Should The Cubs Still Be World Series Favorites?

Posted: 07/21/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

In May, a few sportsbooks put up a “Over/under 116.5 wins” prop bet, giving bullish Cubs fans 10/1 odds on the over, which would have been the best record of all-time. For most sane fans the bet seemed crazy even at the time, but many people were happy to bet on history being made. The Cubs, after all, moved to 25-6 with a +103 run differential after a win on May 10 and seemed set to cruise to the best record in baseball and triple-digit wins (if not 117 victories). Alas, the Cubbies are just 32-31 since they beat the Padres a little more than two months ago, although their run differential in that span is a still-impressive +48. Their overall resume (57-37, +151 run differential) is still plenty impressive, but they now just barely hold the best record in baseball thanks to a win and a Giants loss today. To break the wins record, they’d need to close the season on a 60-8 spurt. Luckily for the Cubs, though, this post isn’t a referendum on whether the Cubs are the best team of all-time. Rather, I’m just trying to determine whether or not the Cubs are the best team in baseball right now and/or will be through October.

This is a team without many holes. It’s easy to forget that they lost young slugger Kyle Schwarber (.842 OPS in his rookie season) to an injury after just one game this season, a true testament of their offensive depth. The offensive stars are undoubtedly 3B/RF Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit second and third in the lineup respectively. Neither Bryant nor Rizzo has celebrated his 27th birthday, but both have established themselves as terrific hitters and all-around players. Bryant is one of four hitters lapping the rest of the field in Fangraphs WAR, joining Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Altuve above 5 WAR when nobody else has reached 4.5. That’s pretty solid company to be in, and Bryant deserves it; he’s a capable and versatile defender who has built on his promising rookie campaign, already coming within one homer (he’s at 25) of last season’s tally while cutting down on his strikeouts by about 25% and moving from about 36% to 49% above average as a hitter according to Fangraphs. A lot has been expected of Bryant since he was drafted second overall in the 2013 draft, and everything we’ve seen from him so far has suggested that he is already the superstar many pundits said he could become. But while Bryant is probably the most talented hitter on the team, Rizzo is both the team’s best hitter and a key leader in the clubhouse. He’s slashing a monstrous .292/.403/.596 and has been nearly unstoppable at the plate since the start of June while playing solid defense at first. When the only bad thing you can say about a guy is that he isn’t stealing as many bases (Rizzo has two steals this year after swiping 17 last season) as he once did, you have yourself a pretty valuable player. So yeah, Bryant and Rizzo are two pretty good players to have in the middle of your lineup. But the really scary part of Chicago’s lineup is its depth. I mentioned that Schwarber’s absence has gone almost unnoticed. That’s because of guys like Wilson Contreras, who, ironically, like Schwarber moved from catcher to the outfield. When the Cubs needed outfield help, they turned to Contreras, who immediately shocked the entire organization (Ben Zobrist, for example, says Contreras is “nothing short of amazing”) by playing solid defense in a totally foreign position and hitting .291/.376/.515 in his first 117 plate appearances, numbers that the Cubs might have hoped for from Schwarber. And Contreras isn’t the only role player coming up huge for the Cubs. Zobrist, who signed a modest four year, $56 million deal this offseason, has recently been alternating between the leadoff and cleanup spots in the lineup while playing all over the field on defense and posting a .377 OBP and more walks than strikeouts. Dexter Fowler, who nearly left the team after last season before re-upping t0 a one-year deal. Fowler’s on the DL right now, but the Cubs are surely happy that he left money on the table to come back to Chicago, because he’s served as the leadoff hitter when healthy and has a .398 OBP and very good defense in centerfield. I haven’t even mentioned 39 year old catcher David Ross, who doesn’t play very often but who has six homers and a .779 OPS in 139 plate appearances. Nor have I mentioned important depth pieces Matt Szczur (.777 OPS) or Tommy La Stella (.805). You know what the scariest thing might be for opponents? Big money free agent signing Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million), who was coming off of back-to-back 5+ WAR seasons and who was expected to push the Cubs over the top, is slashing just .234/.325/.323, which puts him in the bottom 10% of everyday players with a 79 wRC+ (so he’s been 21% below average at the plate). If Heyward rediscovers the swing that propelled him to 11th among hitters in WAR last season, watch out. If he doesn’t? You still have to watch out simply because the team has so many other weapons.

This won’t be a surprise to anyone, but the rotation that finished first in WAR last year and returned its four best starters while adding John Lackey is still pretty darn good. Even before Kyle Hendricks twirled 6.1 shutout innings tonight, the Cubs’ starters had a 3.01 ERA, miles ahead of #2 Washington (3.35). Jake Arrieta hasn’t been post-All-Star break 2015 JAKE ARRIETA, but he’s still been pretty darn good. But everyone knows that Arrieta (2.60 ERA) is good and that Jon Lester (2.89 ERA) is good and that Lackey (3.75 ERA) is very solid. More surprising, though, have been the performances from Jason Hammel (3.34) and, especially, Hendricks, whose gem today lowered his ERA to 2.27, third-lowest among starters behind currently injured Clayton Kershaw and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. Hendricks has never had electric stuff, but he’s now compiled a 3.13 career ERA in three seasons and is just entering his prime. This is a rotation without a weakness. I’d guess that Hammel will be the odd man out come playoffs, as Lackey is a proven playoff performer and the other three seem entrenched atop the rotation, but the Cubs can’t really go wrong with any of their five starters.

If the team has a weakness, it’s the bullpen. And it’s a weakness that Theo Epstein and the front office recognize, because today they traded for Mariners lefty reliever Mike Montgomery. Montgomery, a converted starter, has been excellent in the bullpen, posting a 2.15 ERA in the pen in 50.1 innings. One of only six pitchers with 50+ innings pitched out of the bullpen, Montgomery is a workhorse, and I think he’ll be important for the Cubs going forward. They could still use another reliever (maybe Andrew Miller?), but Montgomery is a very good start. As for the relievers who already pitch on the Cubs, Hector Rondon has been a very good closer and Pedro Strop is a solid setup man. With a middle-of-the-pack 3.82 ERA, the bullpen is in no way a disaster, but the rest of their team is so good that the pen is basically all there is to nitpick.

Bottom Line: Of late, the Cubs haven’t been the dominant team they were to start the season, but I think that’s as much a byproduct of complacency and a lack of focus as it is anything else. That complacency should dissipate as the playoffs draw nearer, and I still think the Cubs have the best collection of talent in baseball. They don’t have the overall offense that the Red Sox can boast or the two dominant aces the Giants have, but I still believe that the Cubs will be a major factor in October and are probably the World Series favorite. Of course, being the nominal favorite doesn’t mean that the Cubs have a great chance at winning the title, simply because the postseason is generally a crapshoot (five of the last 14 champions have been wild card teams). Nor does it mean that the Cubs are easily the best team in baseball, because both the Giants and the four other teams I’ll write about have legitimate claims. But those who are panicking about the 32-31 stretch should stop right now, because I’m confident that the Cubs will pick up their play when the games really matter.

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