The Chicago Cubs have $40 million and change on the books in guaranteed money for the 2022 season. Following the 2021 season, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Craig Kimbrel, Javier Baez, and Zach Davies all become free agents. Those five players will combine to make just under $72.3 million in 2021.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was among those during the pandemic to talk about just how tight times were around the league. Nobody really bought what Ricketts was selling because the Cubs are one of the five most valuable franchises in baseball, but a team that had a $203 million payroll in 2019 appears committed to reducing costs in the future.
The core that came up in the early-to-mid 2010s and led the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908 appears to have one more kick at the can. Huge, sweeping changes seem to be coming after this season. On one hand, you could look at a team like that and expect them to band together and give everything towards one last shot. On the other hand, this is a team that has underachieved each of the last three seasons.
Maybe it’s unfair to call the 2018 Cubs an underachiever, given that they won 95 games, lost the tiebreaker to the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 163, and had to play the NL Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. They lost that game 3-2, which is sort of indicative of how things stand with the Cubs now. This wasn’t a team constructed simply to make the playoffs. It was built to do damage upon getting there.
There is an alternate take that I could propose as well. The Cubs went 84-78 in 2019, but fell on hard times at the worst time. They went 2-10 over the final 12 games. At 82-68, they were really in the driver’s seat for the postseason. If we assume a .546 win percentage to hold over the last 12 games, that would’ve put the Cubs between 88-90 wins. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss record? 90-72. Their BaseRuns record? 89-72. Their 3rd Order Win%? 88-74. Instead, they went cold at the worst time.
The Cubs emerged victorious in the Central Division during the 60-game sprint, overcoming a stunningly bad offensive season from players with track records. Kris Bryant had a 77 wRC+ in 147 PA. Anthony Rizzo had a wRC+ of 103, which meant he was 3% above league average. Over the previous six seasons, he was never less than 26% above league average by wRC+. Kyle Schwarber more or less disappeared. Javier Baez was awful with a 57 wRC+.
Yet the Cubs found themselves in the playoffs anyway. There’s something to be said about the way we can compare and contrast perceptions and narratives about a team. I started with the negative, but when you really look at how everything transpired, the positive should be the focus. This happens with teams that have an aura around them. An aura of expectations can delude the truth. The truth is that this is and has been a very solid team since 2015.
As optimistic and rosy as we can be about the past, the present is what matters for this year’s MLB Betting Guide. And this year’s Cubs team has a lot of question marks.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|St Louis Cardinals||+100|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+10 (4.28/4.12)||+78 (5.03/4.55)|
|3rd Order Win%||31.3-28.7||88.0-74.0|
|Record in One-Run Games||10-9||19-27|
Additions: Brandon Workman, Jake Arrieta, Jake Marisnick, Trevor Williams, Joc Pederson, Kohl Stewart, Andrew Romine, Nick Martini, Adam Morgan, Matt Duffy, James Bourque, Jonathan Holder, Joe Biagini, Michael Hermosillo, Taylor Gushue, Rafael Ortega, Jake Jewell, DJ Snelton, Abiatal Avelino, Owen Caissie, Ismael Mena, Zach Davies, Yeison Santana, Reginald Preciado, Sergio Alcantara, Phillip Ervin, Gray Fenter, Robert Stock
Losses: Colin Rea, Jose Martinez, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Ryan Tepera, Jason Kipnis, Josh Phegley, Cameron Maybin, Billy Hamilton, Pedro Strop, Jeremy Jeffress, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood, Daniel Descalso, Jon Lester, Victor Caratini, Yu Darvish, Max Schrock
Let’s all point and laugh at the Cubs. This is the offseason of a small-market team going nowhere. It’s kind of embarrassing, to be totally honest. The Cubs aren’t cash-poor like they claim to be, but here they are signing 200 players to minor league deals in hopes of hitting lightning in a bottle.
Brandon Workman, Jake Arrieta, Jake Marisnick, Trevor Williams, Joc Pederson, Kohl Stewart, Austin Romine, and Jonathan Holder got actual MLB contracts. The rest got minor league deals and some got non-roster invites. Arrieta, Williams, and Zach Davies replace Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, and Jon Lester. Even with my dislike of Lester, that is a pretty big net negative as far as I’m concerned.
The irony is that it looks like a bullpen overhaul given the number of free agents that got minor league deals, but it’s entirely possible that none of them make the roster.
I’m just not impressed with this offseason at all or the overall messaging from the Cubs as a lot of key players approach free agency. Open the wallet and push for one more run.
|Batting Average (BA)||.220 (27th)||.252 (13th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.318 (18th)||.331 (8th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.387 (24th)||.452 (9th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.309 (19th)||.330 (8th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||92 (20th)||102 (11th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.270 (27th)||.297 (15th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||25.7% (27th)||23.6% (20th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.3% (7th)||9.4% (6th)|
The Cubs certainly have a lot of big names and some players that are expected to produce, but that is not what happened last season. Imagine an offense with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber and the two best offensive players are Ian Happ and Jason Heyward. Six non-pitchers for the Cubs had a wRC+ over 100 in whatever sample size they had. Billy Hamilton, Happ, Heyward, Willson Contreras, Rizzo, and Jason Kipnis.
Hamilton had 11 PA. Kipnis struck out over 30% of the time. It was just an astonishingly bad offensive performance, particularly from guys with pretty impressive track records like Schwarber, Bryant, and Baez. To be fair, Bryant only played 34 games and never really found a groove for the season, but it has been an extremely uncomfortable situation for him over the last 18 months.
He had a really good 2019 season with a .379 wOBA and a 135 wRC+. Bryant filed a grievance afterwards because the Cubs very clearly manipulated his service time prior to his debut in 2015. The Cubs waited two weeks for the Super Two deadline to pass, which forced Bryant into a fourth arbitration year. He lost his grievance, so the Cubs were able to get an extra year, which just so happens to be this one. Bryant is an impending free agent, but the Cubs wound up with seven years of control.
Bryant was open to a long-term extension, but no deal was reached. Then he got to deal with his name being brought up in trade rumors. Maybe Bryant comes in hyper-motivated to cash in and nobody will feel bad for him making $19.5 million this season, but he could’ve gotten a higher AAV on the market. Now he needs to bounce back from the wasted 2020 season.
Javier Baez is in the same boat as Bryant. With the Cubs crying poor, it would seem as though the shortstop will be gone after the season. I understand Chicago’s reluctance, as Baez has a high-variance offensive profile because he is such a free swinger, but he is also an excellent defender and provides a lot of surplus value in that way. Baez went from a 131 wRC+ in 2018 to a 114 wRC+ in 2019 to a 57 wRC+ in last year’s small sample. He just never got into a groove either, though he didn’t miss games like Bryant did.
I couldn’t find anything more recent, but Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) member Heather M. O’Neill wrote in 2014 that the adjusted OPS of a free agent hitter was expected to be 6.7% greater than in a non-contract year. Adjusted OPS is OPS+, which is akin to wRC+. I just prefer to use wRC+, but the two concepts are fairly similar and the “+” is relative to league average performance.
So, the Cubs, at least in theory, could get big upgrades from Baez and Bryant as they look for big paydays.
The same is true of Anthony Rizzo, who is also an impending free agent. Rizzo suffered from a distinct lack of contact quality last season. His average exit velocity fell to a career-worst 87.7 mph. His Hard Hit% dropped to 34.7%. His IFFB% (pop up rate) jumped to 17.7%. Pop ups are essentially guaranteed outs, even with the swirling winds of Wrigley Field. With all of those factors, Rizzo posted a .218 BABIP. That negatively impacted both his batting average and his OBP. His OBP was the worst he has had since 2013 and his batting average hit rock bottom.
Rizzo still hit 11 home runs to obscure some of his other problems, but a 103 wRC+ was easily his worst season since 2013. Projection systems are bullish on a bounce back and the contract year theory would apply to him, too. I can’t really quantify this, but the bad juju within the organization seems to be more than coincidental with so many of these guys struggling at once. I hate grasping at things like that, but there are a lot of off-the-field things happening here and I can’t imagine things get better with Theo Epstein now working in the Commissioner’s Office as the guy who likely takes over for Rob Manfred sooner rather than later.
Jason Heyward had been a league average bat the last two seasons on the heels of two really bad seasons during his first two in a Cubs uniform. Heyward was worth 1.8 fWAR in just 50 games. He had been worth 2.1 and 2.0 fWAR the previous two seasons, so he was on pace for his best year since 2015. I wouldn’t expect that to stick, though. Heyward ran a BABIP north of .300 for the first time since 2015 and also had a bit of an out-of-body experience in the power department with a 20.0% HR/FB%. His previous career high was 16.9%. You don’t really see power spikes that are sustainable for guys in their 30s unless they make some sort of concerted effort to hit more fly balls. That wasn’t the case here.
I do think Ian Happ’s gains were legit. He’s put together a strong .248/.344/.481 slash for a .348 wOBA and a 116 wRC+ in 1,262 plate appearances. His exit velocity spiked and his Hard Hit% spiked to 47.8%, which the percentage of batted balls of 95+ mph. Happ chased less often and was more selective overall.
There is a lot of risk in this profile. Happ doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls. He strikes out a lot. He struck out or walked in over 40% of his plate appearances. To see a .317 BABIP on a guy like that is a bit of a surprise. That could lead to subtractions with his batting average and also his OBP. If the HR/FB% doesn’t stay high, then Happ will regress back towards being more like a 110-115 wRC+ guy. While that isn’t bad, we already have a lineup predicated on hopes and dreams looking for bounce backs from several guys.
Willson Contreras should be a plus hitter again and his defense has really come around, so he should be an area of surplus value for the Cubs, as most catchers around the league do one or the other. Not that I’m expecting him to be as good defensively for the upcoming season, but his bat will continue to carry value with the positional adjustment.
Maybe David Bote goes back to being a league average hitter. Maybe Nico Hoerner figures it out and hits like he did in the minors. Maybe this, maybe that.
We’re talking about some pretty big names for the Cubs and guys that have track records. We’re talking about multiple key players in a contract year. We’re talking about an offense that could be really good.
We’re also talking about an offense that had a 101 wRC+ in 2017, a 100 wRC+ in 2018, a 102 wRC+ in 2019. If you want to give the Cubs a pass for 2020 with COVID and everything that was going on, be my guest, but the fact is that this offense has effectively been league average over the last four years.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.99 (10th)||4.10 (7th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.18 (9th)||4.25 (10th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.04 (8th)||4.29 (9th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.3% (9th)||23.3% (13th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.5% (9th)||8.6% (15th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||75.0% (7th)||74.2% (8th)|
Where does a league average offense leave this team with a pitching staff that looks like this? Kyle Hendricks is a really good starting point, but can we believe in anybody beyond him?
Hendricks was quite good with a 2.88 ERA, a 3.55 FIP, and his usual elite command and control. The HR/FB% spiked a bit, but I’ll blame that on sample size more than anything given that he continued to post impressive exit velocity and contact metrics. He did experience a mild K% drop, but got bailed out by an 82.4% LOB%. I’d put Hendricks back in that 3.40-3.50 ERA range for this season. That’s still very good, of course, but when you consider everybody else around him, any sort of drop-off is a bad thing.
The Cubs have gotten Kyle Hendricks lite in Zach Davies. Davies saw a big K% spike with the Padres last season that elevated his profile to new heights with a 2.73 ERA and a 3.88 FIP. The Padres furthered a development that took place with the Brewers in 2019. With Milwaukee, Davies began using his changeup a lot more. He wound up with a 3.55 ERA, but a 4.56 FIP thanks to a low strikeout rate. With the Padres, though, Davies got that strikeout rate up and saw his swinging strike rate creep towards league average. Davies threw his CH over 41% of the time with a 10% increase from the previous season. He had 41 K on the changeup compared to 43 the previous season, which is a huge deal when you consider how much shorter the 2020 season was.
Obviously we have to wonder about how much of that sticks. Davies does go to a weak offensive division, but it was the first season in which he really showcased some swing-and-miss upside. Will the Cubs keep that same sort of usage pattern? Hendricks only throws his around 29% of the time, but he has a much more viable third pitch with the curveball.
Either way, let’s say for the sake of argument that Davies is good. He and Hendricks are a pretty interesting set of guys at the top of the rotation, though I would separate the two because I’d be concerned that they are so similar that playing the follow the leader actually helps the opposing offense.
The rest of the rotation features Alec Mills, Trevor Williams, and Jake Arrieta. Personally, I’d rather go with the upside of Adbert Alzolay, but I don’t anticipate that the Cubs go that route. After all, they stretched the budget as much as possible by somehow affording Arrieta’s $6 million. I’d have put that to much better use.
Arrieta is a stiff at this point. I guess the Cubs are hoping to rekindle some magic from his 2015 Cy Young season or whatever, but Arrieta has seen command and control drops each of the last three seasons that have coincided with velocity decreases. The last two seasons, Arrieta has given up a lot more hard contact than he previously had. His swinging strike rates have been decidedly below average for eight of his 11 seasons. For the life of me, I have no idea what the Cubs saw and how they think $6 million to him is better than Alzolay or somebody else. Stunning.
Alec Mills deserved a better fate last season in some respects, but he’s also a guy that doesn’t miss many bats and gets punished in the zone. Mills went more sinker-heavy last season and that backfired because he failed to command the pitch as well as he did the year before. You had better have plus to elite fastball command to throw fastballs as often as he does. He does not have that.
I fell for Trevor Williams’s improvements in 2018. Since then, he’s been a pretty terrible pitcher. He’s given up 42 HR in his last 201 innings of work and some of those outings have been at PNC Park, which is pretty good for pitchers more often than not. I don’t really see what the upside is in this play for the Cubs either.
Give me Alzolay. Give me Brailyn Marquez. Give me anybody with upside because three of the guys in this rotation have none and I’m not ready to commit to Davies just yet.
Then there is the issue of the bullpen. Getting rid of Jeremy Jeffress, who had a 1.54 ERA with a 4.09 FIP, is fine with me, but there aren’t a lot of guys to believe in here. Rowan Wick had a 3.12 ERA with a 2.67 FIP, so he was fine. We could even be nice and call Craig Kimbrel a positive regression candidate with a 5.28 ERA but a 3.97 FIP. That would be if he stopped walking guys. The Cubs had the fourth-highest walk rate as a bullpen and most of those guys are back. They didn’t have enough of them, so they added Brandon Workman, who had a 15.7% BB% in 2019 and a 12.9% walk rate last season.
The Cubs pen was 15th in FIP last season and I think that was very lucky and very generous. They struck out a lot of guys to offset the high walk rate. I guess that’s the look that they’re going for again. Call me skeptical.
Without Yu Darvish, this pitching staff is much, much worse. Darvish could very well have won the Cy Young and was a huge factor in how good the numbers were as a whole. Jose Quintana was really a non-factor and Jon Lester is pretty much on par with Arrieta was far as I’m concerned. The loss of Darvish is just so overwhelming that I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Cubs pitching staff drop to the bottom half of the league, which would be a rather sizable drop based on the top-10 numbers from last season.
Positives & Negatives
This division is really bad, so that is a positive. None of these offenses were any good last season. On the other hand, while the Cubs play 76 of 162 within the division, that also means that they play 86 outside of the division. That means a pretty good NL East and a top-heavy NL West. If we put the Cubs in the NL West in place of, say the Diamondbacks or Giants, I wouldn’t be shocked if their season win total odds were similar to those two teams.
Because they’re in the lowly NL Central, they’re getting a break. I think part of it, too, is that they have those big offensive names that people recognize. One really big saving grace for the Cubs and this pitching staff is that they are a very good defensive team. They won’t hit, but they should field, which takes pressure off of the pitchers and off of the offense. I’m not sure it’ll remove enough pressure, but the Cubs were third in the all-encompassing Def metric at FanGraphs.
Chicago Cubs Pick & Prediction: Under 78.5
This is not a strong pick at all, but I can’t even imagine the last time the Cubs would have had a win total line this low. I guess maybe 2014? That is the last time that the Cubs had a losing record.
Look, this is not going to be a great team. I don’t even think this team has that good of a shot to win the worst division in baseball. I also don’t think this team completely craters. I could make enough of a case to actually bet the over, but there are some really good impending free agents here for a team crying poor that is hitting a rebuilding window.
The Cubs do not have a good minor league system. Everybody came up all at once a la the Kansas City Royals, won a title, and that was pretty much that. The Cubs have been good enough to win the division or make the playoffs, but they’ve won one playoff series in four years since ending the curse.
If the Cubs were keeping everybody through the year and I knew it, I could talk myself into over 78.5. Because the very real possibility is there that the five impending free agents could all be dangled in hopes of getting something for them before they enter the open market, I cannot make a bet on this.
I also can’t bet the under. This starting staff looks bad and the bullpen doesn’t look much better. Unless all of the contract guys are going to figure it all out and return this offense to prominence, I’m not sure that this team can outhit what will be a bad pitching staff.
This is maybe the weakest pick of the entire publication. It’s a pick for the Guide and that’s it, but I truthfully don’t know where this team ends up when it’s all said and done.