Gauging the Cubs’ offseason based on WAR


by - Columnist -
Quinn Harris - USA Today Sports
Quinn Harris - USA Today Sports

People either love the new sabermetrics used in MLB, or they cringe at the thought of using them; I suppose I fall somewhere in between. They have to be worth something, though. Otherwise, why would so many scouts, media members, managers, and GMs constantly be citing them?

The one sabermetric that has always intrigued me is WAR (wins above replacement). Finding a player’s WAR isn’t a simple process, and it boggles my mind as to just what they may factor in, to be able to come up with a single digit to represent a player’s worth. Who thinks of this stuff?

Baseball-Reference defines WAR as, “A single number that presents the number of wins the payer added to [his current team], above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA would add. Scale for a single season: 8+ MVP Quality; 5+ All-Star Quality; 2+ Starter; 0-2 Reserve; < 0 Replacement level.”

Wikipedia defines it in a little more straightforward manner: “A non-standardized sabermetric baseball statistic developed to sum up "a player's total contributions to his team." A player's WAR value is claimed to be the number of additional wins his team has achieved above the number of expected team wins if that player were substituted with a replacement-level player: a player who may be added to the team for minimal cost and effort.

As I’ve watched players come and go from the Cubs roster this winter, I began wondering whether the Cubs were actually improving with the flurry of roster moves that Theo has made in recent weeks, or whether they’re simply losing more and more ground as the days roll by. Not that there are any written rules for using and comparing sabermetrics like WAR – at least not for us ordinary folk – but it stands to reason that simple math should provide at least some indication.

When I started this little experiment, I made two lists; one with the departing players and their WAR numbers, then a second with the players and their respective WAR, who’ve now been inked to deals with the Cubs. Although I attempted to match player for player, the number of departing players still outweigh, by far, the number of signings to date.

Relievers

After losing veteran Brandon Morrow (11.3 career WAR) and rookie LHP Danny Hultzen (0.2 WAR), the Cubs managed to bring both back on minor league deals. On the surface this would seem to be a wash (in terms of WAR), but it may actually work out to be a gain, as Morrow would be playing for far less money in 2020.

After paying righty Kendall Graveman (5.4 WAR) to rehab in Iowa all season, the Cubs declined to pick up his $3M option when the season ended. The closest match in terms of a replacement would be 29-year-old righty, Daniel Winkler (-0.3 WAR). Both players are 29, both right-handed, both recovering from elbow issues and surgeries and both with a little over four years of service time. Net loss: 5.7 WAR.

Finding a match for the Cubs latest acquisition, 32-year-old, RHP Ryan Tepera (0.1 WAR) was a little trickier. Tepera has only four years of service time, making his closest match RHP David Phelps (0.7 WAR), in terms of age and service time. Tepera actually aligns better with exiled reliever Tony Barnette (0.0 WAR), but due to Barnette’s temper tantrum, he remains on the restricted list. Net loss: 0.6 WAR.

Lefty CD Pelham (-0.1 WAR) was a waiver claim from the Rangers back in late November. Pelham is still exceptionally young (almost 25), but hasn’t seen MLB action since 2018, and even then, he only appeared in 10 games. The two lefty relievers that the Cubs lost this winter (Xavier Cedeno (0.1 WAR) and Derek Holland (-1.2 WAR) are both eight years Pelham’s seniors and both have considerably more playing time. While Holland worked this past season, Cedeno spent the majority of his season on the IL, making Holland the closer match. Net gain: 1.1 WAR.

The Cubs also picked up a righty reliever prospect) named Trevor Megill, but because Megill has not seen any MB action yet, he’s not been assigned a WAR value. The Cubs have yet to replace (or re-sign) righties Brandon Kintlzer (1.7 WAR), Pedro Strop (0.0 WAR) and Steve Cishek (1.8 WAR), leaving themselves a combined void 3.5 WAR.

Starters

Cole Hamels (3.0 WAR) was the only starter to leave the rotation this winter, with the Cubs only signing RHP Jharel Cotton (0.2 WAR) as a possible replacement, so far. The Cubs are still “in” on former Cy young Award winner LHP Dallas Keuchel (2.0 WAR), and may also ultimately choose to fill Hamels’ spot with either RHP Tyler Chatwood (1.5 WAR) or RHP Alec Mills (1.0 WAR), but no matter their option, they’ve lost at least 1.0 WAR and possibly up to 2.8 WAR.

Position Players

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: Utilityman Ben Zobrist (-0.1 WAR). Zo’s unfortunate hiatus cost him dearly in terms of WAR in 2019, but that metric doesn’t even come close to measuring the intangibles that Ben brought to this team. The team has reportedly managed to sign former Brewers’ utilityman Hernan Perez (0.0 WAR) to a minor league deal, but for some reason, the Cubs have yet to make an official statement to announce the deal.

If the Cubs make the deal official and Perez makes the MLB squad (two big “IFs”), Perez could prove to be one of Theo’s best signings this winter. Hernan Perez is only about to turn 29, while Zo is facing his 39th birthday in May, lending ten years’ worth of youth to Perez’s plus column. Perez hasn’t been much of a threat due to a declining offensive effort over the past couple of years, but if he gets on base, he’s an absolute threat to steal – something that I’ve been saying for three years that the Cubs need to reincorporate into their offensive plan.

Going in, the Cubs knew that catcher Jonathan Lucroy (-1.0 WAR) would be a straight rental, but with the injury to Willson Contreras (hamstring), Theo had little choice but to acquire a backup for Victor Caratini. With Lucroy now lost to free agency, the Cubs have once again added Miguel Amaya (no WAR) to the 40-man, though it remains unlikely that the team would call him up this year, unless a trade or injury occur.

That brings us to Nicholas Castellanos (2.7 WAR). The Cubs have recently signed a pair of outfielders (Noel Cuevas- 0.0 WAR and Ian Miller- 0.0 WAR), but neither holds a candle to Castellanos when it comes to taking hacks. Both Miller and Cuevas have the ability to play all three outfield positions, giving the Cubs the flexibility to move Jason Heyward (2.0 WAR) back to right, but barring a trade of either Kyle Schwarber (2.3 WAR), Ian Happ (1.2 WAR) or Albert Almora Jr. (-1.0 WAR), there’s just no room to play these guys.

Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do before he ever breaks even this winter, but with the available funds, breaking even doesn’t look like much of an option. Reflecting back on Baseball-Reference’s WAR scale, if 8.0 equals an MVP and 5.0 or better equals an All-Star, the Cubs are in some serious trouble. Yu Darvish has a 3.0 WAR; Javier Baez own a WAR of 4.8 and Kris Bryant’s WAR currently sits at 3.6. World Series team? Hell, this team doesn’t even possess an All-Star regarding WAR at this point.

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