In 2016 the Chicago Cubs won it all, signalling what many thought was the beginning of a dynasty. Behind young, uber talented players such as Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the Cubs ended the longest championship drought in MLB history and looked set to dominate for years to come under the stewardship of manager Joe Maddon. Things haven’t panned out as such and the team is in flux heading into 2020, with Maddon gone and David Ross in as the new manager.
Title core remains
The core of the team remains, with Báez, Rizzo and Bryant still star attractions at Wrigley Field. But 2019 was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of how this team is perceived. The Cubs managed a thoroughly underwhelming 84-78 record, finishing third in the NL Central and failing to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. As a result, the club finds themselves in the midst of transition.
Bryant’s future is the subject of intense rumour as the team considers trading him for a haul of prospects. The 2016 NL MVP is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the ’21 season, so any team trading for him would have significant control before he hits the market. As things stand though, Bryant remains on the Cubbies and is set to move to the lead off spot to start 2020. Since Dexter Fowler left, the Cubs have been awful from the lead off spot – in 2019 they hit a dreadful .212 for a paltry OBP of .294. In the absence of a traditional lead off hitter it makes sense to put Bryant, one of their best hitters, at the top of the lineup where he can get on base and get as many plate appearances as possible.
Is the Cubs offence good enough?
The Cubs offence still retains the aforementioned stars and is capable of driving them towards the top of the division again. However, it would not be a surprise if that’s not the case. Báez, Rizzo and Bryant were all good in ’19 but the fact of the matter is the secondary players did not perform. It must also be factored in that Bryant is clearly unhappy with the franchise after losing his grievance over service time issues – hence why trade rumours simply will not go away. The Cubs have denied that there is any ill will between themselves and Bryant, but the grievance would never have been filed if Bryant didn’t feel wronged in some way.
ZiPs projects that Bryant, Rizzo and Báez will perform well again in 2020, along with Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber. The time when Jason Heyward was once thought of as “the next Willie Mays” seems a rueful fantasy more than a distant memory and the seemingly cheap contract (two-year/$5 million) given to veteran second baseman Daniel Descalso last year is currently also on the “regret” pile.
Steven Souza has been added via free agency, on a one year pact worth potentially $1m. Souza will get a chance to prove he can still be the player he was in ’17 when he cracked 30HR and he will also add good defensive depth to a team that has been poor in the field for over a year now.
The rotation projects to be above average in 2020, led by a resurgent Yu Darvish. Unlike his team, Darvish was excellent down the stretch for the Cubs in tallying 39 Ks in his last three starts, whilst also going a month without giving up a walk. Kyle Hendricks is projected by Fangraphs to be a borderline All Star and could find himself taking the ball on opening day. Jose Quintana will take the ball third and although he’s been steady, he is yet to justify the Cubs giving up a talent such as Eloy Jimenez for him. Jon Lester finds himself as the fourth starter now but can still be relied upon to perform for his team, despite not being the pitcher he once was. The fifth starter is a problem that the Cubs have neglected to address, leaving them with the option of either Tyler Chatwood – who has done nothing but dangerously increase heart rates when he has been on the mound – and Alec Mills, who will likely be no better.
ZiPS projects that the Cubs will benefit from having a healthy and more settled version of Craig Kimbrel in 2020 after what was a brutally bad ’19 season. Along with Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Morrow and Rowan Wick, Kimbrel can lead a bullpen that projects as slightly better than average.
As much as the Cubs have regressed so rapidly since being the best team in baseball just four years ago, there is still reason to believe that this team can compete in 2020. Whilst the Cincinnati Reds have spent money, they are still unproven. The Brewers have cut payroll and the Cards are also inconsistent.
Still, all of this will add up to frustration for North Siders’ fans, as they see their teams failed dynasty and the Ricketts Family’s tightening of the purse strings as a badly missed opportunity to impose themselves on a wide open division. With Báez, Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber all set to become free agents by the end of 2021, time is fast running out for a team possessing a core that looked set to dominate for years to come.