It’s been about a week since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. A few days less than that since the parade. And while there will always be time for remembering this season and this team’s accomplishments, it’s okay to look forward, as well. After the Cubs won last week, Dave Cameron wrote that the Cubs have a chance at creating a dynasty, not unlike the New York Yankees two decades ago. That possibility certainly exists — and just about all the evidence we have regarding the Cubs right now suggests that they’re going to be a good baseball team for the foreseeable future. There are no guarantees.
Two days ago, Jeff Sullivan turned the FanGraphs Depth Charts numbers, based on Steamer projections, into a way-too-early projection for next season. The Cubs are already situated in the mid-90s for wins — and that’s even after accounting for the loss of starting center fielder Dexter Fowler. When we talk about the future of the Cubs, we focus on the position players, as well we should. The position players are the Cubs strength — and for the most part, they’re young and cheap, allowing the Cubs to spend money elsewhere to fill holes.
So even if the Cubs do nothing, they head to next season with a strong core both on offense and defense. Kris Bryant isn’t likely to be as good as he was this past year, but the projections factor that in. Anthony Rizzo is projected for another good year. Javier Baez and Addison Russell, both of whom retain considerable upside, are projected for similar years. Willson Contreras is expected to continue his promising transition to the big leagues.
There are certainly going to be concerns about Jason Heyward at the plate — and, to a lesser degree, in the field, if he has to play center in a full-time capacity. He’s not going to cost the team runs, but replacing an outfield alignment of Bryant/Soler/Zobrist (in left field), Fowler (in center), and Heyward (right) with Schwarber, Heyward, and Zobrist, respectively, is going to downgrade the defense a bit. The projections assume that 36-year-old Ben Zobrist will also decline just a bit from his solid 2016 campaign.
But even if Zobrist starts aging poorly, Heyward fails to rebound, and Schwarber is unable to return to previous form, the club is still in good shape on the position-player side of things. That said, there’s no guarantee for success. Even if the Cubs hit well again and defend well again, a return to the playoffs isn’t a given.
Last season, Cubs hitters (non-pitching hitters, that is) produced a 113 wRC+ with their bats and 70 runs above average on defense. Both of these numbers were phenomenal. Even if they fall somewhat next year, the team’s chances of making the playoffs are still very good. How good?
Let’s say the Cubs are likely to finish among the top quarter of all teams offensively. Since 2000, the top quartile of offenses have generally produced a wRC+ of at least 105. So we’ll make that one baseline. We also know the Cubs are probably going to be good on defense, as well, so let’s set a baseline of at least 25 runs above average on defense (roughly the top 40% of defenses). Since 2000, 27 teams have met both of those criteria. Of those 27 clubs, 16 have made the playoffs. Of course, that means 11 teams didn’t. So, without knowing anything about the pitching of those clubs, we find that 40% of these excellent hitting and defending teams failed to make the postseason.
And as for that pitching, it was probably pretty bad, right?
Not always, actually.
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Sometimes it’s poor pitching that prevents a playoff run, but sometimes it’s just bad luck. Look, for example, at that 2004 version of the Cubs. They were good in all facets of the game but didn’t make the playoffs. Their Pythagorean record gave them 94 wins, but some bad luck kept them down to 89, and that wouldn’t have even made the playoffs in today’s system. The 2004 Cubs were probably the second-best team in the National League that year, but sometimes 94-win teams only win 89 games and then they miss the playoffs.
So luck could cause the Cubs to miss the playoffs, but if you squint, talent on the pitching side could be an issue, too. Corinne Landrey wrote about the Cubs pitching staff in relation to their curious decision to let Jason Hammel go.
With Hammel gone, here are the returning four members of the Cubs’ rotation: John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. Now here are their respective ages on Opening Day 2017: 38, 33, 31, 27. Lackey is in the final year of his contract, battled a shoulder injury this season, and was good, not great, this season. Lester has been fantastic for the Cubs, but considering that they have him under contract through age 36 or 37, aging-induced decline is a matter of when, not if. Arrieta returned to Earth this year after his phenomenal 2015 season. But, hey, at least there’s Kyle Hendricks.
Jake Arrieta put up a 7.3 WAR season at age 29 and then a solid 3.8 WAR season this past year. While the glass-half-full theory says he might rebound a bit next year, he’s also now pitched 468.1 innings over the last two seasons. The projections say he’ll get better, but guys like Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, and Andy Pettitte all produced a great, heavy-inning season in their 20s followed by a decent year, followed by another drop thereafter. Pettitte recovered decently in later years and Peavy did a little, but Lincecum was finished. Even if Arrieta does post another solid year in 2017, he’ll be a free agent after that and the Cubs will either need to pay a heavy price in free agency for a pitcher in decline or look elsewhere.
Jon Lester has been the team’s best pitcher over the past two years, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and has seen a steady decline in his performance over the last three seasons, going from 5.6 WAR in 2014 to 5.0 in 2015 to 4.3 this past year. In the last 30 years, 10 pitchers have produced between 8.0 and 10.5 WAR at ages 31 and 32 combined, with a good season at age 32. Six of 10 followed with solid seasons at age 33 — and 9 of 10 recorded an average (+2 WAR) season — but only two out of 10 had 4-plus WAR seasons at age 34, four of 10 posting seasons that were below average. These represent some very good outcomes, but there’s some risk with Lester, not unlike all pitchers, going forward.
As for Lackey, he’s projected for a 2.8 WAR, but of the seven pitchers over the last 20 years who put up a WAR between 2.6 and 3.6 (Lackey was at 3.1) at age 37, none of them followed that with a seasonal WAR as high as the one for which Lackey is currently projected — and only Greg Maddux (2.6), Kenny Rogers (2.5), and Andy Pettitte (2.4) put a WAR higher than 1.1 in their age-38 seasons. As for Kyle Hendricks, he was obviously quite good this year, but the projections don’t yet believe his low home-run rate, BABIP, and high LOB% are all sustainable, putting him closer to above-average.
The Cubs pitching should be very good next year, but the rotation has a great deal of risk with little depth. The past two seasons, the Cubs have gotten lucky with starter health as Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Hammel, and Lackey have made 86% (280 of 324) of the team’s starts. The Cubs might give Mike Montgomery an opportunity to start in an attempt to find another Arrieta, but their depth is very thin at the moment, and help is not on the way from the minors. Add in questions in the bullpen with Aroldis Chapman departing and Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon at something less than their best at the end of the season, and a little bad luck might serve to close the margin the Cubs seem to have on the rest of baseball.
The Cubs have the financial wherewithal to spend through any pitching deficiency, but there’s no way to know when that deficiency could rear its ugly head. The team has invested a lot in Jon Lester and John Lackey; turning around Jake Arrieta has been great for player and team; and they control Kyle Hendricks for several more years. All that said, there’s a scenario for each of those pitchers that involves real attrition.
There’s no guarantee that it happens, of course. The Cubs could unearth some more gems. But if the team can’t quite create a dynasty, if things fall apart a bit, it’s because they will have encountered a problem no organization, particularly the Cubs, have found easy answers, and that’s how to send a steady stream of solid starting pitching to the major league ballclub. It’s something from which no amount of position-player talent can make an organization immune. The Cubs took advantage of a fantastic opportunity this season, and if they are going to have that dynasty, they will need to have solid pitching to complement their great young core of position players.