Pressing Questions: The World Champion Chicago Cubs
For 108 years — a stretch of time that covers nearly the entire history of Major League Baseball — the Chicago Cubs and their fans experienced every possible variety of failure. The team lost with rosters that were dreadfully non-competitive, and they lost with 90-win squads featuring multiple Hall of Famers. This team has lost due to managerial malfeasance, defensive incompetence, fan interference, meteorological phenomena, pitching breakdowns and front office meddling. Chicago consistently managed to lose in moments when winning was actually hard to avoid.
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If the one constant through all the years of American life has been baseball, then the one constant in baseball has been Cubs failure.
And now, suddenly, down is up.
I’m not going to try to convince you that the 2017 Chicago Cubs are the greatest collection of human talent ever assembled for a common purpose, but, well … yeah, they are. *Shrug*. I see no weakness here. This team’s batting order is loaded, the bench is stacked, the rotation is excellent, the bullpen is outstanding and the manager is a badass. Last season’s World Series title was just the beginning. The century ahead belongs to Chicago, clearly.
In fact, the biggest question facing the Cubs right now is how to distribute playing time to the dozen-or-so hitters who deserve regular at-bats…
Q: Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber are going to have to find a way to share two positions, right? And isn’t that reason to downgrade all three?
It’s not quite that simple, because Joe Maddon’s team (not surprisingly) is full of versatile defenders. Zobrist has spent time at every position defensively except pitcher and catcher over 11 big league seasons. Baez is an elite defensive player at every infield spot. Schwarber’s name is still reportedly part of the catching hierarchy, behind Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero. Contreras himself saw time in left field and at first last year. Kris Bryant has been a perfectly serviceable outfielder over the past two seasons, allowing Baez time at third. Jason Heyward is a gold glove outfielder, exceptional in right and center.
So this squad does not lack depth or positional flexibility. It seems reasonable to forecast 135 games for both Zobrist and Baez, and perhaps a few more for Schwarber. (More on him below.) The Cubs have been fairly clear about dialing back Zobrist’s starts this season. At 35, he’s the guy in line to lose plate appearances. Baez crushed LHPs last year (.311/.375/.475), so we know he’ll play against southpaws. No doubt a handful of his appearances will involve mid-game defensive changes, which is of course a headache for fantasy purposes. But the team found 421 at-bats for him last year, and he’s likely to see an uptick in 2017.
Q: You really think Schwarber is gonna play 140-plus games, huh?
I suppose I can understand some of the skepticism from fantasy touts on Schwarber, because the man has only appeared in 71 MLB regular season games and he’s coming off a significant knee injury. We don’t yet know what a full year of Schwarber looks like. I get it … I do.
But here’s the thing: Chicago, as an organization, absolutely loves Schwarber. The Cubs share none of your hesitation or your concerns. In fact, the team has allowed him to remain in the catching mix, they’ve expressed no significant worries about his defense in left — he played the position in college and the minors — and manager Joe Maddon is looking to maximize his at-bats…
Joe still likes Schwarber as the leadoff hitter, says he’s thinking of hitting pitcher 8th, with Almora or Jay ninth. #Cubs
— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) February 23, 2017
Schwarber possesses all the traits most valued by the Cubs, from his extreme power to his on-base ability and uncommon patience (4.28 P/PA). He hasn’t found much success against left-handed pitching (except in the postseason), but that really wasn’t much of an issue for Schwarber in the minors. So yes, I’d expect him to see 140 or more starts, sitting in a few degree-of-difficulty matchups against left-handers. Draft and enjoy. No one should be at all surprised by a 90-30-80-.280 season, and he’s catcher-eligible.
Q: Is there any hope for Jason Heyward? Can he bounce back? And what, exactly, would a bounce back season look like?
Yeah, that’s the big burning $184 million question for the Cubs. The team didn’t offer a nine-figure deal simply because he’s a magician in right field. At some point, he’ll be expected to hit. He slashed just .230/.306/.325 for Chicago last year with only 35 XBHs over 592 plate appearances — brutal numbers for any everyday player, but particularly for a 26-year-old corner outfielder. It was a season in which homers and run-scoring surged, too.
To Heyward’s credit, he went to work altering his swing path as soon as the parade ended. It’s not as if he fails to recognize a problems. Everyone is optimistic about pretty much everything this time of year, so we’ll need to wait for spring numbers to accrue. It’s probably too much to expect the 2012 version of Heyward to reappear — that was his only 20-homer season — but a .265/.350/.420 line with, say, 15 bombs isn’t much of a stretch. If he can return to that level in a lineup as dangerous as Chicago’s, he’ll deliver plenty of runs and RBIs.
Heyward’s fantasy ceiling isn’t exceptional, so the rock-bottom ADP is totally understandable (239.7). He’s not much more than a late flier in our game.
Q: Kyle Hendricks can’t possibly repeat his 2016 season, can he?
Well, I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect another .250 BABIP, even though the defense behind him is tremendous. Hendricks delivered an ERA that beat his FIP by more than a run (2.13 vs. 3.20) last season, so we should expect his fantasy ratios to be a bit messier. Still, there was a lot to like in Hendricks’ numbers last year, including a big jump in his swinging-strike rate (from 8.1 to 10.0). His fastball only rarely touches 90 mph, yet he’s struck out over 8.0 batters per nine innings over the past two seasons, and he’s stingy with walks and homers. He’s a shrewd pitcher who takes the mound with a plan, coaxes plenty of ugly swings, and generates loads of soft grounders. And of course the team context helps; he shouldn’t hurt for run support. You can certainly live with Hendricks’ numbers even if his ERA slips to, say, the 2.90-3.20 range. I’m buying.
Q: It may seem like a small thing, but who’s gonna catch Jon Lester, now that David Ross has retired?
Willson Contreras will be the Cubs’ primary catcher, with Lester’s starts included. Ross will continue to lurk around the team, so it’s not as if his voice will be absent. Lester is obviously one of the game’s best pitchers, but his peculiarities — notably his inability to throw anywhere other than home plate — create unusual challenges for a catcher.
Fantasy-wise, anything that gets Contreras’ name on the lineup card is a nice development. Contreras has a clear shot to produce a top-8 (top-5?) positional finish, following an impressive half-season in Chicago. He cleared the fence 12 times in 76 games for the Cubs last year, hitting .282/.357/.488 and rarely appearing overmatched. He was unstoppable at Triple-A Iowa before arriving in the majors (.353/.442/.593), you might recall. If you pass on the early-round backstops, Contreras will be available outside the top-75 picks.
Cubs Projected Lineup
LF Kyle Schwarber
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Ben Zobrist/Javier Baez
SS Addison Russell
RF Jason Heyward
C Willson Contreras
CF Albert Almora Jr./Jon Jay
Cubs Projected Rotation
SP Jon Lester
SP Jake Arrieta
SP Kyle Hendricks
SP John Lackey
SP Brett Anderson/Mike Montgomery
CL Wade Davis
RP Hector Rondon
RP Koji Uehara
RP Carl Edwards Jr.
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