2018 Record: 95-68
Second Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 3.65 (3rd)
Team OPS: .744 (10th)
What Went Right
In a franchise first, the Cubs made the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. They spent 86 days at the top of the National League Central standings and posted a higher run differential (+116) than any other team in the National League except the NL-champion Dodgers (+194). Javier Baez enjoyed a massive breakout at age 25, tallying 34 home runs, 111 RBI, 21 stolen bases, and 101 runs scored in 160 games. He’s one of three finalists for National League MVP, as announced Monday evening. Cole Hamels, acquired from the Rangers four days before the July 31 trade deadline, posted a 2.36 ERA over 76 1/3 innings (12 starts) with Chicago, prompting the front office to exercise his $20 million club option for 2019 last week. Anthony Rizzo won his second career Gold Glove at first base and drove in 100-plus runs for the fourth straight year. Ben Zobrist slashed .305/.378/.440 across 520 plate appearances in his age-37 season while appearing defensively at four different positions. Jon Lester bounced back from his mediocre showing in 2017 to deliver a 3.32 ERA (129 ERA+) in 32 starts. Kyle Hendricks worked a career-high 199 innings, to the tune of a solid 3.44 ERA, 1.146 WHIP, and 161/44 K/BB ratio. The bullpen combined for a 3.35 ERA, second-best among all major league teams.
What Went Wrong
The abrupt, frustrating finish stands out the most -- the Cubs lost the National League Central tiebreaker to the Brewers on October 1 and then fell to the Rockies in the National League Wild Card Game on October 2, scoring just two total runs between those two games. Kris Bryant struggled through lingering left shoulder discomfort for much of the year and wound up with career lows in just about every relevant offensive statistic, including batting average (.272), OPS (.834), and home runs (12). Yu Darvish, signed to a big six-year, $126 million free agent contract last offseason, made just eight starts due to elbow and triceps issues and wasn’t particularly effective when healthy. Tyler Chatwood posted a 5.30 ERA and a league-high 95 walks over 103 2/3 innings in the first year of a three-year, $38 million deal. Willson Contreras cratered at the plate in the second half, batting just 169/.263/.232 with one home run over his final 45 games. Brandon Morrow didn’t make an appearance after the All-Star break due to a bone bruise in his right elbow. Addison Russell was suspended 40 games without pay in late September for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence and abuse policy. He’ll likely be non-tendered this winter, ending his four-year tenure with the team.
** Kris Bryant had an average draft position of 12.8 last spring in Yahoo leagues but went on to finish 33rd among 3B-eligible players, behind the likes of Joey Wendle, Jurickson Profar, and Johan Camargo. The shoulder injury is largely to blame here though, and Bryant seems like a very good bet to bounce back after a full offseason of rest. The 26-year-old was batting .303/.426/.581 through his first 40 games in 2018. He averaged 31 homers, 91 RBI, and 106 runs scored per year over the first three years of his career.
** Willson Contreras’ falloff is a lot more confounding than Bryant’s, as we don’t have an injury to point to. He was sporting an .870 OPS in late May and started behind the plate for the National League in the All-Star Game, but the fiery 26-year-old catcher finished with a weak .249/.339/.390 batting line and only 10 home runs in 138 total games. Contreras hit .276/.356/.499 with 21 home runs over 117 games in 2017 -- his sophomore season. J.T. Realmuto will be the top catcher on draft boards next spring. After that? Good luck.
** Cole Hamels was brilliant for the Cubs down the stretch, but he had a 4.72 ERA over his first 20 starts with the Rangers in 2018 and the veteran left-hander will turn 35 years old in December. It’s difficult to buy into him as a high-level fantasy starter for 2019. Jon Lester will also be pitching at age 35 next year and he struck out just 149 batters in 181 2/3 innings this past season. Jose Quintana has a somewhat underwhelming 4.09 ERA over his last 64 starts, and Yu Darvish looks like damaged goods. Kyle Hendricks may the top fantasy option in this rotation next season.
** Brandon Morrow registered a 1.47 ERA over 30 2/3 innings in the first half of the 2018 regular season while racking up 22 saves in 24 opportunities. He looked like a draft-day steal as the 15th reliever off the board in the average Yahoo league, but then the injury bug came biting and it’s hard to trust that we’ll get better durability from the 34-year-old right-hander in 2019. Pedro Strop could be the primary ninth-inning man, pending any offseason moves. He put up a sharp 2.26 ERA in 60 appearances this year.
** Kyle Schwarber was pretty dreadful this year in high-leverage situations, but he still posted a strong .823 overall OPS and slugged 26 home runs in 137 games. He also had positive defensive ratings in left field. There’s going to be chatter again this winter about the Cubs possibly trading Schwarber -- and maybe it’ll finally happen -- but for the most part they should be pretty happy with how he is developing. Hitting with runners in scoring position is not a distinct skill. Those numbers will rise. Buy low if you can.
Team Needs: There aren’t any glaring holes on this roster. What the Cubs really need is better health from Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow. If they make a big signing this winter, it will probably be preceded by a big trade.