To the chagrin of many fans, the Chicago Cubs front office stood pat during the offseason and did not sign any of the top 2019 free agents (OF Bryce Harper remains unsigned to date), while ownership group member Tom Ricketts claimed the baseball operations well had run dry. This means the Cubs will be looking for improvement from the current members of the squad in order to avoid an early end to the 2019 season. I have selected several players to pay attention to in the coming year on that basis.
- Kris Bryant, INF
Bryant had a disappointing 2018 after taking a fastball to the helmet in April and then injuring his left shoulder during a slide in May, which resulted in a couple of DL stints. The soreness also caused him to make changes to his swing that may have interfered with his timing. After hitting over 20 home runs per season from his debut year of 2015 through 2017, Bryant only hit 13 bombs in 2018, with a slash line of .272/.374/.460. His OPS+ was still a respectable 118.
Bryant’s power failure was a major contributor to the Cubs’ sputtering second-half offense in 2018, but the 2016 NL MVP has stated he is looking forward to proving himself once again in 2019.
INF Javier Báez carried the Cubs in 2018 and finished second in MVP voting, but it wasn’t enough to advance to the Division Series. A healthy Bryant could also put up MVP-caliber numbers to lift the Cubs past the Cardinals and Reds, who have made significant additions during the offseason. He has gotten off to a great start in camp, hitting a home run in his first Spring Training AB.
- Victor Caratini, C
Caratini is the Cubs’ young switch-hitting backup catcher who solidified his position after C Chris Gimenez turned out to be an even bigger dud at the plate than is normally acceptable for a veteran backup catcher. Gimenez has since retired from playing, accepting a coaching gig with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Caratini was expected to be an offense-first catcher, but so far has not lived up to this billing, with a career slash line of .238/.303/.317 and a woeful OPS+ of 63. Manager Joe Maddon does not seem to trust him to start games either, as primary C Willson Contreras led the major leagues in innings caught during 2018, with 369.2 innings over 133 games This likely played a role in Contreras’ second-half decline, when he slashed .200/.291/.294 with an OPS of .585 as compared to his .279/.369/.449 and .818 OPS first half. It will be interesting to see if the Cubs make a trade early in 2019 if Caratini does not show improvement at the plate. One obvious prospective trade partner would be the Miami Marlins, who have dealt J.T. Realmuto to the Philadelphia Phillies.
- Albert Almora Jr., OF
Almora is known for his web gems but has been less reliable at the plate. After getting off to a great start in 2018 with an OPS of .795 and 121 total bases while serving as a tablesetter, he fizzled in the second half, slashing .232/.267/.280. This could have been due to fatigue from appearing in 86 games prior to the All-Star Break, or a power drain caused by the contact-first batting approach promoted by hitting coach Chili Davis, who was terminated following the Cubs’ disappointing finish. Almora and fellow outfielders Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber are the Cubs’ top trade chips on the major league roster. Look for Almora to be shopped if the Cubs get off to an under .500 start in 2019 as projected by PECOTA.
- Yu Darvish, SP
Darvish was the Cubs’ most recent major free agent acquisition, signed to a 6-year, US$126 million contract through 2023, but he only appeared in eight games for the Northsiders in his first year due to a stress reaction in his pitching elbow that went undiagnosed until late in the season. The four-time All-Star underwent arthroscopic surgery in September and has since reported to Spring Training. Like Bryant, Darvish has stated that he is highly motivated to show fans what he can do for the Cubs in 2019, giving a rare interview in English. A healthy Darvish will stabilize the Cubs’ pitching staff, allowing lefty Mike Montgomery to return to his former role as a swingman and solidifying a starting rotation with two aging veterans in Jon Lester and Cole Hamels.
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