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BCB roundtable: 2021 Cubs season preview

A discussion of the season to come from the BCB staff.

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BCB’s front-page writers have done several of these roundtable discussions previewing Cubs seasons and postseasons, so here we are again to kick off the 2021 season. Josh, Duane, Sara, Thomas, Ashley and I had a lively online conversation Tuesday afternoon. The online chat has been lightly edited for clarity.

Al Yellon: So, here we are. Baseball’s back, we’re playing 162 games this year, fans are coming back to ballparks... what are we all expecting from the Cubs this year?

Duane Pesice: 85 wins.

Al Yellon: The NL Central sucks. The Cubs could win the division with 85 wins

Duane Pesice: Yabbut strife and turmoil...

Sara Sanchez: I honestly think this team either wins 90 games or 70. I think if they are on pace for a .500 (ish) season. Hoyer is going to fire sale whatever he can even with the weak division.

Josh Timmers: It’s hard to have any expectations. This team could win the division or it could fall flat on its face and lose 90 games. There are so many question marks.

Al Yellon: I know spring training numbers and wins mean nothing but... this team looked remarkably good in spring training.

Duane Pesice: Except for KB and Javy.

Al Yellon: Truth.

Thomas Smith: Somewhere in the 80-85 win range. Lead the division into September and then fade.

Ashley MacLennan: It’s a terrible division, the Cubs shouldn’t be lower than second, and I’d like to see them finish first, but I’m going with 83 wins which is juuust over the .500 mark and feels about right. That just feels right for the division in general, tbh.

Josh Timmers: Sure, if Nico Hoerner comes up in May and turns into an All-Star and Alzolay is a number 2 starter, then they’re a threat to win 95 games. But those are big ifs.

Sara Sanchez: I’m more worried that zero extensions got done and that offer to Rizzo was such a laughable starting point. It really does not look like they will extend anyone, which means a hot start from any of the players who are on the last year or two of their deal (basically the whole roster) will provide a huge incentive to sell if the team isn’t up 5+ games in the division.

Duane Pesice: Nico’s gonna replace Javy if Javy plays his way out of a contract.

Josh Timmers: Possible, Duane.

Duane Pesice: You can see them prepping that.

Al Yellon: I hope Nico learns to hit consistently. He’s had hot starts in 2019, 2020 and spring training 2021 and then fallen flat.

Duane Pesice: I think Hoerner needs to learn how to pace himself for an MLB season.

Thomas Smith: Nico just has to benefit from some actual time in the high minors.

Duane Pesice: Yes.

Josh Timmers: He just hasn’t played that much. There’s a lot of talent there. He also went to Stanford and there’s that “Stanford swing” that he needed to unlearn. It works great in college ball but it has struggled to translate to the majors.

Duane Pesice: That’s exactly it. He’s not conditioned for pro ball yet.

Ashley MacLennan: I think actually giving him time at the MLB level might help though... shuffling him back to the minors doesn’t feel like the right move.

Sara Sanchez: The thing I liked from Nico in spring training (and obviously, those stats are meaningless) was that he showed an approach that demonstrated power and the ability to spray singles and extra base hits all over the field. I think that’s what he was missing before and I’m not really sure how he improves that in scrimmages in Iowa.

Duane Pesice: He needs to play every day, that’s all.

Josh Timmers: Yeah. He does need to play, which is why sending him down was disappointing.

Ashley MacLennan: Yup.

Sara Sanchez: Well there are no MiLB games until May... so...

Al Yellon: A reminder that the Cubs alternate site guys are going to be playing actual games vs. Sox alternate site guys. They aren’t “scrimmages.”

Sara Sanchez: I do not consider scrimmages games, Al.

Ashley MacLennan: I mean... they’re not REALLY games.

Al Yellon: They are competitive games vs. another team.

Duane Pesice: I suspect the players consider them games.

Al Yellon: Yes. They do.

Josh Timmers: Players want to play.

Ashley MacLennan: They have all the makings of games, but so do tofu chicken nuggets, y’know?

Sara Sanchez: If they put some random staffer in left field to fill a spot like they did in Summer Camp and at the Alternate Site last year they are not games.

Al Yellon: That’s not how it’s going to work at all.

Sara Sanchez: I’m just talking about how we all saw it work last year

Al Yellon: Last year’s alternate site things were last-minute. These will be better organized and as I said, there will be actual competitive games vs. other teams. And you can bet the players will take them seriously.

Sara Sanchez: You have a lot more faith in the powers that are overseeing the alternate site than I do. If those “games” have stats, scores and the like I will stand corrected. If they have “Hey, camera guy, can you grab a glove and play left for two innings” again, they are not games.

Josh Timmers: I don’t know, Al. This year’s alternate sites feel pretty last minute too. Triple-A was supposed to start on time until 3 weeks ago.

Ashley MacLennan: Okay, they’re games in terms of play, but they legit count for nothing except keeping players fresh. There’s value in them but it’s not like they’re building stats that count for anything either.

Duane Pesice: There are plenty of eyes on those games, in-system. They’ll have a program for each dude to follow. It’s a dev system.

Al Yellon: It’s not going to be “camera guy playing left” — trust me on this.

Josh Timmers: I will NOT be doing an “alternate site wrap” every night. So there’s that.

Duane Pesice: Heh.

Sara Sanchez: See, Josh doesn’t consider them games.

Al Yellon: Only because the stats won’t be public!

Sara Sanchez: Well, not having those stats be public is actually a big transparency problem for me, but that’s a whole other can of worms. “Sorry, Nico just isn’t ready yet. We don’t like his approach at the plate” with no way for us to figure out what that approach at the plate has looked like is a terrible system.

Thomas Smith: They have had stats in the minors for a long time but they have still always told us not to sweat them. 2019 saw video game stats. How meaningful were those?

Al Yellon: Anyway, let’s get back to the Cubs. Let’s talk about the rotation.

Duane Pesice: I like it. Spacing the soft-tossers with the others should work well. I expect a good year from Williams

Al Yellon: I liked what I saw out of Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams and Zach Davies in Mesa. All solid quality MLB starters.

Josh Timmers: Who isn’t a soft tosser? Alzolay. Arrieta, I guess, but he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to.

Duane Pesice: Williams gets it up there with about the same velo as Jake.

Al Yellon: Arrieta was sitting comfortably at 93 in spring games. He won’t be 2015 Jake but he should be a solid MLB starter.

Josh Timmers: OK, but the only guy who really throws hard is Alzolay. (And I say that knowing fully well that 93 would be considered high-heat 25 years ago.)

Thomas Smith: The rotation looks fine for modern baseball. Give me five good innings. Six is a bonus.

Duane Pesice: I threw 88. I threw hard.

Ashley MacLennan: I think I was ready for everything to crumble when they traded Darvish, but I’m not as worried about the rotation as I thought, especially considering how many times this season they’ll play the Pirates. Sorry not sorry.

Al Yellon: Trevor Williams threw 13 spring innings with one walk. I liked that a lot.

Duane Pesice: His stuff should play with that defense.

Thomas Smith: As long as he isn’t one of those “too many” strikes guys who gets pounded once there are scouting reports.

Sara Sanchez: I appreciate that the Cubs have decided to go all in on a market inefficiency of hiring pitchers rather than flame throwers. They seem to have targeted a bunch of guys who score highly on Eno Sarris’ Command/Stuff matrix while everyone else wants guys who throw 99. I just worry it’s not a diverse enough look from the rotation over a whole series, but I hope I’m wrong about that. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out they are able to do that because Willson Contreras’ framing has improved dramatically.

Josh Timmers: I agree with what Sara wrote there. All of them could be really good. All of them (except Hendricks) could struggle. It’s all so many question marks.

Ashley MacLennan: Sara nailed it.

Al Yellon: The defense is key since the rotation is all pitch-to-contact guys

Josh Timmers: And the defense is a reason to be upset that Hoerner is not playing. Or the need for defense.

Duane Pesice: Yes. Bote isn’t that glove.

Josh Timmers: No, he’s not, Duane. He’s not terrible, but he’s not what this staff needs at second base.

Al Yellon: Watch to see if they call up Nico on the 37th day of the season — there will be service time comments if that happens.

Duane Pesice: It might be a reach but where they have installed him (Bote) makes me think that the Cubs think they’re gonna re-sign KB, and not sign Javy.

Sara Sanchez: There are already service time comments — we’ll just be proven right if that happens.

Al Yellon: Don’t forget that they can replace Bote with Eric Sogard for defense in the late innings.

Josh Timmers: Yeah, that’s true. There is Sogard.

Ashley MacLennan: I’d be shocked of Sogard makes it to September with the Cubs. Just a gut feeling.

Sara Sanchez: Sogard’s bat is the stuff of nightmares

Al Yellon: Sogard had a very good year at the plate in 2019.

Duane Pesice: I agree, Ashley.

Sara Sanchez: Sogard’s career wRC+ is 81.

Josh Timmers: 2017 too. Maybe he can only hit in odd-numbered years.

Sara Sanchez: Regarding extensions, if they think 5/70m is a legit offer for Rizzo they aren’t extending anyone.

Duane Pesice: CBA ya later.

Al Yellon: That was supposed to be a first offer, expecting a counteroffer, but Rizzo doesn’t really work that way, nor should they have expected it. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you what the stuff of nightmares is: Craig Kimbrel.

Duane Pesice: Oh gods.

Ashley MacLennan: But not always because he was terrible, mostly because I hate watching him pitch.

Duane Pesice: He annoys me. He always has.

Sara Sanchez: So, my hot take is that is Kimbrel starts off hot and the Cubs aren’t leading the division by a substantial margin they will trade him and pin their closer hopes on Wick when he’s recovered.

Thomas Smith: The Cubs are loaded with guys who used to be good and they are hoping for bounce-back seasons.

Duane Pesice: Yes Thomas. It has traditionally been their system.

Sara Sanchez: I totally agree Thomas, and the problem is that has been the plan for two years in a row now.

Al Yellon: Brandon Workman is going to close if Kimbrel fails. He’s this year’s Jeremy Jeffress.

Sara Sanchez: I hope to God Workman isn’t closing for this team.

Al Yellon: Brandon Workman had an OUTSTANDING year in 2019.

Sara Sanchez: That was Workman’s one good year out of five. I guess it could happen... but...

Duane Pesice: Or Maples. Maples has closer stuff.

Al Yellon: And I’m a big fan of Maples too.

Josh Timmers: We know that about you and Maples. If he has any control. . . .but if, if, if.

Duane Pesice: Maples is no worse than crappy Craig.

Josh Timmers: Well, crappy Craig is worse than pretty much everyone, so . . . they’ll trade Kimbrel if he’s effective and they aren’t in contention. I don’t think they’ll get much for him though.

Duane Pesice: I’d trade Kimbrel NOW.

Ashley MacLennan: If the Cubs could get a bag of infield dirt to get rid of Kimbrel, I’d take it.

Al Yellon: No one will take Kimbrel now.

Duane Pesice: Yup.

Thomas Smith: The whole bullpen terrifies me. But I’m mindful that the Cubs look that way every year. The best May they have an above average pen.

Josh Timmers: Hey, there’s still an MVP candidate in the bullpen with Tepera!

Thomas Smith: My problem is that they watch the Brewers steal games out of the pen year in, year out. The Cubs don’t try for a pen that is actually a weapon in the modern game.

Sara Sanchez: I am just realizing how pessimistic I am about this season — sorry to be a downer, y’all.

Duane Pesice: No worries. I am pessimistic about baseball in general but the team is middling.

Josh Timmers: No, don’t apologize.

Al Yellon: And I am optimistic based on what I have seen this spring.

Ashley MacLennan: Sara, it’s realism, I think this team can win its division by failing upwards with what they have.

Sara Sanchez: And to be clear — I still think the Cubs can win the division, but only if they do something like that 13-3 start again. Because this division is REALLY bad.

Josh Timmers: I’m just focusing on classic Hollywood and jazz. I approach the season with no expectations.

Sara Sanchez: Failing upward is a great characterization of how this could work out, Ashley.

Duane Pesice: FAILING UPWARD, we loves it!

Ashley MacLennan: A Nolan Arenado does not necessarily mean a winning team in St Louis make (though I think I picked STL to win the division in the FG predictions...).

Sara Sanchez: Ashley, I may borrow that characterization (crediting you of course) for my NL Central projections piece I’m working on tonight.

Ashley MacLennan: Go to town!

Josh Timmers: Does St. Louis have an outfielder?

Al Yellon: Let’s talk about the offense. I am worried about KB and Javy, but the rest of the guys are hitting very well — especially Joc Pederson. I expect a HUGE year from Joc

Duane Pesice: Joc is gonna be killer. Also a huge defensive upgrade.

Josh Timmers: Joc is going to be Schwarber with defense.

Al Yellon: Might even be a bit better hitter than Schwarber.

Ashley MacLennan: Plus his name is Joc, he has to be good at sports or it’s false advertising.

Sara Sanchez: As much as I love Schwarber forever I am really quite happy with Joc. He genuinely deserves a chance to prove he can hit righties and lefties, he’s going to get that shot and he looks locked in.

Thomas Smith: If KB isn’t a star the offense is pretty mediocre.

Sara Sanchez: I disagree, Thomas. I think this offense has been fine with KB struggling for three seasons now. I actually love that KB got moved down in the order.

Duane Pesice: Yeah. He should hit second or seventh right now.

Al Yellon: Looks like Ross is going to hit Willson second, which should make Sara happy.

Sara Sanchez: Oh, I am over the moon about it. It’s also outstanding news for all of my fantasy teams... but I know no one cares about those.

Thomas Smith: I do like KB down in the order. Was surprised it seemed to get in his head.

Duane Pesice: Willson gets Happ balls to hit. We’re looking at 80-85 outfield dingers.

Sara Sanchez: I think Willson is good in that spot. Yes, he gets Happ balls to hit, he also is good at drawing out an AB and he’ll take walks in addition to raking. I think it lengthens the line up a lot and hopefully makes everyone more effective

Al Yellon: Also, Jake Marisnick is a definite upgrade over Albert Almora as fourth outfielder.

Josh Timmers: Almora always made those spectacular plays, but it was because he made fairly routine outs look spectacular.

Duane Pesice: Marisnick has actual real wheels.

Josh Timmers: Duane brings up Happ. He’s going to be a key member of this offense if it works this season.

Thomas Smith: Happ has quietly become one of my favorite players.

Al Yellon: All right, I have a question for everyone. Which Cub that is not expected to be great, is going to have a great year?

Josh Timmers: Happ.

Duane Pesice: Heyward.

Al Yellon: I’m going with Bote. I think he will have a big breakout offensive season.

Duane Pesice: Bote is a good choice. I expect Happ to be great.

Thomas Smith: I’m with you on Bote.

Sara Sanchez: Arrieta.

Josh Timmers: Nothing would make me happier for it to be Arrieta.

Duane Pesice: Jake, yes. Also, Williams is possible.

Sara Sanchez: I really think the defensive upgrade behind him is going to take more than a full run off his ERA.

Duane Pesice: Philly sux defensively.

Sara Sanchez: The ground ball rate is still elite, he just doesn’t K guys the same way 2015 Godly Jake did. But I’d be very happy with the return of 2017 Jake.

Ashley MacLennan: I want to see good things out of Happ, but tbh I want to say KB here. I don’t know how much expectation people outside the org have for him and I’d love to see him bolster his free agent value with a killer year.

Josh Timmers: I’d like to say Alzolay because I’m his biggest fan, but I think he’s going to take a year to establish himself.

Al Yellon: Now, let’s reverse the question. Which Cub who is expected to be good will have a down year? I say Javy.

Duane Pesice: Javy. I think Javy plays his way out of town

Josh Timmers: Is anyone expected to have a good year? Sure, maybe Javy will be down, but what are his expectations at this point?

Thomas Smith: Hate to say it but Rizzo. Feels like he might have started to decline.

Duane Pesice: Rizzo.

Sara Sanchez: I am really worried about Bryant — I know he had a wrist injury but his Statcast numbers were not just down last year, they were really quite low. And he didn’t do a lot this spring to make me think he’s better.

Ashley MacLennan: Javy, sadly.

Al Yellon: Let’s hope Javy proves us all wrong.

Ashley MacLennan: Would love to be proven wrong though.

Al Yellon: Jinx!

Ashley MacLennan: lol

Sara Sanchez: I think Javy will improve with getting video back. That is my sincere hope... although the approach this spring doesn’t make me super optimistic.

Al Yellon: It should be noted that he didn’t have video available for spring games.

Josh Timmers: Javy could win the MVP or he could play his way out of a job by June.

Duane Pesice: Yeah.

Josh Timmers: There’s just so many question marks on this team.

Al Yellon: Well, I think that sums up pretty much everything. If you have any final comments on the 2021 Cubs, now’s the time!

Duane Pesice: I expect Jason Heyward to have a terrific year.

Sara Sanchez: I agree with you on J-Hey, Duane.

Josh Timmers: I’m not sure I’m really back to 2019 fandom yet. It’s going to be interesting to see if this season can re-ignite the feeling of “Baseball F’ yeah!” that I used to feel.

Al Yellon: I think this starting pitching staff is going to be the surprise of baseball, keeping opponents BA low and inducing tons of ground ball outs

Duane Pesice: I expect the Cubs to lose the wild-card game.

Sara Sanchez: I just want to be the first person on the record that I think Willson Contreras is going to have a monster season. I know I said this last year, and maybe the year before, but the thing is, it’s inevitable. He’s going to have at least one ridiculous borderline MVP season. So I’m calling it for 2021.

Al Yellon: I think the Cubs will win this division.

Josh Timmers: I don’t think a wild card team will come out of the Central. It’s division title or bust.

Sara Sanchez: Agreed, Josh. This division is... not good.

Al Yellon: If the Cubs can beat up on the divisional opponents, they can win it easily

Josh Timmers: Yeah, Pittsburgh is losing 110 games this year, so there are some easy wins there.

Thomas Smith: The Cardinals will win the division by adding someone who Cubs fans felt should have come here

Duane Pesice: Brian Roberts?

Josh Timmers: Trevor Story to the Cardinals?

Sara Sanchez: Rockies East! The new Cardinals Way — taking advantage of the Rockies’ incompetence.

Josh Timmers: The Rockies are to the Cardinals like the KC Athletics were to the Yankees in the 1950s.

Duane Pesice: The Cubs will play the wild-card winner, the Padres, in the playoffs and they will get beat, Al.

Al Yellon: Oh, no, not that, Duane!

Duane Pesice: Steve Garvey will laugh. I hate him.

Sara Sanchez: Or the Mets.

Josh Timmers: The Mets will figure out a way to Mets it up.

Al Yellon: New ownership has not changed LOLMets.

Sara Sanchez: Yes, but the new ownership IS on Twitter now. Which is awesome for my amusement.

Duane Pesice: They inherited da Bums’ karma.

Thomas Smith: Lots of mediocre baseball and growing discontent in the fan base is ahead.

Ashley MacLennan: I think it will be watchable!

Al Yellon: I’m looking forward to being in Wrigley again.

Duane Pesice: I will enjoy it from my work chair, as always

Thomas Smith: Just glad to have 162 back

Josh Timmers: We really need 162 games. Last year didn’t feel like a real season.

Al Yellon: Agreed.

Duane Pesice: It sorta did to me. I broadcast a whole season!

Al Yellon: I did enjoy the sim season last year, despite the simCubs loss in the NLCS.

Duane Pesice: I traded Darvish as soon as it was feasible.

Sara Sanchez: I am excited to watch baseball. I already have my outfit ready for Saturday’s rooftop game. I bought the women’s cut Jake is Back Obvious Shirt. and I was at his last start in the NLCS at Wrigley and I will welcome him back in person on Saturday

Al Yellon: It’s actually supposed to be sunny and in the mid 60s by Saturday

Sara Sanchez: I know! I am SO excited.

Duane Pesice: It’s gonna be like a thousand here. You left right on time, Al.

Al Yellon: I wouldn’t have minded hot weather for Thursday’s Opening Day instead of 37 degrees

Josh Timmers: I need a new hat. I don’t have a South Bend hat yet. I should probably order one. Have you seen those “Pirate” Pelicans hats? Those are cool.

Ashley MacLennan: I still need to convince Obvious Tees to get me a Baseball Writer shirt. I will pay.

Al Yellon: Thanks everyone! Happy 2021 baseball season!