After winning the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs were expected to remain on top of the National League for several more years. Instead, the Cubbies have slid back each season since the championship, losing in the 2017 NLCS and the 2018 NL Wildcard Game. Heading into 2019, the Cubs face their lowest expectations in five years. Baseball Prospectus’ widely circulated PECOTA projection system predicts that Chicago will finish last in the NL Central, winning only 79 games. But let’s hold off on declaring the Cubs dead. Contrary to current conversations surrounding the ball club, Chicago can still compete with the top teams in baseball.
Last year can be called nothing but a disappointment. After holding the best record in the National League, Chicago collapsed down the stretch. They lost every important game to Milwaukee and were unable to mount any kind of offense when it mattered most. But there is plenty of room for improvement — important players performed well below their usual standards and a return to normal form will help send Chicago’s offense back up the league rankings.
Hampered by an injured shoulder, third baseman Kris Bryant finished the year with only 13 home runs and 52 RBI on a .834 OPS. His career averages of 26.8 HR, 81.5 RBI and .900 OPS predict a major upswing in 2019, and at the age of 27 — fully in his prime — it doesn’t seem likely that Bryant has just lost it. Catcher Willson Contreras, who is only 26, should improve as well. His 2019 OPS of .729 stands well below his career .799 mark. Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo did not play terribly by any measure in 2018, but he suffered through some lengthy hitting slumps and finished with his worst numbers since 2013. Rizzo, at 29 years of age, should rebound.
A rejuvenated Bryant and Rizzo combination will change the dynamics of Chicago’s lineup. Suddenly, between those two and Javy Baez, the Cubs will boast three MVP candidate-level players instead of one, and it will become that much harder for opponents to pitch around the middle of Chicago’s order. A better Contreras can also fortify the bottom of the lineup. Between Ben Zobrist, Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Contreras, Jason Heyward and Ian Happ, stifling Chicago’s offense late in the season will prove much more challenging.
One shouldn’t overlook Chicago’s pitching either. We know what to expect from Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Cole Hamels looked revitalized in a Chicago uniform, posting a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts with the Cubs. And while he probably won’t pitch like an All-Star again, he showed that he can still perform as a well above-average pitcher. Plus, Jose Quintana can solidly eat innings. And then there’s Yu Darvish, who basically enters this season as a free-agent acquisition, since he barely pitched last year. 2018 was the worst season possible for Darvish — don’t forget that he struck out 209 batters in 186.1 innings as recently as 2017. Darvish can certainly pitch to a 3.50 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 2019, a performance that would make this rotation one of the deepest in baseball.
Yes, the Cubs have some issues. The bullpen could use some more depth, the offense needs to shake off its struggles and the rotation is full of older players. But other teams in the division projected to finish ahead of them have just as many question marks. Are the additions of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray really enough to bring the irrelevant Cincinnati Reds into division contention? The Reds went 67-95 last season. Add in the decline of Joey Votto, and I find it hard to believe that the Reds will win more than 75 games. The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, have faced criticism for their penny-pinching ways. They won 83 games last year with almost the exact same roster, and offense remains a major concern. Can a team with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco as its top hitting threats really overtake the Cubs?
The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals will present greater challenges. The Cards added star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to boost their lineup, which already boasted Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna. But the back of St. Louis’ pitching rotation comes with health concerns — Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright will scare Cardinals fans on every pitch. What happens if they go out again for an extended time? The bullpen, as currently constructed, will also blow a good amount of leads throughout the season. The Brewers did prove to be a juggernaut last year, but they must repeat that effort. Can the bullpen overcome a questionable starting rotation? It worked last season, but I wonder whether Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel will pitch as well in 2019, since the league has now grown accustomed to Milwaukee’s bullpen usage.
So even though many are predicting the end of this Cubs run, I wouldn’t be so quick to make that call. Chicago has as much talent as anyone in the majors. Everything seemed to go wrong in 2018, and the Cubs still won 95 games. Don’t be surprised to see the Cubs playing late in October.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.