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The ZiPS system says the Cubs will win the N.L. Central again in 2018

It’s really way too early to make a projection like this, but here it is anyway.

The Cubs after clinching the 2017 N.L. Central title in St. Louis last September
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball analyst Dan Szymborski created a system called “ZiPS” a number of years ago to project future performance. Here’s how it works:

ZiPS uses growth and decline curves based on player type to find trends. It then factors those trends into the past performance of those players to come up with projections.

The system uses statistics from the previous four years for players from ages 24-38, and it weights more recent seasons heavier. For younger or older players, it uses weighted statistics from only the previous three years. The system also factors velocities, injury data and play-by-play data into its equations.

And every year, Szymborski puts out a very early projection for the following season’s standings.

At late Friday, his first 2018 projection was posted. It’s behind a paywall, so I’ll give you some highlights here. First, the caveat:

As is my tradition, I run a "State of the Franchise" projection for all of Major League Baseball at the start of the offseason. This does not mean that these are the official 2018 projections that you'll see in March, but they are where each team stands with only the players currently under contract. That means no Jake Arrieta for the Chicago Cubs, no Yu Darvish for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and no Eric Hosmer for the Kansas City Royals.

Even without Arrieta and the other players now officially off the Cubs’ 40-man roster because they became free agents, the ZiPS system currently has the Cubs at 87 wins, enough to win the N.L. Central by three games over the Brewers. Szymborski further writes about the Cubs:

Keeping Jose Quintana helps the Cubs, of course, but Jake Arrieta is a real loss and while the Cubs certainly have the finances and the interest to bring Arrieta back and signing more players this offseason, none of that has actually happened yet. Most of the rest of the core is intact and under contract, but as 2017 demonstrated, even a great team isn't an undefeatable one.

That seems pretty accurate to me, based on the Cubs roster as of today, November 4. Obviously players, particularly starting pitchers, will be added to that roster. It should be noted that one year ago at this time, the ZiPS system had the Cubs winning 92 games in 2017, which is exactly what happened. An updated projection posted just before the 2017 season began had the Cubs at 98 wins; obviously they fell short of that. That projection swung and missed badly on a few teams, notably the Giants (projected at 86 wins), the Diamondbacks (projected at 77) and the Brewers (projected at 74).

As noted above, it’s really way too early to make projections like this, since we are just at the beginning of the free-agent season and we have little idea where all the key free agents are going to land. The Cubs will almost certainly be better than an 87-win team in 2017; how much better depends on who they sign and/or trade for.

But since this projection is out there, I thought I’d post it here for discussion purposes. Have at it.