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2018 MLB preview: Chicago Cubs

2017: 92-70 (first place in NL Central)

Last Postseason Appearance: 2017

Last World Series Title: 2016

2017 Recap

The Chicago Cubs won back-to-back World Series titles from 1907-1908. 108 years later, they finally managed to win another one, but, unfortunately, the 2017 Cubs were unable to repeat. Chicago was eliminated in five games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. The offense hit just .156 in the series, with their three star hitters, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras, going a combined 9-for-55.

Although they won 11 fewer games than they did in the 2016 season, the Cubs had a great regular season and won the NL Central for the second year in a row. From July-October, the Cubs went 52-30. They entered the postseason hot, but the bats went cold and the pitching struggled against the Dodgers, who were clearly the better all-around team.

Both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were tremendous in the 2017 regular season (Chicago Tribune)

Much like in their championship season, the offensive success was led by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Bryant finished fifth in walks, seventh in runs created and OBP, and eighth in runs and offensive WAR. He hit .325 in the second half and finished the season with 29 home runs. His buddy, Rizzo, drove in 109 runs, which was good for eighth in the MLB. He finished first in HBP, and slashed .273/.392/.507, with 32 home runs and 10 steals. 2017 was the third straight season in which Rizzo had 600 AB’s, 30 home runs, 90 runs, and 100 RBIs.

Among the 15 NL teams, the Cubs ranked third in home runs, and fifth in total bases. In regards to the entire MLB, Chicago finished fourth in runs and OBP, sixth in OPS, and seventh in SLG. The pitching staff ranked fourth in BAA, had the seventh best ERA in the bigs, and finished eighth in strikeouts.

The glaring difference from 2016 to 2017 was the amount of home runs and walks surrendered. After finishing in the NL with the sixth fewest home runs and seventh walks issued, Chicago ranked 10th in walks, and 11th in home runs.

2018: Around the Diamond

The Cubs will enter 2018 with, again, one of the most dynamic lineups in the bigs. Behind the plate is Contreras, who, in 2017, solidified himself as one of the best catchers in the game. He finished with the third highest WAR among catchers and hit 21 home runs with an OBP of .356. Contreras hit .305 in the second half alone, as well as .363 with RISP.

Joining Contreras, Rizzo, and Bryant in the infield are two of the best defenders in the game, Addison Russell and Javy Baez. Russell spent time on the DL in 2017, after suffering a strained right foot, and hit just .239 in his 110 games. However, he finished eighth in defensive WAR, and hit 21 home runs in 2016. Russell is a fantastic defender, and has shown he has pop from the shortstop positon, but is still a lifetime .240 hitter. Keep in mind, he is only 24-years-old and can easily turn into a star.

Javy Baez’ defense is must-see TV (NBC Chicago)

Baez, who is already making highlight reel plays in Spring Training, will play the majority of the games at second base. Baez has a lot of power, 23 home runs last season, but also strikes out a ton. He hit .315 against lefties and was one of five second basemen to hit at least 23 home runs, 10 steals, 25 XBH, and 75 runs (Brian Dozier, Rougned Odor, Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve).

Heading into the season, Chicago has five outfielders who are all capable of starting. Let’s start with the obvious, which is the 5x-Gold Glove Award winner, Jason Heyward, who will be the starting right fielder. After hitting just .230 in 2016, Heyward improved a little and got the average up to .259. For some odd reason, at just 28, he has lost all his power and speed. Heyward hit just 11 home runs and stole four bases.

The fan favorite, Kyle Schwarber, lost 20 lbs. and worked on his agility during the offseason. Schwarber, who was sent down to AAA last season, crushed 30 home runs in 129 games. He hit just .211, but in the final 65 games, the 25-year-old hit .255. His .244 BABIP means the average is bound to go up in 2017, so look for the skinnier, more agile Schwarber to have a 2018.

Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr., and Ian Happ will battle for the center field spot, as well as playing time at the corner-outfield positions. Almora, in 323 plate appearances, hit .342 against lefties, while Happ crushed 24 home runs in 115 games. Zobrist had a rough 2017, hitting just .232. Almora has to be the favorite to start in center, but Coach Joe Maddon will find a way for all three of these guys to get solid playing time, especially with Zobrist’s ability to play multiple positons.

On the Bump

No Jake Arrieta or John Lackey means the rotation will be looking a little different in 2018. Jon Lester, the Opening Day starter, needs to bounce back after a rough 2017. Last season, Lester posted a 4.33 ERA, which was his worst since 2012. He also had his highest HR/9 since becoming a full-time starter.

Lester’s walks were up, and, quite frankly, his fastball was bad. In 2017, opponents hit .289 against Lester’s four seam, which is a drastic difference compared to 2016, when opponents hit just .200 against it. Still, Lester is about as reliable as it gets, posting 10 straight seasons of at least 180 innings.

Yu Darvish looks to move past his World Series struggles and dominate in 2018. (SI.com)

Chicago’s biggest offseason splash was the signing of Yu Darvish. Darvish, a four-time All-Star, throws eight different pitches, and should excel, as long as he does not tip his pitches. Darvish has a career 3.42 ERA, as well as an 11.0 K/9.

Jose Quintana, who was acquired from the White Sox last July, went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts for the Cubs. He came up short in the NLCS, and overall, struggled last season, career-highs in BB/9 and HR/9, but he has pitched well the last few seasons, and could put up ace-type numbers.

Kyle Hendricks, who spent time on the DL due to a middle finger tendon inflammation in his right hand, is coming in hot for 2018. Over his last 78 innings, Hendricks had a 2.19 ERA, and ultimately finished 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA. He was elite in 2016, and, if he stays healthy, should continue to succeed in 2018. The Cubs also brought in former Colorado Rockies pitcher, Tyler Chatwood, Chatwood had a 3.49 ERA away from Coors last year, but he also had a 4.69 BB/9, which is absolutely atrocious, Still, Chatwood generates a lot of ground balls and will be a solid number five in this rotation.

No Wade Davis means the Cubs will have a new closer in 2018. In December, Chicago signed Brandon Morrow, the 11-year veteran who thrived with the Dodgers in 2017, going 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings. Morrow, who has 18 career saves, will start the season in the closer role. The bullpen will also showcase guys like Carl Edwards Jr, Justin Wilson, and Steve Cishek.

The Future

The Cubs young core will hopefully be around for years to come, because they have traded away the majority of their star prospects. Heading into 2018, they have zero members on the Top 100 Prospects list.  Still, that list is merely just projections, and cannot tell the future.

Chicago’s top pitching prospect, Adbert Alzolay, has top-of-the-rotation potential. Signed out of Venezuela in 2011, Alzolay went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA last season between A+/AA. The Cubs top hitting prospect is shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan is a left handed hitter who had 20 XBH, 7 home runs, and 14 steals in 68 minor league games.

2018 Prediction: 93-69

The Brewers have improved, the Cardinals are always good, and even the Reds are on the rise. However, the Cubs are still clearly the best team in this division, and, for the third year in a row, will win the NL Central. Chicago will be right in the hunt to win the NL Pennant.

Featured image by MLB.com

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