The Cubs have made several solid additions over the last two winters without bringing in or developing a bona fide superstar, which leaves them dog-paddling toward competitiveness rather than taking real strokes. As such, they look like a .500 team that could make a little noise if everything breaks right and they get internal improvements to go with big years from the new guys.
The defense is going to have to make up for the leeway the offense probably won’t provide, while the pitching staff may need to be managed creatively. There will be a mix of veterans looking to either hang on for one more year or springboard into a bigger contract with rookies trying to learn the ropes. All but Kyle Hendricks have come aboard since the World Series, so continuity is nothing but a buzzword.
That’s exactly what Dan Szymborski’s latest ZiPS computer projections say as well, with Dansby Swanson‘s 4.5 fWAR expected to lead the way. Nico Hoerner is next at 2.8, then they’ve got Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki at 2.3 each. Cody Bellinger rounds out the top five with 2.1 fWAR fueled by 18 homers. There are some issues here, like Andrelton Simmons and Franmil Reyes generating 1.3 fWAR apiece and Alexander Canario putting up 1.4 despite being laid up for a while with a broken ankle and dislocated shoulder.
It’s cool to see Miles Matrobuoni at 1.5 fWAR, which could make Nick Madrigal (1.2) and Zach McKinstry (1.0) obsolete. The projections aren’t being very kind to Matt Mervis (1.4), who Szymborski explained is losing playing time to Alfonso (-0.4) and Patrick Wisdom (1.8), but that’s one of the issues with computer models.
Jed Hoyer quipped recently that the Rays don’t need star power to win, but he knows just as we do that it certainly helps to have those big-name players on the roster. The Cubs are lacking in that area right now and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be signing or promoting anyone this season who pushes them markedly away from mediocrity.
In the AL East or NL West, this might be a team fighting for fourth place. But in the NL Central, the Cubs look a team that’s somewhere around .500, and the side of that record they finish on may come down to what happens on the injury front. The Cardinals and Brewers are still better, but it’s close enough that if the right cards flip over, the Cubs could make things interesting. Right now, I think they’re still one star away from forcing the division into a three-way dance.Dan Szymborski
Brennen Davis seemed for a time like he could be that player, and maybe he still could be, but he’s missed a lot of time due to injury over the last couple seasons and this stress reaction in his back isn’t great. The Cubs need to make certain he’s truly back to 100% before he’s able to ramp back up to full activity, at which point he may still need time to make up for what he’s lost developmentally.
This Cubs roster feels a little like what everyone thought 2015 was probably going to be until everything broke right and they won 97 games en route to an NLCS berth. Every prospect came up and met or exceeded expectations; Jake Arrieta had one of the best seasons ever; a mix of old and young came together and didn’t know the Cubs were supposed to screw things up. I wasn’t alone in thinking that being no-hit by Cole Hamels and the Phillies would result in them mailing in the rest of the season.
Instead, the Cubs were the best team in baseball from that point forward and set the stage for their wire-to-wire title season. While no one is going to confuse this roster for one that has a legitimate shot at winning it all, there are similar vibes in terms of makeup and projected timeline. And hey, maybe Suzuki and Bellinger both take off. Perhaps Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski pitch like aces and Mervis mashes his way to a Rookie of the Year award.
This team isn’t great by any stretch, but another targeting signing or two could make it at least decent with an outside chance of being borderline exciting. How’s that for damning with faint praise?