Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Chicago Cubs 2017 Report Card

There is a lot I could say about the Cubs this year, but I don't want to spend too much time on this post.  It's always extremely time-consuming, particularly the part where I find new pictures of all the players, and analyze their stats to give a proper grade (so I'll avoid that).  There are two big takeaways: (1) they were not the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back championships; (2) their performance was incredibly admirable for how bad they actually were.  Statistically, this was not a great team.  Their statistics in the playoffs were just ridiculously bad.  Yet they fought all the way to Game 5 of the NLCS.  They were a completely mediocre team up until the All Star break, then somehow, magically, turned it on.  They had one All-Star: Wade Davis.  We ended last year on Aroldis Chapman, so let's start this year on Wade Davis.

Wade Davis: A

Chapman got an A, so Davis deserves an A.  He's not as electrifying as Chapman.  But he was the Cubs lone All-Star and he converted every save opportunity he was given except one.  Most importantly, he was on the mound during the two best moments in the playoffs: NLDS Game 5, and NLCS Game 4.  He was pushed to his limits in both performances (as Chapman had been in the World Series last year).  It was not always pretty, but he got it done.  He "does not have a heartbeat."  He is a free agent now.  Who knows what the Cubs will do.  Nobody was disappointed in Davis.  There was plenty of room for disappointment elsewhere.

Mike Montgomery: B

Montgomery actually did relatively well this year during the regular season, but he is getting dinged down to a B because he was not reliable in the postseason.  The same could be said of all their relievers.  He started more games this year, and he filled in those gaps relatively well.  He pitched poorly in both series that mattered, however.  There are many, many players to blame for the failure in the postseason, but the relievers were a primary target, Montgomery as their ringleader of sorts, their long man.  Regardless, he helped to get them there in the first place.  He's not totally damaged goods because his offensive counterparts didn't give him much to work with, so maybe give him the benefit of the doubt and give him another chance in 2018.  His versatility still has value.

Carl Edwards, Jr.: B

Same story here, except Edwards seemed to have a better regular season.  In fact, he had a much better regular season.  His regular season was excellent.  He should get an A-, and Montgomery should get a B+, but they both get dinged for the postseason.  Perhaps this is a quandary in future contract negotiations.  Your team might forget about extremely significant contributions during the regular season due to a disappointing postseason performance.  Like Montgomery, Edwards Jr. had a terrible postseason.  Correction: he was terrible against the Nationals, and almost perfect against the Dodgers.  So I'll boost him up to a B+.  You tend to remember the bad things.  He wasn't perfect against the Dodgers either.  Now I remember that awful Yu Darvish bases loaded walk.  Back down to a B.  During the regular season, though, he was much better than in 2016.  He was an excellent reliever.  He's still young.  Even though he performed much better in the last postseason, there was a different kind of pressure going on.  He's not worth giving up on yet.

Brian Duensing: A-

This is a bit inflated of a grade, but it's to underscore the fact that he didn't screw up too badly in the postseason, like his colleagues.  His numbers looked good overall, but it seems like he wasn't put into as many high pressure situations as CJEJ or MM.  I think most people feel that he should be kept on the team.

Pedro Strop: B+

His numbers were nearly identical in 2016 and 2017, and his postseason performance in 2017 should be considered slightly better.  He's under contract through next season, so he'll be with us, and we should be reasonably happy with that.  Here is a sad sentence from last year:  If there was anything that gave Cubs fans pause during the last two series of the postseason, it was the way that the team managed their bullpen.

Hector Rondon: C

During the regular season, he wasn't that bad.  He had a different role in 2016 and 2017.  He was the closer in the first half of 2016, and he performed relatively well in that role.  But the Cubs wanted a lights out closer like Chapman, which is a really nice thing to have if you want to win the World Series (for this reason, I think the Dodgers have the edge this week).  In 2017, they had Wade Davis, so Rondon was more of a set up man.  He had a better win-loss percentage this year, but a higher ERA.  And the postseason was absolutely terrible.  Somehow his numbers don't look that atrocious, and some people say that numbers don't lie, but in the pitching context, sometimes they do.  Somehow his ERA is only 6.00 for the NLCS (he was not on the NLDS roster) but it felt more like 27.00.  He probably deserves a C+ but the C is a reflection of the way the Chicago media took things out on him during the NLCS, giving up a home run on his second pitch, and a grand slam a game or two later.  He's arbitration eligible next year and a free agent in 2019, and I'm still not sure if that means he's staying with us or not (barring a trade).

Justin Grimm: C+

Much need not be said about Grimm.  He had an injury, and he had some problems, and went down to the minors for a bit, and he wasn't on the postseason roster.  His numbers were consequently a bit worse than last year.  Again, arbitration eligible next year, and a free agent in 2020, and I have no idea what that means.

Tommy La Stella: B+

Just to get the back up players out of the way, I didn't even grade La Stella last year, though he famously pulled his retirement shtick then, and I never wrote about it.  My brother[-in-law] once said, when he came up, "Tommy-no-I'm-not-going-down-to-the-minors-La-Stella"  (Actually I think he put on more of a routine, like, 'You're going down to the minors, Tommy,' 'No I'm not.') Even though he basically went MIA, the Cubs gave him another chance, and he put in a more-or-less decent performance.  Same this year, but no drama.  There was drama with Miguel Montero but I'm not going to write about it.  I thought their move getting rid of Montero after comments that it was Jake's fault that he couldn't throw out baserunners was a bit harsh, and there must have been something else going on.  It says something about a guy's personality when he won't admit his imperfections.  Tommy never did that, to be fair--he just considered retiring, like maybe he wasn't meant to play.  It was a bit of a prima donna move, but never claimed to be flawless when the numbers told a different story.  Maybe that's why he got another chance, and he had a much better year offensively (relatively speaking) than last year--he drove in twice as many runs in 23 less at bats.

Albert Almora Jr.: A-

Is it inflated to give Almora an A-?  I don't think so.  This guy showed flashes of brilliance, like Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras and Addison Russell before him.  He's another one of "those guys" that have developed into a legitimate threat on several different fronts (okay, Schwarber is mostly just an offensive threat--but didn't he get a bunt single in the playoffs?).  Almora was excellent in the field, strong on the basepaths, could hit for occasional power, and tended to come up with big hits in clutch situations.  He strung together a few monster games near the end of the regular season.  Okay, he only got one stolen base (the Cubs are not great about base stealing--I think Rizzo led the team and most people thought it was ridiculous when he batted lead-off (though I thought it was hilarious and great)).  His numbers don't look amazingly impressive, but they're strong, and I have every reason to believe that he (still only 23) will improve over the next few seasons.  I found this article on the Cubs off-season plans and maybe you will find it interesting.  While we are on the subject of breakout seasons...

Ian Happ: B+

Happ came out of the gates in spring training like Kris Bryant a couple years earlier--no more time in the minors for this guy, even though he's young, throw him into the fire.  And he did relatively well.  He did better than Kyle Schwarber this year, let's put it that way.  He was no Cody Bellinger or Aaron Judge, but he popped 24 home runs with a respectable .253 batting average.  He's only 22.  Unfortunately with the Cubs, it's always, "But is there a place for him?" I think he was utilized relatively well this year, and it will be interesting to see whether he expects to be an everyday player or a platoon situation utility man.  Not a bad option to have on your team.

Jon Jay: B+

Jon Jay essentially replaced Dexter Fowler.  He did not impact the team's performance as markedly as Fowler, but he was relatively good.  He hit .298.  He was a strong defensive player.  He was their lead off hitter, sometimes, and while he had good speed, only stole 6 bases.  It's most interesting to compare him to Fowler--now and then.  Fowler then scored 84 runs.  Fowler now scored 68 runs, and Jay score 65.  Not a huge difference.  Fowler does have a lot more pop in his bat and had 64 RBI this year (compared to last year's 48), and Jay's 34.  Jay had one more base hit than Fowler this year, and 14 less than him last year. [Note: I realize it is ridiculous to assume that Fowler would not have performed better as a Cub--I believe his play was elevated by the team, which was the sort of magical thing about the team last year.] Jon Jay doesn't feel like as a big a player as Fowler, but he's done a serviceable job of replacing him.

Kris Bryant: B+

I just dinged Kris Bryant for his performance in the playoffs, which will happen to Rizzo as well.  His actual grade is A-.  Last year he was A+.  He was voted NL MVP.  If you're voted MVP everybody pretty much has to give you an A+.  And this year, I think, is an A- year for any player.  He had 29 less RBI than in 2016, but 73 is a respectable number for a #2 hitter.  He had 10 less home runs than last year, but 29 is respectable.  He scored 111 runs (10 less than 121, which led the league in 2016).  He was basically, Kris Bryant, not having a monster season.  Then the playoffs came and he performed anemically, batting .200, striking out 14 times, and drawing one walk.  He did hit one home run, in the last game against the Dodgers, where they lost 11-1.  It wasn't all his fault, but he wasn't a difference maker in any of those games.  He's still Kris Bryant and I fully expect an MVP, or MVP-lite season from in 2018.   

Anthony Rizzo: A-

Rizzo had an A season and gets dinged for similar reasons to Kris Bryant.  For whatever reason, none of these guys were All Stars this year.  They all had mediocre first halves, except for Wade Davis (and he was probably only picked because it's required to have one representative).  He had exactly as many home runs and RBI as in 2016.  It's an All-Star season.  He had 14 less hits, but he drew 17 more walks.  He led the team in stolen bases (tied Javier Baez).  He struck out 18 less times this year, too.  Then came the postseason, where he batted .135 (he could probably live with his NLDS performance, but his NLCS performance was very bad).  He struck out 14 times and got walked twice and hit by a pitch once.  But again, same with Kris Bryant, nobody has lost confidence in Rizzo and he is not 100% to blame, he just didn't lift them up like he (and Bryant) often did during the regular season (though I heard about that pop-up base hit go ahead RBI against Washington the day after the marathon in the car on the way back from getting my medal engraved).

Willson Contreras: A

Willson totally stepped it up this year after a promising 2016 and put in an incredible performance, cementing himself as one of the premiere catchers in the game.  He became the team's de facto cleanup hitter and provided a lot of big hits in crucial situations.  There's basically very few flaws in his game.  He didn't do very well in the postseason either (nobody did--I'm looking for the few exceptions as I do this), but I feel like at least one of his home runs gave a crucial lift.  And let's not forget that pickoff play in Game 5 of the NLDS.  He had big shoes to fill after David Ross's retirement and Miguel Montero's exit, but he proved himself to be an All-Star caliber everyday catcher.  Alex Avila came in near the end of the season, performed admirably, and will probably provide a strong backup option.  The Cubs don't need a catcher.

Ben Zobrist: B

There is no mistaking that Ben Zobrist's 2017 was much weaker than 2016.  I think he was injured for a little while this year.  His batting average was .232.  I almost shouldn't give him a B, he probably deserves a B-, but he was still Ben Zobrist.  He was versatile, and he wasn't that bad in the NLDS (though he did approximately nothing in the NLCS).  Last year I expected him to have "2 more really good years in him."  That was not this year, but I do believe he can still bounce back in 2018 and put in a more respectable performance than he did this year.  Do not forget that he was an All-Star in 2016 (like many others).  I doubt he will be like Barry Bonds and become more powerful as he approaches 40 and beyond, but he could have two more decent years in him...

Jason Heyward: B

I was about to ding Jason Heyward down to a B- because he carries the highest salary of the position players, and I think he was comparable to Ben Zobrist offensively.  Defensively, he was as good as ever, and I expect he will win the Gold Glove again.  He was better than he was last year, and he played slightly less (I think he was injured briefly).  He was pretty much their de facto right fielder, and he moved around in the batting order, but seemed to settle near the bottom of it.  He hit four more home runs and drove in ten more runs than last year, and raised his batting average 29 points.  But the numbers are still nowhere near where everyone expected them to be.  J-Hey is our guy though.  He had a pathetic postseason, like everyone else.   

Addison Russell: B+

Here we have to get into DV again, as discussed in last year's post with re: Aroldis Chapman.  Addison did NOT serve a suspension, but was accused of DV, and got divorced.  He then became injured and played in 41 less games this season.  His numbers really weren't that great, and he doesn't deserve a B+, but he's still Addison Russell, and he still is a great clutch hitter.  I gotta think the DV affected his game--but actually, his batting average was a weak .238 last year (he was just one point better this year).  He did have that 95 RBI stat though, down to 43 this year (but again, 41 less games played).  He was actually terrible in the NLCS (really, everyone was), but respectable in the NLDS.  Still you keep Russell and Baez together, just like you keep Rizzo and Bryant together.  You have a pretty good thing going with that infield.

Javy Baez: A-

I'm really just boosting Javy Baez from a B+ last year to an A- this year because he had 9 more home runs and 16 more RBI.  He also had 13 more hits, and the exact same batting average.  He struck out a lot more this year than last year, though.  He is fantastic in the field and should be considered a Gold Glove candidate.  He wasn't an All-Star last year, but he should be next year.  He really sucked in the playoffs, too, but those 2 home runs in Game 4 of the NLCS prevent him from getting dinged for it.  He was a difference maker in that game, at least.

Kyle Schwarber: C+

Now it might have been a bit inflated to give Kyle Schwarber an A+ last year, but for his sample size and the intangible effect of his World Series entrance, it made sense.  Schwarber is still a big power guy, and he hit 30 home runs this year.  But his batting average stayed below .200 most of the year and he barely got it up to .211 by the end.  He also didn't fare very well in the field (whatever happened to him being a catcher?).  I guess it's too late to switch back.  In any case, he would be a fantastic DH.  I would imagine that's going to be a subject of speculation, as I've only seen brief notes, suggesting the Cubs may be willing to deal a few of their formerly untouchable players--one of whom was Schwarber.  People will still love Kyle Schwarber, and his postseason was not great by any stretch, but semi-respectable.  Take him or leave him, he is still a legend here, and he should not be dispatched unceremoniously. 

Kyle Hendricks: A

The other Kyle, the one that has rose from obscurity into Cy Young runner-up status in 2016, had a respectable 2016, though the numbers don't look quite as appealing. He got better as the year went on, and he was still the guy that people wanted to hold the ball in big games.  He didn't have it the same way he did last year, and nobody really did.  He wasn't an All-Star in 2016, either.  Hendricks is still my favorite pitcher on the team.  He should never be let go unless he starts seeking Jon Lester money.  He seems to be under team control for the next few seasons.  He was still paid under $1 million this season.  He didn't set the world on fire quite like last year, but fans of the team know that he still inspired more confidence than any of the alternatives.

Jake Arrieta: A-

Jake wasn't the same as he was in 2016 (and certainly not like he was in 2015), and he suffered that famous hamstring injury, but he turned in a respectable performance this season, getting a very memorable win in Game 4 of the NLCS.  Famously (Jake was clearly the most famous Cub this year--not (Bryzzo)--I digress), that game may have been the last one pitched in a Cubs uniform.  It's weird.  From like everything I have read, approximately zero people expect Jake to remain on the team next year.  He is going to look for Jon Lester money.  Whether or not the Cubs pay it may depend upon the alternatives available in the marketplace, but it really doesn't feel like that will happen.  If so, I will miss Jake, but not his politics (he posted a really awful tweet on Election Day).  I still have his jersey t-shirt, and I'll still admire him as a competitor, and I don't doubt that he will remain one of the fiercest in the league over the next several years.  Just watch the walks, sometimes.

Jon Lester: B

When you look at Jon Lester's career with the Red Sox, it's not surprising that he got a contract like he did.  He had approximately one bad year there.  He passed 200 IP every season but one, and that was 191.  He passed 200 in 2015 and 2016, too.  He was absolutely phenomenal last year (really--people wonder about the difference between these two teams, and why it seem fated for the Cubs to win--just look at the numbers of their top 3 guys).  He truly had an A+ season along with Kyle Hendricks, and Arrieta not far behind. Actually he did much worse than in 2015, which was viewed as a slight disappointment (again, by the numbers).  Really, I think they are inflated due to a couple very poor outings, where he was shelled for 8 runs in the first inning or two.  I remember turning on the game about thirty or forty minutes after it started, and seeing that it was still in the first inning, that the opponent (I forget who) had 8 runs, and he was walking off the mound in the most dejected manner imaginable.  There were flashes of the Jon Lester of the recent past.  2016 was his best year yet.  He had some trouble, but when it got time for the playoffs, he was ready to go, and he pitched very, very well.  He will battle with Hendricks for the top of the rotation, and they provide a solid 1-2 punch at the top, with this next guy rounding out the top 3.  Some people seem to think that Lester is "aging" and while yes, I have felt a difference in my own body between 32 and 34, I have every reason to believe and that Lester could be back in 2016 (or at least 2015) form next year.
Jose Quintana: B+

He probably deserves an A-, but he gets dinged for the NLCS.  He pitched very well in 14 regular season starts, and if he can replicate that performance, the Cubs are going to pretty set with their pitching.  I really only saw him pitch a few times and I have to say I was disappointed in the playoffs.  But it was tough to be perfect against a team of hitters like the Dodgers.  In short, picking up Jose Quintana was the biggest move the Cubs made all year, and it wasn't just done with one season in mind (unlike Aroldis).  Next year will be crucial for Quintana, an absolutely solid #3 starter.

John Lackey: B-

John Lackey didn't come here for a haircut, and he'll leave with another World Series ring, and a solid end to a storied career.  Lester is to the Red Sox as Lackey is to the Angels.  He will likely retire, people seem to be saying.  But who knows?  Would they bring him back on a one year contract?  He gave up a ton of home runs.  He was something of a liability on the mound.  Maybe as a #5 starter.  In any case, they need a #4 starter.

Joe Maddon: A-

Joe Maddon will be back to manage next year, and the vast majority of Cubs fans are happy with that.  People are expressing shock that Chris Bosio was just fired as pitching coach, supposedly to make way for Jim Hickey.  I'm not sure how much Bosio or Maddon are to blame for some of the pitching decisions, but a new pitching coach can't hurt.  You can't say Bosio was a bad coach in 2016 with the way the staff performed.  My brother[-in-law] intensely dislikes Maddon.  He is in the minority.  Sometimes I understand why he feels that way.  He is too wacky (note that I, and many others I am sure, adore him for said wackiness--"I like crazy").  Look no further than the 2 ejections in the NLCS.  He was vindicated by the umpire that made the call the next day, but he almost seems to relish opportunities to grandstand like that.  I am definitely a Joe Maddon fan.

Nevertheless, he piloted a team that is best described as "Zombie Cubs."  Zombie Cubs somehow stumbled their way into game 5 of the NLCS.  They were absolutely terrible, but they kept going and going, eking out victories here and there.  As mentioned earlier, NLDS Game 5 should rightfully go down as one of the greatest playoff games in baseball history.  It had all the drama of World Series Game 7 last year.  It was a fun (and painful) game to watch.  As was NLCS Game 4.  It wasn't quite as dramatic, and it was a lot more fun to watch, because we had all basically already given up anyways.  Nobody is giving up on them next year.  I think the main problem they have to deal with is cynicism.  Cynicism with their brand and their relentless commercialism.  Raising ticket prices, probably making beers $1 more next year.  I try to ignore that stuff when I watch the team.  I just appreciate what they've been able to put together.  It has been a lot of fun to get so deeply involved in the playoffs with your own team.  I was in Paris in 2003, and 2007 and 2008 were over before they started, which I think was the case in 1998, too.  These last 3 years have been an amazing time to be a Cubs fan.  I expect next year should be as well.               

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