Good news, Cub fans! After a breakout 2015, in which the team won 97 games, hired a new, exciting manager and called up most of their top prospects (all of whom, of course, excelled once in the big leagues), Chicago has just gone and had the best offseason of any major league team!
They signed Ben Zobrist for less money than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. They signed a veteran starting pitcher for way less money than other teams are giving starting pitchers. And they signed the top free agent position player to a below market contract (of course, there are those pesky opt-out clauses—but whatever!) for his peak baseball years. Oh, and according to Buster Olney, the Cubs have the best infield in baseball, the second-best outfield, the fourth-best rotation, and the fifth-best bullpen.
The Cubs were, in short, one of the best teams in baseball last year, and after a strong offseason now seem poised to win it all. At least, that’s the impression you get from the headlines:
From here: “2016 Spoiler Alert: Cubs Win the World Series!”
From here: “Not only will the Cubs win the Central Division of the National League in 2016, they’ll do it in wire-to-wire fashion.”
Tired of all the exclamation marks and italicized exaggeration? Welcome to the 2016 Cubs preseason hype machine, which is in full swing. One narrative says that the front office has done such a fantastic job, they’ve made themselves the on-paper favorites to win it all. That is, perhaps, a fair claim to make.
Another narrative, however—somewhat more insidious—accepts the premise of the first but also adds a second: that the 2016 Cubs look a lot like the 2015 Nationals, who looked equally loaded coming into the season but eventually failed to even make the playoffs. It’s that second narrative that I’d like to critically examine today. How far does it actually hold up? Let’s take a look at the two teams, side by side.
I’m going to start this section the way every article about injuries starts off: every team experiences them and every team has to find a way to overcome them. What’s different is sometimes teams have lucky seasons with minimal injuries to key players (like the Cubs did in 2015), and sometimes everyone on a club seems to get stung by the injury bug (as was the case, for example, with the 2015 Cardinals).
The Nationals had a bad injury year in 2015. Two of their starting pitchers saw time on the DL (Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister), while their starting lineup was hammered all year long with injuries to key players (Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman). Things got so bad that Dan Uggla managed to get 120 at bats—Dan Uggla!
I’ve already explored how the Cubs would potentially weather a serious injury to each of their starters, and we already know the Cubs have a good deal of depth available on their roster (and, to some extent, in their minor league system). The Cubs are also a good bit younger than the Nationals were last year, with an average age of 28.3 in 2016 (8th-youngest in the MLB). The Nationals clocked in at 29.5 in 2015 (24th place), and that difference may help the Cubs stay healthier than the Nationals were last season.
But could the Cubs still win if they lost Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Heyward, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Ben Zobrist for simultaneous stretches? Maybe. But if they’re lucky, they won’t have to find out. Injuries spare no team, so this is something that could definitely derail the Cubs’ 2016 aspirations.
Here I’m referring to both positional and financial flexibility. Let’s tackle the positional part first, since it’s pretty straightforward. Besides Clint Robinson (who played the outfield, first base, and even pitched an inning while while putting up a .283 TAv), the Nationals roster last year was filled with guys that basically played one position. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part each guy played their one position and if there was an injury, someone that wasn’t already deemed good enough to start had to come in and attempt to make up the difference in production.
When the injury barrage came, the team looked to rookies and bench players to bridge the gap, and that didn’t go so well. The Cubs, as has been widely publicized, are probably the most flexible team in the league right now. Their rookies came in and contributed right away, and while there might be some drop off there (we’ll get to that later), the current roster allows them to get creative with any injuries or production issues that may arise.
As for financial flexibility, the Nationals dropped the ball. A lot of experts criticized the Scherzer signing when it was made, pointing out that starting pitching was something the Nationals already had an abundance of. I agreed, but signing a guy like Scherzer still seemed to make the club better. And it did—but at what cost?
Here’s what principal owner Mark Lerner had to say about the payroll:
“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”
When the injuries and lack of production came (especially in the bullpen), the Nationals had nowhere to go but to their farm system. Joe Ross contributed, but guys like Michael Taylor were simply not ready. Their bullpen was a disaster and when they finally made a move they traded for Jonathan Papelbon, which was a disaster in a new way.
As for the Cubs, they’re on the opposite side of this coin. No need for me to go into the details. For that, I’ll turn it over to Isaac Bennett’s fantastic, two-part story on how the Cubs have managed to keep some powder dry despite the recent free agent signings they’ve pulled off. In short: if the Cubs need the money to make up for an unexpected shortcoming, they will have it. It’s the difference between signing a guy like Lackey instead of shelling out top dollar for a player like David Price so that they can keep their options open down the line.
There are all kinds of stories out there about how Matt Williams lost the clubhouse, caused a pitcher to get Tommy John surgery, couldn’t use his bullpen effectively, and caused major flooding the DC area (OK, I made that one up). And truth be told, Williams didn’t have a very good year. I mean, he even put Papelbon in to pitch after he’d just choked Harper. But players win and lose games, not managers, so whatever blame can be put onto Williams’ shoulders is minimal.
Still, you’d have to think that the edge here goes to Joe Maddon, even if the difference is minimal in the grand scheme of things. The stories you hear about Maddon are in sharp contrast to those heard about Williams. As I mentioned in my Maddon profile, players love playing for him they’re willing to take less money to do so. Could Maddon do something that causes the Cubs to lose a game or two next year? Sure, it’s possible. But could Maddon be one of the main reasons the Cubs’ 2016 season turns out to be a massive disappointment? Crazier things have happened, but I just don’t think this is something Cubs fans need to worry about.
The Nationals had some players that completely lost their ability to play baseball last year, and that (obviously) had an impact on their overall results:
|Player||2014 TAv||2015 TAv|
If you’ve been feeling that this was exclusively a feel-good piece (for Cub fans) and were happy with that, now’s the time to look away. Regression (whether to a career average or simply to unforeseen, unexpected, frightening depths) happens all the time and it’s nearly impossible to predict. Remember when Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro’s production imploded in 2013? It wasn’t pretty. The Cubs will go into 2016 with at least six players seeing extended playing time for just the second time in their careers (Russell, Bryant, and Schwarber; Baez, Soler, and Kyle Hendricks to a lesser extent).
Then there’s the bullpen—the most volatile part of a team’s performance. Can Strop and Rondon continue dominating the late innings? Sure, it’s possible. But should we expect every single one of those guys to maintain the level of production they put up in 2015? Could more than one of them suffer a significant regression? What if all of them suffered a mild regression? We’ll just have to see how it plays out. If there’s one thing that I bet keeps Epstein (and every other GM, for that matter) awake at night, it’s probably this.
The Nationals were not a good defensive team in 2015. They were 21st in defensive efficiency, which is unfortunate for their starters (who, overall, were quite good). Not much else to say here other than having a bad defensive team is going to cost you some games regardless of how great your rotation is.
As for the Cubs, they ranked 7th in defensive efficiency last year. And after adding Heyward and Zobrist, you could make the case that the defense has gotten even better. People love to make noise about how terrible Kyle Schwarber looks in left (mostly due to his playoff performance), but he’ll be a tiny bit below average and the bat will more than make up for it. Barring an injury to Heyward or Soler (which would mean Heyward goes to right and Baez plays center), it doesn’t look like the Cubs have much to worry about here.
As we’ve seen, the Nationals had a lot of things go wrong last season. What’s incredible is that they were still pretty good. Their pythagorean record was 89-73, which would’ve placed them a game behind the Mets in their division. They ranked 5th in both DRA (Cubs were 4th) and in TAv (the Cubs were 8th). This wasn’t a bad team—they were just a team that was expected to cruise through the season and at least make it to the World Series.
With expectations like those, it’s no wonder Nationals fans felt like their team was much worse than they really were. That being said, the Cubs are now in those same shoes and if they were to miss the playoffs in 2016, lots of fans and experts will be left scratching their heads wondering, “How’d that happen?” The Cubs in 2016 are, in short, more ready to weather bad luck—in almost every respect—than the Nationals were in 2015. That doesn’t mean they’ll cruise through the season. But it means they’ve put themselves in the best possible position to try.
Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports.