The Chicago Cubs are the defending NL Central Division champions but are not favorites to repeat heading into the 2021 season. The Colorado Rockies paid the St. Louis Cardinals to take the contract of five-time All-Star Nolan Arenado, and now St. Louis is the presumptive favorite to win the division. Meanwhile, the Cubs traded their Cy Young candidate pitcher to the San Diego Padres for a handful of teenaged lottery tickets. The Northsiders are basically running it back this year, although fan favorites Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop have returned to the fold to seek another shot at postseason glory.
We know the Cubs’ core position players put up disappointing numbers during the 2020 covidball season. They will need to improve if the Cubs are going to have a chance this year. However, there are a few other players who will also have a considerable impact on the team’s chances in 2021 whose ability to contribute has been deemed questionable.
Alzolay made his MLB debut in 2019 as one of the Cubs’ best starting pitching prospects. He has made just ten big-league appearances, pitching a total of 33.2 innings. His first season in MLB was quite poor thanks to a 7.30 ERA on a 7.75 FIP over four games (61 ERA+). He rebounded in 2020 with a 2.95 ERA on a 3.05 FIP, striking out 12.2 batters per nine innings. He seemed likely to become part of the Cubs’ starting rotation in 2021 as camp began, but his 15.75 ERA in Cactus League play this year is quite discouraging. However, he posted a 10.80 ERA during the 2020 preseason, so maybe there’s not too much cause for concern here. The most optimistic projection available on FanGraphs has him appearing in 29 games, starting 15, with a 4.18 ERA over 88.0 innings. Only one projection places him above 100 IP. Given the Cubs’ lack of depth, I believe Alzolay should pitch at least 100 innings as long as he remains healthy. A 4.00 ERA from a back-end starter who can pitch at least five innings per outing would be quite acceptable for the Northsiders. Will he finally break through as a rotation pitcher in 2021?
After turning his career around with the Chicago Cubs, winning a Cy Young Award in 2015 and a World Series in 2016, Arrieta signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2018 offseason. His Phillies career was plagued by injuries, and he made just 24 starts in 2019. As a Phillie, Arrieta posted a 4.36 ERA on a 4.55 FIP in 64 games, his worst since his years with Baltimore. His strikeout numbers also declined significantly, going from 8.9 per nine innings as a Cub to 7.1 in Philly. Arrieta signed a one-year deal to return to Chicago in an effort to revitalize his career once again. Heading into his age 35 season, he has reached a stage where he will need to revamp his game in order to have success. Like former teammate Jon Lester, Arrieta will need to use veteran wiles and induce soft contact to be effective. Does he still have the right stuff, or will this be his last hurrah?
Hoerner was a 1st round draft pick for the Cubs in 2018. He made his MLB debut earlier than expected after Javy Báez‘s season-ending thumb injury, recording three hits and four RBI in his first game. While Hoerner’s glove has always been MLB-ready, his 72 OPS+ over 208 plate appearances has fueled the naysayers who believe he was called up too soon and doesn’t have what it takes to be an everyday player. It is still quite early to judge the bat of a 23 year-old with fewer than 300 MLB plate appearances, but Hoerner will need to hit closer to league average if he wants to be the Cubs’ starting second baseman of the future. He is currently one of the hottest hitters in preseason play, batting .500 with an OPS of 1.383 in 18 at-bats. Has Hoerner made the necessary adjustments to consistently hit for power?
Opening Day is planned to proceed on April 1. The Cubs’ opponents will be the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. While the Central Division remains open for the taking, the Cubs are transitioning into a new era in their first year under Jed Hoyer as head of baseball operations, and expectations are reduced. The Cubs still have a lot of talent on the roster. Their ceiling will depend not only on the contributions of their core players, but also the three players discussed above.