As the Chicago Cubs position players reported to camp in Mesa this week, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts met with the media to field questions on matters both on and off the diamond. The Cubs have remained relatively quiet throughout the winter, but their name has been in the media somewhat often, but often for the wrong reasons.
Off the field, Addison Russell has been suspended for 40 games for Domestic Violence. Father of the Cubs ownership group, Joe Ricketts, was caught up in an email leak which revealed vile and racist comments, primarily targeting people of Islamic faith. Cubs ownership often contentious working relationship with local Chicago Alderman, Tom Tunney, remains the unchanged as they continue to build on and enhance the “Wrigleyville” experience.
While their offseason signings appear lackluster, highlighted by veteran utility man Daniel Descalso and former spot-fill closer Brad Brach, two of the premier young talents are not coming to town. Bryce Harper, long rumored to have connections that would land him in Wrigley is a long-shot at best, and Manny Machado got a 10yr/300mil contract in San Diego. Whatever small segment of Cubs fan optimism remained, clinging to hopes the Cubs would still land one of these marquee players, were all but extinguished in one brief answer from Chairman Ricketts. Asked about what some fans would describe as an unwillingness to spend, Ricketts answered bluntly “Pretty easy, we don’t have any more”. Almost immediately Cubs fans recoiled at what appears to be such a dishonest statement from Cubs ownership. Wrigley Field remains at sellout capacity for nearly all home games, the Cubs are coming off 4 straight playoff seasons, and now their reported agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group to launch their very own Cubs network. From the outside, the Cubs appear to have built a proverbial “Cash Cow”.
However, inside the organization, this is a team that already sports the 4th highest payroll in the MLB. The Cubs have had 3 straight offseason signings over $125 million, in Lester, Heyward, and Darvish. The Ricketts are literally pouring cash in to Wrigley Field and surrounding areas. I have to imagine within the Front Office there is at least some foresight in to the potential extensions for current hometown favorites Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. And that potential cash flow from the new Cubs TV network, that won’t kick in until after this upcoming season. At a certain point, billionaire ownership or not, there remains a very real operating budget.
As currently constructed, this roster is largely the same group that slogged their way to a 95 win season and ended tied with hot shot Milwaukee Brewers. We know what happened from there. The struggles and adversity the Cubs endured throughout most of ‘18 can not be overstated. Their splash FA signing, Yu Darvish, only made 8 starts, struggling through much of those 40 innings, and didn’t pitch after mid-May. Kris Bryant, coming off 3 consecutive 6+ WAR seasons, missed significant time with a concussion and a lingering left shoulder injury which resulted in a sub-2 WAR campaign. Brandon Morrow, signed to replace outgoing closer Wade Davis, didn’t pitch in the 2nd half. Tyler Chatwood, signed to his own lucrative contract to shore up the back end of the rotation, was nothing short of a disaster. Anthony Rizzo started ice cold. Albert Almora and Ian Happ both finished ice cold.
Which brings us to the upcoming 2019 season. While the roster remains mostly unchanged, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Kris Bryant says he’s back to 100%, Yu Darvish appears hellbent on a comeback tour, and thanks to the recent PECOTA projections, seems to be joining the rest of the Cubs roster in entering the season with a chip on their shoulder. While most in the division have made significant improvements, some could argue the Cubs appear stuck in neutral, while others pass them by. I’m here to quell those concerns.
As things currently stand with the starting 5, the Cubs “worst” starting option is likely to be one of the following: Jon Lester/Cole Hamels a year older and a year further into the twilight of their careers, Yu Darvish seeking revenge, Kyle Hendricks hoping to continue his ascension, or the relative consistency that is Jose Quintana. Those are starting pitching concerns that I am more than comfortable with, and I imagine most teams would be fairly content with those starting options 1-5. The bullpen will enter the season a work in progress to an extent. Morrow will be sidelined for the first 4-6 weeks, with Pedro Strop likely starting the season as fill-in closer. Brad Brach is likely to slide in to a high leverage role, along with Steve Cishek and Carl Edwards Jr. The rest an assortment of flashed brilliance and inconsistencies, led by swing man Mike Montgomery, and rounded out with veterans Brandon Kintzler, Brian Duensing, and/or youthful Dillon Maples and Randy Rosario.
The lineup is where most of my optimism lies. The friction between Cubs sluggers and now former Hitting Coach Chili Davis has been well documented, and I’m hopeful there’s a relative return to simply what “works”. This is a versatile positional group that is offers Maddon a great deal of flexibility, whether against the opposing starter that day, or late inning defensive alignments. This lineup is still fairly young but understands the importance of seeing pitches, working counts, and drawing walks. They exemplify Maddon’s preaching of controlled aggression well. Anchored by the remarkable consistency of Anthony Rizzo, this lineup will welcome back a fully healthy Kris Bryant, to create a particularly dangerous 2/3/4 or 3/4/5 grouping of Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez. I’m willing to bet that any potential regression for Baez coming off his near-MVP caliber season will be matched by a solid rebound from Willson Contreras. Kyle Schwarber hit 26 long balls in 419 PAs against RHP, but hit only 1 homerun off a lefty in 91 PAs. If he can make any improvements against LHP, the Cubs have the potential for 5 hitters in the heart of their lineup to flirt with 30+ home runs. Addison Russell will start the season serving a 40 game suspension, but I firmly believe that impacts defense more than offense at this point. Their obvious weakness remains an absence of a traditional lead off hitter, and lacking speed on the base paths. However, I feel that this can be somewhat easily offset by their team OBP (4th in MLB ‘18) and team SLG (13th in MLB ‘18). Make no mistake, this is a lineup built to score runs, and I think this is the year we finally start to see this lineup fire on all cylinders. If so, they’ll help mask any potential regression from the starting 5, or hiccups in the pen.
Cubs fans endured 100+ years of disappointment, riding solely on the hopes of what the next year could bring. We’re now in the midst of championship window and still adjusting to the uneasy expectations that come with that. We should relish the opportunity to cheer for this team, and these players. A roster loaded with this much young talent and still untapped potential should not be underestimated, even if mostly unchanged. Embrace it, and enjoy the ride, Cubs fans.
Now we go!