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Nobody is underrating the Cubs this year. That’s as true from a fantasy perspective as it is on the field. But if you’re about to enter a draft, it can be hard to parse the Cubs’ options, especially with a roster as deep as Chicago’s. The key is to know when each player is going to be picked, when they should be picked, and how they can help your team. Luckily, BP Wrigleyville authors Isaac Bennett and Nate Greabe are here to help you sort all of this out. So, without further ado, here is your 2016 Chicago Cubs Fantasy Preview. Note: All of the draft rounds below are based on a standard 5×5, 12-team rotisserie league with one catcher.
Worth Their Draft Spot: Hitters
2016 PECOTA Projection – .264, 31 HR, 93 RBI, 86 R, 11 SB
Expected Draft Round – 1 or 2
For as much fanfare as Bryant has received—the billboards, the Express magazine covers and general ogling over the depth of his crystalline blue eyes—this actually strikes me as a slightly tepid projection, considering he bested four of these categories in his rookie season. My expectation is that his strikeout totals will come down, partly as the result of an improved swing plane. This improvement should manifest in his runs scored and runs batted in totals improving, each of which could eclipse the century mark. It should also be remembered that the lineup around him is markedly better than the one he spent the majority of last season competing alongside, and you’ll come to find that I mention repeatedly throughout this piece that this rising tide will lift all boats in regards to counting stats. I expect his .378 BABIP to regress somewhat, which could negate the incremental gains made in the batting average department because of his reduced strikeout totals. Bryant’s worth is buoyed significantly by his third base and outfield eligibility, giving him an advantage over other players such with similar power profiles that only qualify for the outfield. In a keeper league, he should be selected in the first six or eight picks. In non-keeper leagues, his merits as a first round selection come down to whether you believe he can unlock his power potential and threaten 40 home runs. I personally believe this is a reasonable possibility, but if you find yourself siding with PECOTA and believing that total will fall into the 26-30 range, then select him in the early-to-mid second round.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .264, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 88 R, 9 SB
Expected Draft Round – 2
The second half of Bryzzo carries nearly identical PECOTA projections to the first, with the notable exception of only possessing first base position eligibility. While they share an ADP of 18, Bryant is clearly the preferred choice based not only on upside, but also the advantageous positional versatility. Rizzo may be the safer choice of the two, but I believe sacrificing Bryant’s upside for Rizzo’s security would be a mistake, as the fallback options at first base are much deeper than at third. There isn’t a scenario in which you should take Rizzo in the first round, but a mid-second round selection in all formats carries little downside, as Rizzo has become one of the most predictable players in baseball. For a modern power hitter, he limits his strikeouts effectively which leads to stable RBI and runs scored totals. However, be careful not to overrate him compared to his peers based on his 17 stolen bases last year, as I certainly side with PECOTA and their projection of that total being cut nearly in half. Consider it a bonus if he again reaches double-digit stolen base totals, but don’t reach for him because of that expectation.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .251, 30 HR, 89 RBI, 79 R, 4 SB
Expected Draft Round – 4-5
This represents an excellent opportunity to mention that you should pay very close attention to the positional eligibility requirements in your league, as Schwarber barely qualifies as a catcher in most leagues this year, instead of just being an outfielder. The difference in his value between the two cannot be overstated. If your league qualifies him as a catcher, he’s probably the second most valuable catcher in the game (behind Buster Posey), and I’d argue Schwarber in the fourth round is a much better value than Posey in the second. If your league only views him as an outfielder, it’s a much trickier question, as his profile is relatively similar to a plethora of other players. Much of his value will be determined by how many at-bats he receives against left-handed pitching, as his counting stats will be dependent upon this opportunity. Keep in mind that he’ll likely only be a strong contributor in two categories this year (home runs and RBIs), so if you’re only selecting him as an outfielder, this reduces his value as compared to someone like Carlos Gonzalez or Lorenzo Cain who also pose a threat to steal bases. In short, I love the risk of selecting him as a catcher with tremendous upside, but I may shy away from the apparent cost of drafting him purely as an outfielder.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .263, 14 HR, 63 RBI, 79 R, 8 SB
Expected Draft Round – 10-12
Winning fantasy teams are constructed much like good baseball teams: they are versatile and they score a lot of runs. Zobrist embodies both of those ideals, as his athleticism carries the day on defense, while consistently high on-base percentages allow him to cross the plate with regularity. I’m not here to refute either of these attributes in Zobrist, but I will pass along a bit of caution. The first cautionary note to consider is he now only qualifies at second base and outfield, and is unlikely to gain any additional eligibility, as management has committed to him playing second base on a regular basis. You should also keep in mind that second base is stacked this year, and it won’t carry the same premium it has at other times. The second hazard to consider is that he may hit lower in the order due simply to the incredible offensive depth the Cubs possess, which could diminish the positive counting stat effects that were mentioned earlier. I still like Zobrist as a low risk option in the later rounds, but you should probably only start considering him once the other higher upside options are off the board at second base.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .252, 11 HR, 39 RBI, 34 R, 2 SB
Expected Draft Round – 18-19
Soler may carry the most intriguing ADP of any player on this list, as he’s being selected after players such as Rajai Davis and Hyun Soo Kim. I’ve been notably pretty bearish on Soler this offseason, but this sounds a little crazy even to me. A player like Davis carries almost no predictable upside, and is available in some form at almost all times on the waiver wire. Does that sound like someone that should be drafted before a player with the dizzying upside of Soler? I think not. No doubt, much of his weak PECOTA projection is based on limited playing time, and that could certainly be affecting his draft stock as well. However, he should still get enough playing time to do damage, and it should be remembered that the playing time he does get will often come along with an advantageous matchup. A good way to evaluate Soler is as a great option in daily leagues, but not so great in weekly leagues where his playing time will be harder to predict. If you play in a daily league—and his draft stock stays this low—feel free to grab him in the late rounds and follow Joe Maddon’s lead by plugging him into favorable matchups.
Worth Their Draft Spot: Pitchers
2016 PECOTA Projection – 16 W, 3.21 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 206 K
Expected Draft Round – 6
Lester has been one of the most consistent fantasy pitchers in baseball for much of the last decade, and there is little reason to think anything will change this year. Because the pitcher win is a key stat in most 5×5 roto leagues, Cubs pitchers, bolstered by their strong offense, should be in a good position to rack up some W’s, and Lester is no exception. Lester has struck out more than 200 batters each of the last two seasons, maintained strong ERAs every year since 2012, and seems to be maintaining his ability to get people out as he ages. Throwing yips aside, you can feel very good about drafting Lester as a solid member of your fantasy rotation.
2016 PECOTA Projection – 3 W, 38 SV, 3.50 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 49 K
Expected Draft Round – 10
There is no doubt that Rondon has been an excellent closer, but much of his fantasy value in 2016 will come simply from being the Cubs’ closer. The Cubs should be very good, therefore they should have a lot of leads late in games, therefore Rondon should get a lot of saves. PECOTA is not particularly moved by Rondon’s 1.67 ERA last year and projects a 3.50 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. I’d argue that this is a bit pessimistic, but as long as Rondon holds onto the closer’s spot, he will have lots of value. If he should ever lose his closer’s spot, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm would likely be next in line for save chances.
2016 PECOTA Projection – 14 W, 3.77 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 173 K
Expected Draft Round – 13-14
Last year, at age 36, Lackey produced his best season in terms of results since at least 2007, and the best of his career ERA-wise. Nobody expects this to keep up—PECOTA projects a much more pedestrian 3.77 ERA this year—but it is clear at this point that Lackey is aging more like a fine wine than fried chicken. Don’t overreach for him based on last year’s results—that would likely be a mistake—but the big Texan’s strikeout numbers should still be solid, and pitching for the Cubs will likely help out in the wins department. He is a good bet if you take him in the middle-late rounds of your draft.
2016 PECOTA Projection – 10 W, 3.60 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 119 K
Expected Draft Round – 17
I was tempted to put Hendricks in our sleeper category just because I think PECOTA is underrating how many starts and how many innings he will get this year. Hendricks accumulating only 119 strikeouts is only likely if he really does pitch only 137 innings that PECOTA projects. But: Hendricks’ expected draft round is reasonable, and as a pitcher who only rarely goes deep into games, he might have limited upside in the pitcher wins department. Still, you can feel confident that Hendricks will contribute a solid ERA/WHIP and some moderately compelling strikeout numbers in whatever innings he does pitch in 2016. Anyone can feel good about taking him in the later rounds of any draft.
2016 PECOTA Projection – 10 W, 3.78 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 133 K
Expected Draft Round – 18-19
Despite his second half struggles, Hammel put together his second consecutive solid fantasy season in 2015. Over the last two years, he has raised his K/9 rate while maintaining ERAs in the upper 3’s. This is no fantasy ace, and he still hasn’t proved he can pitch well over the course of a full season, but he is definitely worth a pick if still around at towards the end of your draft. Hint: if he has another All-Star level first half, think about trading him before the deadline. And if at any point his slider starts flattening out, trade him even earlier.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .240, 16 HR, 60 RBI, 59 R, 6 SB
Expected Draft Round – 12-13
It’s no secret that I love Russell’s game, as I believe his ceiling is as an MVP candidate in the National League. The glove may already be there, but the tricky part is figuring out when his bat will come alongside his defense as a powerful tool. He’s currently being drafted as a backup shortstop, and to my eye that is completely ignoring the explosive potential of his upside. Factor in that he also has the valuable combination of shortstop and second base eligibility, and I’ll certainly be willing to reach a couple of rounds to make sure he’s on my team. It doesn’t take much dreaming to imagine a 20 home run season from Russell, in the event that happens, it could also come along with a .280 average, and potentially 80 runs and RBIs. Maddon’s recent decision to move him out of the ninth spot will also help his production some. If you play in a keeper league, I wouldn’t fault you for drafting him as high as the seventh round, as that’s the price you pay for a young player with tremendous upside at shortstop. If you don’t play in a keeper league, feel free to grab him as high as the tenth or eleventh round if he’s still on the board.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .247, 12 HR, 55 RBI, 77 R, 16 SB
Expected Draft Round – 15-16
Fowler being drafted in the 15th or 16th rounds is ridiculous on its face for three reasons. 1) He is eligible at the centerfield position, where offense is relatively scarce, 2) he is a speed threat who also hit 17 home runs with the Cubs last year, and 3) he is likely to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Chicago Cubs. This means lots of runs will be coming, even if his value stems more from OBP than AVG. It’s true that he might play more like 130 games than 160, but this could also serve to keep him fresh throughout the season. Each of the PECOTA projections (except maybe home runs and RBIs) feels too low to me, and if Fowler continues to play close to the level he did in the second half of last year, he could easily be a top-10 fantasy centerfielder.
2016 PECOTA Projection – 14 W, 3.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 202 K
Expected Draft Round – 2
This feels sacrilegious to even write, as Arrieta is the central pillar of this team and one of my favorite players. However, I just can’t justify taking him—or any other pitcher not named Kershaw—as high as the second round, as the risk of injury is simply too high for my appetite. Do I expect Arrieta to be great? Yes. Do I expect him to be a top-10 starting pitcher? Yes. Would I be shocked if he missed enough time to make you regret passing on players like Jose Bautista or Kris Bryant? Nope. It’s also important to understand that he simply has nowhere to go but backwards after last season’s historic effort, so we shouldn’t expect the same kind of results. Resist the urge to draft the bearded maestro with your second pick and grab a stud offensive contributor instead, and cross your fingers that your league-mates let him fall to you in the third round.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .261, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 74 R, 16 SB
Expected Draft Round – 6
My reasons for labeling Heyward a fantasy value “bust” have nothing to do with my actual understanding of his value, which stems more from defensive excellence and on-base/contact tendencies more than anything else. After signing a $184 million deal this offseason, though, it is tempting to view him as a more traditionally valuable offensive player than he really is. His average is unlikely to be more than a little bit above league average, his RBI numbers should be solid but not overwhelming, and his power has still never really come around like we have expected it to. He should provide baserunning and runs value as an everyday player in the Cubs’ lineup, but drafting him in the sixth round might still lead to fantasy disappointment, even if he puts up another 5-WARP season in right field.
Deeper/Keeper League Options
2016 PECOTA Projection – .244, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 51 R, 1 SB
Expected Draft Round – 20+
At first, I was surprised to see that Montero is being drafted 21st among catchers overall—he is the Cubs’ starting catcher, and an above-average offensive one at that. But he seems primed to lose at least two of every five games behind the plate to David Ross and Kyle Schwarber. He consistently gets to double-digit home runs and he should have plenty of RBI chances while playing, but his production is likely to be stunted by some reduced playing time. In a deeper league, he could still be worth a pick—he is likely to be fresh when he does play—but barring an injury to Ross or Schwarber, he likely won’t play quite enough to be a top-12 catcher in one catcher leagues.
2016 PECOTA Projection – .236, 13 HR, 35 RBI, 35 R, 7 SB
Expected Draft Round – 20+
Like Montero, playing time will likely be the limiting factor in Baez’ fantasy value. PECOTA has him slated for only 263 plate appearances this year, which will limit his considerable upside. He could be worth a flyer in a deeper league, though. Although he is unlikely to hit for average, he should produce some strong power numbers, and he will also pick up plenty of stolen bases and RBIs when inserted into the Cubs lineup. If an injury frees up an infield position for the Cubs, look for the versatile Baez to take it and run with it. Otherwise, he is probably someone to stay away from drafting for this season.
2016 PECOTA Projections – .217, 4 HR, 20 RBI, 26 RBI, 4 SB
Expected Draft Round – 25+
Torres is included here almost by default, as he is universally regarded as the Cubs’ best prospect. The message here is caution, however, as I don’t see much of a fantasy profile in his game. He’ll be an excellent all-around player, but will likely never hit for enough power, nor steal enough bases to be a truly dynamic fantasy player. Of course, he is just 19 years old, so I wouldn’t fault you for drafting him late and stashing him in deep dynasty league scenarios, understanding that there is the possibility that his power is still to develop.
2016 PECOTA Projections – .246, 6 HR, 28 RBI, 25 R, 1 SB
Expected Draft Round – 25+
When I watch Contreras play defense, I can’t help but feel like I am watching Salvador Perez. It’s not a great comparison offensively, however, as the profile Perez brings to the game is one based on power and an allergic reaction to taking a walk. Contreras is more than content to make the pitcher throw him something he can handle, walking nearly as often as he struck out last season in Double-A. This patient profile led to a .333 batting average and a Southern League batting title, and also to a stellar .413 on-base percentage. Further, Contreras is a tremendous athlete dripping with tools, so it wouldn’t shock me if his power continues to develop to the point that his current reputation as a doubles hitter turns into usable 15-20 home run power in the majors. There is the sticky question of playing-time, and you’ll likely have to wait until at least 2017—when David Ross retires—before seeing any regular at-bats for the young Venezuelan. If you’re in a dynasty league, feel confident taking Contreras late and stashing him for 2017 and beyond. You’ll reap the benefits of an excellent Jason Kendall-like ability to get on base, which will be complemented nicely by the slugging lineup around him.
Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports.