The Cubs reached the 40-game mark last Wednesday night in a 4-1 loss to Atlanta, at which point they stood at 22-18 and in fourth place in a very competitive NL Central. With a quarter of the season now played, it’s a good time to review everyone’s performance to date. Fair warning, this post is a long one.
Being the financial guy, I have ranked the roster based on production per dollar by comparing each player’s bWAR against his salary. Needless to say, the pre-arbitration guys racked up the top spots.
1. Albert Almora Jr. – $97,417 per win above replacement (WAR)
Almora has been spectacular thus far, earning 1.5 bWAR to date (6 bWAR pace) and wresting away primary center field duty from Ian Happ. He is also the only Cub under $100,000 per win, making him the most cost-effective player on the roster. For the sake of reference, one win above replacement is currently worth in the $8-9 million range on the open market.
Almora’s defensive value has never been in doubt and last year he proved he could punish left-handed pitching. Only his anemic numbers against righties kept him on the bench. This year, he has continued to own lefties (.324/.389/.563) but has also performed adequately against righties (.284/.338/.365). Those slash lines, combined with his great baserunning instincts and Gold-Glove worthy defense, have him on pace for a breakout season.
2. Wilson Contreras – $107,946 per WAR
Contreras has the second-highest bWAR total (1.4) among catchers at the quarter-season mark. Higher than Buster Posey or Gary Sanchez (Francisco Cervelli of Pittsburgh is slightly ahead, for those curious). Defensively, he has cut down on the passed balls this year while continuing to terrorize baserunners with his arm. Offensively, he is slashing .277/.361/.504. Contreras is developing into the All-Star catcher we saw flashes of last year.
3. Javier Baez – $136,875 per WAR
Baez has earned 1.2 bWAR to date, which would put him on pace for 4.8 bWAR for the season, a huge increase on his career high of 3.2. On the other hand, Baez had 1.8 bWAR a week earlier. Let that be a cautionary tale on putting stock in extrapolating season totals. Still, El Mago was indeed magical for about two weeks in April. If he can put up one or two similar stretches later this season, the Cubs will be quite happy.
4. Kyle Schwarber – $167,917 per WAR
War Bear is showing that his second-half numbers last year are the real Kyle Schwarber. He has 0.9 bWAR thus far and has improved his defense in left field. He still cannot hit lefties, but even as his average drops from .253 to .190 against them, his OBP only drops from .366 to .346. In other words, Schwarber’s power is keeping lefties honest and he is staying patient and taking walks. If he ever solves lefties, he is going to become an MVP candidate overnight.
5. Victor Caratini – $681,250 per WAR
Caratini has more than justified his roster inclusion over veteran Chris Gimenez. He has 0.2 bWAR and filled in admirably at first base when Rizzo went on the DL. With five more years of team control ahead, Caratini should continue to appear high on this list for several years to come.
6. Addison Russell – $800,000 per WAR
For everyone pushing a Russell-Machado trade, I would point out that Russell is on pace for a 4 bWAR season. His defense is so good that even with a measly .250/.336/.367 slash line, he is still a well above average shortstop. He is also the most cost-effective arbitration (or beyond) player on the roster and is under control for three more seasons. Would I trade Russell for Machado straight up right now? Probably. But Russell is still a very cost-effective plan B.
7. Kyle Hendricks – $1.16M per WAR
Hendricks has been good, but not great, this season. I was hoping he would return to ace form, but 2016 may have been a fluky good year for him. Even as is, Hendricks is on pace for 3.6 bWAR in pitching value this season (his batting totals drag his bWAR lower). The problem is, no other starting pitcher is on pace for more.
8. Brian Duensing – $1.25M per WAR
Duensing was a spectacular value find last season, and continues to excel this season.
9. Ian Happ – $1.425M per WAR
Happ’s production was 0.1 bWAR at the quarter mark. In the four games since, he has increased it to 0.4 bWAR. After a very slow start, perhaps due to the pressures of leading off (gee that sounds familiar), Happ has quietly improved and as of the weekend was the Cubs’ third most effective bat by wRC+. Happ is being groomed as Ben Zobrist’s long term replacement as jack-of-all trades; in addition to starts in the outfield and second base, he got the nod to start at third this weekend.
One oddity about Happ is that this year he has notable platoon splits, hitting lefties substantially better (.300/.364/.533) than righties (.205/.275/.370). This makes him a rare switch-hitting platoon candidate (for the moment) and I suspect he will split time with Schwarber in left field.
10. Kris Bryant – $1.427M per WAR
Bryant is back on MVP pace with 1.9 bWAR that projects to 7.6 bWAR for the season, slightly higher than his 2016 MVP campaign. Bryant is doing most of his damage against left-handed pitching, posting an absurdly good .447/.488/1.000 platoon line.
11. Carl Edwards – $1.49M per WAR
12. Mike Montgomery – $1.53M per WAR
13. Pedro Strop – $2.09M per WAR
14. Steve Cishek – $2.71M per WAR
15. Brandon Morrow – $2.81M per WAR
The next five players in order of value are all in the bullpen. This is no coincidence, as the pen has been the one consistent bright spot for the Cubs. Free agent signings Cishek and Morrow have both been as good as, if not better, than expected. Pedro Strop has also excelled. All three are on pace for 2.5 bWAR or better.
16. Tyler Chatwood – $3.91M per WAR
Chatwood is producing admirably for a fifth starter and is on pace for 3.2 bWAR. Unfortunately, that is the second-highest pace in the rotation. He is definitely outperforming his contract for now.
17. Justin Wilson – $5.31M per WAR
After a shaky start, Wilson has quietly put together a string of effective, scoreless innings (his disastrous 11th inning outing Saturday notwithstanding). Wilson is unlikely to be the high-leverage lefty the Cubs were expecting when they traded away Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes for him, but at least he is no longer a black hole. The biggest problem with Wilson is seeing Candelario raking for Detroit on a 6 bWAR pace.
18. Ben Zobrist – $6.88M per WAR
Zobrist is having a strong bounce-back year and outperforming his contract again. With Baez having a breakout season, Zobrist is largely an outfielder from here on out. The Cubs are going to need him out there, given the weak campaigns from Heyward and Happ. Zobrist is one of the few Cubs without egregious platoon splits, which will keep him in the lineup as often as he is physically able.
19. Jon Lester – $9.11M per WAR
Lester has 3-1 record and a sterling 2.66 ERA thus far, but a far less impressive 4.55 FIP. He continues to lose fastball velocity, and the divergence between his ERA & FIP suggests he has been lucky this season. Still, Lester has already matched his 0.7 bWAR output from 2017 and is on pace for 2.8 WAR, which is perfectly respectable for a 34-year-old pitcher. He also posted a gem just after the quarter mark against Cincinnati.
20. Jason Heyward – $26.9M per WAR
The Cubs’ great free agent mistake continues to cost the team. Heyward is barely above replacement level, even with his stellar defense. The Cubs may be forced into making Zobrist the primary right fielder at this point. Thankfully, the Cubs can absorb a $20 million annual mistake and still play in the deep end of the free agent market. I expect the Cubs to try and sign Bryce Harper in the offseason, turning Heyward into the most expensive late-inning defensive replacement in baseball.
21. Tommy La Stella: 0 WAR
On the field, La Stella is having a typical year. His slash line is .302/.351/.340 and he always provides a quality pinch-hit appearance. His production a the plate has, thus far, been nullified by some poor defensive play. By season’s end, however, La Stella will likely rocket up these rankings as his low salary and value shine through. Off the field, La Stella is number one in my rankings thanks to his spring-training prank war with the front office.
22. Anthony Rizzo: -0.1 WAR
For the second year in a row, Rizzo took a sub-Mendoza Line batting average into May. Unlike last year, however, Rizzo failed to maintain a high OBP while scuffling. As a result, he has been worth negative WAR to date. Thankfully, he has been gaining ground back in May and should be in positive territory soon. Given Rizzo’s consistency over the past four years, he should be fine. But the Blackhawks fan in me secretly worries that he could turn in the Cubs version of Jonathan Toews, the team captain and perennial All-Star who quietly fades into a merely good player.
23. Jose Quintana: -0.4 WAR
24. Yu Darvish: -0.5 WAR
Quintana and Darvish are both are great pitchers with long track records of success who have been inexplicably bad thus far. Yet, until they start producing like they have in years past, the Cubs will be unable to separate themselves from the rest of the division. For now, the Cubs would be better off donating their salaries to charity and running out Adbert Alzolay and Mike Montgomery every fifth day.
Bonus Feature – Daydream Cubs: 1984
The 1984 Daydream Cubs are finally contenders. The roster looks as follows:
The Daydream Cubs now have four quality starters as well as both of the real-life MVPs of 1984 (Sandberg & Hernandez). There are still holes, but this team likely reaches the postseason. The ’84 Daydream Cubs have 45.5 WAR while the real-life ’84 Cubs won the division with 41 WAR. I like our chances.
After the season – if trades were allowed – I would make a spirited attempt to go after catcher Gary Carter, who was traded in December of 1984 from the Expos to the Mets. I offer MVP and Cy Young winner Hernandez, Leon Durham, and Jody Davis.
Round 1: Greg Maddux (2) – SP: HoF
The Daydream Cubs narrowly miss out on Tom Glavine, who was also taken in the second round and is therefore unavailable to us in the second round under Rule 7. Still, Greg Maddux is good draft all by himself. We will not make the mistake of letting him sign with Atlanta.