The mathematically complex, entirely-data-driven ZiPS projections at FanGraphs shouldn’t be treated as gospel. There will always be context that we humans have and the computers don’t, and the projections are always just a median look at the most likely outcomes within a (sometimes extremely wide) range of possible outcomes.
But we humans are also biased. Computers culling a century of data and player comps and what-have-you can often see things we cannot. Or it can at least remind us of the risks lurking under the surface for some of our favorite players.
Thus, the ZiPS projections are out today for the Cubs, and I strongly encourage you all to check it out:
2022 ZiPS Projections: Chicago Cubs https://t.co/wiS6AGcIAt
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) December 14, 2021
At the highest level, my guess is most folks think these projections look a little rosier than expected. You look at that starting group and the projected WAR totals, and that’s a team that could pretty easily reach 80 wins. Don’t get me wrong, that ain’t exactly great, but our sense of the roster – at present – has been far less competitive-seeming. To me, this feels more like a 70 to 73-win team if no other changes are made, if there aren’t some huge and surprising breakouts, and if there aren’t some really lucky bounces throughout the year.
It’s pretty easy to see where the biggest holes are, though, as we’ve discussed at length. The outfield is a mix-and-match right now, which will never project well on paper. There is no obvious DH, only a spot to rest guys. The infield is passable, but not without concerns. The back of the rotation is about hoping on the younger guys.
Digging deeper, the Cubs are loaded with just-below-average bats and arms, which isn’t exactly a compliment. It’s great to have depth, and not all of your depth is going to be better than league average (that’s just logic!), but the Cubs as currently constructed would be leaning heavily on a ton of guys who do not quite project to be league average. That’s not a recipe for a .500 team, much less a winning one. They will need to not only max out the way they use the fringy guys, but also make some impactful additions from here if they actually want to compete.
More stray thoughts:
⇒ Patrick Wisdom projects as a slightly-above-average hitter and defender at third base, which, I mean, if he actually did that over a full season he’d be a pretty solid starting third baseman. A lot of teams would like to have that at third. I still worry about the trend lines on those contact issues, and would rather see him getting some days off against starters who are especially good with heat at the top of the zone.
⇒ At .239/.341/.456 and a 110 OPS+, Ian Happ projects as the Cubs’ best hitter, just ahead of Willson Contreras, Patrick Wisdom, and Frank Schwindel. The mixing and matching could improve the overall offensive performance, but let’s be very honest: even if optimized perfectly, this is a group that can not possibly project for better than average right now. The Cubs need to add a big bat or two. It’s a really soft offense on paper (and it’s not like the defense projects as anything better than average, either.)
⇒ Speaking of Schwindel, while ZiPS does project an above-average bat – which is its own kind of impressive for a guy with his story – it’s not like the data system is going to expect a repeat of those two absurd months. Instead, it’s a pretty mediocre (for a first baseman) slash line for Schwindel: .267/.305/.474, 3% better than league average. I still want Schwindel to get plenty of runway next year to see what might be there, but I suppose I shouldn’t lose sight of just how incredibly rare it would be for a guy like Schwindel to actually emerge at age 29 as a true-talent 120-130 wRC+ (or whatever) guy.
⇒ Among the complementary outfielders, Michael Hermosillo projects as the best of the bunch, nearly league-average at the plate. Rafael Ortega and Clint Frazier are a click below, and Harold Ramirez is a click below that.
⇒ Nick Madrigal has hit .317/.358/.406 so far in his big league career, but ZiPS projects just .295/.339/.386 for his age 25 season. We’ll see if his style is just hard to project – the Cubs certainly believed so when they acquired him – or if his first 324 MLB plate appearances have been rather flukey.
⇒ ZiPS doesn’t think Brennen Davis is ready for The Show, projecting a very modest .224/.307/.407 slash line if and when he gets big league experience. For a frame of reference, Nelson Maldonado projects at .262/.307/.384, and he tends not to even make the Cubs’ top 40. To be sure, Maldonado is a bat-only guy and Davis might wind up a very good center fielder. But I mention the slashes just to suggest that ZiPS clearly doesn’t yet love Davis’ big league translation (and also to say, hey, don’t forget to see what Maldonado does at Triple-A next year!).
⇒ At something like 3.5 to 4.0 WAR with an ERA+ of 121, Marcus Stroman projects not only to be the Cubs’ best starting pitcher, but also their best overall player. As you can see, Kyle Hendricks and Wade Miley also project a little better than average, but more steadily solid than great.
⇒ Caleb Kilian already projects to be the Cubs’ third best starting pitcher, behind Stroman and Miley. If those steps forward late in the year were legit, there’s very little reason not to expect that he’ll look great at Iowa to open the year, and will get 10+ starts in the big leagues in the second half.
⇒ ZiPS likes some of the Cubs’ relievers – Codi Heuer, Rowan Wick, Ethan Roberts, Tommy Nance, and Ben Leeper are projected to be better-than-average – but most of the other guys all project in that 2 to 10% worse than league average range. Not bad or anything, and very deep, but not overly impressive yet. Feels fair. Still think the Cubs add one sure-fire reliever from here.
⇒ This is just the set of projections for the team as currently constructed. Obviously, the offseason is not yet over by a long stretch … we just don’t know when it will start again.