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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The History of the Game: Chicago Cubs

It’s hard to believe one of the most storied franchises in the game has a recent lovable loser status. After their World Series title in 2016, their status has gone from lovable loser to feared alpha dog. How did the Chicago Cubs go from winning 16 NL Pennants in their first 69 years to waiting 71 years for their 17th NL Pennant?

I will try to answer that question, along with many others in this article. This is the first weekly publication in which we will review the history of every MLB club. What better place to start than with the World Series champion Chicago Cubs?

A Fast Start (1876 to 1918)

History of the Game Cubs

Cap Anson was one of the best hitters of his day, and a star player for Chicago (baseballhall.org).

Owner William Hulbert made the club a charter member of the National League after being founded in 1876. Oddly enough, they were christened the Chicago White Stockings. Stars of the day like pitcher Albert Spalding and first baseman Cap Anson were signed, and the team won the inaugural NL Pennant in 1876. Five more would follow in the next 10 years, and the team began to gain prominence.

After a poor 1897 season, management let player-manager Cap Anson go. Anson’s influence on the club was so great that many journalists began calling the team the Chicago Orphans after his departure. Chicago would be back on top within the next 10 years.

The club officially became the Chicago Cubs in 1903, and followed up with a NL Pennant and World Series appearance in 1906. This was the beginning of a spectacular run by the Cubs, with a roster constructed by former player Albert Spalding.

After losing the 1906 World Series, they captured their first World Series title in 1907. They were 107-45 in the regular season and beat the Detroit Tigers, winning four games and tying one. They repeated as World Series champions in 1908, and made another World Series appearance in 1910.

The Cubs made four World Series appearances from 1906-1910 and won two titles. However, the Cubs would win their last NL Pennant of the decade in 1918. It marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Every Three Years… (1919 to 1945)

History of the Game Cubs

Hack Wilson set the record for RBIs in a single season with 191 in 1930, a record that still stands to this day (hackwilson.com)

Before the San Francisco Giants were winning the World Series every even year, the Cubs made a streak of their own. They won the NL Pennant every three years starting in 1929 and ending in 1938 for a total of four NL Pennants.

While they did make four World Series appearances, they were thwarted by their AL opponents each time. Many of the Cubs players found individual success in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field even though the team didn’t find success in the World Series.

Hack Wilson was one of the most potent hitters of the decade. He smashed 56 homers and drove in a record 191 RBIs in 1930. That record still stands to this day as the most RBIs in a single season.

That 1930 team was one that set the groundwork for the three-year stretch. Their last World Series appearance of the era came in 1945. It was so decisive that it impacted the next 71 years of Cubs baseball.

After winning the first two games of the series in Detroit, the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field for games 4-7. The Cubs couldn’t get over the hump, even with a 2-1 series lead and eventually lost the series.

Billy Sianis had bought two tickets to game four of the series, one for him and one for his goat. The Cubs staff kicked Sianis and his stinky goat out of the ballpark. Sianis is rumored to have cursed the team to “win no more.” It seemed to work, as the Cubs lost the World Series and kicked off 71 years of heartache.

The Drought (1946 to 2010)

Ryne Sandberg became a Hall of Famer in his time with the Chicago Cubs (baseballhall.org).

The curse of the billy goat held on for quite some time. The Cubs entered a bleak era, whether it was truly the curse or a mixture of poor performance and poor judgement by management. Star players were hard to come by, and the 1950s and 1960s passed through Chicago without much of a whimper. One player shone bright through that dark era.

He was a superstar shortstop named Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub” played 19 seasons with the Cubs and smashed 512 homers and won two NL MVP awards. Even his Hall of Fame level of play wasn’t enough to help the Cubs return to the World Series.

The Cubs continued to march on through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, earning the moniker “the lovable losers.” Even though the World Series drought would continue, Cubs fans had someone to root for in Ryne Sandberg.

The second baseman would put up Hall of Fame numbers for the Cubbies after coming into the league in 1981. He provided hope for 15 years while in Chicago, but never could make due on his immense talent.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were good times for Cubs fans. With playoff appearances and winning seasons in the books, the Cubs seemed to be back in contention. All of their talent and success in the 1990s and 2000s still wasn’t enough for a World Series appearance.

It wasn’t until a bunch of young guns arrived in the Cubs’ clubhouse that they would return to their century-old winning ways.

Triumphant Return (2010 to …)

History of the Game Cubs

Kris Bryant leads the way into a bright future for the Chicago Cubs (AP Photo/Paul Beaty).

Before the Cubs could return to the mountaintop, they would have to hit rock bottom. Boy did they hit it hard.

After a dismal 2011 season in which the Cubs lost 91 games, new owner Tom Ricketts signed general manager Theo Epstein away from Boston. His spectacular rebuild of the Red Sox earned them the 2004 World Series title, their first since 1918. After breaking the “Curse of the Bambino,” a little old billy goat would be no problem, right? Not so much.

In Epstein’s first season in Chicago, the Cubs lost 101 games. That dismal record was one of promise though, as young players Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro continued to get much needed at bats. It wasn’t until 2015 when it all finally came together.

Epstein had a crop of young talent, headlined by phenoms Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. A strong group of veterans, headlined by Jake Arrieta and Dexter Fowler, joined them. Now all he needed was the right man to lead the ship. He wouldn’t have to wait too long before his ideal captain became available.

After manager Joe Maddon was fired from the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season, Epstein was quick to scoop him up. His leadership and analytical approach to the game meshed well with Epstein, and together they helped lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series appearance in 71 years in 2016. They didn’t just make the World Series. They won the 2016 World Series in dramatic fashion, besting the Cleveland Indians in seven games.

With a stable of young talent, don’t expect the Cubs to endure another drought anytime soon.

 

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Best power hitting infielders

Crying Tiers of Joy: 2017 Fantasy Baseball Shortstop Rankings

Shortstop are commonly known for their glove, but after the explosion of home runs in 2016, shortstops have emerged as a power position heading into 2017. 15 shortstops hit 20 or more homeruns last season, where only two did in 2015. The shortstop position has transitioned from one of the weakest to one of the deepest.

The top 25 shortstops have been grouped into four tiers, with the top and bottom player of each tier profiled below.

Honorable mentions include: Orlando Arcia (MIL), Ketel Marte (ARI), Jose Iglesias (DET), Andrelton Simmons (LAA), and Jose Reyes (NYM).

 

Tier 1

2017 Fantasy Baseball Shortstop Rankings

Manny Machado’s consistency warrants a first round pick. (Courtesy of USA TODAY Sports)

  • Manny Machado (BAL)
  • Carlos Correa (HOU)
  • Corey Seager (LAD)
  • Trea Turner (WSH)
  • Francisco Lindor (CLE)
  • Xander Bogaerts (BOS)

 

Manny Machado, primarily a third basemen, played 44 games at shortstop in 2016, after an injury sidelined Baltimore Orioles starter, J.J. Hardy. Machado, a career .285 hitter, has tallied at least 35 home runs and 100 runs in his last two seasons.

The 24-year-old has yet to reach the 100 RBI plateau, although if continues to progress, he could easily see a .300/100/40/100 season in his near future.

Machado’s consistency and potential make him the first shortstop that should be taken in 2017.

Xander Bogaerts is one of the safest picks an owner can make in 2017. The 24-year-old will be entering his fourth season in the majors, where he is a career .286 hitter.

His .320 batting average in 2015, and .330 batting average in the first half of 2016, suggest that he can sustain a well above .300 average for a full season in 2017.

The 6-foot-3 180-pounder raised his home run total from seven in 2015, to 21 in 2016. Bogaerts power is sure to improve one day, although I believe he will focus solely on sustaining contact rates next season.

Whether the power numbers show or not in 2017, Bogaerts is well worth a top 25 pick.

 

Tier 2

2017 Fantasy Baseball Shortstop Rankings

Trevor Story is healthy and ready to go for 2017. (Courtesy of Sporting News)

  • Trevor Story (COL)
  • Jonathan Villar (MIL)
  • Jean Segura (SEA)
  • Troy Tulowitzki (TOR)
  • Aledmys Diaz (STL)
  • Addison Russell (CHC)
  • Dansby Swanson (ATL)

 

Trevor Story had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all-time, and only played in 97 games due to a hand injury in 2016. After mashing 27 home runs with 76 RBI’s, Story managed to be one of the most productive players in the league during that stretch.

He will bat in the middle of an electric Colorado Rockies lineup, which may put up historically great numbers this season.

The only drawback on the 24-year-old is his atrocious 31.3% strike out rate, which may suggest that he sees a decline in batting average.

Regression of average or not, Story is well worth a top 35 pick, as his power upside is tremendous.

Dansby Swanson is currently being drafted as the 170th overall player, and 17th shortstop off the board, although I have him ranked as the 13th. The upside with Swanson is incredible, as he has the potential to bat .300 while batting second for the Atlanta Braves. This gives him the potential to score 100 runs in his rookie campaign.

The big power numbers have not shown yet, although he had sneaky power in college, hitting 15 home runs in 71 games. He also hit eight home runs in 84 games at the AA-level, which shows that he has the potential to hit 15 or so this season, giving him a chance to be a top 10 shortstop.

I’m reaching on Swanson’s potential in all drafts in 2017.

 

Tier 3

2017 Fantasy Baseball Shortstop Rankings

Can Didi Gregorius continue to improve upon his breakout 2016 campaign?(Courtesy of Getty Images)

  • Didi Gregorius (NYY)
  • Brandon Crawford (SF)
  • Brad Miller (TB)
  • Javier Baez (CHC)
  • Eduardo Nunez (SF)

 

Didi Gregorius, most notably the player that replaced Derek Jeter, quietly had a breakout seasons in 2016. Gregorius has continuously improved his batting average, going from .257 in 2014, to .276 in 2016. He has also seen a huge jump in power numbers, as he hit 20 home runs, which is 11 better than his former career high of 9.

The 27-year-old still has room for improvement, although his power numbers may fall, as the majority of his homers limp out of the Yankees short porch in right field.

Gregorius is a safe late round selection, but may have limited upside.

Eduardo Nunez spent his 2016 split between the Minnesota Twins and San Francisco Giants. The All-Star batted .321 with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases in the first half of 2016. This shows how good Nunez can be when he is playing every day at his best.

The reason for Nunez’s low ranking is because of his lack of consistency and poor production with the Giants. Hitting home runs as a righty in San Francisco can be quite challenging, which makes me think his home run totals will drop severally.

Nunez has a solid average and will continue to steal some bases, which makes him a good mid to late round pick in all formats.

 

Tier 4

2017 Fantasy Baseball Shortstop Rankings

Jose Peraza will finally have an open spot in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. (Courtesy of MLBdailydish.com)

  • Jose Peraza (CIN)
  • Elvis Andrus (TEX)
  • Danny Espinosa (LAA)
  • Asdrubal Cabrera (NYM)
  • Marcus Semien (OAK)
  • Matt Duffy (TB)
  • Tim Anderson (CWS)

 

Jose Peraza has been compared to Jose Altuve, in not only their size, but also their skill set. Both have elite speed and get on base at a well above average clip. Peraza will finally have an everyday role with the Cincinnati Reds as they have parted ways with their franchise second basemen, Brandon Phillips, in a trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Peraza has stolen 281 bases in 611 professional games, which is about a half a steal per game. This alone gives Peraza elite stolen base value, as he has the chance to steal over 60 bases. This paired with the fact that he is a career .312 hitter gives him great potential to be a breakout star in 2017.

Tim Anderson commonly flies under the radar, as he will bat at the bottom of an inconsistent Chicago White Sox lineup. 2017 will be Anderson’s first full MLB season, which could mean a breakout is in the making for the 23-year-old.

We cannot forget that he stole 49 bases in 125 games in 2015. While he bats at the end of the order, which limits his run and RBI potential, he should be given plenty of opportunities to swipe bags.

The former first-round pick in 2013 is a career .283 hitter, which is a solid floor for a starting fantasy short stop. Anderson’s ADP of 191 makes him well worth a late pick as a middle infielder or starter in deeper leagues.

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How Did the Cubs Build a World Series Squad?

The Chicago Cubs won Game seven of the World Series on Wednesday, ending the longest drought in MLB history. In one of the most exciting games in baseball history, the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians in extra innings and were thus crowned World Champions. GM Theo Epstein has assembled a team in Chicago that is built for the long haul, a team that can truly compete for the next five World Series. How did Theo Epstein assemble such a talented squad of players?

The answer may seem simple, but in truth, is a lot harder than it sounds. Epstein nailed his draft picks and won more of his trades than he lost. Before the 2016 season commenced, Epstein knew his team had a chance to compete, and went out and signed players that could fill the missing roles in the team. It is a recipe for success that Epstein established at his previous tenure in Boston where he had broken another curse in 2004 before winning the 2007 World Series with Boston as well.

Epstein began his most recent tenure in Chicago in October 2011. He would proceed to finish in the cellar of the division his first three seasons before getting to the NLCS in 2015 and winning the World Series in 2016. This is important because those three seasons in the cellar led to very nice draft picks for Epstein and the Cubs organization.

epstein

Theo Epstein assembled a World Series team in 5 years. Could he be considered one of the greatest GMs of all time? Photo courtesy of Boston.com

2012, aka Epstein’s first draft, led to the Cubs drafting Albert Almora Jr. with the 6th overall pick. The 2013 MLB Draft saw the Cubs owning the second overall pick, which would be used on Kris Bryant. 2014 sparked controversy for the Cubs, as the organization drafted Kyle Schwarber, which was seen as a reach for the Cubs at the time by pundits. These three first rounders were all on the World Series squad, with Bryant and Schwarber both contributing heavily with their production at the plate.

Epstein was a trade machine in Boston, and the same philosophy carried over to his tenure in Chicago. Epstein was a master of selling players at their peak and actually netting a strong return in terms of prospects. For example, the Cubs traded Scott Feldman to help shore up Baltimore’s rotation in exchange for reliever Pedro Strop and starter Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had never pitched with great success in Baltimore, averaging an ERA of 5.46 while playing for the Orioles. Since joining the Cubs, his ERA since 2013 has averaged out to 2.52 over his last three seasons.

Arrieta is not the only present core Cub to be received in a trade. Anthony Rizzo, a stud first base prospect at the time, was picked up from San Diego for a package built around Andrew Cashner. Cashner  had some inconsistent success in San Diego, but Rizzo is currently one of the top first basemen in all of baseball. The Cubs traded starter Ryan Dempster, who was having a very strong season in his own right, to the Rangers in exchange for Kyle Hendricks. Addison Russell was also picked up in a trade by Epstein, who had to give up Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (yes, the same Hammel who would go on to resign with the Cubs in the following offseason) for the package built around Russell.

russell

Addison Russell is the reason Starlin Castro was traded by Epstein. Russell proved the faith was true as he knocked in 6 RBIs in Game 6 of the World Series. Photo courtesy of realsport101.com

Epstein also made the right decision in regards to personnel choices on the roster. Epstein had acquired a plethora of talent at nearly every position in the minors. Epstein leaned on this talent as he traded veterans to be replaced by the inexperienced rookies. Epstein dumped Starlin Castro so both Addison Russell and Javier Baez could have starting positions in the Cubs middle infield. Plenty of talent were traded or axed for marginal returns to make room for the future stars of the Cubs. Yet, despite all these wily veterans being traded, none of the talent really amounted to much after the trades. The biggest names include players like Justin Ruggiano, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Zambrano, and Alfonso Soriano.

Looking at all this wheeling and dealing, Epstein is bound to come across a couple trades that could be viewed as losses right? In all honesty, there is really only two trades that could be viewed as losses and both trades have reasonable defense for the action. First, was DJ LeMahieu being traded to the Rockies. LeMahieu has since produced an All-Star season playing second base for the Rockies, but the trade can be defended as Epstein already had his future middle infield in Castro and Baez (with Russell on the way). The only other lost trade was trading Welington Castillo to Seattle for next to nothing. Truth be told, Castillo never really was an offensive threat in Chicago, and the Cubs had already turned to alternatives to replace him at the catching position.

In truth, Epstein has been nearly flawless in constructing this 2016 World Champion squad. A few things shook out in his favor, like Jake Arrieta shaking off his kinks and becoming an ace pitcher. That being said, every team needs a little luck to win in the playoffs. Epstein’s impact trades and draft picks have setup the Cubs for success for the next five years. Now the final test will be to see if Epstein and the Cubs can sustain this success for the next decade or so, potentially putting together a team that can be a true dynasty, much to the dismay of the rest of the NL Central.