Does anyone else feel it? Subtle trepidation growing within your soul with every prediction, magazine cover and sportsbook claiming the Cubs can and will do the unthinkable? There’s no need to yell. I already understand how this piece will make you feel, so let’s get the caveats out of the way immediately. This is the most talented Cubs team on paper that I’ve ever seen. They should win the Central Division, if all goes well. I don’t believe in curses, voodoo magic, or any other such nonsense. I just can’t shake it; the helium surrounding the city of Chicago is starting to seep into to my brain.
Have people forgotten that last year’s team relied heavily on four rookies, and that asking them to repeat or even improve their performance is something we should certainly root for, but not expect? How about perfectly healthy seasons for Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo; the top-4 performers on the team by WARP, which for various reasons is something unlikely to be repeated? Oh, and about Arrieta, we do know what he did last year cannot be replicated, right? And then we have that no-name bullpen; do we expect Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm to get people out with such frequency? PECOTA doesn’t necessarily believe they will, though that’s debatable. The list goes on, but it’s safe to say the 2015 iteration of the Chicago Cubs was specially blessed in many ways.
We’ve recently heard extensively about Bill James’ Plexiglass Principle (which basically proposes that most good teams from one year are worse in the next, thanks to the vagaries of regression to the mean) as folks rightly discuss certain realities as they relate to the Cubs: i) By one measure they were the luckiest team in baseball last year. ii) Baseball is by its nature incredibly fickle (see Nationals, Washington), which of course is part of why we love it. For the reasons laid out above, I believe measures of this principle should be given some serious consideration.
Thankfully, the Cubs’ front office didn’t witness a 97-win season and decide to rest on their laurels. Instead, they made good on a promise they consistently made to fans through the darkest years of the rebuild: when the time is right, we will spend money. And spend they did; Jason Heyward was brought in for defense, contact and baserunning. John Lackey was signed to fortify the rotation. They brought Dexter Fowler back in stunning, 11th-hour fashion to tighten up the outfield defense and incrementally improve the lineup. Ben Zobrist was added for contact and leadership. Adam Warren was acquired via trade for versatility and depth.
However, once the euphoria of all the moves wears off, doesn’t the question of “why” have to be asked? Why did a team that won 97 games—with such a young core, no less—need to make so many changes? I believe there are two reasons: i) The front office believes the 2015 team got a little lucky, and the Plexiglass Principle would directly apply to this team. ii) They don’t view winning one of the two wild cards as “making the playoffs”, in the traditional sense.
I believe writing requires a certain level of objectivity, and any opinions introduced must be backed up with reasonable facts to establish credibility for your argument. That being said, here is an opinion that some may not share with me, but I feel is important nonetheless: the current system for wild card winners has changed the way front offices view their teams. As we know, the two wild card winners play one game to determine the team that is truly playoff bound, no matter what their record over the course of the season may have been.
Because of this, it no longer makes sense to view making the playoffs through the lens of having one of the best records in the league and earning one of the wild cards, it’s better to simply look through the lens of being better than the four teams in your division, and constructing your team in such a way to beat those specific teams. The wild card game is simply too much of a crapshoot now, just ask the Pirates. Because the baseball season is an 162-game ultra-marathon, I believe the current system is an out-of-touch and misplaced effort to force “excitement” into a space where it may not be entirely unnecessary; baseball simply isn’t meant to be digested in one-game samples.
With this being the case, it provides some clarity as to why Theo Epstein was so aggressive this winter. If they don’t win the Central Division, it certainly won’t be for a lack of front office roster maneuvering. However, the Central Division is still really strong at the top, especially those Pittsburgh Pirates I can’t seem to stop writing about. Let’s focus for a moment on the sobering possibilities of a wild card winner in the remarkably stratified National League—which means some very good teams could miss the playoffs, and even better ones could win the wild cards—as we recall what happened to our friends in the black and gold.
This scenario is of course the very one the 98-win Pirates found themselves in last year. The second best team in baseball by record, now given nine innings to prove their merit…against the hottest pitcher in the history of the modern era of baseball. In 2014, they earned the dubious honor of facing Madison Bumgarner in the decisive game; he would go on to have arguably the greatest postseason performance in history. Of course I was rooting my heart out for the Cubs during that memorable game last year, but a part of me felt a measure of righteous anger for the Pirates, as two years in a row just seemed like too much to handle for a beleaguered fan base. After reflecting upon that game, it struck me that Cubs fans need to prepare themselves for the devastation Pittsburgh fans must have surely felt the past two seasons, having failed to score a run for the second-consecutive year in the fickle single-elimination game.
So, what do rational fans need to learn from the plight of the Pirates? Well, to start it would be helpful to understand that great teams—dominant ones, even—are just nine innings of mound mastery away from elimination in the current system. Are you feeling sobered yet? If not, take a look at a sampling of two of the more arduous wild card scenarios that could play out in the National League, if the Cubs’ active offseason doesn’t turn out to be enough to overcome the ascending Pirates:
The Dodgers win the West for the fourth consecutive year; the Mets’ rotation carries them to an East title
This result is what we call the ‘2014 Pirates’ scenario, with one exception. In 2014, there was very little competition for the two wild cards outside of the teams that actually claimed them, as the closest team to the Pirates and Giants was the 83-win Brewers. This led to Pittsburgh drawing Bumgarner in the elimination game, in which he started his historical march by allowing just four hits en route to shutting them out. However, the stratification of the league makes this year feel different, as this would still leave the Giants, Nationals, Cubs and Cardinals vying for two spots. Each of those teams is capable of winning 90 games or more.
If the Cubs draw the Giants, they will likely have the unenviable task of facing Bumgarner with everything on the line. It doesn’t get much easier if the Nationals take it, as they will likely have Max Scherzer to run out. Neither of these scenarios leaves the Cubs with any better than a coin flip chance, even with Jake Arrieta. With the way the rosters are constructed, easily the most favorable scenario is to face the Cardinals in this game, and even they very well may be starting Adam Wainwright.
The Giants get over the hump in the West; the Nationals bounce back and win the East
I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Giants of the past six seasons, winning three World Series rings, and basically still getting no respect year-in and year-out. This is a deep, veteran team with excellent pitching both in the rotation and in the bullpen, and they just added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija via free agency. They resemble the Cardinals in more ways than one, being led by a stalwart catcher and getting key contributions from players that often seem to come out of nowhere. The Nationals, on the other hand, are basically the opposite. They haven’t accomplished much of anything, but were crowned the darlings of the National League heading into 2015. That being said, don’t overlook them this year, as a healthy Anthony Rendon could change the entire complexion of their offense.
So, in this scenario, we’ve got the Mets, Dodgers and Cardinals left. We certainly know how the Cubs fared against the Mets in the postseason last year, and I don’t think anyone wants to see Matt Harvey or Noah Syndergaard in a one-game playoff. So, you don’t want to head east? No problem, then how about going west to face the best pitcher on the planet, on a team that one writer has expressed to me “may literally be designed to beat the Cubs”? Setting aside the myth that Clayton Kershaw has an issue with pitching in the postseason, it would be wise to ignore the common advice and avoid going west, young man.
Clearly, these scenarios could draw one winner from each and flip the result. The takeaways are generally this: take the projection systems regarding the Pirates with a dose of skepticism. Don’t let their limited moves this offseason trick you into thinking they will be diminished competition. Their stars are underrated, their outfield will be dominant and their bullpen is stout. The competition they will provide is strong enough that we shouldn’t assume that the only thing that can stop the Cubs is they themselves.
Further, the rash of bottom-dwellers in the National League have left a fierce competition for the wild card spots. If Pittsburgh does claim the Central, it likely leaves the Cubs facing one of Kershaw, Bumgarner, Scherzer or Wainwright in an elimination game. Yes, the Cubs have their own ace in Jake Arrieta, but this still isn’t an enviable scenario any way you shake it. Winning the Central is more imperative than ever, and we should be careful to assume it is a foregone conclusion that the Cubs can overcome their third place finish last year to bring the title back to Chicago.
There are at least seven different teams that can win 90 games in the National League alone, and the plethora of weak teams means we may see 90-92 win teams left out of the playoffs. In short, the Cubs could play very well and not make the playoffs, in some scenarios. In others, they could play exceptionally well and run into an ace in the wild card game. They need to finally overcome the Pirates and Cardinals to win the Central, and that is far from a given. We finally get meaningful baseball today, but please proceed with an appropriate amount of caution, friends. It is not yet the time to be cocky.