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Yu Darvish
Team Roundups

MLB Team Roundup: Chicago Cubs

by Nathan Grimm
Updated On: October 28, 2019, 9:51 am ET

Chicago Cubs

2019 Record: 84-78
Third Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.10 (seventh in MLB)
Team OPS: .783 (eighth in MLB)

What Went Right

The Cubs were in contention for a playoff spot until the final days of the season and even had aspirations of winning the National League Central before a disastrous weekend series against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field in late September. Of course, they ended up missing out on everything, but they still finished the year with a winning record for the fifth straight season. Offensively, the team continued to mash the ball, finishing sixth in baseball with 256 home runs, and they were top-10 in most offensive categories. The starting pitchers also came up big, ranking in the top-10 in quality starts and runs allowed per game. A big part of their success was bounce backs from players who were injured or performed below expectations in 2018, with big years from Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish contributing to their success. After a breakout 2018 campaign, Javier Baez also proved he's here to stay, putting up another five-category season before a hairline thumb fracture ended his season in early September. Midseason acquisition Nicholas Castellanos was a star after the trade, despite the team falling short of its ultimate goal.

What Went Wrong

As detailed above, a winning season is still a disappointment when it doesn't result in a postseason appearance. It ended up costing manager Joe Maddon his job, although the split seemed mutual and Maddon has already landed on his feet with the Angels. For all the good offensively, the team struck out too often and finished second-to-last in the majors in stolen bases, rarely manufacturing runs when the ball wasn't sailing out of the park. Ben Zobrist, the team's leadoff hitter and a veteran presence in the locker room, missed a significant portion of the season as he and his wife endured a very public divorce. On the pitching side, veteran leaders Jon Lester and Jose Quintana faltered as often as they delivered. Where the Castellanos acquisition was a hit, the midseason signing of Craig Kimbrel was decidedly less successful, with Kimbrel going 0-4 with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. Off the field, the team's continued employment of Addison Russell remains troubling. That he's a barely replacement level player on the field makes it even more puzzling.

Fantasy Slants

**Bryant's return to form was a welcome sight for Cubs fans and fantasy players alike. The 27-year-old played in 147 games this year, batting .282/.382/.521 with 31 homers -- his highest total since his MVP year of 2016 -- with 77 RBI and 108 runs scored. The most appealing thing about Bryant from a fantasy perspective seems to be his floor, as a healthy Bryant appears to be a lock for 30 homers, 110 runs scored and a useful batting average and on-base percentage. Assuming the Cubs find a leadoff hitter this winter, Bryant could also see an uptick in his RBI total as well. It feels like he's got a monster season in him one of these years; perhaps that year is 2020.

**That he hasn't been mentioned to this point speaks volumes about Anthony Rizzo's dependability. You could set your watch to his production again in 2019, with the first baseman hitting .293/.405/.520 with 27 homers, 94 RBI, 89 runs scored and five steals in 146 games. Those numbers were down slightly from his production in recent years but Rizzo injured his ankle in mid-September, costing him a few more weeks of healthy production with which to approximate those numbers. The injury won't be something that bleeds over into 2020, though, and many of the same caveats that exist with Bryant are also true for Rizzo -- if he has a better supporting cast around him next year, it should be another strong season for the 30-year-old.

**Contreras bounced back from an inexplicably poor season in 2018 to post a very strong line in 2019. The backstop hit .272/.355/.533 -- a career high .888 OPS -- with 24 homers, 64 RBI and 57 runs scored in 105 games, reasserting his place among the top fantasy options at catcher heading into 2020. Because of his weird 2018 performance, which couldn't really be explained away by bad luck, he came with a discount in 2019 drafts, but that discount will surely be gone next spring. A 27-year-old who hits for average and power in the middle of a good lineup, especially one who plays a historically bad position for fantasy production, will be worth the price tag, though.

**Castellanos came alive after the trade from the barren Tigers to the playoff-hungry Cubs, hitting .321/.356/.646 with 16 homers in 51 games following the deal. That's an interesting lead up to free agency, as he certainly helped himself by showing what he's capable of in a good lineup. It also raises the fantasy stakes, as his final destination could have a non-negligible impact on his production in the coming year. The good news is, it's hard to see a team that's not ready to contend make a play for the 27-year-old; he's a good player but not the kind of franchise-altering star like Manny Machado that would entice a rebuilding team like the Padres to throw big money at him. More likely, a team in need of that complementary piece -- the rival Cardinals, perhaps, or the NL East-champion Braves -- will court Castellanos to come play in a similarly potent lineup. Fantasy players should pay attention to his landing spot but the right fielder has always been a guy who could roll out of bed and hit, so he should be a good bet in 2020.

**The hairline fracture that effectively ended Baez's season was disappointing and hurt the Cubs' run at a playoff spot, but the good news is it shouldn't linger into the 2020 season. Given that he's now put up two very strong offensive seasons in a row -- and even his 2017 was incredibly useful for fantasy purposes -- the soon to be 27-year-old should once again be near the top of the ranks at the shortstop position. If healthy, Baez could easily hit the 30-homer, 15-steal mark while knocking in 100 runs and scoring 100 himself next year. If you get a cost break because his numbers are slightly down due to missing the season's final month, even better.

**The debate about whether Kyle Schwarber belongs in the American League is back on after his defense regressed in 2019, once again making him a bat-only player in a league without bat-only positions. Fortunately for Schwarber the bat played as he had a career-best year at the plate, hitting .250/.339/.531 with 38 homers, 92 RBI and 82 runs scored. What the Cubs do with the 26-year-old, who has two more years of team control, will be interesting to watch. Even with his defensive shortcomings it's not as though the Cubs are flush with outfielders, especially with Castellanos hitting the open market, so they're not in a spot where they have to do anything. Much of their thinking may depend on the preferences of new manager David Ross. If he values defense, Schwarber may be hitting dingers elsewhere in 2020.

**As noted, Darvish showed up in a big way in 2019, especially in a second half in which he posted a brilliant 3.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP with 120 strikeouts in 93 1/3 innings of work. That's the Darvish the Cubs hoped to see when he signed his six-year, $126 million contract ahead of the 2018 season, and now that we've got it on tape it's the Darvish we should expect in 2020. Perhaps the most promising takeaway from 2019 was the development of a lights-out cutter that he ended up throwing one-third of the time, with great results. Adding great new pitches, bringing heat with a 94.1-mph four-seamer, getting whiffs with his slider -- the 33-year-old certainly reminded us why he was one of the most fearsome pitchers in the game not long ago. The days of him being a top-tier starter are over, but he's still got the look of a pitcher who can be a strong No. 2 in fantasy again next season.

**It was a frustrating season from the outset for Kimbrel, who went unsigned until June 7 and then dealt with both knee and elbow issues during the season's final months. In between, he posted a 6.53 ERA in 20 2/3 innings of work, clearly showing the effects of the abbreviated season and the ailments suffered during the year. A regular offseason and spring training should cure much of what ailed the 31-year-old, and with two more years left on his deal he should also benefit from a familiarity with his surroundings. The season was an ugly one for Kimbrel, but until given further reason to worry fantasy players should rank him in their top 10 again heading into drafts next spring.

Key Free Agents: Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist, Pedro Strop

Team Needs: The possible departure of Cole Hamels and the decline of Jon Lester and Jose Quintana, who has a $10.5 million option that the team will surely pick up despite his 4.68 ERA in 2019, should make starting pitching a top priority for the Cubs. Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are still a strong top of the rotation and Quintana and Lester are fine to round out the group, but if they hope to contend the Cubs could still use one more dependable arm in the rotation. That player probably isn't Gerrit Cole, but the market will have some interesting names that the Cubs can afford. (Of course, they can afford Cole, too, if they so desire.) Offensively, the lineup is fine, especially if Ben Zobrist or Nico Hoerner displaces Addison Russell at second base and Ian Happ carries over his strong finish to 2019, but the disappointing third-place finish in the NL Central could also spur leadership to try to shake things up. If Theo Epstein and company are content with the change at the top in Ross and making a few small tweaks to the bench composition, though, this team should still be a contender as soon as next year.