Position by Position: Top of the Rotation

(MLB.com)

In the past two years, the Chicago Cubs have had two Cy Young finalists and one Cy Young winner. In 2015, Arrieta won the Cy Young Award, and in 2016 Jon Lester was the runner up, with Kyle Hendricks taking third place.

The Cubs had the 3rd most fWAR by starting pitchers, and they had by far the lowest staff ERA in the majors at 2.96. The next lowest ERA was 64 points behind them at 3.60. While part of this was due to excellent defense, the Cubs still had the 4th lowest staff FIP, putting them in the elite company of the Mets, Dodgers, and Nationals.

There is no question that the Cubs have an elite staff, but the question is how much their staff success was due to excellent defense, and whether they can repeat their 2016 success. In this Position by Position post, we’ll take a look at the top of the rotation for 2017, consisting of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta, as well as what we can expect from these starters this year.

Jon Lester

(Chicago Now)

Jon Lester had an excellent 2016 and capped it off with a stunning performance in the playoffs. While he did not command the lowest ERA among Cubs starters (that honor belonged to Kyle Hendricks) he placed second in Cy Young voting and was worth an excellent 4.3 fWAR. Lester’s 2.44 ERA (2nd lowest in baseball) and 3.41 FIP (9th lowest) were some of the best of his career. In fact, it was the lowest ERA he has put up in his 10 years in the big leagues.

Lester compounded that feat by pitching 202.2 innings and starting 32 games. He won 19 games, if that’s something that you care about, and only lost 5. He had an excellent K/9 ratio (8.75) and BB/9 (2.31) and pitched his way to 2 complete games. He had 197 strikouts and only 52 walks.

While he still has problems throwing to first base, Lester had one of his best seasons in the big leagues last year. He also contributed in the postseason, where he had an excellent 2.02 ERA in 35.2 innings. He was the NLCS Co-MVP with Javier Báez and struck out 30 batters in the playoffs. Lester also came out in relief in Game 7 of the World Series and was excellent, and he was a critical part of the Cubs rotation all throughout last year.

Can Lester repeat his 2016 success? Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Lester worth over 4.0 fWAR next year, and both predict he will have an ERA under 3.50. His strikeout and walk rates should stay fairly consistent, but with a different defensive look it is hard to predict how his excellent ERA might be affected with Schwarber in left and without Fowler in center. While we can expect some regression, Lester is still set to be the ace at the top of this Cubs staff.

Kyle Hendricks

(Frome Sports)

It’s not everyday that a pitcher is able to drop almost 2 full points in ERA in one year, but that’s exactly what Kyle Hendricks did in 2016. Hendricks’2016 was far better than almost anyone could have predicted and he put up excellent numbers across the board. He had a career high in fWAR (4.5, the most on the Cubs staff) and had a career low in ERA (2.13) and FIP (3.20). He struck out the most batters of his career (170 SO) and only gave up 44 walks in 190 IP.

In the postseason, he might have been even better. Hendricks put up a 1.42 ERA in 25.1 innings and started the clinching game against the Dodgers in the NLCS where he pitched brilliantly and Game 7 of the World Series before he was relieved by Jon Lester. He only allowed 5 runs in 5 games and struck out 19 in the playoffs.

The 264th overall pick out of Dartmouth is never phased, and though he relies on command more than speed, his contact oriented and ground ball approach (48.4% ground ball rate last year) works well with the excellent defense of the Cubs. While he was good on the road (2.95 ERA) he was outstanding at home where he put up a minuscule 1.32 ERA in 95.1 innings.

Although Hendricks seems like a prime candidate for regression to his more normal numbers, Depth Charts has him projecting 3.3 fWAR and having a 3.40 ERA, not too shabby all things considered. The key for Hendricks going forward is to maintain a healthy ground ball rate and let the defense do the rest. The Cubs had a historically good defense and Hendricks used that to his advantage as he pitched his way to a his best season in a Cubs uniform to date.

Jake Arrieta

(CSN Sports)

2016 was an off-year, at least by Arrieta standards. After all, he only pitched his second no-hitter, had a 3.10 ERA, and was worth only 3.8 fWAR. He only pitched 197.1 innings, struck out 190 batters, and went 18-8. So for Arrieta, it was a disappointing year when compared to his last two.

Arrieta didn’t have a Cy Young worthy year, but he again continued to impress since coming to Chicago in 2013. The 5th round pick has been worth a combined 16.1 fWAR the past three years, and put up excellent performances in both the 2015 and 2016 postseason. Arrieta went 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA in the World Series to lead the Cubs to their first title in 108 years, and was easily the most dominant Cubs starter during that series.

Arrieta has always had overpowering, no-hitter type stuff, but until coming to the Cubs he had struggled both in the minors and in the majors. In the deal that also brought relief pitcher Pedro Strop to Chicago, the Cubs surely got the best of that trade. Both acquisitions bloomed into excellent pitchers and were critical to the Cubs’ World Series run.

Arrieta is projected to have a very similar 2017. According to Steamer and Depth Charts, his ERA will take a slight hit (3.39 and 3.20 respectively) but he projects to be worth more wins with fWAR at 4.0 and 4.1 respectively. Look for Arrieta to have another solid year as he tries to impress the Cubs enough for the lucrative extension that he is looking for.

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Between the three All-Star caliber pitchers at the front of the rotation, the Cubs starting pitching staff looks strong heading into this upcoming season. That being said, ace Jon Lester is not getting any younger, and as of right now Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are set to depart after this season. For right now, the Cubs are in great shape with regards to their starting pitching at the top of the rotation, but next year there are certainly questions.

In the next Position by Position, we’ll take a look at John Lackey and some of the possible #5 starters who could emerge as key pieces to the Cubs staff in the future.

Position by Position: Catcher

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(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The catcher position is usually a predictable scenario for most teams in the league: you have one regular starter who can also hit sufficiently, and one backup who may not have the best bat, but provides exceptional defense whenever spot starts are necessary.

True to form, Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs have bucked convention since his arrival in 2015. Since Opening Night of his first season, Maddon regularly had three catchers on his roster, ranging from Welington Castillo to Willson Contreras. This has proven to be advantageous for the Cubs, providing Maddon with extra depth behind the plate for that lengthy, extra inning midsummer contest and day-to-day lineup variance.

With the retirement of David Ross following a surprisingly effective farewell tour, and regression from former “regular” catcher Miguel Montero, Maddon’s 2017 plans became less clear. But now we have an idea of how he’ll likely manage his backstop, and it still includes three catchers: Contreras, Montero and Kyle Schwarber.

Willson Contreras

The 2016 rookie was surprisingly effective in his first big league term, slashing .282/.357/.488 and logging a 2.2 fWAR. This kind of production was certainly expected from Contreras once he developed into a full-time major league catcher, but the surprise came from the immediacy of his success. He wasted no time leaving his mark on the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs.

Contreras made his debut on June 17 and played in 76 games, usually behind the plate and occasionally in left field. During the regular season, he primarily caught John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, and in the World Series he effectively caught Jake Arrieta. One can anticipate this won’t change, but we can also expect to see a lot more of Willson Contreras in 2017 beyond it being his first full big league season.

Despite reluctance to pair Contreras with Jon Lester in 2016 due to the ace’s marriage to David Ross, that ball-and-chain is now out of the picture, and the Cubs are committed to giving a Contreras/Lester battery a shot. We can’t make note of this pairing without beating the dead “Lester can’t throw to first” horse, and Contreras helps mitigate that problem with exceptional arm accuracy and strength.

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(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Lester is arguably easier to please than his best buddy John Lackey, and the Lackey/Contreras battery in 2016 was a fun one to watch when the veteran starter had his good stuff working. Lester is a three-time World Series champion and many-time (and current) staff ace. He doesn’t owe all of his success to David Ross, and I don’t see this change negatively impacting his performance long-term.

Ross had a quality offensive season in 2016 for a backup catcher, but he’s no Willson Contreras at the dish. Arguably — and time will tell if this is the case — the Cubs may be in a better position behind the plate now than they were a year ago in this regard.

Miguel Montero

Fortunately, Montero dispelled rumors of his disenfranchisement with the Cubs by tweeting a lovely picture of himself and Maddon out on the town. It was the most absurd non-story of the offseason: that somehow Montero, who expressed displeasure over lack of playing time on occasion before and after the postseason, was somehow going to be a “distraction” to the 2017 Cubs.

Let’s forget that he’s set to make $14 million in 2017 (which matters quite a bit to the legion of meatheads who don’t like him now) and put this in a human context: since his days with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, Miguel Montero has been a primary starting catcher. He was so effective that he earned all-star selections in 2011 and 2014, and served as the Cubs’ primary catcher in 2015.

He was objectively terrible for most of the 2016 season, logging a .631 OPS through August 26 and allowing runners to steal him blind due to what one can assume was his bad back. As a result, he was relegated to one start per rotation cycle, remaining Jake Arrieta’s trusted counterpart.

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(Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Can you even imagine how devastating it has to be, over the course of just one year, to go from the guy to the backup’s backup? 2016 was a huge setback in Miguel Montero’s life. He genuinely felt he could contribute, and the team felt otherwise. If you genuinely think this wouldn’t be defeating to you, you’re lying to yourself. Or simply lack empathy.

But some people just need drama, no matter how incredibly harmonious the Cubs as we know them happen to be. Fortunately, Montero has earned praise early in spring training for showing up at camp in tremendous shape and for his leadership role on the club. It’s assumed he’ll catch Arrieta every five days again, and if he improves upon his 2016 campaign, there’s little doubt Maddon will find even more opportunities for him.

Make no mistake: the Chicago Cubs are better with Miguel Montero. He’s a well-respected figure in the clubhouse with a track record to back it up, a track record people often, willfully forget. Since he and Maddon have moved on, you should too.

Kyle Schwarber

When Schwarber said he wanted to catch again in 2017, I rolled my eyes and thought he was being stubbornly hopeful. Then I quickly reminded myself what he did in the 2016 World Series, and convinced myself this guy can and will do anything he sets his mind to, and do it successfully.

I have incredibly little doubt that Schwarber will serve as Maddon’s last resort behind the plate. No matter how healthy he is right now, Maddon will almost assuredly play it safe and relegate him to left field on a day-to-day basis. Given that Schwarber has always been a pedestrian defensive catcher anyway, Maddon’s decision is an easy one.

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(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Still, you can expect him to don the gear and assume the position from time to time. I don’t foresee him being matched with anyone in the rotation, but if he is you’re looking at ~30 starts behind the plate, max. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the possibility of the Cubs running a six-man rotation at any given point in the year.

Kyle Schwarber is going to be the Cubs’ every day left fielder. But his versatility — along with the versatility of literally everyone not named Anthony Rizzo or Miguel Montero — gives Joe Maddon an ace-in-the-hole if Contreras or Montero go down with an injury. Not many other teams have a potential 40 home run hitter that can also work behind the plate, and Maddon will respond to this blessing accordingly.

Position by Position: Right Field

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(Getty Images)

Jason Heyward signed an 8-year, $184M contract before the start of the 2016 season. He received $15M last year. In spite of the great contract, Heyward put up 1.6 only fWAR. That’s right, he hit .230, slugged .325, with only 7 bombs (a career low) and stole just 11 bases. Heyward was supposed to be the Cubs leadoff hitter and center fielder until Dexter Fowler returned on a one-year deal as Spring Training began. Instead of the offensive, good base running, excellent defensive center fielder the Cubs had envisioned, they got someone who was missing two of the tools they wanted, and Heyward quickly became a disappointment for Cubs fans.

What Heyward did contribute was excellent defense. In fact, he had the third most defensive runs saved for a right fielder with 14, only Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton had more. He had the 14th most DRS in all of baseball last year, and was 5th in UZR/150, a metric used to predict how many runs above average a fielder is per 150 games. According to UZR/150, Heyward was 21.6 runs above average last year.

While Heyward has been known for his defense, 2016 may have actually been an off-year for the right fielder. In 2015 while playing right field for the Cardinals, Heyward had 22 DRS, and the year before that he had 26 in Atlanta. Through his seven major league seasons, Heyward has 120 career DRS, averaging over 17 a year. So while his already excellent 14 DRS last year was good, it would not be unreasonable to assume that he can save even more runs next year.

(Baseball Savant)
(Baseball Savant)

Looking at the two graphics above, we can see that Heyward caught just about every ball he was expected to catch, according to Hang Time of the ball and Heyward’s distance from the landing spot of the ball. He caught every “easy” ball and missed just one “routine” play the entire year. He also made most of the “tough” and even made a few “highlight” catches as well. In fact, almost the balls he missed were more difficult than highlight reel catches, in other words balls that were almost impossible to catch.

While Heyward contributed much defensively last year, he did not get much going at the plate. According to FanGraphs’ overall offensive metric, Heyward was the 5th worst offensive player in majors. He had 72 wRC+ which was good for 2nd worst in the league.  His slashline of .230/.306/.325 gave him an OPS of .631. His batting average dropped more than 60 points from 2015, and he knocked .114 off of his slugging percentage. Overall, it was a terrible offensive season.

So does his stellar defense make up for his lack of contributions at the plate? FanGraphs WAR seems to think it came close. In a year that Heyward received $15M, he should have been worth about 1.875 fWAR, using $8M/win as a way to estimate contracts. In the end, he was worth 1.6 fWAR. Keep in mind that even after being the 5th worst hitter in the league he still came extremely close to being worth his contract, at least for this year. Heyward is set to make $21.5M next year, meaning he has to be better to be worth the contract the Cubs gave him. The real question is whether he can be worth over 2.6 fWAR next season, his expected performance given his contract.

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I think he can do it. His lowest batting average prior to this season was .254, and he never had a slugging percentage below .384. His defense has continued to be excellent, even if it has trended downwards the past few years. Even in a bad season, Heyward still had good BB% (9.1%) and K% (15.7%) which are both very close to his career average, perhaps even better with regards to striking out less. He was still disciplined at the plate (he had a 41.3 Swing%, compared to 41.1 Swing% last year) so he is still seeing the ball well. He is still making contact (85.5 Contact%, even better than 2015) and striking out less.

The only things that seemed to go wrong for Heyward, at least stat-wise, was his Soft and Hard Contact rates. Last year, his Soft Contact rate rose over 4%, while his Hard Contact rate went dropped 4% which is the opposite of what players want. If he can get back to hitting the ball well, I would expect Heyward’s previous offensive success to continue. He is walking the same amount, striking out the same amount, continuing to make contact, but the ball just hasn’t been dropping. His batting average on balls in play was only .266, well below the league average of .300. Part of that comes with hitting the ball less hard, so he if he can increase his Hard% I would expect him to return to his previous success.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Heyward bouncing back next year, at least to a certain extent. Steamer has him slashing .268/.347/.415 and being worth 3.1 fWAR, and Depth Charts is predicting Heyward is worth 2.9 fWAR. He should hit with more power (both have him hitting 13 home runs next year) and stealing more bases (11 and 14 respectively) while keeping good BB% and K%. Both of the projections also predict he will have a wRC+ of 100 or more, meaning he will be at least league average offensively while hopefully not sacrificing anything defensively.

In case he doesn’t put up good numbers or gets injured, the Cubs still have some options, as both Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist can play in right. While playing Zobrist and Bryant in right takes them out of their natural positions, it would open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez. Nevertheless, while Heyward struggled at the plate in 2016, he made up for it partially by playing excellent defense, which his replacements likely wont be able to do.

Look for Heyward to bounce back next year and put up good numbers both offensively and defensively. He still has plenty of time to make up for a disappointing season last year.

 

 

Position by Position: Center Field

Albert Almora Jr. in the World Series (MiddleTown Press)

When it became clear that Dexter Fowler’s career year and impending free agency meant that it was highly unlikely that the offensive catalyst of 2016’s historic run would return, the Cubs brass had two options – stand pat and put Albert Almora in position to be their everyday center fielder and Opening Day starter before he turned 23, or add a veteran to replicate an outfield platoon similar to the one that will be employed in left field this season, albeit smaller.

Signing Jon Jay for $8 million acted as a stopgap, anticipating that Fowler would indeed eventually cash in and sign elsewhere for a price the Cubs weren’t willing to pay. It’s worth questioning, as this FanGraphs piece does, what exactly Jay brings to the table, when there remains a significant production gap in Fowler’s absence, considering the former Cubs leadoff man had the third highest WAR total on the team behind only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

A career .287 hitter in seven seasons, Jay had a line of .291/.331/.389 with the San Diego Padres last year. He is a tick above replacement level offensively with a 0.5 fWAR mark. Collectively, the numbers don’t inspire much confidence in this position group at the plate, collectively managing just 1.1 fWAR between Jay, Almora, Jason Heyward, and Jacob Hanneman, whom Fangraphs included in their projected depth chart. To Jay’s credit, he did post an oRAR (offensive runs above replacement) of 17, which puts him in the neighborhood of Max Kepler and C.J. Cron. Being a left-handed bat certainly doesn’t hurt, as it gives manager Joe Maddon the opportunity to play the matchups as often as possible.

Jon Jay playing for the Padres in 2016 (Alex Gallardo/AP)

But just as Fowler is almost certain to regress to the mean in 2017, Heyward’s dismal 2016 leaves plenty of room for upward mobility, which would take a lot of pressure not only off of major run producers like Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber, but also lessen the load on Jay or Almora.

The Cubs haven’t seemed very interested in playing Heyward in center, and it will likely remain that way unless injuries make that necessary. Pittsburgh moved Andrew McCutchen from center to right to accommodate a better outfielder in Starling Marte this offseason, and now with Jay to split time with and/or spot start for Almora as he matures, there’s really not much of a case for shifting Heyward away from right field.

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How much Almora will play remains to be seen, but the biggest question with him is what kind of impact he’ll have this year. Forecasts from ZiPS and Steamer have Almora at .269/.298/.396  and .270/.300./.398, which is respectable for a guy with less than 50 big league games under his belt. His plate discipline may give the Cubs headaches initially, but this is just a part of the growing pains of developing young prospects. Much was made about Fowler playing deeper last season and his improved playing the outfield, but the thought that should reassure Cubs fans this season is the notion that Almora’s ceiling as an outfielder is already much higher than Fowler’s ever was.

Position by Position: Left Field

(AP)

The wait is over. Cubs fans will get to see Kyle Schwarber for a full season in left field after missing all of the 2016 regular season. We all got a sneak peek of Schwarber in the World Series, when he returned from an ACL tear in time to hit .412 in 17 at bats and even steal a base.

It looks as if Kyle Schwarber will be getting the nod in left field for the majority of the games in the upcoming season after the Cubs traded outfielder Jorge Soler for relief pitcher Wade Davis. However, Schwarber is still recovering from a serious knee injury and he’s only played 85 games in his Major League career, postseason included. Schwarber won’t start all 162 games, and he probably won’t get close to a full season. Other players who will play in left field include Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora Jr, Wilson Contreras, and Matt Szczur.

Kyle Schwarber, born in Ohio in 1993, will be playing in his age-24 season in 2017. He was drafted fourth overall in 2014 by the Cubs as a catcher out of Indiana University-Bloomington, and made his debut in the following season. In 273 at bats in 69 games during his rookie season, Schwarber slashed .246/.355/.487 and hit 16 home runs while drawing 36 walks. The success continued for Schwarber in the postseason, where he hit 5 homers in 27 at bats in the Wild Card, NLDS, and NLCS. In just 78 games, he was beginning to make a name for himself in the North Side, and there were high hopes for him in 2016.

On April 7, during a regular game against the Diamondbacks, Jean Segura hit a line drive to left-center field. There was miscommunication between Schwarber and the center fielder Dexter Fowler, which ultimately resulted in a nasty collision between the two. Sources said it was only an ankle injury for Kyle, but it ended up being a torn ACL, leaving Cubs fans speechless.

(Ezra Saw/Getty Images)

He was supposed to be out for the entire season, but despite numerous statements saying Schwarber would not return for the postseason, he returned for the World Series! He still didn’t look too great and wasn’t able to play in left field, but having his bat in the lineup for the games in Cleveland provided a boost for the Cubbies. In 17 at bats as a DH and pinch hitter, Schwarber slashed .412/.500/.471, driving in two runs and walking three times. If Schwarber can hit off the likes of Corey Kluber (whom he went 3 for 4 against) after missing an entire season, then can’t he hit off of anyone?

The Schwarber return not only helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, but also provided a ton of optimism for Cubs fans regarding the young left fielder. In a small sample size, he proved that he could still see the ball well, and that the injury wouldn’t set him back as much as some were saying. He might not be able to play behind the plate, but it looks like he’ll be able to be the slugger he was in his rookie year.

Thar being said, Schwarber is far from perfect. He’s not very good defensively (-3 DRS in LF in 2015) and his ACL tear won’t help. He has really bad splits against lefties (.143/.213/.268 slash line in 61 career PA). That’s worse than Jake Arrieta’s line vs lefties (.240/.269/.360). He can also work on his relatively high strikeout rate (career 28.4 K%).

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(FanGraphs)

Schwarber also has a tendency to hit the ball to the right side, as you’d expect from a left-handed slugger, and the shift will be in play for most of his at bats in 2017. Hitting the ball to the opposite field should help Schwarber improve next year.

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I’d expect Schwarber gets the majority of the starts in left field when there’s a righty on the mound for the opposition, as his slash lines vs righties (.272/.392/.544) is great for such a young hitter. In fact, 14 of his 16 home runs in 2015 came off of righties and he hits for more power against them.

When Schwarber doesn’t get the nod, however, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant will be the next in line. Zo played 127.2 inning in left in 2016, and Bryant played 353.1 innings at the same position. Playing one of the two in left field will open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez, who would replace Zobrist at second or Bryant at third when one of the two plays the outfield. Other options for left field include recent acquisition Jon Jay, who has played 339 innings in left in his career, as well as sophomore player Albert Almora Jr, who played in a few games in left in his rookie year. The Cubs also have Matt Szczur, who played over 200 innings in left in 2016, and Willson Contreras can also man left field, but he’ll primarily catch in the upcoming season. All are solid options, but we likely won’t see Jay or Almora there unless all other options are off the table.

Joe Maddon has several intriguing options for left field in 2017, and it will be interesting to see how the position is managed. Kyle Schwarber should get the majority of the starts in left, but after that  Maddon has plenty of options and can have fun with it.

Position by Position: Third Base

(USATSI)

Lets be real for a second. The Cubs got lucky in the 2013 Amateur Draft. They were in great position with the second overall pick, as they were coming off an abysmal season in which they lost over a hundred games. With their selection in the first round, the Astros picked Mark Appel, a consensus first overall pick (he was drafted by the Astros in the first round in 2012 but didn’t sign) which left the Cubs with a highly touted young prospect from Las Vegas. It might be one of the best second overall picks in recent memory.

Bryant already has the 17th highest bWAR of all second round picks in the history of the draft. He also has a higher bWAR than anyone selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, the year before he was drafted. Only José Fernández has a higher bWAR among 2011 first rounders. In Bryant, they didn’t just get a well-rounded player who was capable of “30-plus HR potential; occasional All-Star” as Bleacher Report described him. The Cubs were about to get a Rookie of the Year winner and MVP, an honor just three other players (Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Howard, Cal Ripken Jr.) had earned in back-to-back years.

Bryant impressed at every level in the minors and has had tremendous success in his time in the majors. In Rookie Ball he hit .364 in 20 games. In High-A he hit .333. In Double-A in 2014 Bryant hit .355 in 68 games. In Triple-A Iowa in 2015 he hit .321. He did all that while hitting 61 home runs and did not have a wRC+ (an overall offensive metric where 100 is league average, meaning Byrant was at least 61% better than the average) less than 161 at any level (except for brief two game stint in 2013 Rookie Ball) with excellent SLG and OBP to match.

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(Fansided)

Still, minor league success, even at the level Bryant played at, does not ensure major league success. Luckily for Bryant and Cubs fans everywhere, when he arrived in The Show in April of 2015, he dominated. While he had a deceptively mediocre slashline of .275/.369/.488, Bryant was worth an excellent 6.6 fWAR and had a 136 wRC+. He ended up playing 151 games, recorded 650 plate appearances, hit 26 home runs, stole 13 bases, and drove in 99 runs. His impressive 2015 earned him NL Rookie of the Year, but he wasn’t done yet as he led the Cubs to the NLCS, hitting two big home runs in the postseason that year.

Bryant’s 2016 breakout was remarkable, tho not unexpected. His wRC+ ticked up 13 points, and his batting average increased to .292. He hit 13 more home runs in just 49 more PA’s, which knocked his SLG up to .554, good for an OPS of .939. While his stolen bases dropped (he only had 8 last year) he drove in more runs (102 RBI) and scored more runs (121 R) in 2016. He added to his career fWAR by adding 1.8 more wins than he had in 2015, making Bryant worth 8.4 wins in 2016, best in the league and second only to Mike Trout. To cap off an amazing year, Bryant lead the Cubbies to their first World Series win in 108 years, hitting .308 in the postseason, including one extremely important home run that sparked an impressive comeback and three-game win streak.

Will Bryant be as good as he was in 2016? Almost certainly not. Was 2016 an anomaly that won’t happen again? We can’t know for sure, but Bryant’s extensive track record in the minor leagues, and his two years in the majors, he will certainly be a key piece for the Cubs in 2017.

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Right now Depth Charts has Bryant at 5.6 fWAR next season while Steamer has him work 5.8 wins. Don’t get me wrong, both of these are excellent projections, indicating he will almost certainly have an All-Star caliber season again, barring injury. That being said, FanGraphs’ crowdsourced projection “Fans” has Bryant at 7.6 wins, good for second in all of baseball (again behind Mike Trout) according to that predictor. So is Bryant going to be the sub-six win player that Steamer and Depth Charts think he is, or is he going to put up another potential MVP season?

If one bad thing can be said about Bryant’s MVP campaign, it’s that he didn’t hit well to the opposite field. The righthander’s spray chart doesn’t indicate a problem per se, but you can see that he pulls almost all of his home runs. In fact, only one of his 39 homers was hit to right, and he also only had 16 hits to right last year, as opposed to 23 the year before. He had a .404 OPS and .186 AVG on balls hit to right. To left, Bryant had 94 hits, 30 homers, and a laughable 1.393 OPS.

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(FanGraphs)

I want to get back to hitting the ball to right field. In the minor leagues, that’s where most of my power was. I was pitched inside so often to a point I pulled the ball very well. I’m sure guys are going to pitch me (away more now). That’s what they did in the minor leagues, and I want to get back to what I was doing so well.

Bryant even acknowledges that there was a problem. After an MVP season, Bryant still want’s to get better. He knows that he is pulling the ball more, as his 2015/2016 splits on balls to right indicate, and even in the face of success he wants to improve. If he can start hitting the ball to right field again as he has done in the past, there is no reason to think that he will not continue to improve or at least maintain his level of dominance. As he works to strike out less (his K% decreased 8.6% this year to a more league average 22%) his batting average and on base percentage should continue to rise.

Behind Bryant in terms of depth is the always impressive Javier Báez and prospect Jeimer Candelario, both of whom play good defense and can hit well. While it would be a major loss to lose Byrant for an extended period of time, the replacements at both the major and minor league levels are good as well.

Bryant not only provides insurance for the Cubs at the hot corner this year, but is set to be a stable presence in Chicago’s batting order for years to come.

Position by Position: Shortstop

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

Russell’s Grand Slam in Game 6 of the World Series (Sporting News)

When Addison Russell (presumably) makes the start for the Cubs on Opening Day at shortstop, he’ll be younger than Kris Bryant the day Bryant made his debut. Let that sink in. Kris has already won Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a World Series. Russell still has two years to do all of that (although he’s already accomplished the last one)!

The reigning starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team does have some accomplishments of his own, however.

Russell, who was drafted 11th overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2012, quickly made a name for himself in the minors. In 2013, he was rated the #22 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and in 2014, he made his way all the way to seventh on the list. Then, on July 5 of 2014, he was dealt with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily to the rebuilding Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. He quickly made a name for himself, and got called up in 2015 at the age of 21.

In 2015, Russell slashed .242/.307/.389 in 142 games, and posted a 3.3 WAR. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old! There was definitely room for improvement, and improve he did. In 2016, he posted a slash line of .238/.321/.417, and a WAR of 4.3. He was the starting shortstop for the National League All-Star Game, and even received 5 points for the 2016 NL MVP, good for 19th.

With a career wRC+ of 93, and 66 defensive runs saved (44 at shortstop), Russell has been more of a defensive first shortstop in his first couple seasons. He’s a little below average with the bat (-9.5 batting runs above average), but makes up for it with his glove (28.7 fielding runs above average) at one of the hardest positions to play in baseball. His 95 RBI in 2016 may be a little deceptive, as hitting behind Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist definitely shows. If you believe in “clutch”, Addi has that too, putting up a .271/.342/.421 slash line in 244 high leverage situations in his career.

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Addi is one of four shortstops in MLB history to accumulate 5.0+ defensive WAR through age 22. The three others (Travis Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville) all have a plaque in Cooperstown. That’s pretty impressive.

However, Russell is even more known for his postseason heroics in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run. He joined Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb as the only players to drive in nine runs in the World Series before turning 23. He became the first player in Major League history with 6 RBI in a potential elimination World Series game (which he did in the first three innings of Game 6!). Those heroics even made him the sixth most Googled MLB player in 2016.

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So, what can Cubs fans expect from Addison Russell in 2017? Steamer projects him to slash .247/.321/.418, a 1 point improvement in the wRC+ category (going from 95 to 96). My personal biases expect a little more from him, because I’d expect his walk rate to improve with experience and his strikeout rate to drop. As for defense, I’d expect we’ll see more of the same excellence Addi brought in his rookie and sophomore seasons. He’s a permanent shortstop now, as opposed to his rookie season which he split between second and short. When looking at his spray charts from his first two seasons, you can definitely see his offensive improvements.

chart
(FanGraphs)
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(FanGraphs)

 

He’s been getting more hits to the left side, as he’s hitting it further into left field. However, a major source of doubles for Russell in 2015 came from hitting it into deep right-center, something he didn’t do much the following season.

It’s easy to be excited when talking about Addison Russell and his future, but what do the Cubs have behind him just in case?

Javier Baez, the Cubs’ super role player, looks to be lacking a starting spot in 2017. He’ll get the nod at short when Russell gets a day off, and if Russell is out for an extended period of time will likely take over the shortstop position. I bet a lot of teams would take Baez as a starting shortstop. Baez played 194 innings at short in 2016, and has played 494 innings there in his career, worth 1 DRS.

Kris Bryant, while he looks to be staying at third more in 2017, can handle shortstop if necessary for the Cubs. It’s obviously not his natural position, and he won’t be the defensive presence like Russell or Baez, but he could probably handle it. Bryant has played one inning at shortstop in his career, but did not handle any chances there.

Ben Zobrist, who looks to be the Cubs starting second baseman in 2017, can also man the shortstop position. He, like Bryant, likely wouldn’t be above average at the position, but Zo has surprisingly played 1766 innings there in his career, worth -10 DRS.

Addison Russell is the future of the Cubs organization at age 23, and it should be fun to see what he does for the North Siders in 2017.