Note: This piece was originally published as part of Banished to the Pen's season preview series. The blog is a site for fans of the Effectively Wild podcast. You can check the rest of the series out here. I'll be back with a more normal article next week. Enjoy!
This wasn’t the trajectory this Cubs team was supposed to follow. The team came out of the rebuild ahead of schedule in 2015, and, of course, won it all in 2016. The Cubs were on the precipice of becoming a dynasty. Then, due to a slow start in 2017, the team had to make up ground in the second half, and were steamrolled by the Dodgers after narrowly defeating the Nationals in a memorable Game Five. In 2018, the Cubs won 95 games, but that only earned them a one-game playoff for the division title and a ticket to the Wild Card game, which they lost in extra innings.
The offseason after that early exit began with Theo Epstein proclaiming the offense broke, and was marred by moral and public relations blunders. Despite the general sense of restlessness surrounding the team, the Cubs signed only one position player to a major-league contract (Daniel Descalso, who was the least valuable position player on the team in 2019 by fWAR). While the team managed to battle back from an uncharacteristically rough start, a surprise Craig Kimbrel signing move wasn’t enough to put the Cubs over the edge. They finished third in the division and missed the playoffs after a September collapse precipitated by injuries to several star players.
If you look only at results (making the NLCS twice, winning a World Series, and reaching the playoffs four seasons in a row) there’s little to complain about. Looking at the seasons in order, though, the Cubs have gotten worse results each year since they won the World Series. So, after last season, the team hired a new manager, replaced much of their coaching staff, and restructured their front office.
The winds of change didn’t make it to the major league roster, though. After yet another consecutive end-of-season press conference expressing disappointment and a desire to improve the team, the Cubs signed only two players to guaranteed major-league contracts: $1M to Steven Souza Jr. and $850K to Jeremy Jeffress. The main storylines of the offseason were the launch of the team’s new cable television network (which many fans remain unable to access) and whether they would trade their best player to save money and shake up the roster.
Come spring, the core of the team remains intact, for better and for worse. The team has staked their season on rookie manager David Ross’ ability to get more out of the players and their new and improved player development system. It’s a risky strategy.
The 2020 Cubs could still be a great team, but the reason fans are upset, and what may ultimately sink their season, is the large amount of risk and variance in this roster. Sure, Ian Happ could emerge as an above-average center fielder, the Kyle Schwarber breakout could have finally arrived at the end of last season, Jason Heyward could hit well enough outside of the leadoff spot to make up for his slowly declining defense, and Nico Hoerner could be the high-contact bat the Cubs have been looking for and provide plus defense at second. Willson Contreras’ framing could improve, Yu Darvish could repeat his second half to become a legitimate Cy Young contender, Tyler Chatwood could finally harness his stuff as a starter, the Pitch Lab could transform anonymous relievers into dominant set-up men, and Craig Kimbrel could regain his velocity and control after a normal spring training. All of these things are possible, but the likelihood of several of them happening at the same time is slim.
What if David Ross has more of a tactical learning curve than we expect? What if a member of the rotation regresses or gets injured? What if Javier Báez suffers another injury, forcing Nico Hoerner to rush his development?
As we’ve seen the last few seasons, what makes the best teams great isn’t just that they have great players, it’s that they have great options to back them up. When people thought the Cubs would be a dynasty, this was what set them apart, like the Dodgers of the past several years. The frustrating part for fans is that, yes, the upside to this group of players is clear, but the downside is too, and the spending hasn’t been there to shore up the depth. The Cubs didn’t need to sign Anthony Rendon, but they could have used someone like Eric Sogard or César Hernández.
Could this team win the World Series? Yes. Could they be sellers at the trade deadline? I think it’s more likely. Big market teams like the Cubs shouldn’t have to roll the dice, but due to a confluence of circumstances, they’re going to in 2020. Here’s hoping it works.
How do the Cubs define success in 2020?
Many would be satisfied with winning the division and playing a full round in the playoffs. Some may accept nothing less than another World Series appearance, but while any team can beat any other in a playoff series, it was difficult enough to imagine the Cubs beating the Dodgers before they traded for Mookie Betts. Especially in Ross’ first season as manager, and after two years of earlier exits, playing in the NLDS would be a success and a step in the right direction.
However, there’s another, more divisive way to define success for the Cubs: falling out of the division race before the trade deadline. This would allow the front office to shop Bryant, Schwarber, Quintana, Chatwood, Kimbrel, and any of the utility players they brought in on short-term deals. Trading these players would also get them under the lowest luxury tax threshold, something they tried to do all winter. Whether this constitutes success is debatable, but ownership would prefer it to another September collapse.
Who is one Cub who will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
This has to be Yu Darvish. There are many reasons to love Darvish, from his dizzying array of pitches (including a knuckle-curve that he picked up from Craig Kimbrel) to his Twitter account, but it’s easy to forget the rough start to his time in Chicago. His 2018 was marred by injury and he didn’t pitch particularly well when he was on the field. Despite increased confidence going into 2019, Darvish started the season with an unsustainably high walk rate. Then, in the second half, he struck out 118 batters and walked only seven. As Darvish’s results improved, his personality came out more in interviews and on social media, completing his transformation into a fan-favorite entering 2020. The one knock on his second-half performance was a high home-run rate, but the Cubs will take his 2.37 FIP any day. Darvish is one of the most fun pitchers to watch in the game, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season.
If the Cubs were ice cream, what flavor would they be?
Rocky Road–it’s a potentially ominous portent of the season ahead.
What is one food item at Wrigley Field that you MUST try?
I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but if you haven’t had it elsewhere, it’s worth trying the Impossible Burger at Wrigley.
Win total prediction