Cubs

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester’s not ready to pass on the torch to Kyle Hendricks

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester’s not ready to pass on the torch to Kyle Hendricks

The Cubs super rotation has been set and Jon Lester receives the honor of starting Opening Day. David Kaplan and Kelly Crull discuss if the Cubs starting five is not only the best in franchise history, but the best in baseball right now.

Plus, after watching Joe Maddon’s crew up close and personal for two weeks in Mesa, Kelly discusses the refreshed focus and hunger the Cubs are displaying on a daily basis.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here (iOS users can listen here and subscribe on Apple Podcasts):

Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

MESA, Ariz. — Javy Baez has a way of holding his teammates accountable without throwing anybody under the bus.

That's because he's always internalizing it, pointing the thumb first and then the finger.

2018 will go down as Baez's true breakout, finishing second in National League MVP voting and almost singlehandedly keeping the Cubs afloat at various times during a trying season.

But he wasn't only successful on the field. Baez is also finding a way to lead the Cubs — both by example and with his words.

After the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies at Wrigley Field for the NL Wild Card-Game last fall, Baez stood at his locker and held court for a half-hour, passionately discussing how the team needed a better sense of urgency from Day 1. He made similar comments before the game, showing a little fire when talking about how the Cubs need to stop worrying about anything outside the clubhouse and just focus on what they do.

Long before Theo Epstein or Joe Maddon talked about "urgency" and "edge," it was Baez's voice that echoed through the Cubs locker room. And he backed it up with his play all year long, including driving in the Cubs' only run in that lone playoff game.

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," Baez said Tuesday at Cubs spring camp. "It kinda bothered me because that's what this game is — to make adjustments and get better.

"We waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow. I think this offseason, we had a lot of time to think about it to see how we're gonna react this year."

And how will they react? How will Baez make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall?

He knows he can't do it alone.

"I think it's the little things," Baez said. "Last year, one example — I didn't run full speed to first base. I used to get back to the dugout and nobody would say anything. This year, I'm sure if I don't do it, someone hopefully would say something. It's not to show you up, it's to make our team better."

It's a brand new year, and Baez looms as probably the biggest X-factor on the Cubs. If he can build on last year's MVP-level season, the Cubs are in a fantastic spot with regards to their lineup as Kris Bryant is back healthy and the other young hitters are potentially taking a step forward after refocusing and making adjustments over the winter.

Baez is emerging as a vocal leader and he certainly has the skillset and talent to back up his words.

But will he be able to duplicate his 2018 numbers or even expand upon them? Even as he led the league in RBI while hitting 34 homers, scoring 101 runs, stealing 21 bases and posting a .290/.326/.554 slash line, Baez still has plenty of room for development.

For starters, he has work to do on his plate discipline and he knows that. 

"I'm just trying to get more walks," he said. "Obviously people are talking about my walks and strikeouts. It's only gonna make me better if I walk more and see the ball better.

"Obviously I hope [to maintain that MVP level]. I'm trying to have a better year than last year."

Over the last two seasons, Baez has walked only 59 times vs. 311 strikeouts. And of those 59 free passes, 23 were intentional, which means the star infielder's "natural" walk rate is only 3.19 percent in that span. For perspective, the worst walk rate in the big leagues since the start of 2017 is Dee Gordon with 2.7 percent. No other qualified hitter had a walk rate lower than 3.3 percent.

Joe Maddon always says whenever Baez figures out how to organize the strike zone better, he can turn into Manny Ramirez as a hitter

But even beyond that, 2018 was a great learning season for the 26-year-old. He now has a better understanding on how to keep from wearing down at the end of a long season and came into camp looking even stronger.

"I kinda did get a little tired because a lot had to do with running the bases — I was trying to get 30 [stolen] bases and in the first half, other teams started spreading word about me on the bases," Baez said.

"I was kinda working a little bit more and I had a little bit of pressure on me. I was trying to do too much in the last month. Just trying to make an adjustment on that."

5 Takeaways From Diving Into the Cubs' ZiPS Projections

5 Takeaways From Diving Into the Cubs' ZiPS Projections

/clears throat
/turns on bullhorn
/deeply inhales: 

MOORRREEEEEEE PROJECTIONNNSSSSS

It will never end, friends. Here we are, a good week or so after PECOTA came through and stomped all over everyone's optimism, and the timing could *not* be better. PECOTA was old news; the jokes were stale. Now our second wind is here, ready to fuel us all into rage tweeting at a computer, from a computer, with renewed purpose. We have been given a gift, and there are still three whole corners of the Cubs' workout guide available and looking to rent. I give you: FanGraphs' ZiPS Projections for the 2019 Cubs. 

Now, I cannot say I'd blame you if you hard-passed the hell out of these. Getting Mad Online seems exhausting, and pointing out that the games are played on the field is not actually something anyone needs clarification on. They are, in the end, just predictions. While they may be based in a smarter reality than your buddy's 3-beer rant about how honestly Mike Trout in a Cubs uniform isn't THAT unrealistic, they are both just predictions. No one knows what's going to happen. Sports! 

So what's worth noting about the Cubs' ZiPS projections? A bunch! Let's take a look: 

1. ZiPS thinks Kris Bryant is back, kinda

Here's what FanGraphs sees for Bryant this year: .270/.365/.493 with a 123 OPS+ and 28 dingers - all good for a 4.5 WAR. That'd be the 4th-highest WAR of his 5-year career, which, on the surface, doesn't look great. WAR is not without flaws though, and some of Bryant's other projections paint a rosier picture. A .222 ISO is encouraging - last year, some hitters with a similar ISO included Anthony Rendon, Edwin Encarnacion, and Kyle Schwarber. He's projected to post a career-low in walks and get close to his career-high in strikeouts, so there's a red flag. With all that said, if there's one player the ZiPS might swing-and-miss on (ha!), it's Bryant; his injury-plagued 2018 makes forecasting trickier. 

2. Javy Baez's power is for real?

I guess predicting another 30 home run season for Baez shouldn't be that wild, but considering he'd only ever hit 20 once before last year, it feels notable that FanGraphs is in on his power. On a team with Bryant, Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo, it's Baez that's predicted to be the Cubs' preeminent power hitter. Strangely enough, Baez is only projected to be a 3-win player, and worth almost two whole wins less than he was last season. WAR has a hard time with players who are uber-reliable at several positions, but this writer isn't quite sure how someone can be the team's best hitter and fielder yet not their most valuable position player. WAR, man. It makes sense until it doesn't. 

3. The rotation might be in real trouble 

More than any other offseason narrative, this one seems to be where Cubs fans and baseball analysts butt heads most often. 

Most Fans: Jon Lester doesn't need to prove anything to anyone, a change of scenery is giving Cole Hamels new life, Yu Darvish is finally healthy and motivated, and Jose Quintana is underrated at this point. 
Most Analysts: All 4 are on the wrong side of 30, with peripherals headed in the wrong direction. Maybe one or two reaches their ceiling again, but all 4? 

As is usually the case in baseball, reality probably falls somewhere in the middle. Terrific insight, I know. Early reports from camp are bullish on Darvish, and he seems like the obvious choice for a bounceback year. FanGraphs disagrees with that, pointing to Quintana (3.75 FIP, 3.6 WAR) as the Cubs sneaky-good starter while being rather gloomy about Darvish's 2019 (3.82 FIP, 2.5 WAR).
The bigger red flag is the pitching staffs' production as a whole. All 5 starters are projected to have ERAs close to 4 -it's hard to feel much outside of apathy when perusing their numbers. The NL might be stupid good this  year, so can the Cubs cut it with merely good-but-not-great pitching? TUNE IN

4. The bullpen has potential?

The Cubs deserve the flack they get for not spending this offseason. That's not to say that they should have signed Bryce Harper -- though they should have signed Bryce Harper -- but it's not like they've been making other moves left and right either. However, the moves they did make in the bullpen are ... rather encouraging? 
They got Brad Brach on a one-year deal and FanGraphs loves him. We might be looking back in July and wondering why we didn't pay more attention to the Xavier Cedeno signing. FanGraphs loves him too. As Chris Kamka pointed out, both are great candidates to be specialists, as Brach destroys righties just like Cedeno destroys lefties. They may be versatile enough to handle expanded roles, but if Maddon wants to keep them in those roles, it wouldn't be the worst idea. Pedro Strop is a bonafide stud and it's not unrealistic to think the Cubs have a ground ball wizard in Brandon Kintzler, either. There's reason to believe: of all 5 NL Central bullpens, FanGraphs ranks the Cubs (a very, very close) 2nd. Bullpen management is nothing more than an informed dice roll, but the Cubs' late-inning arms might surprise people. 

5. Miscellaneous tidbits that I couldn't blend into a narrative

- Kris Bryant's closest current comp is Ryan Zimmerman
- Jason Heyward's predicted to be a 2-win player once again. The contract is what it is, but after the first two seasons, anything is an improvement. 
- Anthony Rizzo is predicted to slash .277/.383/.492 and be worth 4 wins. This is not news, but his consistent excellence at the plate probably deserves more recognition than it gets. 
- Ian Happ, Victor Caratini, and Daniel Descalso are projected as the worst defenders of Cubs players who will get semi-consistent ABs. 
- David Bote and Wilson Contreras are projected to hit the same number of dingers (14). That'd more than double Bote's total from 2018 and would be the 2nd-best season of Contreras' career. 
- Wynton Bernard is pegged to lead the Cubs in steals this season, with 21. Javy Baez is the only starter with more than 10 projected steals. Basically the Cubs aren't going to steal bases.
- Ben Zobrist's closest current comp is Wade Boggs.