The Initial ZiPS Projected Standings Don’t Love the 2023 Chicago Cubs
After the initial ZiPS projected standings for the American League came out earlier this week, I was talking with a friend about where I thought the Cubs would wind up. Based on the individual ZiPS projections and my sense of where the roster stands, I guessed they would be in the 76 to 78-win range, but with an INTERNAL expectation that they will outperform because of the nature of their pitching (projection systems don’t love contact-management, the success of which is necessarily hard to project).
The initial ZiPS projected standings are out today for the National League at FanGraphs, and sure enough, the Chicago Cubs project for just 78 wins:
The 78 wins – an improvement over last year obviously, but not by a ton – place the Cubs solidly third in the division, eight games ahead of the Reds, but five games behind the Brewers. The Cubs project right now to finish 13 games behind the Cardinals.
Still, this is a 50th percentile projection, which means even setting aside the whole contact-management point, there is variance baked in that could have the Cubs making the playoffs. Right now, ZiPS gives the Cubs an 8.1% chance of winning the NL Central (small, but real!), and a 9.7% chance of taking one of the three NL Wild Card spots (surprisingly large). So, right now, that’s a combined playoff shot of 17.8%. Gut says that’s low, but not egregiously so.
My stated hope/goal for the Cubs this offseason was to get themselves to a place where they looked, on paper, like an 85-win team, so they could have a coin-flip shot at overperforming and making the playoffs. We’ve known for a long time now that they were going to come up short by the time Spring Training rolled around, and even after the addition of a quality reliever, there is no way their internal projections will have them at more than, say, 82 wins. (I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out the teams that are projected around 85 wins really do wind up with a just-about 50% chance of making the playoffs – so in the current system, that does seem to be your coinflip win total.)
So, I’m bummed when I see these projections. I’m realistic, but I’m bummed. Early November Me wanted to see the Cubs add at least one more impact bat and a front-of-the-rotation arm. The Cubs instead went defense heavy, went for a volume approach (raising the floor at several spots instead of finding big-time impact guys at just a couple), and added two middle-rotation options instead of going after one of the front-half guys. I understand why things played out as they did, and I do think the Cubs had a GOOD offseason. But if you’re asking whether they had an IDEAL offseason, well, they did not. Getting to 85 wins on paper was a huge ask, given where they were. But I think it was at least conceivable, and it did not happen.
Having said all that, you probably know I’m optimistic about this stuff by nature. So I will conclude by reiterating that I do think the nature of the Cubs’ roster construction is such that a FIP-heavy pitching projection system is going to underrate their staff quite a bit, and I bet the Cubs’ internal 50th percentile projection is more like 82 wins. That’s still not going to be good enough to make the postseason, but if they get some good bounces early in the year, they could be in the race by mid-July. At that point, everything gets reconsidered, and projected win totals from Spring Training mean a whole lot less, because you might really alter your roster at the Trade Deadline (and/or with prospect promotions).
Now my aggressive hope is that the Cubs are within 4.0 games of the top of the division by mid-July. I think that would make them clear buyers, given the way the last few years have gone, and I really, really, really want to see the Cubs as buyers this year. Not sellers.