Baseball is back! We think. Each day, SportsIntel’s Matt DeSaro will take a look at two of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball as we head toward MLB Opening Day in late July and we continue today in the NL Central with the Chicago Cubs.

The owners and players agreed in late June to stage a 60-game season, beginning July 24. There are still many hurdles to overcome in this COVID-19 landscape, but for now, the teams are gathering for “Summer Camp,” a Spring Training reboot crammed into three weeks.

MLB Opening Day – Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs | O/U 32.5 Wins | +2200 to win the World Series

The Chicago Cubs enjoyed a very successful few seasons after Theo Epstein rebuilt the whole franchise from 2014 to 2018.  They averaged 97 wins a year in that span, reached the NLCS three times and won Chicago’s first World Series title in 108 years.

However, since that historic win over Cleveland back in 2016, the Cubs have been progressively getting worse in the MLB standings and this might be the year it all falls apart.

It may not seem like it at first glance, but the Cubs are in rough shape heading into the season.  While their crosstown rival White Sox had perhaps the best offseason in baseball, the Cubs might have had the worst.  This is bad news for a team that lost more than a dozen players to free-agency and Manager Joe Maddon to the Angels.

The Cubs won just 84 games last year, finished third in the division and lost significant talent in the offseason as we head into MLB opening day this year. Specifically, SP Cole Hamels and utility player Ben Zobrist.  This became a huge problem when the Cubs failed to make any significant free-agent moves in the ensuing months.

Their issue comes down to money.  And that issue is they just don’t have any to spend.

Chicago currently has a payroll that is projected to exceed the luxury tax and has left them in a pretty hopeless situation.  Despite the losses of Hamels ($20M), Zobrist ($14M), Cishek ($6.5M), Strop ($6.5M) and a dozen or so more contracts, they still are looking at a payroll north of $220M.

Chicago has ended up in this situation due in large part to two major missteps.

The first was how terrible of a job they did locking up young stars to contracts built to extend their window of World Series contention.  Sure they have Rizzo and Hendricks signed long term, but that is about it.  Secondly was their inability to unload Kris Bryant in the offseason and being forced to deal with a grievance from the disgruntled third-baseman.  Word on the street is the Cubs want way too much for Bryant when much of the league doesn’t view him as a top-30 player anymore.  A number of former GMs essentially said that their asking price is a joke and no team would be foolish enough to take them up on it.

So, in summation. As we head quickly towards opening day of the MLB season, the 2020 Cubs have pissed off their best player, lost a coach plus a significant amount of talent, and have no money to replace a single one of them.

Offseason Acquisitions: 1B Alfonso Rivas, RF Steven Souza Jr, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, RHP Casey Sadler, RHP Travis Lakins, RHP Dan Winkler, LHP C.D. Pelham.

Offseason Losses: C Jonathan Lucroy, 2B Addison Russell, 2B Clayton Daniel, 2B Ben Zobrist, CF Tony Kemp, RF Nicholas Castellanos, RHP Travis Lakins, RHP Kendall Graveman, RHP Jharel Cotton, RHP Steve Cishek, RHP Brandon Kintzler, RHP Pedro Strop, RHP David Phelps, RHP Tony Barnette, LHP Danny Hultzen, LHP Derek Holland, LHP Xavier Cedeno, LHP Cole Hamels.

What Do The Cubs Do Well?

The Cubs’ biggest positive would be that of their batting prowess.  They were a top-10 team in runs per game, total bases, OBPS and run differential in 2019.  This is also a batting order which remains largely unchanged, giving these guys another season to play together.

Kris Bryant has a lot to prove this year at the plate and I for one like his chances to succeed in that goal.  While he has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Cubs overall in his five MLB seasons, he is still an elite talent.  He has a very high ceiling where he could go 40/120 and changes the public’s perception of him in the windy city.  I like a bounce-back year for him in the hopes of tempting a trade offer from a contender before the deadline.

Chicago Cubs’ most dangerous weapon aon offense might just Javier Baez, who suffered through injury last year after a breakout 2018 season.  While his strikeout rate (27.8) and walk rate (5.0) is cause for concern, he is still a huge talent who is just getting better.  Before his injury, he hit .302 in April with 23 runs scored, nine HRs and 22 RBIs in 116 trips to the plate. He hits lefties well (.304 BA & 8 HRs in 2019) and saw a career-high HR/FB rate of 24.4 and high contact batting average at .397.  If he can strike out a little less and try for contact a bit more, he could join Bryant in the 40/120 club this year.

The Cubs should also have a strong closer this year in Crag Kimbrel.  I say should because they should have had a strong closer last year in Crag Kimbrel but things didn’t go as planned.  Kimbrel was not signed until June 7th and spent just three weeks in the minor leagues before they Cubs pushed him on stage.  Well, turns out 3 weeks just isn’t quite enough to get your stroke back after such a lengthy absence. He made his debut on June 27th and proceeded to rack up a 6.43 ERA and nine home runs in just 23 appearances.  Having said that, Kimbrel is a high caliber MLB closer and I do not expect him to repeat his disastrous 2019 season.  I like how Jon Lester put it when asked about Kimbrel’s struggles, “That’s why we have Spring Training.” And with a full eight weeks to prepare for they season, I fully expect Kimbrel to return to form and become a near no-doubter in the 9th inning.

What Do They Need To Improve?

The biggest need for the Cubs as we head towards opening day would be to fill the void left by Cole Hamels, who signed a 1-year $18M contract with the Braves. This is a major issue not only because of their inability to replace him but also that this pitching staff wasn’t all that great before his departure.

So what are they left with?

Their number one starter will likely be Kyle Hendricks, not the sexiest of choices but he does have his moments.  Look at it this way, current fantasy rankings have his ADP at 130th.  That leaves 38 other starters who are projected to rank ahead of him.  Not great for somebody who needs to be your staff ace.

Yu Darvish will likely fill the No. 2 starter position despite being more of a threat than Hendricks.  I have always rooted for Darvish but he started off 2019 very erratic due to a 4.9% walk rate and giving up 1.8 HRs per nine innings.  While he did rebound and play well in the final two months, this isn’t the first time he has struggled for an extended period of time and I doubt it’s his last.

Their bullpen has also been left a bit shorthanded with three of their best setup men hitting the market — Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek.  While they do have some young talent with guys like Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick, they really needed to bring in some help.

Season Prediction

As we countdown to MLB Opening Day, the Cubs are one of the more baffling win totals I have come across thus far in writing this column.  The Cubs are coming off an 84-win year, lost their coach and best pitcher along with depth in their outfield and bullpen.  They were unable to sign a single pitcher whose name I have even heard of before and yet somehow, are projected to win 32.5 games.

Am I missing something here?

I get that the Cubs who won 84 last year under-performed drastically and had a few major injury issues at key positions.  But still.  This is a team that has been getting worse for years and took a significant step back this offseason.  A single big injury at the front end of the rotation could completely derail this team. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Cubs are likely to be a selling team at the trade deadline anyway and could see what their current farm system studs can do for them down the stretch.

The Cubs will have a competitive offense and a bullpen that can’t be worse than last year, but it just won’t be enough.  They will struggle to finish third again in a division which is only getting better and I don’t see them winning more than 32 games in 2019.

Projected Starters

C – Wilson Contreas

1B – Anthony Rizzo

2B – Nico Hoerner

3B – Kris Bryant

SS – Javier Baez

LF – Kyle Schwarber

CF – Ian Happ

RF – Jason Heyward

Projected Rotation

Kyle Hendricks

Yu Darvish

Joe Quintana

Jon Lester

Tyler Chatwood

Closer

Craig Kimbrel