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2018 MLB team preview: The Chicago Cubs are gearing up for another deep playoff run

Chicago has their sights set on Los Angeles as a third consecutive Dodgers-Cubs NLCS looms in 2018.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For as much fun as the NBA seems (and is) on paper, it’s a very top-heavy, predictable league. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have played one other for the championship in each of the past three seasons. NBA teams seemingly focus their offseason roster moves on specific matchups, often to get themselves at least one playoff round further than the year before.

Baseball is a little different — good players are good players — but it’s not hard to see where the Chicago Cubs were going this offseason. They signed Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow, two players of some importance to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ run to the World Series last year. They grabbed Tyler Chatwood and Drew Smyly, two pitchers who will help bolster their depth and hopefully provide key innings come playoff time. The Cubs also kept their own powder relatively dry by staying under the luxury tax threshold before next offseason’s free agency bonanza. While our friend Al Yellon at Bleed Cubbie Blue thinks a run at Bryce Harper is in the offing, but also hints at another possibility.

It’s been assumed that one of the reasons for that choice is to “reset” their luxury tax penalties so that they can go over for next year’s free-agent class, which includes not only Harper, but Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and possibly Clayton Kershaw, if the latter opts out and doesn’t reach an extension agreement with the Dodgers.

Whether the Cubs go for the jugular and try to sign Kershaw away from L.A., or “settle” for Bryce Harper, one thing is clear: the National League is a two-team race right now (sorry, Nationals) and the Cubs and Dodgers are on a collision course for another October showdown.

Now if only someone could start a Twitter beef, we’d really be onto something.

Team at a glance

2017 record: 92-70 | 2017 pythag: 93-69 | 2018 farm system rank: 28
Manager: Joe Maddon (4th year)
SB Nation site: Bleed Cubbie Blue
Key additions: RHP Yu Darvish, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Brandon Morrow, LHP Drew Smyly, C Chris Gimenez
Key departures: RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Wade Davis, OF Jon Jay, RHP John Lackey, C Alex Avila, RHP Hector Rondon

Lineup

For all the talk of a World Series hangover throughout large stretches of last season, the Cubs offense hardly wavered from their excellent 2016 run. The 2017 Cubs actually scored more runs and hit more homers than during their championship season, while advanced stats like wRC+ (105 to 101) and wOBA (.333 to .331) declined ever so slightly. One reason for this is the remarkable consistency of first baseman Anthony Rizzo. While his OPS dipped from .928 in 2016 to .899 last year, he got on base more often (.385 to .392) and swiped 10 bags for good measure. He also finished with the exact same home run (32) and RBI (109) totals as the year prior. You can pencil those numbers in for a few more seasons, too; at 28, Rizzo is in the prime of his career.

Across the diamond, Kris Bryant followed up his 2016 MVP season with the slightest of declines. He “only” hit 29 home runs and somehow didn’t make the All-Star team despite a .928 OPS at the break. He did take a couple of subtle steps forward, though, improving his walk and strikeout rates. An August wrist injury didn’t seem to bother him down the stretch, but it may have played a role in his sluggish postseason. Fellow slugger Kyle Schwarber actually eclipsed Bryant’s home run total, but only managed 59 other hits across 129 games. That .211 batting average was at least partially due to a .244 BABIP, but a ghastly 16 percent pop-up rate was another culprit. Schwarber lost 30 pounds during the offseason in hopes of improving his quickness in the field. The only concern is whether that weight will hurt his offensive production after a monster second half (.894 OPS) last year.

Meanwhile, right fielder Jason Heyward might need to make less contact. He posted a career-best strikeout rate of 13.9 percent last year and improved on his awful 2016 numbers, but was still a well-below-average hitter (89 wRC+). He will still get plenty of playing time thanks to his amazing defense in right field, and is still only 28 years old. But without much power or speed in his game now, it’s worth wondering if he should start selling out for a bit more pop. In center field, the job seemed like Albert Almora’s to lose earlier this spring. Unfortunately for him, he probably lost it by hitting .176/.208/.353 in 17 games. The Cubs will instead turn to Ian Happ, a former No. 8 overall pick who was previously the heir apparent to Ben Zobrist’s super-utility throne. Happ had an excellent rookie season in 2017, hitting .253/.328/.514 in 413 plate appearances. He might platoon a bit with Almora — he hit righties better than lefties, while Almora mashes against southpaws — or slide around the diamond if the 23-year-old Almora shapes up offensively.

That’s the thing with this Cubs team: they’re so young. No projected starter is older than 28, and their entire defensive backbone is 25 or younger. This includes second baseman Javier Baez, who finally found his power stroke last year. Baez hit 23 home runs while playing above-average defense up the middle. The plate discipline is still a problem — his walk rate nearly doubled, but that improvement was entirely from intentional walks — but he does everything else well enough that it doesn’t really matter. So long as the contact is still loud, he will be a productive player. Shortstop Addison Russell took a slight step back in his age-23 season because of a dip in his walk rate, but his isolated power (ISO) remained the same. Defensive metrics also weren’t quite as enthusiastic about him, but he still produced +15 defensive runs saved at short in 110 games.

The final piece of that young defensive backbone is Willson Contreras, a 25-year-old backstop who is coming off the most valuable season for a Cubs catcher since Rick Wilkins put up 6.0 rWAR in 1993. The shift to full-time duty didn’t sap any of Contreras’ offensive value either — he still produced a 119 OPS+ in 428 games. His defense behind the plate was also solid if unspectacular, leading to fewer starts in the outfield than in 2016. There hasn’t been any talk of him returning to outfield duty again in 2018, which probably speaks more to the team’s bevy of options to put in right and left field than it does Contreras’ willingness or ability to play there. He’ll be spelled occasionally by Victor Caratini, a 24-year-old who made his MLB debut last year. Caratini had a monster season at Triple-A Iowa last year, but looked to be the Cubs’ third option behind the plate at the start of spring training. However, they opted for him over veteran Chris Gimenez, who was presumably brought aboard to help lure Yu Darvish into signing.

Pitching staff

We should probably start with Yu Darvish, right? The 31-year-old righty seemingly held baseball hostage for a couple months as he waited for a well-deserved big money offer. He trolled reporters left and right before finally signing a six-year deal with Chicago in February. There are some concerns about his production since having Tommy John surgery in 2015, but we’re still talking about a 3.57 FIP and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. His stretch run with the Dodgers was even better, yet got overlooked when he gave up a few runs in the World Series. Assuming that was a blip on the radar, Darvish will join lefty Jon Lester atop the Cubs’ rotation. Lester was a victim of the home run surge last year, which resulted in his worst ERA since 2012. His command also took a step back, but the bigger concern is a larger-than-usual drop in fastball velocity. Opponents hit .281 and slugged .470 against his four-seamer last year, also his worst since 2012. At 34 years old, that’s not a good sign for him.

Potentially taking Lester’s place as the de facto No. 3 starter is lefty Jose Quintana. The former White Sox hurler got off to a slow start last season, but shaped up shortly after he was traded across town. His 26.2 percent strikeout rate with the Cubs isn’t something we have seen from him before, but the continued above-average command and home run suppression are. He probably won’t continue fanning over 10 batters per nine innings, but should settle into being the dependable No. 2 starter we’ve seen up close for the past six years. Quintana was on pace to be Chicago’s best starter over a full season, but their actual top arm was righty Kyle Hendricks. The former eighth round pick saw his ERA rise by nearly a full run last year, but many saw that regression coming after maintaining a .250 BABIP for all of 2016. Everything about his statistical profile suggests more regression is coming — fastball velocity, fielding-independent numbers, even strikeout and walk rates — but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet.

The fifth and final spot in the rotation will go to Tyler Chatwood, a righthander coming off a 15-loss season with a 4.69 ERA. Twenty years ago, this pitcher would have been out of baseball. But in 2018, Chatwood was rewarded with a $38 million contract thanks to some impressive numbers away from Coors Field. He limited opponents to a 3.49 ERA in 77 13 away innings last season, and limited opponents to a .299 on-base percentage. His strikeout and walk numbers weren’t very impressive in any park, though, and it’s still anyone’s guess whether last year’s road numbers will translate to a full season outside of Colorado. If Chatwood falters, lefty Mike Montgomery will step in. The 28-year-old managed a 3.68 ERA in a swingman role last year; he made 14 starts but also appeared out of the bullpen 30 times. They also signed Drew Smyly over the offseason, though the former Tiger probably won’t return to game action until late in the summer.

The Cubs bullpen succeeded in spite of itself at times last year. They had the third-lowest ERA in the National League, but also the highest walk rate. While some of those free passes are no longer in the organization — Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, and Justin Grimm are now all pitching elsewhere — others like Carl Edwards and Pedro Strop return in 2018. Those two will serve in a setup role in front of closer Brandon Morrow. The 33-year-old righthander was a force in the Dodgers bullpen last season, striking out 50 batters in 43 23 innings. He has struggled with injuries in the past, but the lighter load in the bullpen should help. Former Tiger Justin Wilson is still around after a disastrous second half last year, but his iffy spring wasn’t very encouraging. One-time Minnesota Twins starter Brian Duensing will also serve in a LOOGY role.

Down on the farm

Between a host of prospect graduations and a few trades designed to push the Cubs over the top, their once-vaunted farm system is now one of the worst in baseball. Three of their top eight prospects in 2017 (per Minor League Ball) were traded last summer, while two more (Happ and Almora) graduated from the ranks.

What’s left? A number of younger players in the lower minors who don’t possess the same ceiling as much of their major league talent. Righthander Albert Alzolay is their top prospect on two different sites, and ranks second over at FanGraphs. He could be a mid-rotation starter, something the Cubs might need in a couple years if Darvish opts out or Lester leaves. Oscar de la Cruz and Thomas Hatch are also just a couple years off, but appear more likely to head to the bullpen. Alex Lange, last year’s first round pick, should get his first taste of full-season ball this year. The only position player of note is shortstop Aramis Ademan, a 19-year-old shortstop who feels like the asking price in some sort of midseason trade. He has above-average potential on both sides of the ball, but is a long way from the majors.

Player to watch: Javier Baez

I mean, who wants to watch Anthony Rizzo grind out walks anyway? Baez gives us the offensive firepower of Rizzo or Bryant combined with the defensive prowess of Russell or Almora. And he does so with, as a certain college basketball coach might say, an overdose of swag. Some might not appreciate the emotion Baez plays with, but there are few players who can light up a highlight reel like him. Even his uncanny ability to field a throw and tag out a baserunner is must-see TV, as was this ridiculous slide.

Baez isn’t the best player on this Cubs team, but he’s by far the most entertaining.

Outlook

For all the talent on their roster, the Cubs may not be able to survive another first half malaise like the one they overcame in 2017. The Cardinals and Brewers will be in the Wild Card hunt, while the Reds and Pirates probably won’t be pushovers either. The rest of the NL Central has improved, giving Chicago less room for error than before. This may be the best division in baseball from top to bottom, but one the Cubs can still manage if things don’t fall apart. They have the depth to withstand some injuries and underperformance, within reason.

If that happens? It’s not hard to see them beating the Dodgers in Round 3 of their now-annual NLCS showdown. They have one of the most complete rosters in baseball, one that could absolutely snap Chicago’s one-year World Series drought.