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Reflections on the Cubs 2018 season, and Cubs final grades

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This season ended way too soon, but still was not a complete failure.

Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

What if I had told you, on March 28, the day before this season began, that all of the following things were going to happen to the 2018 Cubs:

  • Yu Darvish would make eight mediocre starts and not pitch for the Cubs at all after May 20.
  • Tyler Chatwood would post an ERA north of 5 and lead the major leagues in walks despite making only one appearance after August 18.
  • Anthony Rizzo would be hitting .149/.259/.189 at the end of April with one home run.
  • Brandon Morrow would not pitch at all after the All-Star break.
  • Kris Bryant would miss 50 games with a shoulder injury and have a big power dropoff.
  • Addison Russell’s production would drop and he would wind up suspended after domestic violence allegations.

Those are poor performances from several players who were expected to be among the most important Cubs this year. You’d probably have said they’d wind up with a losing season.

But no. All those things did happen and the Cubs won 95 games anyway. Yes, they missed winning the division title in a tiebreaker game and lost the wild-card game and are now sitting home in October, but that’s a really impressive achievement, a 95-win season even when multiple major things go wrong.

That’s because many things went right, too. Javier Baez had a season that makes him an MVP candidate, though he likely doesn’t win that award because Christian Yelich had a monster run in September. The starting rotation, after struggling much of the year, was awesome down the stretch. David Bote came out of nowhere to hit some important home runs, including his walkoff ultimate slam that’s always worth watching again [VIDEO].

We are disappointed today, having to watch other teams play for the World Series championship. The Cubs just ran out of gas, having to play 40 games in the regular season’s last 41 days, and even with that tough run they managed a 24-16 record, which, I might remind you, is a .600 winning percentage that would produce 97 wins in a full season. The Brewers just played out of their minds in that same stretch, going 27-10.

Theo Epstein and his management team will have to make some hard choices this offseason and it seems likely that one or more of the beloved group that won the 2016 World Series won’t be Cubs when they gather in Mesa next February. He hinted as much in his season-ending news conference Wednesday, where he spoke for an hour and touched on all the frustrations we all felt. If you think management didn’t notice the things we did, that’s simply not true. They did. And they’ll do something to address that. If you missed Theo’s remarks, you can watch the whole thing here (scroll in about six minutes for the beginning of the actual news conference) [VIDEO].

Theo Epstein Live

Cubs President Theo Epstein meets the media NOW on NBC Sports Chicago to discuss the season and what's next for his team. More Cubs news and analysis at nbcschicago.com/cubs.

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

There will be gnashing of teeth at trading away beloved players, but that’s simply the natural progression of baseball. In the end, there might be only one of that core who will finish his career with the Cubs, and that’s Rizzo. When that World Series bunch is all retired from the game, they will keep their place in our hearts as Cubs champions.

What we want is another group that will produce yet another championship, and I believe Theo & Co. will do their very best to put together such a group for 2019.

With that, here are my final grades for the 2018 Cubs.

Willson Contreras: C Contreras seemed to regress both offensively and defensively this year. Defensively, yes, despite his success in throwing out runners. His pitch framing is still not what it could be, and he needed a home run (which wasn’t really a home run [VIDEO]) on the season’s final day just to get to double figures, after hitting 21 in 2017.

Anthony Rizzo: A As usual, Rizzo did everything he was asked to do. After that awful April, he hit .303/.393/.512 with 24 home runs, 92 RBI, 66 walks and 65 strikeouts the rest of the year, which essentially is the same season he’s had for the last five years, just minus a good start. Last offseason I wrote that the Cubs should give him a contract extension, and I still believe this to be a good idea.

Daniel Murphy: B- Murphy’s slash line of .297/.329/.471 in 146 PA for the Cubs looks superficially good, but if you dive into the game logs it’s not so great. After a huge splash of .407/.448/.704 (11-for-27, two home runs) in his first six games as a Cub, Murphy had a 15-game stretch where he hit .180/.219/.295 (11-for-61), before cranking it up and hitting .380/.396/.560 (19-for-50) over his final 13 games. Murphy turns 34 just after Opening Day 2019, is bad defensively and would be expensive to retain. I’m pretty sure he’ll be with some other team next year.

Javier Baez: A Baez had a breakout year and will get some votes for MVP, though in all likelihood he finishes second to Christian Yelich. Like a lot of the team, he wore down at season’s end, hitting just .234/.294/.362 over his last 12 games (11-for-47, one home run, 17 strikeouts). He’ll be the Cubs shortstop for years to come, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a multiyear deal buying out his arb years and first couple of years of free agency.

Addison Russell: D Much has been written about Russell here and all that needs to be added is that on the field, his production suffered and he had several injuries. Theo was noncommittal when asked Wednesday if Russell would be back.

Kris Bryant: C+ KB’s shoulder injury ruined his season, taking about a third of it out on the disabled list, and even after he returned in September his power was gone: .259/.354/.412 in September (22-for-85) with only two home runs and 32 strikeouts. At his news conference, Theo said Bryant won’t need shoulder surgery, that an offseason’s rest should get him back to form. Let’s hope so.

Kyle Schwarber: B+ With two full seasons under his belt, I think we have to accept that Kyle is who he is: a player with prodigious power who walks a lot, still can’t hit lefthanders (.224/.352/.303 with just one home run in 91 PA), and is never going to have a high batting average, for whatever that’s worth. He has improved his defense tremendously and had 11 outfield assists in 2018, which was tied for second in the National League.

Albert Almora Jr.: B- Almora got off to a great start and at the end of June was hitting .332/.369/.461. Some people even thought he deserved an All-Star selection. But his offense declined in the second half (.232/.267/.280 in 181 PA) and he started just 12 games in September.

Ian Happ: C Happ played in 142 games, fourth-most on the team, but started just 102 of those as Joe Maddon couldn’t seem to figure out how to use him. He’s not really good defensively anywhere; left field seems his “best” position, even though Joe started him 12 times at third base and 40 times in center field. His power dropped (.514 SLG in 2017, .408 in 2018) and he struck out an unsightly 167 times (36 percent of his total PA). I could see Happ traded.

Jason Heyward: B- For a few weeks midseason, it appeared the Cubs had the Heyward they thought they had signed before 2016. From May 29 through July 24, Heyward hit .326/.381/.481 (59-for-181) with five home runs. After that? Uh, no: .239/.303/.324 the rest of the way (155 PA) with just one home run. Overall his numbers were up from 2017, but...

Ben Zobrist: A- Zobrist had one of the best years of his career, and props to Joe for resting the 37-year-old when needed to keep his production up. He played several positions, even still being competent in right field. His 3.3 bWAR was a distinct improvement over the 0.5 he put up in an injury-plagued 2017. He’ll be in the final year of his contract in 2019 and I don’t see any reason he can’t still be productive.

David Bote: B- Bote burst on the Cubs scene, hitting home runs when no one expected him to, including the ultimate slam you see above. But he ended the year poorly: .183/.250/.333 (22-for-120) with 43 strikeouts. No doubt, Bote has talent, and his entire career has been about hard work and making adjustments. He’ll surely be in the mix for 2019.

Tommy La Stella: B- TLS set the Cubs franchise record for pinch hits in a season with 24, and overall as a PH was pretty good: .312/.398/.416 with five doubles, nine walks and a home run. But in the 24 games he started his offense was poor: .222/.267/.235 (18-for-81) with only one extra-base hit, a double. Give Tommy credit for working his way back into the good graces of his teammates and the front office, with his spring-training pranks, but he turns 30 in January and I wonder if the Cubs will move on.

Victor Caratini: C I’d love to see him hit better, because the Cubs love his pitch framing and maybe that would rate more starts, but these numbers don’t: .232/.293/.304 (42-for-181).

Terrance Gore: A- Gore gets this grade because he did exactly what the Cubs wanted him to do: pinch run and steal bases. He stole six bases without being caught and scored five runs. He even got his first big-league hit, off Max Scherzer, no less. Gore will probably be offered a minor-league deal by the Cubs and be stashed at Iowa until September 2019.

Jon Lester: B+ Lester’s numbers were better than his peripherals in the first half; the numbers got him an All-Star selection, but it was always feared he was headed for a fall, and he had a bad eight-start stretch in which he posted an 8.01 ERA and 1.957 WHIP, with 12 (!) home runs served up in 39⅓, innings. But he righted the ship after that, posting a 1.71 ERA over his last eight starts.

Kyle Hendricks: B+ Just like Lester, Hendricks had a bad stretch, only longer: 15 mid-season starts with a 4.83 ERA. After that, though, he helped carry the team down the stretch with a 1.66 ERA in his final eight starts with just two home runs and eight walks in his last 54⅓, innings. Like the rest of the Cubs, he was likely out of gas by the 13th inning of the wild-card game, when he allowed the game-winning hit. I’ve always liked Kyle and this fact:

Jose Quintana: C+ Sometimes Q is dominant, mostly against the Brewers, against whom he posted a 2.13 ERA and 0.921 WHIP in seven starts. But that means other teams hit him hard, and against clubs not named “Brewers,” Quintana had a 4.64 ERA and allowed 15 home runs in 132 innings. That just doesn’t cut it. He’s going to have to do better in 2019.

Tyler Chatwood: F Chatwood made 130 appearances (113 starts) covering 647⅔ innings before he came to the Cubs. That’s a fair amount of big-league time, and he had a walk rate of 4.2 per nine innings. That isn’t great, but it’s far better than the horrific rate of 8.2 walks per nine innings with the Cubs. I mean... how does that happen? If the Cubs can figure out the answer to that, maybe they can salvage Chatwood’s contract. Otherwise... ugh.

Yu Darvish: D- I probably could give Darvish an “incomplete,” because, well... he didn’t complete the season, losing four months to injury. Of the eight starts he made, three were decent and the other five were pretty bad. The only hope the Cubs have is that the injury heals well — he had an arthroscopic procedure last month — and Darvish can throw better in 2019.

Cole Hamels: A Where would the Cubs have been without the 12 starts Hamels made for them? He was N.L. Pitcher of the Month for August and had only one clunker out of those 12 Cubs outings. I hope the Cubs retain him, and Hamels appears to want to stay:

It might be worth exercising the option, then tearing up the $20 million deal and giving Hamels two years at, say, $34 million or so.

Brandon Morrow: A- The minus is the missed half-season. Morrow was outstanding in the first half, posting 22 saves with just two blown saves. He allowed runs in just three of his 35 appearances. For anyone who criticizes Theo’s free-agent contracts, this one was a good signing, presuming Morrow is healthy in 2019.

Steve Cishek: A- Another good FA signing, Cishek was excellent until he (along with many of his teammates) ran out of gas late in the year, posting a 4.76 ERA over his last 18 appearances. He pitched in 80 games, becoming just the 10th Cub to throw in that many games, the first since Shawn Camp in 2012:

Results
Rk Player Year G
1 Steve Cishek 2018 80
2 Shawn Camp 2012 80
3 Sean Marshall 2010 80
4 Carlos Marmol 2008 82
5 Bob Howry 2006 84
6 Jeff Fassero 2001 82
7 Rod Beck 1998 81
8 Bill Campbell 1983 82
9 Dick Tidrow 1980 84
10 Ted Abernathy 1965 84
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/4/2018.

Pedro Strop: A- All you need to know about how I feel about Pedro is in this article I wrote about him in August. Yes, I wish he hadn’t hurt his hamstring running the bases. I can see why he did that, though; any competitor would. It was a defensible call leaving him in to bat in that situation (Joe Maddon wanted him to face Anthony Rendon). And then there’s this:

Pedro’s great. He has a contract option for 2019 that will certainly be exercised; I hope he finishes his career as a Cub.

Justin Wilson: B Wilson was much better this year than in his horrific two months as a Cub in 2017. He’s one of only a couple of Cubs pitchers who can throw 95+ consistently, and in modern baseball you need that. It’s something the Cubs will have to address. Wilson might stick around if he’s not too expensive; otherwise I expect him to depart as a free agent.

Carl Edwards Jr.: C CJ was injured early in the year and missed several weeks, and when he returned his velocity was down. Joe kept putting him in games, saying that he needed CJ to be right for the bullpen to be effective. He was right about that, but Edwards was never quite right all year, finally leaving the September 30 game with “forearm tightness” and being left off the wild card game roster. Hopefully he’s right by spring training.

Mike Montgomery: B Montgomery did an excellent job taking over in the rotation after the injuries to Darvish and Chatwood. His 19 starts were a career high, and in those starts he posted a 3.69 ERA and 1.352 WHIP, with just eight home runs allowed in 97⅓ innings. Depending on the direction Theo & Co. want to go, I could see him traded, as he will be arb-eligible this offseason.

Jesse Chavez: A What a revelation. Love the weird sunglasses, love the way he works quickly, his career was resurrected after his acquisition from the Rangers. And he wants to be back:

Absolutely, the Cubs should bring him back.

Randy Rosario: C Rosario had his moments, including drawing an RBI walk in his first big-league plate appearance. After August 1, though, he was pretty bad: 7.36 ERA, 1.705 WHIP. He doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but does have a good arm, and situational lefties are always worth having around.

Brian Duensing: F He was just awful after a good 2017. He spent much of the year on the DL, so perhaps that was the reason. He’ll probably be back next year, as he is under contract for $3.5 million, which I suppose the Cubs could eat if they wanted to and just release him.

Brandon Kintzler: D- Theo & Co. made four key pitching acquisitions after the All-Star break. This is the one that didn’t work. Kintzler was just bad. He has a player option for $5 million for 2019 which he will almost certainly exercise. So, the Cubs are stuck with him, unless they want to eat that money, too.

Jorge De La Rosa: B+ He was very good after being rescued from the scrap heap when the Diamondbacks released him. He’s 37, but his velocity is still good (92-93) and he could also be a situational lefty next year. Rates a minor-league deal and a spring-training invite, at the very least.

Jaime Garcia: B Ditto De La Rosa, Garcia was pretty good as a scrap-heap pickup. He’s only 32 and might rate a NRI to spring training.

Alec Mills: B Intriguing, he threw very well in a couple of emergency starts, but doesn’t seem to really have a place on this roster. He could be a valuable trade piece. He turns 27 in November, so 2019 is a key year for him.

James Norwood: C+ The results weren’t there, but Norwood has a good arm and can consistently throw 97-98. The Cubs don’t have a lot of guys like this, so he will certainly get a chance to make the bullpen in 2019.

Dillon Maples: D Like Norwood, the results were poor, but Maples throws hard and has a pretty good slider. He just needs to learn to harness command and control of his pitches, and he could still have a decent big-league career.

Justin Hancock: Incomplete Hancock was injured much of 2018, but can also throw 97-98. If he’s healthy, he’ll likely get a look next spring training.

Chris Gimenez, Efren Navarro, Taylor Davis, Mark Zagunis, Mike Freeman, Luke Farrell, Eddie Butler, Cory Mazzoni, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny, Duane Underwood Jr., Allen Webster and Jen-Ho Tseng also played in at least one game for the 2018 Cubs.