It’s my belief that, right now, the Cubs are the best team in baseball. Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to express your own belief at the end. I know that we’ve been a little heavy on Cubs posts. It’s not entirely our fault — they’ve been active. I also know it’s not super important who looks like the best team in baseball in the middle of December. There’s offseason left, and there’s spring training to go, and countless things could change. It also happens to be my belief the Cubs will remain the best team in baseball as we reach Opening Day, but this is about things as they are. Right now, literally as you read this, provided you read this somewhere close to the publishing date.
I’m going to lay out why I think the Cubs are the best. I’m also going to try to lay out why they might not be, despite all the stuff in the first part. It’s not about being contradictory — it’s about trying to cover everything. At the bottom of the post, you’ll respond to a very simple question. We’ll see which argument you find most convincing.
Why do the Cubs look like they’re the best team in baseball? I suppose we could start with what they did last year, when they were among the best teams in baseball. They finished with the third-best record, and a strong run differential. They were fourth according to BaseRuns. They’ve lost a few pieces, but they’ve gained Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Jason Heyward. The last two came at the expense of the rival Cardinals. The Cardinals have also lost Lance Lynn, which cuts into the benefit of adding Adam Wainwright. The Blue Jays were awesome, but they’re out David Price. The Dodgers are out Zack Greinke. The Mets are out Yoenis Cespedes. The champion Royals are out Zobrist, Johnny Cueto, and Alex Gordon. I don’t need to go team by team. The Cubs were really good, and so far they’ve gotten better.
You knew this part was coming: it helps to look at the projections. Better to look ahead than to look back. The only full projections we have right now are Steamer. And we have Steamer-projected team WAR, as opposed to Steamer-projected team record, and though there’s a strong relationship there, it’s not always perfect. That’s stuff to be kept in mind, but here’s a grab from our projected team WAR page:
This is the strongest part of the argument. In fact, when you look at this, it seems like it shouldn’t even be a debate. The Cubs have a lead of more than three wins on second place. It’s about eight wins on third place. Don’t sleep on the Dodgers — people are down on them right now, but they’re still built well. Really well, by these projections. They’re just not built quite as well as the Cubs. By the best and only projections we have today, it’s the Cubs, and it’s the rest.
You might remember that, a year ago, Steamer said some things that ultimately looked funny, about the Mariners and Red Sox. Can’t forget about that. Steamer liked those teams — many projection systems liked those teams — and they sputtered. The Cubs, too, could sputter, but I don’t think the projections actually look surprising. For all I know people are already taking the Cubs for granted. Who wouldn’t think they’re excellent?
A fun fact for you: with Heyward, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester, the Cubs have five of baseball’s projected top 40 players. It’s actually five of the top 31, but I wanted to round. They’re not at all lacking for star power, and behind the Cubs, in terms of top-40 players, the Nationals and Rangers are tied with three. Other teams have two or fewer. You can’t really compete with the top of the Cubs’ roster.
But the depth is there, too. The only positions where the Cubs don’t project to be top-10 are catcher and right field, where they’re projected 16th. They’re top-five at first, second, third base, left field, center field, starting rotation, and bullpen. They’re first by position players, and second by pitchers, hence the first-place overall WAR ranking. Think about what we have here — arguably the Cubs’ biggest problem is Jorge Soler, one of the most talented young hitters in the league. He hasn’t gotten close to his ceiling, but the height of the ceiling is undeniable.
Think the Cubs are benefiting from being over-projected? Rizzo isn’t projected to improve. Zobrist isn’t projected to improve. Russell projects for the same offense. Bryant projects for the same offense. Kyle Schwarber: slightly worse offense. Jason Heyward: same offense. Soler: career mark. Steamer thinks Arrieta’s ERA gains more than a full run. It thinks Lester is going to be Lester.
There aren’t any projected breakouts. There also aren’t any projected collapses, but who, really, would you expect to come apart? The team is mostly either young or proven and steady. Maybe the strikeout-prone sluggers go through their slumps, as pitchers make adjustments, but they’re phenomenally talented sluggers. Rizzo, Heyward, Zobrist, we know, more or less. We think we have a read on Bryant and Schwarber. Russell and Soler have the upside, and I probably shouldn’t leave Miguel Montero completely out of this post.
I don’t identify as a Cubs fan, myself, but I do identify as someone who can be convinced with numbers, and their numbers are fairly convincing. Even if some of the numbers are just projections, what is a projection but a future estimate based on what’s already happened? So many of these Cubs players have already succeeded. Even the bullpen, quietly, is strong, led by the underrated Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. Could be deeper. Is still better than most.
It’s not the easiest thing to argue against the Cubs. I guess I don’t need to try to argue that they’re not good — they’re very obviously good. Are they best-team-in-baseball good? There are at least some reasonable doubts. We should entertain those, before I eventually ask you the question.
Start with, say, Soler. At the moment, he’s lined up to start in right field, and while the projections don’t love him, last year Soler was a replacement-level player. Most of his game is his power, so when he doesn’t have his power, he doesn’t have much of a use. It shouldn’t be considered a sure thing that Soler will manage something like an average batting line.
If you turn quickly to defense, what to make of Schwarber and Heyward in the outfield? Schwarber is a catcher who isn’t much of a catcher, so even on his best days, he won’t look gifted in left. And while Heyward is a known elite defender in a corner, he’s started all of 30 career games in the middle. He might not have the smooth adjustment the Cubs could expect.
Zobrist, also, was a worse defender last year, as he dealt with a knee problem. He’s 34 now, so he’s not getting more agile. There’s some chance he’s a liability.
Bryant? He’s good, but he had a .378 BABIP. Struck out a bunch. Might slump. Arrieta’s fantastic, but there were some yellow flags down the stretch, so he might not rebound well from the workload. Lester has zero control of the running game so that leads to extra, unwanted runs. Jason Hammel was miserable in the second half. The bullpen is interesting, but seems to thin out after the top two. It’s not an accident rumors are linking the Cubs to various available high-leverage relievers.
There’s one more point: the league adjustment. The American League remains superior to the National League, but there’s a chance we’re still underrating that gap. Which would make the Cubs’ WAR projection look better, while AL teams look worse. There’s no perfect way to handle this, but it isn’t something to forget about. Last season, the AL beat the NL in head-to-head contests about 56% of the time. It’s significant!
When you get down to it, though, every team in baseball has things that could very reasonably go wrong. Like, on the Dodgers, Yasiel Puig is projected as the best position player. Last year he was worth a win and a half. And as for the league adjustment, I think it’s a good point, but again, the Cubs have a projected eight-WAR advantage over the apparent best team in the AL. The league adjustment can’t account for all that, no matter how aggressive. Some people don’t like the word “projections,” but all they are are educated guesses, based on track record. Based on their own track records, the Cubs seem like they damn well might be the best team in baseball at the moment.
So now it’s your turn. This couldn’t be easier. I know it’s the middle of December, and this would be more interesting in several months. Maybe we’ll do it again in several months. This is the thing that we’re doing today.
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