The complaint department, about the 2016 Cubs, is closed and locked tight. Spider webs are growing around the door frame, it’s been shut down for so long.
This marvelous team, which we hope goes on to bigger and better things this month, accomplished great things during the regular season, and that’s reflected in the letter grades I’m going to hand out for all of the individual players. You can assume, though I won’t post a separate article, that high marks would go to every member of the coaching staff, starting with Joe Maddon, who set the tone and had the perfect leadership style for this terrific group of Cubs.
Please remember that I’m giving these grades on a subjective basis as well as considering the player’s numbers.
Anthony Rizzo: A+ No one could have asked more from Rizzo, who not only had an MVP-caliber season, but provided outstanding clubhouse leadership and humor. I can’t imagine a better leader for this team. His acquisition in trade almost five years ago is one of the best deals in franchise history.
Ben Zobrist: A Another excellent acquisition, he posted 3.8 bWAR, had a typical season for him — perhaps even at the high end of his usual performance range, which is excellent for a 35-year-old player. Expected to be mostly the regular second baseman, he also played well in left and right field. He set a career high in walks, as the team set a franchise record for bases on balls.
Addison Russell: A The only possible criticism is his somewhat-low batting average (.238). But he developed power, with 21 home runs, and a knack for hitting with runners on gave him 95 RBI, the most for a Cubs shortstop in 56 years. His defense is outstanding. And he’s only 22.
Kris Bryant: A+ He’s the likely league MVP. He’s the face of the franchise. He had a goal of cutting down on his strikeouts this year, and he did so -- from 199 to 154, in 49 more plate appearances, and increased his power at the same time. Led the league in runs while posting 7.7 bWAR, most for any position player in the N.L.
Miguel Montero: C+ That might seem high to you for a player who struggled both offensively and defensively and with injuries most of the first half, to the point where he wondered himself if he might be released. From August 20 through season’s end he redeemed himself with the bat, hitting .310/.385/.517 (18-for-58) with three doubles and three home runs. He could be ready for a big postseason. Also, he hit both the Cubs’ first and last home runs of 2016. You predicted that, right? (No, you didn’t.) Here’s Miggy’s walkoff homer that clinched the N.L. Central title:
That was my friend Jeff who caught that ball:
Jorge Soler: B- Also battled injuries and got off to a horrific start, but appears ready for October after hitting .258/.348/.515 (25-for-97) with four doubles and seven home runs after returning from the DL in August. Soler could be a real offensive force if he can stay healthy.
Dexter Fowler: B+ His overall season numbers were his best in four years (.840 OPS, 4.2 bWAR), but he struggled a bit in the second half (.211/.318/.298 in 133 PA from August 5 through September 7) before turning it on again to close the year (.338/.482/.585 in 83 PA from September 9 through season’s end, with three doubles, two triples and three home runs). Joe Maddon says, “You go, we go,” about Fowler’s ability to get on base, and that will be key in October.
Jason Heyward: D And it’s only this high because of his defense. Heyward had the worst year of his career in his first year as a Cub. After a 6.5 bWAR year in 2015 with the Cardinals, he slumped to just 1.5 bWAR in 2016. He did hit somewhat better in his final 14 games (56 PA): .304/.411/.478 with five doubles, a home run and nine walks. Do that in October and all’s forgiven.
Javier Baez: B Cut way down on his K’s (25.6 percent of AB in 2016, compared to 41.1 percent previously), hit for power (.423 SLG) and played web-gem defense at three infield positions. Maddon thought he could turn Baez into a valuable Zobrist-style “supersub.” He was right. Here’s just one of Javy’s great plays this year:
Willson Contreras: A- Played left field competently after having played it just a handful of times in the minor leagues. Also provided solid defense behind the plate and hit for power, including homering on the first big-league pitch he saw. Contreras could wind up the Cubs’ regular catcher for years to come.
David Ross: B+ After a rough first season in Chicago, Grandpa Rossy had a final season to remember, picking off a league-high five runners and having his best offensive season in five years. That included a memorable home run against the Cardinals in the final regular-season home game after he was honored for his retirement by the Cubs. Loved around the league, he received gifts from the Reds in the last game of the regular season, perhaps the best “retirement tour” ever for a backup catcher.
Matt Szczur: B Turned himself into perhaps the best fourth outfielder in the league by playing solid defense at all three outfield positions and getting timely hits. Had 12 hits as a pinch-hitter
Tommy La Stella: C+ I’m downgrading him because of his bizarre absence from the team when they asked him to go to Triple-A for a few weeks. He, too, was useful off the bench and played second and third base competently. Still has a chance to be on the postseason roster.
Chris Coghlan: B- After his sudden trade to the Athletics following Fowler’s surprise re-signing, Cogs was just about the worst player in baseball during his Oakland tenure (.146/.215/.272 in 172 PA). On his return, he basically went back to how he had performed with the Cubs in 2014-15 by hitting .252/.391/.388 in 103 PA, despite missing some time with injuries. He also has a chance to be on the postseason roster.
Albert Almora Jr.: B Acquitted himself nicely in his first big-league season. Called up when Fowler was injured in June, he made some highlight-reel catches in the outfield and hit pretty much the same as he had during his minor-league career, posting a .277/.303/.455 slash line and hitting three home runs in 112 at-bats. Here is just one of Almora’s fine defensive plays:
Jon Lester: A Lester’s second year with the Cubs has a claim to being the best year of his career. He set career bests in ERA and WHIP, tied a career high with 19 wins, and until his final start, a clunker in Cincinnati, had an 11-start stretch in which he posted a 0.91 ERA and 0.810 WHIP. He’s got tons of postseason and World Series experience which should be vital for the Cubs in October.
Kyle Hendricks: A Took a huge step forward with his second half, in which he had a 13-start post-All-Star stretch in which he posted a 1.36 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. It’s a pleasure for me, as someone who’s liked him from the time the Cubs got him from the Rangers, to watch him carve up opposing hitters with his devastating changeup.
Jake Arrieta: B- Jake has struggled with command much of the second half after being 2015-dominant for the first two months and throwing his second career no-hitter. He showed flashes of his Cy Young brilliance over that second half, but lacked consistency. His overall numbers were good, but from July 1 to season’s end he posted a 4.20 ERA with 12 home runs allowed in 94⅓ innings. The Cubs need him to be better in October.
John Lackey: B+ Did what he was asked: ate up innings and most of them were quality innings. The minor shoulder issue that put him on the shelf for much of August could have been good for him; he had a solid September and his long postseason resume should benefit him in October.
Jason Hammel: B- He got off to a great start, but had a 4.72 ERA over his last 20 starts, despite finally figuring out how to get rid of the cramping that had forced him out of several outings with his new “potato chip prescription.” In the end, Hammel’s 2016 looked almost exactly like his 2015. Those kind of numbers are really good for a fifth starter.
Travis Wood: B+ Wood pitched mostly solidly out of the bullpen and also took to left field for a few plays, including this one:
Aroldis Chapman: A Did everything he was asked and was, by all accounts, a good teammate, and got the Wrigley crowd “oohing” at every 100-plus pitch posted on the Wrigley video boards. He created a bit of controversy when he was used for a multiple-inning save and said he’d rather just come in for the ninth. I assume he and Joe Maddon have worked this out and if he’s needed for a save of more than one inning in October, he can do it.
Hector Rondon: B Took his demotion from closer well, but struggled after his return from a minor injury in September (seven runs allowed in his last four appearances in only 2⅔ innings, including a pair of homers). He’ll need to be better in October in his new eighth-inning role.
Pedro Strop: B+ Pitched consistently most of the year before missing several week with a knee injury suffered in early August. Made four solid appearances (one run in 3⅔ innings, four strikeouts), so he should be ready to go for the postseason.
Justin Grimm: C+ Grimm is maddening. There are times when he’s nearly unhittable; he posted an 0.40 ERA and 0.882 WHIP in 28 appearances (22⅔ innings) from June 28 through September 13. But... he had a 6.08 ERA before that in 35 games (28⅔ innings). He got sent to Triple-A for a while (roster crunch), and he was good after he returned... until his last five games of the year (13.50 ERA, 3.000 WHIP). So which Grimm do we get in October? (Hopefully, the good one).
Trevor Cahill: B Did everything he was asked. Made 50 appearances with a 2.74 ERA and 1.279 WHIP, including one solid start in the first game of a doubleheader against the Brewers. He’s on the bubble for the postseason roster.
Mike Montgomery: B Also did everything he was asked, shuttling back and forth from bullpen to rotation. The only criticism here is too many walks (20 in 38⅓ innings, a 4.7 per nine inning ratio). The brass thinks he could be a rotation starter next year, but he’ll have to cut down on the free passes to do that.
Carl Edwards Jr.: B A potential future closer, he was put into some high-leverage situations and did well. A couple of bad September outings pushed his season ERA to 3.75, but most of his appearances were quite good. Struck out 13 batters per nine innings, which ranked eighth in the National League.
Joe Smith: B- Struggled when first acquired from the Angels (7.36 ERA, 2.727 WHIP, three home runs allowed in his first 3⅔ Cub innings). It turned out he had a minor injury that flared up, so he spent some time on the DL. He was much better after his return: 0.84 ERA, 0.563 WHIP, 14 strikeouts in 10⅔ innings. He’s also on the bubble for the postseason roster.
Rob Zastryzny: B+ Made the big leagues perhaps a bit ahead of schedule after a rash of pitching injuries in August. But the second-round pick in 2013 did quite well both in relief and in his one start, which happened in the Cubs’ first tie game since 1993. He’s definitely in the mix for the 2017 bullpen, and could even be a future rotation piece.
Felix Pena: B- Pena, a hard-throwing righthander, had spent eight years in the organization with little hope for a callup. Again, injuries gave him a chance and he made the most of it, striking out 14 with just three walks in nine innings, giving himself a shot at making the team again in 2017.
Jake Buchanan, Jeimer Candelario, Gerardo Concepcion, Tim Federowicz, Ryan Kalish, Munenori Kawasaki, Brian Matusz, Joe Nathan, Spencer Patton, Joel Peralta, Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Kyle Schwarber and Adam Warren all also played in at least one game for the 2016 Cubs.