After a disappointing 2019 season, the Chicago Cubs look to bounce back this season, as they return much of the same core that led them to a World Series victory just four years ago.
Surprisingly, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein chose to move on from manager Joe Maddon this offseason, citing philosophical differences as the primary factor in the decision. Maddon has since moved on to Los Angeles, where he now manages the Angels, while Epstein moved in a polarizing direction, hiring former catcher and World Series champion David Ross.
Ross maintained strong relationships with many of the players currently on this team, as he was an important piece in that 2016 title run. He is an extremely experienced player and should be able to handle the Chicago spotlight in his first-ever opportunity as a manager.
It is difficult to project how this Cubs team will fare in what is now a shortened season, but all signs point to reasonable improvement in 2020, as Chicago still has a solid foundation in place to be a dangerous ballclub come October.
It will be tricky to navigate their over/under win total — currently listed at 32.5 — but if Chicago were to win the National League Central, you would think it will take at least 33 wins to get there, as the Cardinals and Brewers appear to be formidable opponents once again this season.
The Cubs did little to upgrade their offense this offseason, but this was never a major area of concern for them. They ranked top 10 in runs scored last season and didn’t lose any significant contributors to free agency.
Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant will continue to be dangerous in the middle of that lineup. Ross will have an interesting decision in regards to how he juggles this lineup card.
Furthermore, players like Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ will add much-needed depth, bringing versatility and power to the bottom of the order.
This offense should continue to rake in 2020, and there’s no real reason to expect any regression this season, so long as they can shake off the rust from a prolonged offseason period.
Will the Pitching Hold Up?
Chicago’s rotation is headlined by veteran left-hander Jon Lester, who saw his numbers drop significantly last season. His ERA inflated to 4.46 — his worst since 2012 — while his fastball seemed to have lost serious velocity as well.
The 36-year-old Lester is entering his 16th season, which will only put more pressure on the team’s projected ace, Yu Darvish.
Darvish must find his form this season for Chicago to have any chance at a division title, as there’s simply too many question marks up and down this pitching staff — both in the rotation and the bullpen.
Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana will round out the rotation, as they have been steady inning-eaters since they arrived in Chicago.
A lot will hinge on whether or not this starting pitching group can hold up in a 60-game season, especially given the immense uncertainties surrounding the bullpen. Closer Craig Kimbrel had a terrible year last season, and he was thought to be the only dependable reliever on the roster.
If the pitching can just be league average, it should be good enough for the Cubs to compete for at least a Wild Card spot, and they may have an outside chance at the NL Central title if everything breaks right.
However, I’m still going to lean under 32.5 wins, as I don’t think their offense will be able to compensate for an incredibly shaky bullpen. Closing games will loom larger than ever, given the added importance of each game.