2020 Record: 34-26
First Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 3.99 (10th)
Team OPS: .705 (21st)
What Went Right
The Cubs rode a hot start in the shortened season to an NL Central title, their third in the last five seasons. They had a dynamite 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation with Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Darvish built upon his strong finish in 2019 with a dominant 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 93/14 K/BB ratio over 76 innings in 2020. Hendricks had a so-so first month but finished with a 2.88 ERA thanks to an excellent September. A rough final couple outings skewed Alec Mills’ ERA, but he gave the Cubs solid work, highlighted by a no-hitter against the Brewers. Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick both had nice seasons in the team’s bullpen, and Adbert Alzolay showed promise while splitting time between the rotation and ‘pen. Ian Happ struggled in September, but he was one of the best hitters in baseball prior to that, ultimately finishing with a .866 OPS and 12 home runs. Jason Heyward was among the league leaders with a strong .392 on-base percentage, putting together one of his best offensive campaigns (albeit over a truncated season).
What Went Wrong
The Cubs’ offense was littered with disappointing performances, but Javier Baez has to top the list. Coming off back-to-back All-Star Game appearances, Baez posted a lowly .599 OPS, which ranked 141st out of 142 qualifiers. His already-awful plate discipline was even worse than normal, too, with a 31.9 percent strikeout rate and 3.0 percent walk rate. Kris Bryant wasn’t much better, putting up a .644 OPS with just four home runs while dealing with an array of injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber both popped 11 home runs, but Rizzo batted only .222 and Schwarber hit a feeble .188. Nico Hoerner was the team’s Opening Day second baseman but never got going offensively, failing to hit a single home run and posting an OPS (.571) even lower than Baez’s. Jon Lester’s downward trajectory continued in 2020, as he wound up with a 5.16 ERA while striking out just 42 over 61 innings. It was a lost season for Jose Quintana, who threw just 10 innings while dealing with thumb and lat injuries. Craig Kimbrel rebounded from an atrocious start, but he never became the club’s regular closer and still finished with a 5.28 ERA.
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** A player like Javier Baez who strikes out so much and walks so infrequently can be prone to slumps. Unfortunately, with it being a truncated season he didn’t have time to pull himself out of a season-long slump in 2020. Baez has noted that he relies heavily on watching video of his previous plate appearances during games, something that he wasn’t able to use this year. It could at least be partly to blame for his poor season and hopefully he’ll have video available again in 2021. A more tangible reason to expect Baez to bounce back is that he surely can’t be as unlucky from a BABIP perspective again, as he posted just a .262 BABIP in 2020 after never having put up lower than a .336 mark previously.
** The 2020 campaign was a disaster from start to finish for Kris Bryant. Remarkably, only one day all season was his OPS over .700 (and it was just .706, on August 12). The 28-year-old was useless for fantasy leaguers across all five Roto categories, and he also posted easily his highest strikeout rate (27.2 percent) since his rookie season and easily the lowest walk rate (8.2 percent) of his career. The Statcast numbers don’t paint a pretty picture, either. The best fantasy managers can hope for is that the myriad physical ailments Bryant dealt with held him back and that he’ll come back in 2021 healthy and motivated in what will be his walk year. If that happens, he would figure to be a nice value on draft day next spring.
** Is Craig Kimbrel toast? We could hardly blame you for not having any faith in the seven-time All-Star at this point. However, we also must point out that, after a really rough first four appearances in 2020, Kimbrel looked mostly like his old, dominant self. The 32-year-old was scored upon in just one of his final 14 appearances, and he permitted just four hits while striking out 26 over 12 2/3 innings during that stretch. Kimbrel didn’t walk a single batter in September, fanning 13 across 7 1/3 scoreless frames. Which guy will show up in 2021?
** In the first 38 games of the 2020 season, Ian Happ was a star, putting up a .317/.423/.690 batting line with 12 home runs. He struck out at an acceptable 24 percent clip. In the final 19 games of the season, Happ hit just .153/.247/.181 with no homers and whiffed at a 33.3 percent rate. Some correction was likely due, and Happ is surely closer to the .866 OPS guy he wound up as rather than the 1.113 OPS he had during the initial stretch. Happ posted a career-best 91.1 mph exit velocity this past season and, even though he struck out a lot more late in the year, his 27.3 percent strikeout rate was still nearly 10 percentage points lower than his rate back in 2018. He’ll probably open next season back in the Cubs’ leadoff spot.
** Does Jon Lester have anything left? Lester actually got off to a fine start in 2020 in allowing just two runs over his first three outings. However, he put up a bunch of clunkers the rest of the way and finished with a 5.16 ERA and just 42 strikeouts over 61 frames. The southpaw’s velocity has been steadily dropping over the years and in 2020 his fastball fell below 90 mph for the first time. Headed for free agency, Lester will be 37 going into next season and he has a ton of mileage on his left arm. It’s difficult to imagine mixed leaguers being interested in him even if he lands in a favorable situation.
Team Needs: Getting bounce-back seasons from their position players who disappointed will probably be the Cubs’ biggest key to improvement in 2021. Bringing in a bat from outside the organization (possibly at second base?) wouldn’t hurt, though. There are also major rotation question marks after Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. The club has a decent amount of money coming off the books, so they might target a big-name pitcher.