How the Cubs stack up in 2020 ZIPS projections


by - Correspondent -
David Bote would be solid for Cubs in 2020 (Patrick Gorski - USA Today Sports)
David Bote would be solid for Cubs in 2020 (Patrick Gorski - USA Today Sports)

FanGraphs has released its annual ZiPS projections for the 2020 season. While I know many disregard advanced statistics or projections at all, the ZiPS projections generally show trends. Last year, they projected the Cubs starters to combine for a 43.9 WAR, and the entire team combined for a 43.9 WAR.

While that accuracy is almost a bit scary, the projections carry some weight, so let’s break it down.

Above is the WAR projections for the expected 2020 Cubs roster, including potential platoons. The glaring holes in the team are front and center with second base, centerfield, and the fifth starter spot all below 2.0 WAR. One of the more interesting roster holes in these projections is centerfield. FanGraphs projects Ian Happ and Jason Heyward to split time in centerfield, both generating a 1.8 WAR in vastly different ways.

Going into his fifth season on the North Side, Heyward is expected to rebound defensively and continue his below-average offensive slide. Heyward’s FanGraphs defensive rating of nine would be his best since his inaugural season with the Cubs. In 2019, Heyward received his first negative defensive rating for the first time since 2010, so a return to the elite defense Heyward is known for would be incredible for a Cubs team that struggled defensively last year.

The projections are slightly less favorable to Heyward’s offense. Heyward is projected to finish the year with a 90 OPS+, a .735 OPS, and a .150 ISO. Now, what does that all mean? It means exactly what everyone thinks; Heyward is going to be a below-average hitter who struggles to hit for power. At the very best, Heyward may hit for a better average than his projected .253, but his offensive ability will be limited as the Cubs have come to expect in his tenure.

If you don’t care for defense, then may I introduce you to Ian Happ in centerfield. We’ll get to his offense in a second, but it worth noting that as good as Heyward is expected to be next season, Ian Happ counteracts that. His -8 FanGraphs defensive rating is the worst on the team.

On a happier note, FanGraphs is buying Ian Happ’s second-half surge to translate into 2020. He is expected to finish fifth on the team in OPS+ with 102, 23 home runs, and 72 RBI. It seems Happ won’t finish hitting with a high average but bring plenty of power to the everyday lineup. Despite being pegged as the team’s worst defender, his offense will undoubtedly be welcomed. Below you can compare the FanGraphs projections between Happ and Heyward.

Many, including FanGraphs, are not as worried about the Cubs lineup as they are about the pitching staff. In particular, the fifth starter position and the bullpen. After letting Cole Hamels walk in free agency, the next man up in his position seems to be the much-criticized Tyler Chatwood.

Chatwood was possibly one of the worst starting pitchers in his first season with the Cubs but saw a slightly improved 2019 season as mainly a reliever. Jumping back into the starting rotation raises a lot of concerns, especially from the ZiPS projections. His 6-6, 4.50 ERA projection won’t exactly inspire anyone, but that would qualify as the fifth-best ERA from a starting pitcher on the team. Unless a midseason trade is made, it seems like Chatwood may be the best option in the final spot of the rotation.

The rest of the starting rotation is about what most people expect. Kyle Hendricks is expected to be the steady hand in the rotation with a projected 3.67 ERA, but Yu Darvish’s projections are precisely what the Cubs want to see. FanGraphs continues to buy into the Cubs 2019 second-half surges as Darvish projects to lead Cubs starters in ERA, 3.56, WAR, 3.8, and strikeouts, 190. While he’s only expected to reach 154 innings, the 33-year-old can certainly help solidify a veteran rotation.

Moving to the bullpen, FanGraphs projects big rebounds for Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Morrow, and substantial contributions from just about everyone else. While no one in the bullpen is expected to have an ERA lower than 3.40, the top two spots in the bullpen look to be filled by Kimbrel and Morrow.

Kimbrel’s projected 3.40 ERA won’t exactly set the world on fire, but his 127 ERA+ and 36.9 strikeout percentage will undoubtedly excite fans. For reference, the 127 ERA+ will mean he is 27 percent better than the league average. Seeing Kimbrel return to at least what he was in Boston would be a big boost for the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.

FanGraphs sees a rebound is in store for Morrow as well. After missing all of 2019 due to injury, the 34-year-old is expected to come back and be a solid contributor. Similar to Kimbrel, Morrow’s ERA doesn’t look elite for a back-end reliever, but his 121 ERA+ will certainly help solidify the seventh or eighth inning for the Cubs.

The rest of the bullpen looks to capitalize on solid contributions from several pitchers. The second tier of relievers for the Cubs includes Jeremy Jeffress, Brad Wiek, and Dillon Maples. Jeffress and Wiek expect to have ERA’s below 3.70, while Maples still is projected to finish with a respectable 4.02 ERA. Strikeouts will be a premium for the Cubs relievers as both Wiek and Maples are expected to have strikeout rates above 35 percent.

Below you can see the FanGraphs projections for all of the Cubs starting pitchers, and the relievers mentioned. I apologize for the big spreadsheet you’re going to see, but this is a statistics-based article.

Seeing the Cubs projections not compared to the top tier of the MLB like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers won’t spur confidence in the 2020 season. Despite that, the projections don’t decide the season, and they’re merely a possible look into the future. With that in mind, the Cubs seem to have a lot to prove in 2020, especially if the ZiPS projections are accurate.

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