After a disappointing end to the 2017 postseason, the Cubs are back on track to take another shot at a World Series title in 2018, mainly thanks to the offseason free agent signing of Yu Darvish. The same core of young players that carried the team to three consecutive NLCS appearances in 2015, 2016 and 2017 is still in place so it is very likely the Cubs can expect yet another NL Central division title and postseason run in 2018, barring significant injuries. However, there are still a few unresolved issues that will affect what we see out of the Cubs in the coming season.
2018 Cubs Question Marks
- Leadoff Spot. With Dexter Fowler’s departure after the 2016 season, the Cubs have been left without a true leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon tried a number of different players in the 1 spot during 2017, most notably the failed Kyle Schwarber experiment that eventually resulted in him being sent down to AAA Iowa. A number of players have auditioned for the role during Spring Training this year, namely Albert Almora, Jr., Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist. Given that Zobrist will likely see reduced playing time due to age and nagging injuries, he doesn’t seem like a top candidate for the job. Happ has been very hot this spring, so all signs point to him being the Fowler replacement, as he is a switch-hitter who plays outfield. Happ put up good numbers as a part-time player during his rookie season in 2017, slashing .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs over 115 games. In order to be successful as a leadoff man, he would need to be more patient at the plate and increase the number of free passes issued. In any event, I look forward to seeing what Happ can do as an everyday player, which he earned with his performance in 2017.
- Jason Heyward’s Offensive Production. I have addressed this issue in more detail in a previous post. Heyward’s hitting has left a lot to be desired since joining the Cubs starting in the 2016 season. Although the Cubs were able to win the World Series despite his weak bat in 2016, Maddon’s patience may be running out given that the team is overflowing with young talent deserving a shot to play every day. Given the numbers put up by Happ and Almora, Jr. in 2017, if Heyward is not able to turn things around early in 2018, he may see his playing time reduced in favor of the younger outfielders who have seen success at the plate.
- Kyle Schwarber’s Production and Fielding. Schwarber had a bad 2017 both at the plate and in the field, although he was able to turn things around offensively in the second half after a stint in AAA. Spring Training has brought us an entirely new Schwarber, who seems to have come to terms with his knee injury and new role as an outfielder by slimming down to be more agile. This has also resulted in the positive news that his weight loss means he will no longer be required to wear a knee brace, which should make his job that much easier.
- Division of Playing Time. This was a concern for the Cubs last year given all the young talent with an ability to play multiple positions. Joe Maddon continually favored giving time to Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber despite the drop-off in production seen from both. Schwarber was eventually sent down to AAA for a while due to his poor performance and was able to turn things around well enough to finish the year with a slash line of .211/.315/.467 after a first half performance of .178/.300/.394 in 68 games. Meanwhile, Albert Almora, Jr. was only seen on a part-time basis, finishing with .298/.338/.445 over 132 games. Javier Báez appeared in 145 games, mainly due to Addison Russell’s injury problems. It appears Zobrist will be taking a back seat to Báez at second base this year (although Báez is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury), which is good news since Báez was one of six Cubs with more than 20 home runs in 2017, and it bodes well for Báez’s chances to make enough appearances at the same position to qualify for a Gold Glove nomination. We will likely be seeing a platoon in center field again this year, with starts being divided between Almora, Jr. and Happ depending on the opposing pitcher (Almora had much better splits against lefties), with Heyward taking a start at center on occasion. I am of the opinion the Cubs should trade Schwarber and Russell to organizations where they would be a better fit in order to free up playing time for Happ and Báez.
- Justin Wilson. Wilson joined the Cubs along with C Alex Avila via a trade with Detroit, but suffered serious command problems after coming to Chicago, posting a WHIP of 2.094 in 23 games with Chicago compared to 0.942 over 42 games with Detroit. The Cubs will be looking for him to return to form in 2018 in order to use him as a left-handed specialist in the back end of the bullpen.
Things look good for the Cubs in 2018 as long as they are able to avoid injuries to key players and resolve some of the nagging issues lingering after the 2017 season (lack of a leadoff hitter, situational hitting, command of the strike zone out of the bullpen). If they are able to make another playoff appearance, they will of course face stiff competition from the Dodgers and Nationals. However, if they are able to win the division relatively early, Maddon should be able to keep the core players rested for the playoffs, as was the case in 2016, which should allow them to improve on their 2017 postseason performance.