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Evolution or Revolution: Chicago Cubs

 

Evolution or Revolution is a series that examines whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. In this edition, we break down what went right and wrong for the Cubs in 2020, the financial state of the franchise, and who might be the next to go.   

By: Taylor Bechtold

“Losses of biblical proportions.”

Chicago Cubs chairman of the board Tom Ricketts made headlines, rankled fans and certainly irked powerful agent Scott Boras when he used this now infamous phrase in an interview with ESPN to describe what major league owners suffered in 2020.

Boras countered this notion last month, telling the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times that “even without fans, we know that players playing baseball games make money for MLB teams” and “there’s no team in baseball that lost money last year.”

An MLB spokesman told MLB.com’s Jon Heyman in response that “clubs lost $3 billion — $100 million per team.” Who is right in the latest offseason rift between the players and owners? We likely won’t find out unless teams open their books, but what we do know is that Chicago has become the poster child for ballclubs aiming to shed payroll contracts this winter.

For this reason, this edition of evolution or revolution is unique in that the decision has been made for us. Theo Epstein, the architect of the team that ended the longest World Series championship drought in history, decided he shouldn’t be the one to break up the roster and stepped down as president of baseball operations with one year left on his contract.

Theo Epstein stepped down in November with one year left on his contract. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

“It became really clear that we’d be facing some significant long-term decisions this winter, decisions with long-term impacts,” Epstein told ESPN. “Those types of decisions are really best made by somebody who’s going to be here for a long time, not just for one more year. … Jed (Hoyer) clearly is that person.”

The defending NL Central champs have already declined the $25 million option on longtime rotation anchor Jon Lester, saved $10 million by non-tendering 2016 World Series hero Kyle Schwarber and recouped the $59 million remaining on Yu Darvish’s contract by trading him and Victor Caratini to the San Diego Padres for Zach Davies and four prospects.

Is Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant or Javier Baez next? It doesn’t seem as though anyone is untouchable.

The cost-cutting is frustrating for the fan base, given that the New York Mets and Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers and even the Padres and cross-town White Sox have been rumored to be spenders this offseason. Meanwhile, the big-market Cubs, who have won the third-most games in the majors since 2015, are operating more like the Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates.

CAN THE LINEUP BE RE-MADE ON THE FLY?

It’s been the Cubs offense that has fizzled late in each of the past four seasons. In September and October (including the playoffs) over that span, the Cubs have hit .233 (27th in the majors ) with 1.03 home runs per game (26th).

In 2020, they batted .174 and averaged 3.2 runs while dropping eight of their last 11 games – including a disappointing two-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins in the wild-card round. They also went just 7 for 51 (.137) with runners in scoring position over their last eight contests and only managed one run while going 1 for 13 in those situations in the postseason.

Chicago Cubs, 2020OffenseRotationBullpenOverall
Adjusted Team Rankings1892118

Chicago finished 18th in the majors in raw value+, though key core players Anthony Rizzo (.222, 11 HRs, 111 RV+) Bryant (.206, 4 HRs, 59 RV+), Baez (.203, 8 HRs, 75 RV+) and Schwarber (.188, 11 HRs, 109 RV+) all had down seasons.

Raw value examines how a batter (RV+) or pitcher (RV-) performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, with a score of 100 considered league average.

Because the players acquired in the Darvish trade are too young to contribute and the Cubs likely aren’t done moving players from their big-league roster, it’s hard to say what the lineup might look like in 2021. Bryant, who is set to become a free agent after next season, has been at the center of trade rumors for some time now and it’s possible the club will be hoping a strong start can boost his value.

“I can’t predict what will happen,” Ian Happ, whose 133 RV+ was second only to Jason Heyward’s 136, told the Cubs radio network. “We’ll see what they want to do. I know there’s a lot that goes into it with everything that has happened from a financial standpoint this season.”

STARTING ROTATION HAS HOLES TO FILL

Over the first 10 games of a 13-3 start, the Cubs’ rotation held opponents to a .156 batting average – the lowest allowed by any team’s starters through that many games in the live-ball era (since 1920).

Kyle Hendricks was fifth in the majors in Command+ and sixth in Strike+ in 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Chicago starters carried that performance over much of the season, finishing fifth in majors with a 3.75 ERA and ninth with a 93 RV-, including the postseason. But with Darvish – who was second in the NL Cy Young voting after finishing 10th in the majors in RV- and fourth in strike+ – now in San Diego and Lester and Jose Quintana having signed with other clubs, the rotation will look much different in 2021.

Mainstay Kyle Hendricks – fifth in command+ and sixth in strike+ among those who threw 1,000 pitches in 2020 – is set to lead the group if he’s not moved. Davies, who was the MLB leader in command+ but had a league-average RV-, will probably take over one of those spots. Alec Mills is another strong possibility after throwing a no-hitter in September, and promising right-hander Adbert Alzolay (2.95 ERA) will likely get a long look.

The Cubs have signed former Phillies left-hander Adam Morgan to help a bullpen that ranked 21st in RV-. Rowan Wick (3.12 ERA, 4 saves) is likely to move into a bigger role with closer Jeremy Jeffress (1.54 ERA, 8 saves) headed to free agency.

It would help if Craig Kimbrel could pick up where he left off after posting a 1.42 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings over his last 14 appearances.

VERDICT: REVOLUTION

Ricketts said in November that he didn’t think anybody was tearing anything down, but the organization’s actions have told a different story this offseason. And there certainly appears to be more moves on the horizon for a club that has reached the postseason in five of the past six years.

If they choose to stand pat for now, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Cubs could compete in a middling NL Central. Much of that will depend on whether their key hitters can bounce back from a disastrous 2020 and whether their fill-ins can step up in the rotation.

 

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