The Cubs won 97 games last year with a core of players 25 years old or younger. That team then went out and added some substantial pieces in free agency this winter. As a result Fangraphs has the Cubs projected for an astonishing 95 wins. And yet, I am worried.
I worry about a lot of things. Several colleagues refer to me, lovingly I think, as Eeyore. I would like to claim that my most important roles in life — parent and teacher — have trained me to see the worst possible outcome in all scenarios, but really I have had this issue since childhood. You will have to forgive me then if the waves of positivity flowing forth from the 2016 Cubs makes me a touch suspicious.
I have openly been stating my belief that this Cubs team will be a more talented one than the 2015 version, but that will have worse results on the field. That is not an exactly bold prediction since a lot of things have to go right for any team to win 97 or more games and make it to the National League Championship Series. My fears are irrational, but I don’t think I can be blamed for thinking the way I do. I was 22 the first time the Cubs finished with winning records in back-to-back seasons, and the campaigns preceded by high expectations ended in heartbreak more often than the sustained success promised by this regime.
Then again, maybe my fears have some merit. To that end, I present for your consumption the things that worry me the most about the 2016 Cubs, in no particular order.
Development Isn’t Linear
This was preached by many, including the front office, just last year. The reasoning behind it at the time was to explain a possible leap in results, which actually happened. Unfortunately, the opposite of this maxim is also true. Despite what some assume, there is no guarantee that the Cubs young core is just going to continue to improve year over year. We have already seen this with the struggles Anthony Rizzo had in 2013 or in most of Jorge Soler’s 2015 season. Kyle Schwarber was slumping heading into the playoffs, just to belabor the example. There is reason to think that the Cubs offense might struggle despite the immense talent throughout the lineup.
The Ball Might Not Bounce as Favorably
Any team that wins 95 or more games is both very talented and at least a little lucky. The 2015 Cubs were no exception. There have been a number of pieces, like this one, written about how lucky the Cubs were in 2015. They did exceptionally well in two areas that do not tend to correlate year to year: the Cubs had the best winning percentage in the NL in extra inning games last year going an astonishing 13-5; they were also second best in one-run games with a 34-21 record. Now this is not entirely luck, but the fact that the Atlanta Braves were the team right behind the Cubs in one-run games suggests that it might not entirely be skill-based either. A reversal in fortunes could significantly swing the results of the 2016 season.
A Kris Bryant Sophomore Slump
This could have been filed under the first heading, but Kris Bryant is so important that he warrants his own point. Bryant was either the most valuable or second-most valuable position player on the Cubs, depending on which version of WAR you prefer. Either way, he and Anthony Rizzo were the engine of the Cubs offense last year and a sophomore slump by Bryant could be devastating to the ’16 Cubs. While he had a fantastic rookie season, there is some reason for concern.
Bryant struck out an over 30% rate last season and there is little reason to believe that number will ever come down significantly. He managed to hit .275 last year with that strikeout rate due to a very high BABIP of .378. Now, I should note here that BABIP is not an entirely luck-driven statistic, and Bryant carried a high BABIP in the minors as well. He hits the ball hard and his always-hustle approach means that he will usually carry a higher than average BABIP, but a little less luck in that result could drive down his offensive production. Bryant is also likely to be asked to move around the diamond a lot again. The pressure on his bat and his glove will be tremendous and a step back would really hurt the Cubs.
Roster Vulnerable to Left-Handed Pitching
The 2015 Cubs struggled against left-handed pitching. This isn’t a secret, but the Cubs’ collective OPS dropped 37 points when facing southpaws. This despite the fact that more balls in play found their way into base hits against lefties. The Cubs have replaced one of their best hitters against lefties, Dexter Fowler, with Jason Heyward, a historically weak hitter against lefties. Fowler managed an .865 OPS in 2015 as compared to Heyward’s .709. That number for Heyward represented a marked improvement over his career .660 OPS, by the way. The Cubs bench also offers little help, with the only batters from the right side being Javier Baez and David Ross.
Rotation Might Falter
The Cubs’ vaunted young lineup drew most of the attention in 2015 and it is going to be a key part of any success in 2016. But the starting staff was what drove a lot of the good things as well. The Cubs ranked 3rd overall in baseball in starter ERA and their starters racked up the most fWAR. Jake Arrieta is inevitably going to take a step back this year. He was historically good for an extreme lengthy period of time in 2015 and you are going to be disappointed if you are expecting him to duplicate that. However, barring injury, Jake Arrieta is a very good bet to still be an excellent pitcher.
Jon Lester fits into the same category of pitchers I am not worried about in 2016. The rest of the staff, though, has some red flags. John Lackey has outpitched his peripherals for years now, and he is also 37. Pitching is such a unique baseball act that to successfully fool big league hitters consistently requires lots of things working in unison. A small decline in one area can often have a cascading effect in production. It is not hard to imagine John Lackey experiencing a collapse in production even if there is also reason to believe he is a good bet to perform well next year.
Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks were Jekyll and Hyde throughout most of the season in 2015. The good often outweighed the bad, but how long will that continue. The Cubs have built tremendous depth on the big league roster to make up for impact pitching prospects in the upper minors. They might be able to piece together a fifth starter the way they did last year, but if two or more of those three are no longer guys that can take the ball every fifth day, it will have a dramatic effect on 2016.
Bullpens are Volatile
Bullpens are volatile. The list of relievers that are consistently good for more than a couple years in a row is generally a small one. But each of the Cubs relievers present their own unique set of risks heading into 2016. Neil Ramirez was amazing throughout 2014, but he never looked like that pitcher last season as he spent most of it languishing on the DL. He is in danger of not even being in the organization as he fights for a spot in a very crowded unit while being out of options this spring.
Justin Grimm was equally amazing starting from the second half of 2014 all the way through August of 2015. He served as a secondary closer that could be deployed from the fifth to the eighth innings. But a loss of command and/or confidence turned him into a run-of-the-mill middle reliever over the last couple of months in 2015. Travis Wood was excellent once he moved to the bullpen and there is reason to believe he will continue to be so. Then again, we have seen him be excellent one year and terrible the next. Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard were also equally effective, but the sample size on their performances is so small that predicting them to be stalwarts again in 2016 seems a bit much.
Pedro Strop, a converted catcher with a devastating slider and good velocity with poor command, will always remind me of Carlos Marmol. Strop has been both a devastating weapon and a clueless albatross on the mound at different points in his career. The guy that caused two organizations to give up on that wicked stuff is still there. Oddly enough, the guy¹ that I have the most confidence in being very good again is the same one who had Tommy John surgery and then an elbow fracture in back-to-back years.
Injuries are always a concern for any team. They were a major factor in the Washington Nationals’ collapse in 2015, an oft-cited cautionary tale for the Cubs. The injury bug spared most of the key members of the NLCS competitors, but luck might not be as favorable in 2016. Jake Arrieta’s workload increased dramatically and his velocity dropped slightly in his final outing of 2015. The Cubs have built tremendous depth, but there is no replacing 2015 Jake Arrieta.
If Jorge Soler was to play a full healthy season, it would be his first in the Cubs organization. Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm have dealt with injuries the past few seasons and both Carl Edwards Jr and Pierce Johnson struggled to stay healthy. The Cubs have tried to insulate themselves with positional redundancy and perhaps the most unique pitching staff in baseball. However, no team can handle serious injuries to several positions at the same time, and even the Cubs’ depth won’t save them should the worst occur.
Finally, I am so worried about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow.
¹Oh yeah, this guy.