Cubs

Cubs scoff at last place projection: 'Wow, that's cool'

Cubs scoff at last place projection: 'Wow, that's cool'

MESA, Ariz. — How much would have to go wrong for the Cubs to not only miss out on the playoffs, but somehow end up in last place in the National League Central?

A year ago, it was pretty much Murphy's Law around the Cubs: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Kris Bryant didn't have a healthy day after mid-May and his power numbers took a serious hit. The Cubs got very little contributions from the top three pitchers they added over the winter (Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood) between injuries and ineffectiveness. The schedule did the Cubs no favors, Pedro Strop got injured at the absolute wrong time, nearly every young hitter struggled in the second half and even Mr. Reliable Steve Cishek seemingly ran into a wall down the stretch.

Yet they still won 95 games, which you might have heard reference to a time or two this offseason.

But apparently PECOTA doesn't think the Cubs will be able to rise above adversity again in 2019.

The Baseball Prospectus projection system initially pegged the Cubs for 82 wins when it was first released last week, but an update now has them at 80-82 for the season, firmly in last place in the National League Central. Yes, that's a below-.500 record for a team with championship aspirations and a slot finishing behind both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds (pegged for 81-81 records) in the division.

"Wow that's cool," Kyle Schwarber said sarcastically when he found out about the projections. "I guess they want to be different, right? They want to get some publicity, I guess. I think we all know what we have in this clubhouse, but baseball's baseball. It *might* happen, but I'm betting on it won't happen.

"I don't think we'll [finish last] so next question."

Pedro Strop is one of the leading voices in the clubhouse and he didn't bat an eye when told about PECOTA's projections, simply shrugging his shoulders and referencing how much the teams in the division improved this winter while the Cubs haven't made many moves.

"Our division got a lot better," Strop said. "It's not that we went down. It's just the other teams have gotten better, too. It's not a secret."

So are the Cubs being underrated by external projections and talking heads?

"Honestly, I don't care," Strop said. "It doesn't matter if you're underrated, you're still going to have to go and play those games in the season. We'll find out if we're underrated after the season.

"If we lose a bunch of games, we weren't underrated. But if we win and we win the World Series, that means we're underrated. It's too early to say that."

Obviously PECOTA is just one computer projection and not reflective of any one person's opinion. They also weigh value in different ways than other projections, placing an emphasis on framing from catchers (where Willson Contreras rates very poorly) and overall defense while essentially predicting the Cubs' aging pitching staff will take a step back across the board.

There's also the fact they only added Daniel Descalso, Brad Brach, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette to the group this winter while the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers all made big splashes.

Then again, winning the offseason rarely translates to wins in the regular season.

Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. initially said he doesn't pay any attention to external projections, but admitted this could also be extra motivation for a Cubs team that already came into camp with a chip on its shoulder.

"Of course," Edwards said. "You have to. The last couple years, we have been that team to beat. I still feel the same way about it. I still feel like we're the team to beat, regardless of how other teams have stepped up."

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Why Cubs, other contenders could find best playoff answers in NCAA hoops

Why Cubs, other contenders could find best playoff answers in NCAA hoops

If Major League Baseball wants to solve the playoff-integrity issues that already are looming because of COVID-19-related schedule problems, the solution can be summed up in two words — and make the league a few extra bucks along the way.

Selection Sunday.

Not to determine every playoff qualifier. Maybe just half. And then to seed most of the expanded, 16-team field.

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You got a better idea for how to reconcile winning percentages against the likelihood some teams will have played 15 to 20 percent more games than other teams during what’s already an absurdly short baseball season?

Entering play Wednesday, 18 of the 30 teams had played at least 17 games, thanks to two major coronavirus outbreaks in the first week of the season.

Three had played 12 or fewer. And 47 days remained in the season.

Most notably, the Marlins are a week of games behind most other teams after their coronavirus outbreak. The Cardinals — who have played only five games — already are two weeks behind and still haven’t been cleared to play again.

The earliest the Cards might resume play is Friday, and in that best-case scenario, they would have 45 days to play 55 games if they were to complete their season.

The questions already are piling up fast about the integrity of the season and the schedule. And the answers figure to impact the Cubs as much as any team, with their league-best records in both winning percentage and coronavirus testing.

  •  What happens to Major League Baseball if a third team has a major outbreak? “I don’t know,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said, echoing many in the game.
  •  Just how few games are too few for a team to play and still have its winning percentage be credible enough for playoff consideration?
  • How many teams with fewer than 50 games — or even, say, 45 — are too many if most play their full 60-game schedules?
  • Can a team with too many COVID-19 cases be dropped from the league and the league still finish with 29 teams? Or 28?

“I don’t envy anyone making these decisions,” Hoyer said.

The only thing anybody knows for sure is that MLB has no intention of shutting down, or pausing the league, for anything short of extreme multiple-team spread of the virus or an otherwise grave consequence. Not with a nearly $1 billion payday waiting in October for postseason broadcast rights.

That much has been made clear by the “I’m not a quitter” perseverance through two major outbreaks of ownership and a commissioner, Rob Manfred, who this week told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch not only that he thinks the “Cardinals are going to be back” but also this:

“As long as you have 29 clubs where you’re not having positives, and you don’t feel like you don’t have a risk of cross-contagion, which you don’t as long as one is not playing, I think it would be surprising to make the decision that you’re going to shut down the other 29 because you have a continuing problem with one. That doesn’t seem like the right decision to make.”

MLB left many of these questions unaddressed in its 2020 plans and protocols, with apparent good reason. No league has undertaken a season like this one, and so far MLB is the only one of the major American professional sports to play outside of a league bubble during this pandemic.

So given the inevitable adjustments to be needed along the way — and the enormous incentive to keep pushing through outbreaks — bring on Selection Sunday.

How? Who?

Teams should be rewarded for preventing outbreaks and completing their schedules. So the teams that play the most games — say, 90 percent (at least 54) or 95 percent (57) — go into a pool from which the top seed from each league is selected, based on winning percentage.

If 20 or more teams have reached that 90-percent threshold, three more teams from each league enter the playoff field based on winning percentage (the minimum numbers of games could be adjusted downward to maybe 50, if necessary, depending on any other outbreaks).

That’s half the field, with only the top seed set in each league.

The rest?

Get the networks on the phone and let the bidding begin for the selection show.

Most of the decisions might look obvious by then.

But picture a final National League playoff spot between these three teams that have played 38, 49 and 58 games, respectively, and have not faced each other during the season:

  • Cardinals, 19-19 (.500)
  • Mets, 24-25 (.490)
  • Giants, 28-30 (.483)

Not an easy call. Similar close calls might be found up and down the seeding ladders, once the fields are set.

The only tougher calls might be deciding who makes up the selection committee.

Of course, that can be answered in two words as well:

Cubs Insider.

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Cubs injury update: Latest on Kyle Schwarber's knee, José Quintana's thumb

Cubs injury update: Latest on Kyle Schwarber's knee, José Quintana's thumb

Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber is available in emergency for Wednesday’s game against Cleveland but manager David Ross will try to avoid using him.

Schwarber sustained a right knee contusion after getting hit by a pitch in the sixth inning on Tuesday. He initially stayed in the game before Albert Almora Jr. pinch hit for him in the seventh.

“I don’t want to push that. You start messing with a bruised knee and where that got him, a pretty good spot, that ball that hit him,” Ross said Wednesday. 

Schwarber was originally listed in Wednesday’s starting lineup, batting cleanup and playing left field, before getting scratched. Ross discussed the potential problems Schwarber could encounter by trying to play through the ailment.

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“You just don’t want to create a lot of bad habits with swinging and getting into your legs and being tender or gentle within your legs and hitting,” Ross said. “It can create a lot of bad habits really fast and he’s been having some of our best at-bats.”

Schwarber is fifth on the team in on-base percentage (.357) and tied with Ian Happ for the most walks (8).

Quintana update

Ross said there’s still no timeline for José Quintana’s return to the team but added the lefty’s three-inning sim game in South Bend on Tuesday “went well.” 

In fact, Quintana — who hasn’t pitched this season after slicing a nerve in his left thumb prior to Summer Camp — isn't think about his hand because “it’s not an issue,” Ross said.

“Talking to him, no real issues. I think he’s just gotta continue to build [stamina],” Ross said of Quintana. “Feedback was good from the coaching staff down there yesterday. All the feedback was good.”

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