according to ZiPS, and the Cubs already decided they couldn’t afford him …