Tuesday, Cubs pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training and for the first time since 2015 I’m really not sure what to expect. When Theo Epstein came to Chicago from Boston before the 2012 season we all knew what to expect for a few years: The Cubs would be bad. Very bad. Historically bad. These were the rebuild years and we all expected to Cubs to lose. After an early breakout season in 2015 the Cubs were supposed to be good. Very good. Historically, maybe even a dynasty, good. The expectations were high and they were supposed to be, for a long time.
It’s wild how quickly the dreams of a dynasty can collapse into “maybe this team can make the playoffs one more time, who knows?”
The biggest move the Cubs made this offseason was signing David Ross as their manager and overhauling the coaching staff (again). They turned Mark Loretta (we hardly knew ya) into Andy Green, moved Will Venable from first base to third base, brought Craig Driver on as their first base/catching coach and replaced longtime bullpen coach Lester Strode with Chris Young. Oh, they also hired Mike Napoli as the quality assurance coach, which has got to be worth a few wins, just on principle. I mean, just look at this quality assurance:
I’m only being a little facetious here. The biggest moves the Cubs made this offseason were all about clubhouse dynamics and coaching. I mean I suppose it’s possible that Steven Souza Jr. could have a huge impact, but I’m not holding my breath.
So on the eve of Spring Training I wanted to take a few minutes to look at some Fangraphs Depth Charts data to see what these projections think of the 2020 Chicago Cubs. You might recall I did something similar with the STEAMER projections in November.
What are the Depth Charts?
Fangraphs Depth Chart projections are a combination of STEAMER and ZiPS projections with playing time allocated by Fangraphs staff. They are the metrics behind the playoff and projected stats that Fangraphs updates throughout the season. Here’s the explanation of why you should use Depth Charts from Fangraphs:
The Depth Charts are very useful for a couple of reasons. First, they blend two projection systems together without you having to do any of the work, and that’s helpful because aggregate projections are better than any one system. Second, playing time is controlled by humans. While projection systems are much better at forecasting performance than people, projection systems aren’t very good at figuring out how much playing time a player is actually going to get. Finally, the Depth Charts gather a lot of information in one place. We’ve had projections on the site for years, but having them built into the system like this allows you to make a lot of comparisons and see where teams are strong or weak.
What does Fangraphs expect from the 2020 Cubs?
I actually had to do a bit of a double take here but just like 2019 Fangraphs likes the Cubs better than any other team in the NL Central. No, really, take a look for yourself. First up, all the teams ranked by projected fWAR:
Fangraphs (still) likes the Cubs overall more than their NL Central competition. They project that the team will finish with right around 40.5 fWAR, which is about 4 fWAR better than the Brewers. Most of this is on the strength of their offense and fielding as we’ll see in a second.
It’s worth noting that Fangraphs liked the Cubs more than their NL Central opponents last year, too and that all collapsed at the end of the season. It’s also worth noting that these projected standings for 2020 project another down-to-the-wire finish in the Central (note, the 2020 projections have winning percentages, though not W/L records):
The Cubs pitching is still a big question mark
The Cubs have that razor thin edge in the Depth Chart projections because Fangraphs’ projections systems still fundamentally believes in their offense. They expect the Cubs to score a lot of runs. The real questions, just like last year are in the pitching.
First up, the starters. Fangraphs projects the Cubs to be the 11th strongest rotation in baseball in 2020 worth 13.3 fWAR. That’s...not great, but it’s also the second strongest rotation in the NL Central behind the Reds, who are ranked sixth with a projected 16.6 fWAR:
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the Cubs individual pitcher projections:
A few notes about these numbers, the only starters that Fangraphs likes more in 2020 than their 2019 baseline are Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills. Oh, and Chatwood and Mills mostly get an fWAR bump from an innings bump, not a performance bump.
Projections have never really appreciated Kyle Hendricks, and these are no exception. He was worth 4.1 fWAR in 2019 and is projected at 2.7 for 2020. Jon Lester’s grittiness got him to 2.8 fWAR in 2019, but Fangraphs projects him at 2.0 in 2020. Jose Quintana is projected to drop from 3.5 fWAR to 2.5 fWAR.
Fangraphs is less rosy on it’s bullpen projections:
The silver lining here is that while the Cubs bullpen still projects to be the weakest part of the team it also projects to be somehwat better than in 2019 when the Cubs had the 20th best bullpen in the league worth a total of 1.3 fWAR. The other silver lining comes in the form of the individual player projections seen below:
The most notable individual improvement here is for closer Craig Kimbrel (-1.0 fWAR in 2019). And then...there are a lot of question marks and guys with high upsides. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, or Alec Mills exceed these expectations. I think if Brandon Morrow and Jeremy Jeffress are healthy (big if) they could absolutely crush these numbers.
But let’s be really clear, even with these improvements and the upside, the bullpen projects to be the weakest link again in 2020. The Cubs barely come in ahead of the Pirates in these projections, and while the fate of the Brewers bullpen rests on the well-worked arm of Josh Hader, the Cardinals and Reds both have some more trusted options in the late innings.