The hardest part of breaking up is usually moving on. For the Cubs, the hardest part was how long the relationship dragged on. Chicago’s clubhouse had to be a really uncomfortable place last season. The writing was on the wall like a big graffiti art piece that the team was going to undergo a lot of changes. The core of the 2016 World Series team had already started to move on, but the last remaining players were going to be leaving the Windy City.
Anthony Rizzo went first. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez went the next day. It had been a long time coming, as ownership was pinching pennies and crying poor, and the team was ready to move into something of a rebuild. It became a matter of “when” not “if” and the team played under that dark cloud for a while.
Nobody remembers that the Cubs were a 38-27 team through 65 games last season; most people remember that the team finished 20 games under .500 at 71-91. Playing the last 97 games to a 55-win pace over a 162-game season would be inexcusable under any other circumstances. This, however, was the end of an era.
With a new one ushered in and only a couple of remaining veterans, the Cubs are hopeful that this season will be the start of a new push towards the playoffs.
The Cubs were a below-average offense last season, even with the contributions of Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and others. That would seem to be a bad sign going forward, but some of this season’s primary contributors had quality seasons in 2021. Ian Happ hit 25 home runs and walked almost 12% of the time over 535 plate appearances. Willson Contreras had another fine year with 21 homers and a 109 wRC + from his catcher position. Patrick Wisdom led the team with 28 homers and was one of the better overall bats with a 115 wRC + .
The problem for the Cubs is that nobody dramatically stood out offensively to increase the margin for error. Wisdom struck out almost 41% of the time to go with his 28 home runs. Happ struck out almost 30% of the time and only posted a .226 batting average and a .323 OBP as a result. Contreras was also a windmill with a 29% K%. The strikeouts really cut into the offensive value for a lot of players that did a lot of good things.
Rafael Ortega was a pleasant surprise in his 330 plate appearances with a 120 wRC + and 12 stolen bases for a team that never really ran. Frank Schwindel hit 13 homers in just 56 games and led the team with a 163 wRC + . All of these guys are back in the mix and every one of them showed some level of promise during the 2021 season. Even Nico Hoerner managed to post an above average wRC + despite zero home runs in 170 plate appearances.
There are redeeming qualities for these guys. They’re going to look really bad sometimes because of all of the strikeouts, but a lot of those guys hit for power or walk at a pretty high rate. Against high-strikeout pitchers, the Cubs may have a really tough time; against guys with average or below average whiff rates and numbers, they can have a lot of success.
There are a few guys that will put bat to ball. Hoerner is one of them, even if he doesn’t generate a lot of power, and Schwindel is another. But, the head of the class in that department is Nick Madrigal. The Cubs got him from their South Side neighbors in the Craig Kimbrel deal. They also got a really good reliever in Codi Heuer, but he had to have Tommy John surgery.
In any event, Madrigal has had 324 plate appearances at the MLB level and has struck out 24 times. That’s not a typo. He struck out 37 times in 707 plate appearances at Oregon State and 21 times in 705 plate appearances in the minors. We’re talking about the best bat-to-ball player in the entire league. Not surprisingly, Madrigal has been a .300 hitter at basically every level. He’s a throwback to say the least.
The Cubs also have MLB-caliber talent in reserve or in platoon roles. They picked up Yan Gomes to back up Contreras, Jonathan Villar to be a super-utility player and platoon outfielders Clint Frazier and Michael Hermosillo.
Lastly, the Cubs signed Seiya Suzuki, who opted to leave Japan and join MLB. The 27-year-old slashed .315/.414/.570 in Nippon Professional Baseball with Hiroshima. He walked almost as often as he struck out and hit 38 homers last season in 132 games. His OPS was more than 200 points higher than any other NPB player. He won’t put up those numbers in MLB, but he projects to be an above-average outfielder. Even if he isn’t, Chicago has some contingency plans if he needs time to figure it out.
I low-key love what the Cubs have on offense. They’re going to go through some big lulls because of the strikeouts and may end up being frustrating with runners in scoring position, but there is a ton of talent and a lot of tools here.
Chicago didn’t have the same looming turnover and impending sense of doom on the pitching side. The Cubs had already moved on from Jon Lester and weren’t tied nearly as much to that core group as they were on the offensive side. That being said, this pitching staff just stunk in 2021. Even steady Kyle Hendricks fell victim to whatever ailed the team as a whole, as he was a shell of what we’re used to seeing.
Fortunately, a lot of the dead weight is gone, as the Cubs have turned over 60% of their starting rotation and look a lot more promising for this season. Remember, additions aren’t just about who comes in, but also what it means for those that go out. Zach Davies tied for the team lead in starts with 32 over 148 innings, while posting a 5.78 ERA with a 5.45 FIP. He’s Arizona’s problem now. Jake Arrieta made 20 abominable starts with a 6.88 ERA and a 6.11 FIP. I will miss fading him, but he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season and his 20 starts now go to somebody else for the Cubs.
Think of those two as being replaced by Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley. Stroman posted a 3.02 ERA and a 3.49 FIP with the Mets last season, continuing to do what he does best. Follow along closely here, because this is a theme for the Cubs. Stroman had a 50.8% GB%, which was actually the lowest ground ball rate of his career. From 2016-18, he had three straight seasons north of 60% in the ground ball department – not a bad way to make a living, especially nowadays.
Stroman also saw a K% spike last season with the Mets, while lowering his BB% to its lowest level since 2015. Those are both really positive signs. He still allows a lot of hard contact, but when it’s on the ground, it isn’t nearly as detrimental.
Miley’s GB% last season was 49.4%. For his career, Miley is at 49.1% and he’s become a much more effective pitcher since the Brewers helped him perfect a cutter in 2018. The Astros helped him find a little more swing and miss and consistency. His 2020 season was a waste, as it was for most guys, but Miley has had an ERA under 4.00 in each of the last three full seasons and a FIP under 4.00 in two of them.
Miley is a lot like a left-handed Hendricks in the contact management department, as he stays off the barrel and induces a lot of weak contact. The Reds weren’t very good defensively, so he had a .301 BABIP against, but he fits a theme here for the Cubs.
Chicago also added Drew Smyly, a pitcher I’m not overly fond of, but he’s flashed some swing-and-miss upside and smart organizations keep liking him. First it was the Rays, then it was the Giants, then it was the Braves and now it is the Cubs. Maybe one day I’ll understand it. For now, Smyly is a guy that I feel could be replaced by Brailyn Marquez, Anderson Espinosa or maybe even a guy like Steven Brault.
Smyly is the one guy that breaks the mold with what the Cubs are trying to achieve. Hendricks has a career GB% of 46.8%, but he did fall to 43.1% last season when his command and control simply disappeared. He had never posted an ERA north of 3.95, but posted a 4.77 last season. He posted his first career FIP over 3.90, his Barrel% was a career-worst and his Hard Hit% was at 33%, which is absurdly high.
I don’t see any indicators that are major negatives for Hendricks. He was still elite in exit velocity and Hard Hit%. His changeup wasn’t as effective and hitters bashed his four-seam fastball. It feels like it was just an outlier of a season. He did post a 6.16 ERA in 76 innings after the All-Star break, so he ended on a bad note. He might be cooked, but I’m not buying it – at least not yet.
You’ll never believe this, but Alec Mills posted a GB% of 51.3% last season over 119 innings. Mills had a 5.07 ERA with a 4.49 FIP, as he gave up a few too many home runs and didn’t strike out a lot of batters, which are two of the four components of FIP. His LOB% of 66.2% was much higher than it should have been.
The Cubs are all-in on ground balls. That’s not a bad idea with Andrelton Simmons (the best defensive SS ever) at SS and Madrigal at 2B. Wisdom is also very solid at 3B. Simmons has been + 197 defensive runs saved in his career and has a 113 UZR; the next closest in DRS is Brandon Crawford with 74. By FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Defense Runs Above Average metric, Simmons is at 165.6 for his career. This is a very good defensive infield.
The Cubs’ bullpen is a little shaky for me in that there are a ton of guys on one-year deals that could be traded if Chicago is not in contention. The pen basically looks completely different from 2021. Roman Wick was limited to 22 games due to injury, but he’s back. Otherwise, the Cubs have bought low on David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, Daniel Norris, Jesse Chavez and Robert Gsellman to pitch in leverage roles. Given that Chicago was in the bottom 10 in ERA, the bar isn’t super high.
Player to Watch
SP Wade Miley: The betting markets largely hate Miley. More often than not, lines move against the 35-year-old. It doesn’t matter that he’s carved out a really solid career with a 4.15 ERA and a 4.10 FIP over nearly 1,600 innings. He doesn’t miss bats, so bettors can’t stand him, but he’s been able to really limit home runs and induce a ton of ground balls.
Teams will load up righties against Miley, which means a lot of grounders hit in the direction of Wisdom and Simmons. He’s also been elite in terms of limiting hard contact ever since that half-season in Milwaukee. I find Miley to be one of the most underrated and underappreciated pitchers in the league from a betting standpoint.
When you see a big ERA-FIP discrepancy, the markets react to that. Low ERA and high FIP means a fade guy and high ERA with a low FIP means a guy to bet on. Miley will have a hard time carrying good FIPs because of his K/BB rates, but he’s a far better pitcher than FIP will ever suggest.
(author's note: Miley is now shut down with elbow soreness and no timeline to return)
Alright, how about a bold call? Not only do I like the Cubs to go over their season win total, they’re worthy of a small look at 11/1 to win the NL Central and an even smaller wager at 100/1 to win the World Series. The Brewers probably win this division – and may very well win it running away – but I think this Cubs team could be a lot better than people expect. They shouldn’t be priced with teams like the Rangers and Guardians.
There are two doormats in this division with the Reds and Pirates, and I don’t think the Cardinals are that good of a team. That dark cloud that followed the Cubs around is gone, and the kids are no longer waiting for playing time. The veterans that may not listen to a peer like manager David Ross have moved on. Everything should have a higher level of morale and there are a lot of guys with talent here.
Of the extreme long shots, this is the only one that I think has a chance of making some legitimate noise. They should be more like 65/1 like the Tigers or 55/1 like the Twins, given that the division sets up in similar fashion. This win total is even as low as 73.5 in some places, which is way too low. I think this is a team that can finish above .500.
Win Total Pick: Over 74.5
Cubs to Win NL Central 11/1 (small play)