Bill Veeck once said: “There are only two seasons — winter and baseball.” Baseball ended last week, so we are currently embarking on the long dark of winter. I know. I’m not looking forward to it either.
The good news is that even though we don’t have the exact days until Spring Training will start for the Cubs, based on history and some of the announced days for other teams we appear to be right around 100 days until pitchers and catchers report. In fact, last year Cubs pitchers and catchers reported on February 13. That would be 98 days, even less than 100.
While we all wait around desperately for baseball and the hot stove to fire up there will still be baseball-adjacent news. We have awards, the Hall of Fame, and one of my favorites, projection systems. Projection systems are basically large amounts of historical data about players combined to establish future trends. Think of it as a highly educated guess about what fans (or General Managers, for that matter) should expect from players in the next season. There will obviously be outliers, but overall they should give us an idea of a player’s future performance.
Since there was no baseball (97 days, 97 days!) I spent some time with the Steamer Projections for the 2020 Chicago Cubs. Initially I think I was trying to cheer myself up. After all, 2018 wasn’t a particularly great year for our boys in blue, surely someone was on track to break out?
I should have known better. Steamer is not optimistic about the 2020 Cubs. Let’s take a look at the numbers. First up, the 2020 Steamer projections for players projected to have at least 200 plate appearances:
2020 Steamer Projections - Cubs
|Albert Almora Jr.||70||295||8||33||16||52||.266||.308||.411||.719||.302||84||0.1|
I’m going to break this table down in two ways. First, I’ll look at some team level observations. Second, I’ll look specifically at the four players’ historical data since 2016 and how it compares with these projections.
Steamer clearly projects that the inconsistent performance of the Cubs will continue in 2020. The highest fWAR for any player on this team is Kris Bryant at 4.8, that would places him in a four-way 14th-place tie among all projected players. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good company. He’s hanging out with Nolan Arenado, Yasmani Grandal, and Juan Soto, but it’s not quite perennial MVP territory. It’s barely top five third baseman territory as it puts him behind Alex Bregman (6.3), Anthony Rendon (5.5) and José Ramírez (5.1).
The only other Cubs player in the top 50 by fWAR is Anthony Rizzo. He’s in a three-way tie for 30th with Marcus Semien and Ozzie Albies. For reference the Astros have five players in the top 50, the Yankees and Braves have three. I mean, I guess we can comfort ourselves a bit with the notion that the Brewers and Cardinals also only have two. Steamer projects that the NL Central is basically going to be another slog through mediocrity.
Steamer projects that 8 players will hit 40 or more home runs next season, none of them are on the Cubs. If Steamer projections are correct the home run leader for the Cubs would be Kyle Schwarber at 36. If old school metrics are more your thing, it seems worth noting that Steamer doesn’t think there is a single 100 RBI player on this team.
Basically, this looks like a slightly less good version of the team that finished third in 2019.
The players Steamer is most bullish on are Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, but neither is projected at anywhere near their career-best seasons. You can see their past four seasons plus Steamer projections in the tables below. First up, Bryant:
Kris Bryant 2016-19 & Steamer
Steamer is basically projecting the same season Cubs fans saw from Bryant in 2019, right down to the walks and strike outs. While Bryant had a nice season, he’s also do for a pretty big raise, so I’m sure Cubs fans would love to see him prove the projections wrong.
Anthony Rizzo really isn’t appreciated enough. The Captain just comes in every year and gives you right around 30 home runs, right around 100 RBIs, a bunch of walks and Gold Glove-caliber defense. It should surprise no one that that is what Steamer projects for Rizzo in 2020:
Anthony Rizzo 2016-19 and Steamer
Javier Báez and Willson Contreras
Steamer is really not optimistic about my two favorite Cubs. I’ll confess, that was the original impetus for this article. I had to do a bit of a deeper dive on why Steamer seemed to have an issue with my favorites. Let’s start with the numbers. First up, Javy:
Javy Báez 2016-19 and Steamer
In fairness to Steamer, Javy has kind of been all over the place. It’s easiest to see in his wRC+ where he has basically two barely below average seasons, one absolute monster breakout and a solidly above-average season. Since Steamer uses multiple years of data, it’s possible that his 2016-17 seasons are still impacting their projection quite a bit. It actually made me want to go back and look at the projections from last offseason. Luckily Brendan Miller at Cubs Insider wrote that up. Steamer projected a regression for Javy in 2019 as well, Javy overperformed their projection but did regress. I feel sort of cautiously optimistic he can overperform their projection again.
Let’s take a look at Willson’s numbers:
Willson Contreras 2016-19 and Steamer
This is a bit more puzzling to me and it’s not because Willson Contreras is my favorite™. Willson has approximately three and a half seasons in the majors, unlike Javy, three of those seasons are remarkably consistent. His 2018 started with a season that resulted in starting the All-Star Game before he fell into a pretty bad slump in the second half. I have to imagine it’s the sheer number of plate appearances that has Steamer convinced that Willson is somewhere closer to that slump than to the .267/.350/.470 wRC+ 117 he’s put up over his career. Contreras is another candidate that I think will over perform his Steamer. To return to Miller’s article, at this time in 2018 Steamer projected Willson at: .256/.339/.332 with 14 HR. It’s pretty clear he overperformed that.
I am cautiously optimistic that both Javy and Willson will overperform their Steamer projections, particularly the wRC+ number, but it still seems pretty clear that the Cubs are missing a big piece. The offense needs to add a bat to supplement this lineup if the Cubs want to pull away from the NL Central and contend in 2020.