At the All-Star break, I gave this year’s Cubs grades that weren’t very good, matching their first-half performance.
But after a 49-25 second half that was best in the National League, all those grades have improved, just as the team has. As I wrote in that link above: “Here’s hoping I can give the 2017 Cubs better grades come October.”
As a reminder, there is always a subjective component in the grades I give out. You might disagree; that’s part of the fun of this.
Anthony Rizzo: A Rizzo had a “Rizzo year.” His numbers were all very, very close to his career norms, even if his bWAR number (3.5) was down a bit from 2016 (4.6). He set career highs in runs and walks and matched his career bests in home runs and RBI. His 91 walks ranked fifth in the N.L. and for the first time in his career, he walked more than he struck out (90).
Ben Zobrist: C Ben turned 36 this year and age and injuries slowed him down. He tried to play through a wrist injury, then finally went on the DL weeks later. He did have a better second half (.249/.328/.382 in 257 PA) than first half (.214/.307/.367 in 239 PA) but is likely to see reduced playing time in the postseason.
Addison Russell: B Russell also had injuries that kept him out for a significant period of time. Even so, in 31 games since the All-Star break: .274/.324/.516, five home runs in 95 at-bats. If he’s healthy he should be a key contributor in the postseason.
Kris Bryant: A Forget the RBI count, that matters little. More important is that KB cut down on his strikeouts for the second straight year (199 in 2015, 154 in 2016, 128 this year) and set a career high in walks, 95, which ranked third in the National League. (His OBP ranked fourth.) He was consistent all year — his lowest monthly OPS was .876.
Willson Contreras: A Only the hamstring injury he suffered in August keeps this from being an A+. Contreras was on a tremendous hot streak when he was injured, and went homerless in 38 September at-bats since his return. He’s established himself as one of the top catchers in the game not just offensively, but with strong defense (threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal this year).
Javier Baez: A Did everything he was asked when having to start every game for six weeks while Russell was out in August and September. In that 41-game stretch Baez hit .282/.331/.490 with eight home runs in 149 at-bats. Here’s five minutes worth of Javy defensive highlights from this year:
Kyle Schwarber: B- Kyle’s defensive limitations and strikeout propensity are well-known. But after a horrific start and trip to Iowa, after his return he hit .255/.338/.565 with 18 home runs in 200 at-bats (.903 OPS). That’s really, really good. Because Joe Maddon values defense, Kyle might have limited playing time in the postseason unless the Cubs get back to the World Series. Still, that offense...
Albert Almora Jr.: B Almora has been a most pleasant surprise this year, continuing to play outstanding defense and improving his hitting against RHP (.271/.291/.420 vs. righthanders this year with four home runs in 188 at-bats). He still doesn’t walk much, but doesn’t strike out much either, and is still just 23. And yes, it’s worth watching this catch from April again:
Jason Heyward: B Heyward worked hard on re-tooling his swing over last offseason and did get results. His OPS went up by 84 points; his BA was 29 points higher, and he hit four more home runs this year than last, in 98 fewer at-bats. He missed 36 games with various injuries, but still played his usual outstanding defense.
Ian Happ: B Happ probably wasn’t supposed to be in the big leagues as early as he was, but he began hitting as soon as he was called up and never went back down. His 24 home runs — in just 115 games — ranks second-best among all Cubs rookies (Bryant hit 26 in 2015). He plays multiple positions, although he seems out of place in center field. The only downside, so far, is too many strikeouts: Happ struck out in 35 percent of his at-bats. Then again, he’s only 22, and that ought to improve going forward.
Jon Jay: A- Did everything he was asked. He was an excellent pinch-hitter early in the season, then when injuries and Schwarber’s demotion gave him more regular playing time, did well there. He can play all three outfield positions competently and is said to be a good clubhouse guy.
Tommy La Stella: A I give TLS all the credit in the world. Whatever happened in 2016 is obviously behind him. He worked hard to become a good role player, accepted a demotion early this year and produced when he returned. As a pinch-hitter this year he went 9-for-31 (.290), but also drew 10 walks for a .488 on-base percentage. He’ll be an excellent bench weapon in the postseason.
Alex Avila: B The Cubs made an acquisition that paid off when Contreras went down with the hamstring injury. Avila was the perfect veteran backup catcher, playing solid defense (threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal) and getting some key hits, including this game-winner [VIDEO] against the Blue Jays:
Victor Caratini: Incomplete Caratini didn’t really get enough playing time to make a judgment on his performance. He struggled in his first few big-league games, starting his career 0-for-9, then showed a better bat, hitting .300/.364/.420 (15-for-50) the rest of the way. He’ll be in the mix for the 2018 roster.
Rene Rivera: B+ Hit surprisingly well as a Cub (.341/.408/.591 with two home runs in 44 at-bats). There’s a possibility he’ll be on the postseason roster as Joe Maddon seems to like having three catchers there. Even so, he’s not likely back in 2018.
Jake Arrieta: B+ I gave Jake a C at the All-Star break, but his second half was excellent: 2.28 ERA, 1.090 WHIP in 12 starts. The only thing holding him back was the hamstring injury he suffered September 4 in Pittsburgh. Now we just have to hope that’s healed well enough for him to start against the Nationals.
Jon Lester: C+ Lester got a C+ from me at the break and he didn’t improve that much over the second half. He spent some time on the disabled list and threw the fewest innings he’d had in any season since he became a fulltime rotation starter in 2008. He did hit his first big-league home run this year [VIDEO], which is worth a look:
Kyle Hendricks: B+ Kyle also had an excellent second half after spending significant time on the disabled list. After his return: 2.19 ERA, 1.179 WHIP in 13 starts, numbers not too far off his excellent 2016 season. After September 1, even better: 2.01 ERA, 1.021 WHIP in five starts covering 31⅓ innings.
Jose Quintana: B+ Jose had a couple of clunkers as a Cub, but for the most part was as advertised when he was acquired for a couple of the Cubs’ top prospects. His complete-game shutout of the Brewers September 24 was magnificent. He’ll be a key contributor during the postseason and is under team control for three more seasons at a very reasonable cost.
John Lackey: B- Lackey is Lackey, you know what you’re getting with him, whether you like his approach or not. He’ll turn 39 right before the World Series begins, and this might be his last year. Still, he did a good job of eating up innings and the Cubs’ record of 19-11 in his starts was the best of any Cubs starting pitcher this year. He’s got more postseason experience than anyone on the staff and that might come into play this October.
Mike Montgomery: B He’s made some very good starts, and he’s also been hit hard in some of his other outings. Overall this season he was better out of the bullpen (2.49 ERA, 1.288 WHIP in 30 relief appearances) than as a starter (4.15 ERA, 1.139 WHIP in 14 starts). He’ll be ready to go out of the pen in the postseason, then could be a rotation candidate in 2018.
Wade Davis: A- Davis was lights-out in the first half, a bit more shaky later in the season. He recorded 32 straight saves, a franchise record, before blowing one to the Brewers (spectacularly, too) in the four-game series at Milwaukee in late September. He looks like he could use the rest before the postseason begins.
Carl Edwards Jr.: A- CJ can strike out hitters with the best of MLB relievers (12.8 per nine innings), but still walks too many guys (5.2 per nine innings). He allows so few hits (just 29 in 66 innings) that his WHIP still looks excellent (1.010). If he can harness his command and control he can become one of the top relievers in the game.
Brian Duensing: A- A revelation. After a shaky April, he became one of the best middle/setup relievers in baseball. From May 1 through season’s end: 2.10 ERA, 1.096 WHIP in 61 appearances covering 55⅔ innings. He’s one of the Cubs’ best scrap-heap signings of the last few years.
Pedro Strop: B Pedro had a Pedro year. Look at all his numbers since he came to the Cubs: remarkably consistent. His walk rate was up a bit this year and his K rate down a bit, but otherwise you know what you’re getting with him.
Hector Rondon: C+ This is the grade I gave him at midseason and his second-half performance doesn’t really warrant a higher grade. This caveat, though: His last 10 appearances of the season, covering nine innings, were lights-out. He allowed just four hits, no runs and no walks in those outings and struck out 12. If that’s the Rondon the Cubs get in the postseason, that could make a huge difference in any playoff series.
Justin Wilson: D- Wilson was mostly awful with the Cubs after a pretty good half season with the Tigers. He posted a 5.09 ERA and 2.094 (yikes!) WHIP in 23 Cubs appearances covering 17⅔ innings. Every now and again he had a good outing, but that was usually followed by a bad one. He’s got talent, clearly, but something’s wrong and the time to fix that, in my view, is spring training.
Koji Uehara: C- At age 42, Koji ran out of gas and then was injured in September. His last eight outings were bad: 9.00 ERA, 1.833 WHIP, three home runs in six innings. He’d probably like to pitch another year, but I think his time with the Cubs is done.
Justin Grimm: D- Man, I’d love to give this guy a better grade. Has a great arm, seems like a good teammate, but he just can’t get guys out. Since returning from his second demotion of the year: 6.46 ERA, 1.500 WHIP in 14 appearances. He’s 29 and likely to be non-tendered this offseason.
Rob Zastrzyny: Incomplete Rob Z. spent a lot of time on the roster, but got into just four games, and didn’t really throw well in any of them. He’s lefthanded and 25, which means he’ll likely get more chances going forward.
Jen-Ho Tseng: Incomplete The Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year got a surprise start against the Mets September 14 and seemed, understandably, to be very nervous. He got hit hard. A subsequent relief appearance September 28 vs. the Cardinals was much better. Tseng has talent and will be in the rotation mix in 2018.
Felix Pena: C- Another reliever with a good arm who just has to harness command and control. He also gave up way too many home runs (eight in 34⅓ innings). He’s 27, so 2018 is likely his last chance to stick in the Cubs’ pen.
Dillon Maples: Incomplete Maples had one bad outing out of six, which gave him an unsightly 10.13 ERA. However, he also struck out 11 of the 27 batters he faced. He’s got a good arm and could very well be in the mix for a bullpen spot in 2018.
The following men also played for the Cubs this year: Miguel Montero, Matt Szczur, Mark Zagunis, Jeimer Candelario, Mike Freeman, Leonys Martin, Taylor Davis, Eddie Butler, Brett Anderson, Dylan Floro, Pierce Johnson, Zac Rosscup, Jack Leathersich and Seth Frankoff.