As we are currently without baseball, and will be for the foreseeable future, I decided to simulate the next five Cubs seasons in the recently-released Out of the Park Baseball 21. Note that this simulation was run with the public beta version of the game, so there are some minor quirks, like the Angels signing José Quintana to a two-year contract and then releasing him days later. It's also important to remember that this is a simulation, not a projection. I first simulated the next five seasons (without intervention–all decisions were made by the AI for all teams). It didn't turn out great for the Cubs, so I decided to run a second five-year simulation, which turned out a little better, though still not great. Before we get to Cubs-specific things, some interesting tidbits from the simulation.
The most surprising thing which happened during the simulation was the Dodgers, who in 2023 set a major league record with 124 wins. They overperformed their expected record by seven wins, but even taking away seven wins has them breaking the previous record by one. From 2020-2024, the Dodgers averaged 113 wins both in terms of results and expected record as well. In this simulated world, the Dodgers now hold the top three team records in the NL for runs scored (1214, 1047, 1034) as well as home runs hit (345, 339, 306). At their peak, the Dodgers hit 66 more home runs than the current record holders, the 2019 Dodgers. Their pitchers also set NL team records for strikeouts in 2021, 2023, and 2024.
How, exactly, did they do this? Let's take their record-breaking 2023 as an example. Cody Bellinger had a 192 wRC+ (as high as 1962 Mickey Mantle, and the fifth-highest since 2000, min. 500 PA). Seven members of their starting lineup had a wRC+ of at least 140, and every starter besides the pitcher hit at least 20% better than league average. The wildest thing may be that that season wasn't even Bellinger's best–in 2021 he had a 12.2 WAR season. Dodgers players won four of the five NL MVP awards, and three of the five Reliever of the Year awards. Despite all this, the Dodgers only won one World Series during this period. The Angels won the 2020, 2022, and 2024 championships, and the Diamondbacks won the 2021 championship. The Dodgers finally won in 2023.
Nico Hoerner hit for the cycle on 4/23/21, the Cubs’ first since Mark Grace on 5/9/93.
Rangers reliever Brock Burke set a single-season record for pitchers by appearing in 125 games and pitching 119.1 innings. I'm not sure why they kept throwing him out there, however, as he allowed an 8.52 ERA, good for -2.1 WAR.
So, how did the Cubs perform over these five years? It started out excellently–they went 103-59 in 2020. They failed to make the World Series, though, and in 2021 they mirrored their previous record, going 59-103. They haven't had a winning season since, although the most recent was their best effort, with an 81-81 expected record (which they underperformed by five wins).
The Cubs made three major free agent signings during the simulation, all to shore up their pitching staff:
- They Aaron Nola to a 5/$109.4M contract on 1/4/23, and he's become the ace of the pitching staff, though that's not saying much for the 2024 Cubs.
- They signed Noah Syndergaard to a 5/$96M contract on 12/6/23 coming off a 4.7 WAR season, and on 5/24/24 he sustained a career-ending injury.
- They signed Zack Greinke to a 2/$52M contact on 12/13/23, a bold move considering 2024 would be his age 40 season. Greinke was below average and missed the last half of the season with a torn labrum, even though he had pitched quite well for the Angels the previous two seasons, leading the league in innings and having the lowest walk rate both years.
In the midst of a third consecutive losing season, the Cubs fired Jed Hoyer and David Ross on June 28th, 2023, replacing Hoyer with former Cardinals reliever Kelvin Jiménez (?), and Ross with Tom Thobe, a former Braves reliever. Anthony Iapoce remains the hitting coach, and Dan Krantovitz the scouting director, but the rest of the coaching staff was turned over. Note: OOTP doesn't know how to deal with front offices with titles like President of Baseball Operations, so people in positions like Theo Epstein start the game unemployed. He took a job with the Braves in 2021 as their scouting director, and they've finished in 1st place all four seasons and won 119 games in 2024.
Here are the biggest trades the Cubs made over these five years:
- Cubs receive: Mike Montgomery
- Royals receive: Wally Browning, Famin Moseley, Derek Casey
Montgomery was excelling as a starter for the 2020 Royals, but the Cubs put him back in the bullpen, where he struggled for two years before becoming a free agent.
- Cubs receive: Sam Tuivailala, Ljay Newsome
- Mariners receive: David Bote
Bote was hitting well in 2020 when they traded him to the Mariners, but he has put up -1.1 WAR in his time with them so far. Tuivailala had been excellent for the Mariners (2.0 WAR in 45.2 innings), but struggled with the Cubs in 2020 and 2021, after which the team non-tendered him. Ljay Newsome, meanwhile, was a good swingman for the Cubs in 2024 in his age-27 season.
- Cubs receive: Wilmer Flores
- Giants receive: Alec Mills, Jake Burlingame
Flores put up a 136 OPS+ for the Cubs in 2021, but was a below-average pinch-hitter in 2022. Alec Mills was a good swingman for the Cubs in 2020, but finally had an above-average season as a full-time starter in 2024 with the Giants.
- Cubs receive: Jeff McNeil
- Mets receive: Kurt Suzuki, Kohl Franklin
Suzuki caught fire in the second half with the Mets after putting up a lackluster performance with the Cubs in the first half of 2022. Kohl Franklin has developed the tools to be an ace reliever, but has yet to put it together in the big leagues. McNeil struggled with the Cubs after coming over in the trade, but had good seasons in 2023 and 2024.
- Cubs receive: Jeremy Jeffress
- Royals receive: Kyle Karros, Stephen Hansen, Owen Short
Jeffress was fine with the Royals but dreadful with the Cubs in 2022. He hasn't pitched in the majors since.
- Cubs receive: Carlos Vargas (young reliever)
- Cleveland receives: Victor Caratini, $500K
Caratini had been declining since putting up 2.5 WAR in 2020, to the point of a 54 OPS+ in 2022. He rebounded to average with Cleveland in the years that followed.
- Cubs receive: Amed Rosario
- Mets receive: Nico Hoerner
Hoerner struggled in 2020 before blossoming into a solid major leaguer in the next two seasons. However, he reached just 0.6 WAR in limited playing time in 2023 (likely due to the addition of JEff McNeil), so the Cubs traded him before the trade deadline for Amed Rosario, who had an OPS+ of 89 at the time. Luckily for the Cubs, he had a career-best season in 2024, posting nearly four WAR.
Having covered the team-level stats, we can check in on a few current Cubs. This next section might be rough for Cubs fans due to where some favorites have ended up, but I think it's interesting regardless. First, the rotation.
Tyler Chatwood didn't find much success with the Cubs in 2020. He bounced around a few teams on minor league contracts over the next several seasons before sustaining a torn flexor tendon in 2024 and retiring at the end of that season.
José Quintana was above-average in 2020, but a rotator cuff strain prevented him from pitching a full season. From 2021-2023, he appeared in major league games for eight different teams, including four teams in 2023. He retired at the end of the 2024 season.
Jon Lester acquitted himself nicely in the final major league season of his career, with a 4.38 ERA in 191 innings for the Cubs in 2020. He reached 2500 strikeouts that September, and retired after not appearing in the majors in 2021 due to injuries.
Kyle Hendricks turned into a slightly above-average pitcher from 2020-2022, though he bounced back in his final season with the Cubs with a 3.81 ERA in 179.1 innings in 2023. He then signed a 3/$34.8M contract with the Mets and was claimed off waivers soon after by the Astros, where he had the worst season of his career to date in 2024. He was also suspended twice for brawls, amusingly.
Yu Darvish won the National League Cy Young in 2020, posting a 2.56 ERA in 214.1 innings. He was above average in 2021 as well, though nowhere near as good, and then missed most of 2022 due to a ruptured UCL. He pitched some in 2023 before tearing his rotator cuff, and retired after appearing in seven games as a reliever for Cleveland in 2024.
On the positive side, Ian Happ signed a 5-year extension for $43.42M in July of 2021. While he regressed offensively in 2020, he was still nearly an average player, and from 2021-2024 averaged 3.8 WAR per season.
Jason Heyward had his best season as a Cub in 2020, with 2.6 WAR. He declined sharply after that, however. He signed a minor league contract with the Cubs in 2024 before retiring at the end of that season, last appearing in the majors in 2023.
Kyle Schwarber had an excellent 2020 and 2021 before falling off in 2022. He signed a 4/$30.8M contract with the Angels before being claimed off waivers by the Tigers.
Willson Contreras signed an extension after the 2020 season worth $50.3M over the next five years. Unfortunately, he's been at least 20% worse than league average offensively for the first three years of his extension.
Javier Báez had a great 2020 season, but hasn't been an above-average player since 2021. He signed a 3/$24.4M contract with the Rangers, then was claimed off waivers by the Athletics.
Perhaps the most depressing player of this simulation, Kris Bryant had a great 2020 (4.6 WAR), but only had a 78 OPS+ in 2021, leading the Cubs to not even offer him a qualifying offer. In a cruel twist of fate, he signed a 3/$54.4M with the Cardinals and had a bounceback year in 2022 with 3.3 WAR. Bryant steeply declined afterward, however, posting negative WAR in each of the following seasons. This must be one of the lower-percentile outcomes for Bryant in the game—unfortunately, it happened in this simulation.
Anthony Rizzo put up the second-best season of his career in 2020, with 5.7 WAR. After that season, Rizzo signed a 6/$114M extension to stay with the Cubs He had a down year in 2021, but bounced back in 2022 before suffering a ruptured MCL which cost him his 2023 season. Rizzo was a below-average hitter in 2024, though he did hit his 300th home run in September.
So, there you have it, a dispatch from the simulated baseball future. I wish the simulation had been a bit more positive for Cubs players, but I hope reading this has provided a small distraction for you in these difficult times. Stay inside, stay well, stay kind, and I'll see you next week.