Even If Cubs Land Bryce Harper, They Have Work to Do to Get Back to 2016 Success
Much of what we hear from the Bryce Harper beat leaves one pessimistic about the Cubs’ chances to ultimately sign him. But since I don’t want the Cubs to get Harper, my pessimism works in the opposite direction. I fear the Cubs will somehow find the motivation and means to win Harper’s eventual albatross of a $300 million-plus contract.
I’ve been clear about this for a while. I don’t want Bryce Harper’s injury risk. I don’t want his poor performance against elite playoff pitching. I don’t think Harper improves the Cubs’ chances in the playoffs. And I wouldn’t hesitate to wish him on a contending rival like the Dodgers, Nationals, or Phillies.
Of course, I understand his attraction for many fans. He’s the big name out there, and when healthy, he has the swing, the power, and the locks we all crave. He’d certainly make the 162-game regular season marathon a more entertaining slog. Plus his respective career OPS marks of .990 and 1.002 against St. Louis and Cincinnati should result in fewer nail-biters against those pesky rivals.
But for all the reasons I detailed earlier this offseason, I just don’t think Harper improves the Cubs’ playoff-win probability. He largely replicates both the strengths and weaknesses of the current lineup, especially against the kind of pitchers they struggle against in postseason. Plus he has already lost 130 games to injuries in three of his last six seasons, and that was as a very young player. As he enters his late 20’s and 30’s, it would be foolish to expect that injury risk to lessen.
In the event, however, the Cubs actually do sign Harper, I’ve initiated some pessimistic contingency planning. But first, let’s note the Cubs offense breaking in the second half of 2018 by falling to eighth in NL runs scored wasn’t a unique occurrence. The Cubs ranked 11th in the first half of 2017. They also managed only a .164 batting average in the 2015 NLCS against the Mets and posted a .156 average against the Dodgers in that same round two years later.
Even in that glorious 2016 playoff run, opposing pitchers shut the Cubs down four times in 17 games. By comparison, no other World Series winner since the playoffs expanded to three rounds (1995) was shut out more than once. But they did prevail. So that boom-or-bust team actually provides a good model for how a 2019 Cubs team could win a title if they that double down with Bryce Harper’s bat.
First, the 2016 Cubs featured by far the best starting rotation in baseball by ERA, quality starts, and total innings. The current rotation has the potential to replicate that, but it will require just short of a perfect storm. At least two starters will need to turn in Cy Young-caliber seasons. All starters must throw at least 165 innings and have no major injuries.
Second, the 2016 team featured the best run-prevention defense in baseball. But if Javy Baez moves over to serve as the starting shortstop in 2019, throw that out the window. This is not a knock on Baez. His fundamentals just aren’t on par with Addison Russell’s. Plus, most any successor to Baez at second base would result in a defensive step down there as well.
Of course, it is possible the Cubs go with a better defensive shortstop than Baez. The Tigers’ Jose Iglesias is out there as a free agent, and the Cubs front office is familiar with him from his days as a Red Sox prospect. And Russell’s future in Chicago remains undecided as a result of his ongoing domestic violence suspension — which MLB could extend if it finds he further violated it — and pending arbitration hearing, so it’s impossible to draw conclusions yet.
Yet even with Harper in a corner outfield spot and Baez at short, the defense behind the pitchers could still be strong enough. But the most concerning aspect of the defense compared to 2016 is behind the plate.
Of course, we are talking pitch framing. This would be the team’s third key improvement area. Willson Contreras’s bottom-of-the-league pitch-framing is well documented. If the starting rotation is to return to its 2016 dominance, the Cubs just cannot give away so pitches, outs, and extra run-scoring opportunities as they have since Contreras took over full-time in 2017.
In 2016, Contreras’ framing challenges were diluted. He caught 27 percent of regular season innings and then 57 percent in that year’s playoffs. The rest of the innings went to elite pitch-framers Miguel Montero and David Ross, thus giving Joe Maddon more run-prevention options for mixing and matching than is possible with Contreras and Victor Caratini.
Thus the Cubs have two ways to improve their catching defense. Either invest in a strong defensive backup or change starting catchers. Unfortunately, the only robust part of this year’s free agent market so far has been at catcher, with half of the top dozen available backstops signed to one- and two-year contracts.
But quality veteran pitch-framers Martin Maldonado and Yasmani Grandal are still available. Maldonado was the 2017 AL Gold Glove winner and Grandal led all catchers in framing runs prevented in 2018, according to Baseball Prospectus. However, neither is likely to be interested in a backup role or backup money so some alternate creativity will be necessary.
Finally, the Cubs surely will need a mid-season relief upgrade like they got in 2016. How much of a boost will depend on how well Brandon Marrow returns from his injury and Steve Cishek bounces back from his 80-appearance 2018. Throw in whether one or more of prospects Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes and Conor Lillis-White can turn into high-contributing rookies.
This is a long to-do list for a team after hypothetically investing $300 million in a major free agent acquisition. You’d expect such a signing to be one of the final pieces in the championship puzzle. That is the conundrum with Bryce Harper. He’s great for ratings. Not so much for winning playoff games, as proven time and again by the Nationals.