With Opening Day around the corner, now is as good a time as any to start dreaming about the Cubs reclaiming their first NL Central crown since 2017. It has been a frustrating couple of years since then as the team fell from division champions to losing in the Wild Card game to missing the playoffs altogether.
One thing they haven’t failed to do is remain in the hunt late into the season. While September collapses in 2018 and ’19 prevented the Cubs from winning the division, competitive-ish baseball up to that point at least kept us thinking that they might. Early glances at various projection models suggest 2020 will be more of the same, and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA even projects to the Cubs to be a playoff team. They’re second to the Reds, but still.
Even if it’s nothing like 2016, when everyone expected the Cubs to romp their way to a division title, there’s potential for success just the same. But in order for that to bear out, there are at least five things that absolutely need to happen.
Kris Bryant must remain on the roster
This one might go without saying, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to say it: If the Cubs attempt to kick-start a “soft rebuild” like the 2016 Yankees by trading the former MVP for prospect capital, 2020 is toast. In what was roundly viewed as a down year, Bryant was worth 4.8 WAR per FanGraphs.
A .282/.382/.521 slash line with a .379 wOBA can’t be adequately replaced by anyone currently in the Cubs organization. There are arguments to be made that trading Bryant represents a good way to start the process of retooling on the fly, but it would also represent an unambiguous punt on 2020.
A trade that brings back Nolan Arenado? That’s a different story.
Craig Kimbrel has to be much better than he was in 2019
Craig Kimbrel was really bad last year, huh?
Take the worst Cubs closer you can remember, Kimbrel was probably worse. It’s hard to imagine that his season’s delayed start didn’t have a lot to do with the future Hall of Famer’s struggles. The Cubs are counting on a full season, including participation in spring training, to be the cure to what ailed Kimbrel last year.
PECOTA buys a return to form, projecting the closer to be one of the NL’s better relievers. That wouldn’t just be a bonus for the Cubs, it’s an absolute necessity. I approve of the strategy of acquiring a high quantity of low-risk gambles as opposed to investing significant resources in expensive veterans without roster flexibility, but it all hinges on the assumption that Kimbrel will be better.
If he’s not, the Cubs’ bullpen will likely be an absolute mess.
Kyle Schwarber’s production has to resemble the second half of 2019 more than the first
It’s hard to properly emphasize just how good Kyle Schwarber was in the second half of last season. As good as our dearly-departed friend Nicholas Castellanos was during his time as a Cub, Schwarber was even better during the same time frame.
Schwarber slashed .280/.366/.631 with a .404 wOBA and a 151 wRC+ in the season’s second half. As is the case with Castellanos, it’s not realistic to expect him to do that over the course of a full season. He doesn’t have to, though. If Schwarber can land somewhere between there than the 97 wRC+ he produced in the first half of the season, he’ll provide the kind of stable complimentary bat that the team’s core desperately needs.
Jon Lester has to be better than some fear he will
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: PECOTA thinks Jon Lester will be pretty dreadful in 2020. As much as the model loves a bounce-back from Kimbrel, it predicts nothing but doom and gloom for the best free agent signing in Cubs history.
While Lester doesn’t need to be an ace or anything close to it for the Cubs to thrive in 2020, he needs to be at least the reliable gamer that he’s been the last couple of years. The projection 143 innings pitched for a .04 WARP is pretty harsh, but is it out of the realm of possibility? I suppose not, though it feels like a 25th-30th percentile outcome.
He has to be better – I think he will be.
There can be no significant injuries among the team’s offensive core
Among the many reasons that the 2016 Cubs were so successful was the team’s outstanding depth. That Cubs team managed to win over 100 games despite losing Schwarber to a potentially devastating knee injury in the season’s second series and being without Dexter Fowler for about a month.
The 2020 Cubs do not have that luxury and it’s hard to imagine them surviving if Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, or Willson Contreras miss a significant amount of time. We need only to look back to last year to see the effects of such losses. The 2019 Cubs couldn’t weather late season injuries to Rizzo, Báez, and Bryant, and they’ve done basically nothing to change that reality in 2020.
Major changes to the Cubs’ coaching and training staff were made, at least in part, to address the combination of bad luck and perplexing decision making with injuries. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a great behind-the-scenes adjustment that could go a long way towards getting the Cubs back on top this year.
The reality, though, is that the Cubs haven’t left themselves much margin for error. All of these things and more need to go right for them to get where they want to go. If the 2016 Cubs were a house made of bricks, this year’s version dwells in a house made of sticks.
It can stand — it’s a pretty nice looking house, actually — but all bets are off if the wind starts howling.