6 Questions to Spur Debate About Cubs Season

The best barroom debates revolve around tantalizing questions that are usually impossible to answer definitively. In that spirit, here are six great Cubs questions for 2019 on which to speculate.

Unlike endless Jordan vs. LeBron debates (outside of Chicago), we should get definitive answers to the following six questions by year’s end. But sitting here before spring training games have even started, none of these are easy calls. I’ll offer a shaky prediction for each and welcome you to continue the conversation below.

1. Which Cubs outfielder will improve most in 2019?

Kris Bryant’s performance will be most important for the Cubs offense to rebound from being “broken.” But by position group, the opportunity for greatest improvement comes in the outfield. In 2018, Cubs outfielders ranked 11th with a combined 8.1 fWAR. For the record, the Red Sox had the best at 14.7 and the Giants hit bottom at a stunning 1.7. All four of the Cubs’ main outfielders were largely solid, but none spectacular:Chicago Cubs

Given how injuries and atypically low defensive metrics restrained Jason Heyward’s value, he probably has the best chance for the biggest fWAR increase. Still, no one predicts a return to being a 4.5 fWAR player again.

In contrast, Kyle Schwarber is probably least likely for a big jump in fWAR given how high his defense ranked last year. According to Fangraphs (which weights outfield assists more than Baseball Reference), he was second among left fielders only to Alex Gordon. But if opposing runners are more prudent against his arm that led left fielders in assists, it’ll require Schwarber to generate even more offensive improvement.

Perhaps the Cubs’ best chance for a big leap in outfield value is simply to hope for all four to improve steadily. This could happen if Heyward stays healthy; Albert Almora Jr. doesn’t fade in the second half; Ian Happ cuts his 36 percent K-rate and puts more balls in play; and Schwarber finally improves his woeful average with runners in scoring position the last two years (.169). A combined 2.5 fWAR increase would have put them fifth among the most valuable outfields last season.

My guess: Heyward

This is hardly a confident pick. But by staying healthy, continuing to increase his doubles rate, and losing fewer balls in the sun, he could march his fWAR up to 3.5.

2. Which 35-year-old lefty starter will be better?

We’re talking Jon Lester and Cole Hamels here, a pair of pitchers with a surprising list of similarities. Born just 11 days apart, the two lefties debuted within a month of each other in 2006. Lester has a career 3.40 ERA; Hamels 3.50. Hamels has thrown 2,653 total major-league innings (including playoffs); Lester 2,520. Hamels won the 2008 World Series MVP; Lester was named 2016 NLCS co-MVP.

And their two halves in 2018 were relatively inverse images, with Lester’s All-Star first half and Hamels’ impressive second-half rebound once traded to the Cubs.Chicago Cubs

My guess: Lester

Talk about coin flips. Either could turn in an great half or dance all season on the wrong side of their razor-thin margin for error. Ultimately, though, Hamels’ second half seemed more small-sample flukey to me. It rested largely on one career-best month when he nabbed NL Pitcher of the Month with an 0.69 ERA in six August starts. In contrast, Lester’s decline has been more gradual and seems the safer bet.

3. Which NL Central catcher(s) go to the All-Star Game?

Despite his poor pitch framing and second-half fade last year, Willson Contreras enjoys great loyalty from most Cubs fans. Because of his age and brilliant offensive stretches, he also has probably the highest ceiling of all current backstops in the division.

However, the NL Central is stocked with more good catchers than any division in baseball. Former MVP Yadier Molina is a Cardinal-colored Michael Meyers who never seems to go away. Yasmani Grandal will bring great pitch framing and left-handed punch to the Brewers for at least one year. The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart is just one year removed from his Gold Glove season, and the Pirates have the ever solid Francisco Cervelli.

My guess: Grandal and Cervelli

The Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto is the best bet to repeat as an All-Star catcher. Plus Cervelli – in his contract year – could easily serve as the Pirates’ lone representative if last year’s sole All-Star (closer Felipe Vazquez) slumps a little. So Contreras could have a solid rebound year, yet still be blocked if Grandal repeats his 2018. Then again, Contreras could pull a Javy Baez and finally reach his ceiling in 2019.

4. Does Addison Russell finish the season with the Cubs?

Talk about an issue clouded by the vagaries of human nature and emotion on all sides. Russell has every incentive to turn things around, even if a change of scenery to a lower pressure environment would have improved any earnest attempt to revive his career. This is especially the case if concerns about his partying issues re-emerge.

In terms of Friday’s press conference, there hasn’t been a stiffer, more scripted performance by an athlete since, well, Russell’s acting debut on the TV comedy Superior Donuts last year. No one knows for sure what’s truly in Russell’s heart, so only actions will tell. Ultimately, the Cubs will make their roster judgment based a variety of personal, PR, and performance factors.

My guess: He finishes the season as a Cub.

Forget Theo Epstein’s talk about the Cubs wanting to be part of the domestic violence solution. As earnest as he may be there, he’s more artful than Russell when it comes to delivering talking points. As I’ve thought all along, as long as Russell does the bare minimum and avoids new headlines, baseball pragmatics will probably rule.

Russell’s ceiling remains high and his salary fits perfectly into the Cubs’ constrained payroll. And don’t forget Epstein’s reluctance to sell short on young talent. Further, a rebounding but still isolated Russell could make a great mid-season trade chip.

5. Which young hitter will be best with runners in scoring position?

As a team last year, the Cubs were ninth in the NL in RISP average and 12th in RISP OPS. The team’s veterans (including Bryant) weren’t the problem, and Baez graduated to the adult table with his .278 RISP average and .860 OPS. But the rest of the young hitters combined for just .227 with a .691 OPS and 25 percent K-rate.Chicago Cubs

The key RISP stat as I see it is batting average. Getting hits and putting balls in play is the most effective way to “keep the line moving.” Conversely, a low average but higher OPS (Happ and Schwarber) might sound a fair trade-off, but abandoning situational hitting and always swinging for the fences is exactly what defined the Cubs’ boom-and-bust offense last year.

Second-half slump included, Almora was the Cubs’ best young RISP bat last year. Though neither slugger nor walk-taker, he put more balls in play than most in this group and moved runners along. This is significant since, the Cubs ranked 10th in the NL last year in plating runners from third with less than two outs (61 percent). Also also hit power arms at a .286 clip last year and producing the third-most sacrifice flies on the team (after Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist). Both are big positives come late-game RISP opportunities.

My guess: Contreras

No Cubs player saw his RISP numbers drop more dramatically last year than Contreras. He went from a .363 hitter with an astronomical 1.245 OPS in 2017 to .211 and .645 last year. Some small-sample variation may be playing at both extremes. But if Contreras could just return to his 2016 RISP numbers of .275 and .833, that would provide a huge boost to the middle of the Cubs’ order.

6. Will Wrigley Field attendance increase or decrease in 2019?

In 2016, the World Series-destined Cubs posted their third-highest regular season attendance with 3,232,420 tickets sold. Surprisingly, this still fell short of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, which marked the only times the team’s average per-game attendance surpassed 40,000. But since 2016, attendance has declined. Not disastrously, but slowly.Chicago CubsDespite not breaking any attendance records, the recent Cubs seasons have still shattered revenue records through big price increases. From 2008-18, the average Cubs ticket price rose 28 percent to $58.58 last year. Meanwhile, concession costs nearly doubled, going from $7.75 for one hot dog and a 16-ounce beer in 2008 to $15.50 for a dog and a 20-ounce last year.

It’s a safe presumption that these figures represent the height of the Cubs’ price-elasticity curve. Thus the only way for the Ricketts to increase game revenues further is for attendance to rise and/or the team to play more October games. Or if the Cubs can find a way to charge millions of fans (and perhaps even non-fans) for not attending games. Say by charging $6 per month via a regional sports network.

“Interesting,” says the evil villain stroking his goatee contemplatively.

My guess: 5 percent decline.

My reasoning starts with all the negative stories surrounding the Cubs and their ownership this winter. Plus little has changed about the team since 2017, leaving no dramatic new storylines to captivate marginal fans. No 100-year curse to end. No back-to-back suspense of a true dynasty. No theatrical Sammy Sosa, Michael Jordan, or Bryce Harper figure. And no budding superstars attempting a will-he-or-won’t-he breakthrough season (like Bryant in 2015).

Instead, Epstein has dubbed 2019 a “definitional season.” Hardly Mad Men sloganeering, but it’s probably an apt reflection of the rinse-repeat-and-hope nature of the Cubs’ upcoming season. For die-hards, that remains captivating. But it hardly tempts the more casual fans to further open their wallets and purses for the Ricketts family.

The Cubs’ robust advanced-ticket sales base limits any precipitous decline, but a 5 percent drop in attendance would bring them below 3 million for the first time since 2015. Okay, now you have my guesses. Now share any of your own predictions and reasoning below.

Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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4 Comments

  1. “Molina is a Cardinal-colored Michael Myers” is gold! Marketed right, you could probably sell shirts to Card and Cub fans. An odd thought entered my mind on Russell making it to the end of the season. Imagine the Cubs get to the World Series and Russell’s domination earns him a W.S. MVP and a Cub’s championship. I am not sure how I feel about that.

  2. All players see their baserunning and D
    metrics decline after 30…Heyward simply started at 28. It’s real. And while the bat’s generally the last thing to go, it went first with him. The D and legs are not coming back. Schwarbs will only continue to improve—continuing his march back towards his explosive minor league numbers.

  3. Man, Jeff – that’s a lot of good stuff to comment on!

    On the OF defense – I too think their fWAR from last year is a bit undervalued. Almora catches everything he looks at, and Heyward was dinged up health wise. I think Happ/Almora/Heyward all improve (numbers wise) – while as you suggest, Schwarbs regresses if only because he just won’t throw as many guys out.

    Attendance; I do think a small decline is in order. If PECOTA turned out to be right about their 80 win projection, that 5% could go to 10% real quick. I don’t buy into PECOTA however.

    RISP improvement? Schwarber. He was other-worldly-record-setting-gosh-awful-BAD last season – got to at least be some rock bottom bounce there eh?!

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