I’m still licking my wounds after my Rams lost that ugly Super Bowl. Anyway, baseball is right around the corner. Instead of a debate I thought we could talk a bit about what to expect from the Cubs in 2019. Call it a mini season preview if you will. Which Cubs player(s) will have a breakout season, which will have an off year, and who will bounce back from a bad 2018? What do you think?
I’m going to divide up the pitchers and position players for ease of discussion and start with the latter. I expect a bounceback season from Kris Bryant. This is an easy prediction. In three healthy seasons prior to 2018, Bryant had never earned less than 6 bWAR. With his shoulder fully recovered, I see no reason why he should not rebound to that level of production.
On the other hand, I fear that Javier Baez’s 2018 breakout may not be sustainable. Baez has so many bad habits at the plate and still does not take walks. When Bryant and Anthony Rizzo go through cold streaks, they still contribute offensively thanks to a steady diet of walks. If Baez is not slugging, he brings very little to the table. I fear he will regress to 2017 levels of production.
Finally, I expect the long-awaited breakout year from Kyle Schwarber in 2019. While our memories of Schwarber go back all the way to 2015, developmentally he only has two seasons of experience. I feel like Schwarber finally found a comfort level in early 2018. A lingering back issue sapped his power later in the season, but he should be healthy now to build on early 2018. He also appears far more comfortable in the outfield now, which should allow him to concentrate on incremental improvements at the plate.
Bryant is a good choice for a bounceback with his injury last season. I will go in a different direction and pick Willson Contreras. The Cubs overused him down the stretch last year and his production declined in the second half. A reduced workload, combined with a new hitting coach, should lead to a much better season for the backstop.
As far as a player who will fall off from the 2018 season, I’m going to go with Ben Zobrist. Zo had a big season after an injury-marred 2017 campaign. The Cubs utility man will turn 38 in May and age is likely to catch up with him sooner rather than later. Maintaining last year’s .817 OPS won’t be an easy feat.
I touted Schwarber as a breakout candidate last season and, while I’m tempted to gamble on him again, I’ll make a different pick. I think Ian Happ will make a big splash in 2019. Happ demonstrated a growing understanding of the strike zone this past season, but oddly struggled to hit pitches in the zone. The next step will be to make consistent contact on those pitches and if he does, look out.
Before moving on to pitchers, let me note that I agree with you on Zobrist and Happ. I’m not as sure on WillCo simply because his entire profile changed from 2017 (power hitter, lower contact) to 2018 (higher contact and average, but no power). If he needs to reconstruct his swing to break out of Chili Davis-induced habits, who knows what shows up.
Moving on to pitching: The elephant in the room is Yu Darvish, but I have no real insight into how effective or healthy he will be. He appears healthy, but I worry that elbow issues have been a recurring issue for him (much like Brandon Morrow). Fingers crossed.
The problem is that even in a best-case scenario, Darvish’s increased production will likely just compensate for a declining Jon Lester. Lester succeeded in the first half of 2018 despite concerning peripherals. By the second half, however, the underlying problems started catching up with his results. Lester is crafty enough to provide value, but he is a No. 3 starter at best. I see him pitching 175 innings with an ERA hovering close to 4.00.
I am more optimistic that Cole Hamels will be effective all season. Hamels’ velocity spiked in the second half of 2018, even before joining the Cubs, and stayed higher through the end of the season. I suspect Hamels corrected some lingering mechanical flaws that allowed him to rediscover his natural velocity. Given his track record of success and that velocity, I think Hamels has one more great season left in him. I predict 180 IP to the tune of a 3.30 ERA.
Darvish is the main candidate to discuss as far as a bounceback pitcher in 2019. As you mentioned, elbow injuries are often uncertain as far as recoveries are concerned. Darvish has always had excellent numbers when healthy, so allow me to take a risk and say he has a good season. I think he will pitch a full year and post a sub 3.50 ERA.
While it is likely Lester regresses a bit, he will not be my candidate to have an off year. I’m going to disagree with you and predict that Hamels declines from last season. He was excellent for the Cubs down the stretch, but he just turned 35 in December and I’m not sure he can maintain the velocity uptick from last year. If you are correct and it’s a mechanical adjustment, I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.
I’m saving my boldest prediction for the most maligned, often rightly so, Cubs pitcher. I think Jose Quintana has his best season as a Chicago Cub in 2019. He struggled most of 2018, especially early on, though he did have a great September. His K/9 spiked and his walk rate fell as he regained that old White Sox form down the stretch. I think he can carry it over to 2019. I may end up looking silly, but feel it’s worth a shot.
I certainly hope you are right about Darvish and Quintana. My innate Cubs pessimism whispers it will not, but I am happy to be proven wrong.
Turning to the bullpen, I predicted on your podcast last month that the Cubs would go with a low-cost volume approach to shoring up the bullpen. That has largely come to pass. I like the Brad Brach signing as well as the flyers on Tony Barnette and George Kontos. The Cubs just need one of these guys to hit, and the law of averages suggest one will.
My bolder prediction is that Adbert Alzolay gets an early June call-up in the pen and provides six weeks of solid work before being sent back down to conserve his health. Alzolay should have been called up last year, but his turn in the rotation never coincided with Cubs injuries. Then he got hurt and was shut down for the season.
The Cubs will want Alzolay to have significant AAA time to re-acclimate and also have a large stable of relief options they have signed this offseason (as noted above) but come June, it will be Alzolay’s turn on the Iowa shuttle. His stuff will play in the ‘pen.
Bullpens are so chaotic from year to year it’s hard to predict much. I will say I think the Cubs will get saves from over five different relievers in 2019. Maybe as close to a true bullpen by committee as a contending team can get. As for a bold prediction, I think Luke Hagerty — the Cubs’ former first-round pick making a comeback after a decade away from baseball — will appear in the majors. Not sure how effective he will be, but it would be a great story.
That is enough predicting for now. I’m happy we are going to have some actual baseball to watch in just a couple weeks. As always, I enjoyed the discussion, hope to have another one soon.