After deploying to South Korea for a little over three months, returning home, starting the process of buying my first home, and clearing the Christmas hurdle, there’s something peaceful about sitting down and writing about baseball again on a day where the temperature is finally above zero in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a very nice change of pace from what my life has been over about the past six months. And because I missed the playoff chases and the postseason to a 14 hour time difference and demanding work schedule.
It’s difficult to call a season that culminated in a second consecutive division championship and a third straight NLCS appearance a disappointment, especially when it’s coupled with losing to the Dodgers, who were an absolute buzz saw for the bulk of 2017. In a lot of ways, it was, though. We expected to see some players take steps forward in their continued development who didn’t. We expected another huge win total and the best chance at repeating any team has had since the last repeat champion almost two decades ago. In fairness, the Cubs gave it as good a shot as any team has since the Yankees repeated way back in 1999-2000.
Looking forward, the Cubs are still imperfect. They could use another starting pitcher. The bullpen has been retooled again and those are always fickle beasts. But the bulk of the team is intact as they approach the middle of their championship window. Every team needs some things to go right when they chase championships. They need to stay healthy, which the 2017 Cubs most certainly did not. They need to catch some breaks and play against teams at the right time, which the 2017 Cubs had remarkably little luck with. As important as anything, they need some contributions from players they don’t necessarily expect to get them from. That leads us into the discussion of where those contributions could come from in 2018. The Cubs are as talented as any team in the National League. And if they get contributions they can’t possibly be counting on, it could be the difference between losing the NLCS and making a second World Series appearance in three seasons.
There are two reasons why I believe in Jason Heyward to have a breakout season as a Cub in 2018. First, he’s too talented to continue to produce at the rate he has been for the last 2 years. And second, his production started to come around in 2017 to places more resembling Jason Heyward type production. His wRC+ was still a weak 88, but it was a remarkable improvement over the 71 he posted in 2016. The 11 home runs in 126 games were one of the most encouraging signs, because it was more in line with the mid teen home run production he’s seen for the bulk of his career. Last season was a mechanical adjustment for him. This season, new hitting coach Chili Davis is taking a mental approach with Heyward. It’s hard not to believe that Jason Heyward isn’t thinking about how he’s hit since signing his big contract with the Cubs. For what it’s worth, though, he hasn’t seemed to have lost any confidence. He chose himself to be the team’s MVP in 2018, which would be a huge development for the complexion of the 2018 season, if it happens. There aren’t a lot of good reasons to think Jason Heyward will break out. This is a leap of faith in talent and work ethic, more than anything else. Usually, those two things translate to positive results.
Where the hell did this notion that Addison Russell has a noodle arm come from? He obviously missed some throws to first base last season, as he dealt with foot and shoulder problems, but it’s almost as though a huge portion of the fan base wants to give up on him. Between struggling with injuries and a short lived social media allegation of domestic abuse, he’s been all but kicked to the Cubbie Curb. Don’t count me among those who’ve written off an immensely talented short stop entering his age 24 season. Even with those injuries, Addison Russell managed to stay static in ISO and slugging, and improved his BABIP. Part of that is because, although he was injured, he managed to improve his average exit velocity from 87.2 in 2016 to 88.0 in 2017. Out of all of the Cubs’ 2017 regulars, only Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Anthony Rizzo had higher average exit velocities than Addison Russell. What’s more important is that we saw Addison Russell hit the ball with similar authority to all fields more consistently than he did in 2016. The things that stood between Addison Russell and growth last season are hopefully behind him. The health issues that he tried to work through for most of last season are not thought to be long term ailments, and the off-season should have given them time to heal completely. And, more importantly, his personal life being more together than it was last season would be an enormous burden lifted from his young shoulders, even if much of it was self inflicted. Even with those barriers, we saw some flashes of the bat that Addison Russell can have. We already know what he has in the field. If he stays healthy, he could put together the finest season of his 4 thus far, and tap into the 6 win potential he has.
With the retooled bullpen, the arm that could provide some of the most impact is one with 5 1/3 big league innings under his belt. After a break out 2017, mostly in 3 levels of the minor league system, Dillon Maples made his big league debut, appearing in 6 games. He showed up with some of the same problems as C.J. Edwards, too. He walks way too many, issuing 6 walks in those 5 1/3. But I am all in on the 11 strike outs, because they’re a product of pure, filthy, pornographic stuff. Is a 40% K rate sustainable? Probably not. But he’ll punch out his fair share of hitters with the stuff he has. All he needs to do is get the walks to a manageable level and he can be a lights out high leverage reliever. It’s hard to look at his 10.13 ERA and take this seriously. Of the 6 earned he surrendered, 5 were in 1/3 of an inning in Pittsburgh, where he also dished out 3 of the 6 hits and 2 of the 6 walks he allowed. The other 5 innings looked alright. 3 hits, 1 earned, 4 walks (too many, obviously). That boils down to a 1.80 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. The WHIP is concerning, but it’s driven by walks. Cut the walks down, use him in advantageous situations, watch his confidence grow, and reap the rewards. The Cubs have the perfect manager for this in Joe Maddon. And they have a model to follow in C.J. Edwards. 2016 Edwards had a 35.9% rate and 14.5% walk rate in 36 games (36.0 IP). That’s a solid target for Maples. And if he hits it, it’s an arm that the Cubs don’t have to buy or acquire.
The Cubs were second in runs scored in the National League and led the senior circuit in on-base percentage in 2017, in spite of having some players not produce at expected levels. As a team, they only finished behind the Dodgers in wRC+ in the National League. The offense was still very strong in 2017, in spite of some less than expected results from some expected sources and the continued disappointment in Jason Heyward’s bat. Finding another productive bat to add to the mix from within would give it a boost that could make the Cubs the premier offensive team in baseball. They’re in the discussion for that distinction now. Neither Jason Heyward nor Addison Russell had the type of season they were capable of in 2017. If either or both improve to be average offensive players, it lengthens the Cubs’ line up in ways that make them as prolific as any American League line-up, regardless of whether or not they get to field a DH (Not hyperbole. Roughly 3 additional runs per week would have made them the top run scoring team in MLB). Along the same lines, the bullpen wasn’t as terrible as it was made out to be last season. It finished third in ERA, and middle of the pack in fWAR, but it was walks that were the consistent problem. Adding another high walk reliever isn’t necessarily the answer, but with the additions of Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow, there are two late options who did not issue many free passes (23 between them in 88 1/3 innings) to absorb some of the wildness. From a pure stuff standpoint, Maples could provide the type of middle innings closer that Justin Grimm was in 2015. Adding some length to starts would be a nice boost, too.
As we slide into spring training, the Cubs come with their fair share of intrigue, not the least of which could include a significant free agent addition, still. The Cubs had a very good 2017 season in spite of some not very good performances and results from portions of the roster. This season, getting any production from those one or more of those players could help catapult them back into the World Series. At that point, as we’ve seen the last two years, all bets are off.
It’s so great that baseball is right around the corner again. Winter sucks. It’s cold and the hot stove doesn’t work this year. Let’s play ball.