The Cubs and PECOTA

Will try to squeeze in some spring training baseball stuff. And I'll take requests.

I rarely have revelations of any kind, but in 2008, I actually had one. In late February or early March, I was sitting in a breakfast place on the road between Peoria and Surprise, Ariz. I had the USA Today baseball magazine, and I was looking through all the team's rosters.

And it hit me all at once: HOLY COW, THE RAYS ARE GOOD!

There was absolutely no reason to think that. The Rays had come off a 96-loss season, which had followed a 101-loss season, which had followed a 95-loss season. They had finished last in the American League East in nine of their 10 seasons, and in their "good" year they had lost 91 games and finished fourth, three games ahead of a crummy Blue Jays team.

There was quite a bit of general talk about the Rays getting better -- they had a bunch of promising young players on the way, leading with third baseman Evan Longoria, who was the No. 1 hitting prospect in baseball. Lots of people were thinking that sooner or later, they might actually compete with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Only, in that moment, I was looking over that lineup and I thought: No, they're good RIGHT NOW.

Carl Crawford was one of the best and most exciting players in the league. Carlos Peña was coming off a crazy season, an MVP-type season. B.J. Upton or Melvin Upton or whatever he was calling himself then was one of the most exciting young players in the game. They had some promising pitchers such as James Shields and Edwin Jackson, they had just traded for Matt Garza, they had already drafted David Price No. 1 overall, and the thought was he could arrive fast. And Longoria was ready.

I was so excited looking over that roster that I called a buddy, Chardon Jimmy, and I told him: "Dude, the Rays are going to be good."

"They are," he agreed.

"No," I said. "They're going to be good, like, this year."

And they went to the World Series, last to first, and even though I was hardly the only person to notice the Rays' ascendance, I still had that awesome feeling of discovery, like becoming a fan of a band before they hit it big.

So, I have to say ... I have sort of the opposite feeling with the 2019 Cubs.

The Cubs are in the news lately because PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus projection system, has them going 79-83 this year and finishing in fifth place in the NL Central. This seems extreme considering the Cubs made the NLCS in 2015, won the World Series in 2016, made the NLCS in 2017 and won 95 games and made the playoffs last year. Cubs fans seem outraged or panicked or both, and I get it. Some choose to fight back by lashing out at PECOTA. That works. Kansas City Royals fans hated PECOTA too, and rarely failed to point out that low projections didn't prevent the Royals from winning back-to-back pennants and a World Series.

But here's the problem ... I'm looking at the Cubs' roster.

And I see where PECOTA is coming from. Things might turn out all right. But, yeah, there are some very real problems with the Cubs now.

Problem 1: That outfield could be atrocious.

I was one of those people who thought the Cubs made a brilliant move when they gave Jason Heyward a jillion dollars for 47 years or whatever that deal turned out to be. I really liked it. Heyward was coming off a terrific year in which he just looked like one of those players I absolutely love, one of those players who does everything well. He played breathtaking defense. He got on base at a better-than-average clip. He hit with a little power. He stole some bases without getting caught. He was not yet 26. I loved it.

And then, seemingly overnight, Heyward completely lost his ability to hit and lost a step of speed in the process. His defense stayed more or less intact for the first year, and he's a great guy, so he provided some leadership and teammate-gold. and that first season happened to end in a World Series title. But even so, it was a quasi-disastrous year for a big-money free agent, and 2017 wasn't much better. Now his defense fades too, as it must. Heyward did hit a little better in 2018, but, let's be honest: This could get ugly.

Albert Almora plays a decent centerfield, but he had an 84 OPS+ last year. Ian Happ can hit a little bit, but he can't play centerfield.

And Kyle Schwarber ... what's this guy all about, anyway? Many people (including me) mentioned that he improved a lot in left field last year, and that's nice and all, but he's not exactly Alex Gordon, and anyway you're not going to play the guy for his defensive graces. He's supposed to be a bomber. But a career .228 batting average only somewhat mitigated by some walks and a few titanic home runs just isn't cutting it.

You could make a case, I suppose, that any or all will break out in 2019. But PECOTA projects that outfield to be four wins above replacement COMBINED, which is dreadful.

Problem 2: The middle infield is suddenly unsettled.

In 2016, people argued whether Addison Russell or Javy Baez would end up being the better MVP candidate. Together, Russell-Baez was looking like the best double-play combination of the century, so good that few batted an eye when the team traded shortstop super-prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman deal.

It hasn't worked out as the Cubs believed. We all know about Russell's suspension for domestic abuse -- the Cubs say they will give him another chance on that front, which sparks lots of different opinions. But more directly related to baseball, it appears Russell can't hit. He had a hopeless 74 OPS+ last year, and PECOTA projects him to be even worse in part-time duty in 2019.

So now what? The MVP candidate question was settled once and for all in 2018 when Baez had a fabulous season and finished second in the voting. But now Baez will be a full-time shortstop -- what will that look like? We don't know. Will he regress at the plate? We don't know. (PECOTA decidedly predicts, "Yes.") How will it work with 38-year-old Ben Zobrist at second base? We don't know. What happens when Russell comes back? We don't know.

[caption id="attachment_24339" align="aligncenter" width="452"] Bryant has been good but the Cubs need him to be awesome.[/caption]

Problem 3: What the heck is happening with Kris Bryant?

The scariest PECOTA projection has Kris Bryant hitting .271/.375/.469 with 22 homers and playing about-average defense at third base in 2019. That's almost exactly what he did last year in 102 games, and if that's what Kris Bryant is now, well, that's a big, big problem.

Kris Bryant is supposed to be the generational player who lifts the Cubs higher. When Bryant had his 2016 MVP season -- .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers and excellent defense -- most of us thought that would become his staple season, the kind of thing he would do every year for the next decade on his way to the Hall of Fame And sure enough, in 2017 he had more or less the same season.

The severe decline in 2018, well, the hope is that it was an injury-related fluke. And maybe it was. But PECOTA bases its projections on history, and I've already mentioned a player who might serve as a disconcerting comp: Evan Longoria. At 23-24-25, Longoria put up MVP numbers -- a 138 OPS+, lots of home runs, some effective base running, Gold Glove defense. After age 26 (when he was hurt), while still a good and occasionally very good player, he wasn't the same -- he never put up a 138 OPS+ in a season, the defense, while still above average, wasn't quite as spectacular, he became a less effective base runner, and so on.

Bryant was 26 last year. His future could be very different, but if I'm the Cubs, this is my biggest concern -- that the team's best player will be FINE but will no longer be the concentrated awesomeness that makes good teams great.

Problem 4: The rotation's future is cloudy.

It's easily forgotten, but what made the Cubs so special in 2016 was that every pitcher in the rotation was excellent or above average. Jon Lester finished second in the Cy Young voting, Kyle Hendricks finished third, Jake Arrieta finished ninth, John Lackey had his last effective season, and Jason Hammel was solid, winning 15 games with a 109 ERA+. That rotation was so good that the Cubs went into every series with a pitching advantage in at least two of the three games.

PECOTA does not put much stock in the 2019 Cubs rotation, and it's hard to imagine why it would. Lester is 35, and PECOTA predicts a free fall for him. It also predicts subpar seasons for 35-year-old Cole Hamels and 30-year-old Jose Quintana. Yu Darvish is an enigma. PECOTA predicts Kyle Hendricks to be OK but nothing more.

Again, you could look on the sunny side of the street and say that any of the five -- or all five of them - could have a good run in 2019. They're all capable of solid seasons (and some people still like Tyler Chatwood). But there is not a sure thing in the bunch.

Problem 5: The Cubs have not had that spark since the last out of the 2016 World Series.

This is more theoretical, but it has seemed plain to me: The whole vibe around the Cubs has turned dark and unhappy. They were the lovable Cubbies in 2016, America's team, remember? Everybody loved Joe Maddon! Theo Epstein was a superhero!

And for a year or more, it seems like every bit of news that has come has been ugly or generally negative. The Cubs have won 92 and 95 games the last two seasons, but the team just hasn't taken off since that World Series. They always feel like underachievers. In 2017, they played with a hangover all year -- and maybe that was understandable. But in 2018, they just never took flight and they lost nasty back-to-back playoff games to end the season.

Meanwhile, the off-the-field stories about Chapman and Russell have been bad. The ownership stories have been worse.

None of this is how it was supposed to go. The Cubs of 2015 and 2016 played with so much energy and force and joy and offensive firepower that you thought it might last forever. Now everything about them feels tired and black.

It needs to be mentioned -- Theo's Red Sox team went through a frighteningly similar evolution. His 2007 Red Sox were fun, joyful, the young Pedroia, Papi crushing homers, Youk doing everything, Dice K and Beckett striking out the world, Papelbon closing the door. Then, like the 2017 Cubs, they reached the Championship Series and lost, and then they made the playoffs but were rudely dismissed in a sweep and then they were a disappointment, and then they were eating chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse while the world collapsed around them.

I'm not saying the Cubs can't win. With a resurgent Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, continued high-flying from Baez, a huge power year from Schwarber and some topline pitching from their deep but erratic rotation and bullpen, they could still win big and laugh at PECOTA during the parade.

But, you can also see how it could go very wrong on the North Side this year.