By: Alex Patt
While I battle the snow and cold of Chicago, Cubs pitchers and catchers are reporting to the sunny and warm baseball facilities in Mesa, Arizona. It is time to get 2021 baseball activities under way. No matter what year it is, the fresh start to a new season always feels good.
The Cubs are coming off an NL Central division title in 2020, which is honestly easy to forget. Despite making the postseason for the sixth time in seven years the 2020 season was incredibly frustrating. Subpar performances from Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo resulted in the offense being inconsistent and at times flat terrible. It was a good thing that the pitching was there to carry them because the offense sure didn’t.
2020 Cubs offense: 20th in runs, 20th in wRC+, 4th highest in strikeout rate, 17th in home runs and 24th in slugging percentage. Lots of strikeouts, not enough balls in play, only middle of the road in home runs.
After getting bounced in the first round (scoring one flipping run the entire series) the offseason that followed was…interesting. Theo Epstein left, Jed Hoyer took over, Len Kasper jumped to the White Sox, Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini were traded for lottery tickets, Kyle Schwarber was non-tendered and left in free agency, Jon Lester left in free agency, Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop came back, Joc Pederson was the big free agent signing and the rest of the pitching staff is being put together with tape, gum and bargain bin items.
To sum up the Cubs plan in 2021: Looking to the future by restocking the farm and saving money, while also trying to compete by relying on the core bouncing back and catching lightning in a bottle with the pitching staff. They are neither going all in or tearing it all down. It is like tearing down part of a building, keeping the main structure and patching the torn down part with cheap materials and hoping it will hold.
Did the Cubs roster greatly improve on paper compared to last year? Not really. Did it get a lot worse? No. Do I think they are World Series contenders? No. Do I think they can still be competitive and contend for the postseason? Yes.
Reasons for optimism in 2021:
-Odds say the likes of Bryant, Baez, Rizzo will bounce back to their normal selves. The fact the core all had career-worst seasons felt like another chapter in the, “Dumb Flukey Things that Plagued the Cubs since 2016” book. We know how good that core can be.
-The outfield looks very good. Ian Happ took a huge step last year, Jason Heyward sports a .789 OPS and 27 homers in his past two seasons, and Joc Pederson is an upgrade over Schwarber (sorry Kyle, you’re still one of my favorites). Both offensively and defensively these three guys can produce. Do not let the contract get you down too much, Heyward is an overall solid player and superb defender.
-Kyle Hendricks is still here and will be the ace. If Arrieta and, Trevor Williams and Zach Davies can eat innings and pitch decently/serviceable they can fill the middle of the rotation. This could also be the year Adbert Alzolay and/or Brailyn Marquez break out. Not saying this rotation will be great but there is some hope that this rotation can get by.
-The NL Central is still winnable. Despite getting Nolan Arenado to play alongside Goldy, the Cardinals still have some chinks in that armor. The Brewers made a nice move with Kolten Wong and still have Christian Yelich, but who in that rotation outside Brandon Woodruff strikes fear into opponents? The Reds lost Trevor Bauer in free agency and made no big moves this offseason. The Pirates…will be lucky to win 60 games. Not saying all other teams will be bad but there is no clear-cut winner.
-David Ross seems to have established a great culture and I am confident he will keep the team hungry and focused. The team last year was very fundamentally sound on the field despite hitting woes.
-Not necessarily pertaining to the 2021 MLB season, but the farm seems to at least be moving in a positive direction.
Reasons for pessimism in 2021:
-The starting rotation could be decent at best…or it can be an epic disaster. Losing Darvish hurts a lot considering he was the Cy Young runner up and has such an extensive pitch selection. Arrieta really struggled in Philly, Williams outside of 2018 has had a rough go (5.60 ERA in his last 37 starts), Alzolay and Marquez have very little experience in the majors and there is not much starter depth if one of these guys gets hurt. Also, this rotation lacks velocity which is not ideal.
-The bench bats are not very deep. Right now the bench projects to be: David Bote, Austin Romine, Phil Ervin, Jake Marisnick, Ildemaro Vargas. The depth looks a bit better than it did a month ago and there are other options on the 40-man roster/camp invitee list, but this team is not as deep as it once was.
-Health. The nagging injuries for key players have piled up the past few years. Bryant has had shoulder issues, Rizzo’s bad back, Contreras has had multiple hammy injuries since 2017, and several bullpen arms including Rowan Wick are dealing with ailments.
-NL competition. While the division is winnable, the Brewers and Cardinals cannot be counted out by any means. That said, beyond the division there are teams like the Dodgers, Mets, Braves and Padres. Those teams look like they will be forces and it will be hard to count on this pitching staff being able to beat them in big games if they do not catch lightning in a bottle.
-Same offense, same problems? Since 2017 this team has been boom or bust and as mentioned earlier have swung and missed an awful lot. Yes, power and getting on base is the name of the game but I will argue there is still a place for contact and situational hitting. Even if the core bounces back, it is hard to imagine this team will not have incredibly cold stretches like they have had in years past. Changing the team’s hitting DNA is almost impossible. Hope the hot outweighs the cold this year.
Mystery – The Bullpen:
This can be a strength or weakness. If Craig Kimbrel builds off what he did at the end of 2020 and Rowan Wick can get healthy and pitches well, the back end of the pen can be very good. Andrew Chafin, Brandon Workman, Kyle Ryan, Dan Winkler, Alec Mills (if he is not in the rotation) and Brad Wieck can cap off a solid pen. But as we know, pens are fickle and there are already injury concerns. This bullpen has as good of a chance to be bad as it does good.
Final predictions and conclusion:
It is frustrating that this team is not going all out while they still have the core. It is also frustrating that if they are not going all out they are not picking a massive change in direction (yet). I do not like treading water and not having one clear direction. But here we are.