For long-time Cubs fans the promise of a 95-win season and a spot in the postseason, any shot at October baseball, would have been welcomed with open arms. We'd have a magical season or two that would pop up and reinforce our false beliefs that we were an actual MLB team, but those oddities were interspersed within years, even decades, of complete futility. How does a team with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo anchoring the order never even win a division? Times have changed, and we can now play with the big boys as we have competent ownership and management. I've heard some Cubs fans say it's easier and less stressful rooting for a loser because there are no expectations to fall short of and break your heart. I'm not in that camp. Give me more!
This team has been painstakingly built to make a deep postseason run year in and year out, and the fanbase has the scars from the rebuilding years to prove it. I'm fully on board with Theo when he says that rather than celebrating a 95-win season we should be pissed about giving away a division title that should have been ours. There's plenty of blame to go around: injuries, under-performance, and questionable coaching. But there is no denying the reason the Cubs didn't run away from the division and deep into October was a massive offensive freefall in the season's second half. Theo had this to say the day after the Wild-Card loss to Colorado:
"We had those three games - Saturday, Monday and Tuesday - where if we win one of those games, we're still playing. In each of those games, we scored 1 run with a handful of hits. Unfortunately that was foretold a little bit by the nature of what happened to our offense in the second half.
"That's unacceptable. We have to learn from it and we have to get better. What's the cause of it? What are the contributing causes? We have some ideas, but that's why we're doing all these exit interviews. ... We just have to figure it out.
"I've never been part of something like this offensively and I never want to be again. We have to be an offensive force. We should be with the talent on our roster, but it's probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production. We need to do everything we can to produce offensively."
Odds are we could carry this team, as is, into next season and win the Central, and maybe more. A different hitting approach, fully healthy seasons from key contributors, and the natural progression of young, talented players would probably be enough to enter 2019 with a very competitive team. But I don't think the FO is going to settle for that. I'm thinking more and more that, with many of the young core set to hit free agency following the 2021 season and Theo's current contract expiring at the same time, we're going to put the pedal to the floor and make some moves to maximize our chances of another Championship or two before then. I'd be surprised if we don't.
When I dug into the numbers while researching the outfielders, the downward spiral of the second half became so overwhelming I had to take a beer break (as if I ever need an excuse). While the performances of the infielders wasn't quite as bleak, the unit does present its own unique headaches, both literally and figuratively. Collectively, however, the boys around the diamond represent the team's star power, and any group that includes El Mago inspires me to pop a cold one in celebration.
The IF is anchored by the heart and soul of the team, a Gold Glove first-baseman who's excellence on the field is perhaps only overshadowed by his humanitarian work off of it. The hot corner is currently manned by a player with the talent and drive to be worthy of the lofty praise "generational talent", and roaming the middle is an entity known within baseball circles as a "unicorn". That's some serious talent, capable of 100+ HR's and 300+ RBI between the trio, but that's only three bodies for four positions. Questions remain on how to fill in the fourth spot, as internal options consist of a player who may or may not be with the team come spring, guys who are needed in the OF, and role-players who aren't ready for a full-time gig by way of inexperience and/or a lack of ability. This is another area where we may add an impactful player from outside the organization.
Zobrist and Happ will take their turns in the IF, at both 2B and 3B, but should see the majority of their playing time in the OF, so I've already profiled them there. I'm not sure if catchers are technically infielders but I'll do them here rather than in a separate category or awkwardly lumping them in with the starting rotation, which is on deck as the final edition of this series.
ANTHONY RIZZO: .283/.376/.470 25HR 101RBI 74R wRC+125 fWAR 2.9
There really isn't a whole lot to break down on the big guy. He's been a model of consistency in his time with the Cubs, and you can basically count on 150+ games and a slash line of around .285/.380/.510 with 30+ HR and 100+ RBI. The aberration in 2018, both for him personally and the team as a whole, was that Rizzo had a sub-par first half and a monster second half. A balky back may have had an influence on a line of .246/.341/.407 with a wRC+ of 101 before the break, but he rebounded nicely, slashing .329/.420/.550 and a wRC+ of 157 the rest of the way. Throw in multiple Gold Gloves and leadership and character beyond reproach and I see him as a strong candidate for a "career contract". Enough said.
EDNEL JAVIER "EL MAGO" BAEZ: .290/.326/.554 34HR 111RBI 101R wRC+131 fWAR 5.3
What else can I say about El Mago? He possesses possibly the greatest collection of tools I've ever seen in a ballplayer, and he finally put it all together in his MVP runner-up 2018 season. The offensive explosion is only part of the package with The Magician, as his defense all over the dirt, daring base-running, lightning fast tags, and overall baseball intelligence and instincts often make it appear as if he's playing against inferior talent. Which is technically true.
Javy took a huge step forward at the plate in 2018, with the very simple explanation that he began punishing the baseball. He has a saying of how he hits the ball, "HAM!", that I won't decipher in this family forum, but it means hard as heck. He demolished previous career highs with 34 HR, 40 doubles, and nine triples.He worked the entire field, which is the main thing I noticed throughout the year. He used to begin his swing too early, allowing him to pull the fastest of heaters but leaving him way out in front of off-speed pitches. I saw him delay the start of his swing just a touch, driving those fast balls the other way and staying back enough to pull the slow stuff rather than flailing away. There is still work to be done in that department, but I take that as a good thing as there is still room for improvement.
I've been aboard the Javy train for years, since I first began watching him play. The tools, man, the tools are amazing. I've argued with people who said he would only be a part-time role player, saying "this is who he is." I've disagreed with their opinion of him when they realized he may be an everyday, glove-first contributor, insisting "this is who he is." Nope. But after witnessing the glory of his 2018 season I'll finally agree: "THIS is who he is."
KRIS BRYANT: .272/.374/.460 13HR 52RBI 59R wRC+125 fWAR 2.3
KB was on a path to baseball immortality, steadily collecting awards and accolades every step of the way, until injuries took a (hopefully brief) toll in 2018. He was hit in the head with a fastball in a scary incident in Colorado on April 22, and injured his shoulder sliding into a base in late May, an issue that lingered for the remainder of the season, sapping his power and forcing him into altering his swing. It appears no surgery will be necessary, with hopes that rest and rehab will suffice.
He pulled the ball more than usual (48.1%) than any other point of his career in 2018, connecting with more soft contact (18.9%) and less hard contact (31.2%) than usual, but I'm hesitant to put too much stock into those numbers due to the shoulder injury and swing alterations. He had a solid first-half, slashing .280/.384/.482 with a wRC+ of 133 before falling to .252/.347/.402 and 105 wRC+ after the break, but again I would attribute that more to the injury than any club-wide calamity or coaching shenanigans from Chili.
Bryant is beyond a baseball rat, I refer to him as a baseball robot, and I'm sure he will work tirelessly to return to health and productivity. The Cubs will look to add an impactful, consistent piece to the offense. Bryant's versatility allows us multiple options, as he can remain at 3B if we decide to add an OF bat or he can slide into a COF spot if we decide to go big by adding a bat to the left side of the diamond. Whatever the case, I expect a return to form and they continued march towards Cooperstown.
ADDISON RUSSELL: .250/.317/.340 5HR 38RBI 52R wRC+80 fWAR 1.4
Perhaps we should go back to that slick salesman who sold us Barry Larkin and demand a refund. Russell is as smooth as they come at SS and only a lack of superior arm strength keeps him from being among the game's elite. But the offensive production is dropping annually, and he has yet to post even a league-average 100 wRC+ in his four seasons in Chicago, cratering to a wRC+ of 80 and failing to OPS .700 in 2018. I could break down the reasons why, but there's really no need to, because...
The offensive woes are the least of his concerns. He is in the midst of a 40-game DV suspension which runs until May 3rd of 2019, and his future with the Cubs is as clear as a misty morning in the Great Smoky Mountains. He is undergoing mandated counseling and I believe the Cubs are sincere in wanting to help the young man to straighten his life out, but I was also disappointed in Theo's statement that he only knows Russell in a "baseball context". I'm nobody and I've witnessed things firsthand, so there's no way the FO wasn't aware of his love of the nightlife. Granted, I was as lit as he was in the wee hours of the morning, but I wasn't starting at SS for the Cubs in 10 hours.
Russell is projected to earn $4.3M in his first year of arbitration. While the Cubs care about his rehabilitation, there is also baseball value to consider. Getting something of value in return would be nice if they decide to deal him, or they could simply cut bait by not offering a contract by the Nov. 30 non-tender deadline. My guess is, one way or another, he's gone.
DAVID BOTE: .239/.319/.408 6HR 33 RBI 23R wRC+95 fWAR 1.0
Bote snuck up on all but hardcore baseball fans in 2018, making his debut April 21st for the Cubs. During his time with the big club he certainly had a flair for the dramatic, setting up Rizzo's walk-off bomb against the Diamondbacks on July 26 with a game-tying shot of his own, and hitting one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history, a two-out, two-strike PH GS to erase a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the 9th vs. Washington on August 12.
Bote has always hit the ball very hard, and adopted the launch-angle approach with his swing at the request of Cubs' development staff after several years of toiling away in A-ball. The power is legit, as is his defensive ability at multiple positions. The Cubs have an opening in the IF, but I'm not sure if Bote is ready for a full-time position just yet, but he is definitely a useful and versatile piece to keep around.
TOMMY LASTELLA: .266/.340/.331 1HR 19RBI 23R wRC+86 fWAR 0.2
Affectionately known as 3AM for his ability to roll out of bed and hit a baseball, LaStella has carved himself a niche role as a pinch hitter. His overall offensive numbers dipped across the board in 2018, but the numbers as a pinch-hitter remain strong. He set a Cubs single-season record for pinch hits in 2018 with 24, besting the previous Cubs mark of 20 set by Thad Bosley in 1985 and matched by Dave Clark in 1997.
Tommy is projected to receive around $1M in arbitration and would be a welcome addition to many teams, but the uncertainty surrounding his desire to continue his career anywhere but with the Cubs puts a huge question mark on his trade value.
WILLSON CONTRERAS: .249/.339/.390 10HR 54RBI 50R wRC+100 fWAR 2.6
Contreras had a down year offensively in 2018, but the entirety of his game was still able to produce a very respectable 2.6 fWAR. He is excellent behind the plate with a cannon for an arm that has become a weapon, not only in gunning down potential base-stealers, but also in keeping runners honest with frequent back-pick throws to the occupied base. His pitch- framing leaves a lot to be desired, but he works tirelessly to improve his craft.
Willson's offensive numbers suffered largely in the power department, as his home run total fell from 21 in 2017 to 10 in 2018. He even hit 12 home runs in 2016 in 261 fewer PA"s. His GB/LD/FB rates stayed about the same, but he began hitting the ball the opposite way more often, and saw a 6.6% decrease in his hard-hit rate and a 5.5% increase in soft contact over 2017. Part of this could be attributed to the teachings of Chili, but I think the heavy workload was more of a factor. He appeared in 133 games behind the plate in 2018, starting 123, and his 1109.2 innings behind the dish let all backstops by a wide margin.
Contreras is establishing himself as one of baseball's elite catchers. I firmly believe we need to sign a quality, veteran backup to ease the load and mentor him in the finer points of the game. On that front, it has been announced that David Ross will take a more hands-on role on the field for the Cubs in 2019, and I'm looking forward to his renewed interactions with our young catcher.
VICTOR CARATINI: .232/.293/.304 2HR 21RBI 21R wRC+65 fWAR 0.0
Caratini began 2018, somewhat surprisingly, with the big club as the backup to Contreras. He was optioned back to Iowa in late May, as a clause in Chris Gimenez's contract forced Victor back to Triple-A before being recalled for good on the 4th of July. The switch-hitter has had a rough time offensively and his two partial seasons and 266 PA's in the bigs, but that's not unusual for a young backstop with sporadic playing time.
He's hit well in his time in the minors, showing good plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills, albeit without a lot of thump. He possesses solid receiving skills and is well-liked by the pitchers he works with, and can also play 1B and even 3B in a pinch. I think he projects as an average starter at the MLB level, and with my firm belief that we need a veteran mentor to backup Willson, Caratini's highest value to this team may be in trade. If he remains, I expect him to begin 2019 in Iowa, but that's also what I thought in the spring of this year.
POTENTIAL FA TARGETS:
The Cubs have many options if they decide to bring an upgrade into the IF, as only Rizzo at 1B is locked into his position. We could potentially add a bat at 2B, SS, or even 3B, sliding KB to the OF, though I think Machado is the only one who would add enough impact to make that move a reality. There are also numerous options available on the FA market, at a variety of production levels and price tags. So many, in fact, that I cannot do a detailed evaluation of everyone available without writing a novel. I'll highlight several of the names we may be interested in, and a few notes, so feel free to offer your opinion in the comments. Contract projections are from fangraphs.
- SS/3B MANNY MACHADO (8y/$256M, age 26): Machado is the other big fish in this year's class, although I don't see the Cubs making a strong push. Over the last year, I thought he was a better fit than Harper, but now I don't think so, though I could be wrong. I know his stated desire is to play SS, but if he were to sign on the North Side, there is no way he moves Javy. He would bump KB to a CO spot.
- IF/LF MARWIN GONZALEZ (3y/$30M, age 30): The former Cub can play all four IF positions and LF. The switch-hitter had a breakout 2017, but fell back to Earth in 2018, finishing with a basically league-average 104 wRC+. If we don't go big in free-agency, this is the type of player I can see us targeting to cover 2B and back up Javy at SS.
- 2B D.J. LEMAHIEU (3y/$36M, age 30): The former Cub is a very good defender at 2B, and his offensive numbers look good, at least in the mile-high air of Colorado.
- 2B BRIAN DOZIER (3y/$36M, age 32): Dozier had a good run with the Twins from 2014-2017 but fell off in 2018. He projects to bounce back but is a risk.
- 2B JED LOWRIE (2y/$24M, age 35): Lowrie is a popular pick to be a potential sleeper signing. The switch-hitter would look good at 2B for the Cubs, but chances are he returns to Oakland.
There are so many other options available, including Daniel Murphy, Josh Harrison, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler at 2B and Jose Iglesias at SS. Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos are available at C, though both will be costly and expecting to start. I think the Cubs may look at Robinson Chirinos, A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy, or former Cub Rene Rivera to back up Contreras.
This group, as a whole, has the potential for greatness. Four of the five spots around the diamond are currently manned by potential MVP candidates. We have the internal options to cover 2B in Zobrist, Happ, and Bote. No moves are absolutely necessary, except possibly for a backup SS, but I will reiterate my belief that the Cubs have a bold move or two up their sleeve.
A look at the starting rotation is the next and last chapter in this series. I believe the personnel is pretty well set, so my look will be mostly a deep dive into what we have and what to expect out if them. I might be going AWOL for a few days, possibly until after Thanksgiving, but I'll get it up as soon as I can. Hold down the fort while I'm gone. If you don't hear from me before then, Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Denizens.