Chicago Cubs 2018 Season Preview
The Chicago Cubs will be a fun team to monitor in 2018 (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Long-time Cubs fans have entered unfamiliar territory. The North Side is experiencing sustained success for the first time in what seems like forever. The Cubs have been to the NLCS three years in a row, and have the perfect foundation for sustained success in the coming years.

With Theo Epstein calling the shots, it’s hard for anyone to see the Cubs falling off anytime soon. Epstein has developed a reputation for bringing continued success to city’s that need it the most. He ended the dreaded Curse of the Bambino in Boston with the Red Sox World Series win in 2004 and provided them with a foundation of talent that would bring them another title in 2007, and a third in 2013 even after Epstein had already left for Chicago.

The Cubs had been in the thick of an even more prolonged drought when Epstein took the helm, not winning a title for almost a century. In his fifth season as President of the Cubs in 2016, he brought them back to the top of the baseball world and had again built a roster that screams longevity.

Offseason Grade: B+

Notable Acquisitions: Yu Darvish, Brian Duensing, Steven Cishek, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood

Given the names above, the focus for the Cubs going into this offseason was adding depth on the mound. With Jake Arrieta declining his qualifying offer and his return being unlikely, the Cubs needed to make a move that would sustain the success of their rotation.

They did just that by picking up Yu Darvish, who many regarded as the most talented arm on the market. Darvish signed on with a six-year/$126 million deal, which they offered to Arrieta on the very same day. Arrieta questionably declined the offer, and now he’s sitting at home in the middle of March with nowhere to play while Darvish is sitting pretty as the ace of one of the best teams in the big leagues. Needless to say at this point, Darvish was a big signing for the Cubs going into 2018.

The rest of the guys listed above except for Chatwood were brought in to solidify Chicago’s bullpen. Duensing was with the team last year but elected free agency, ultimately deciding to come back on a two-year deal. The Cubs know what they’re getting from the left-hander, and that’s a guy with a sub 3.00 ERA who keeps the ball in the ballpark. Duensing is as reliable as they come and will be an impactful arm in the middle to late innings, especially against left-handers.

Since he broke into the league in 2010, Steve Cishek has established himself as one of the best relievers in the game. Simply put, he’s always been a guy you could count on to get outs and get them quickly. Through eight seasons he’s maintained a 2.73 ERA and only a .217 BAA.

Cishek will offer mostly middle relief and will help out Pedro Strop with setting up newly acquired closer Brandon Morrow. Speaking of Morrow, he has barely had any closing experience through his 11 years in the big leagues, but manager Joe Maddon is confident that the veteran right-hander can get the job done exceptionally.

Signing Tyler Chatwood was a necessary move from the Cubs because they needed a fifth starter. In signing Chatwood to a three-year deal, the Cubs are investing a level of confidence in the right-hander that he didn’t get in Colorado. Chatwood keeps the ball on the ground, so the Cubs believe that kind of approach will serve him better in the Windy City than it did in the hitter’s haven that is Coors Field.

The Cubs patched up an area of their squad where they needed it the most this offseason, and have reasserted themselves as a top dog in the National League because of this.

Infielders: A

Simply put, the Cubs have one of the most talented infields in the game. For starters, third baseman Kris Bryant has done nothing but meet his lofty expectations since breaking into the league in 2015. He’s been Rookie of the Year and an MVP all in three years time and debatably had his best all-around season in 2017 hitting .295/.409/.537 with a .946 OPS.

Byrant’s batting average, on-base %, and OPS were all an improvement on his MVP season in 2016. Kris Bryant is a national treasure in the baseball universe, and if the Cubs are smart, he’ll be donning the blue pinstripes until the day he retires.

To Bryant’s left is Addison Russell, who is arguably the most reliable defensive shortstop in the league. MLB.com ranked Russell the sixth best shortstop going into 2018. I think this is right where the youngster should be. He hasn’t yet developed into the type of offensive player that deserves to be in the top five, but his skills with the glove are so incredible that he’s impossible to overlook in the top 10.

Russell’s been top five in defensive WAR in each of his first three seasons, so despite his struggles at the plate, Russell’s defensive impact has proven to be more than enough when it comes to his overall value. His partner up the middle is another player in this Cubs infield well on his way to stardom.

Unlike Addison, the question regarding Javier Báez has always lied with his defense. Even before breaking into the league, Báez was a highly regarded prospect because of his bat. The only thing at the time that was seemingly holding him back was his glove and the ability to make routine plays consistently. After watching him for three years now it’s evident that he’s incredibly smooth with the glove, but his nonchalant approach was always looked at as a negative by scouts around the league.

Báez has never been a bad fielder by any means, and we’ve seen him make plenty of plays that make us eat our words, but let’s just say he’s not in the lineup every day because of his defense.

On any other team in the league, catcher Willson Contreras would be a standout player among his fellow infielders. On the Cubs though, the third-ranked backstop in baseball by MLB.com can tend to be overlooked. There’s not anything negative you can say about the 25-year old going into his third MLB season and his second as the club’s everyday catcher. Contreras was snubbed from the all-star team in 2017 for whatever reason, but posting a 3.9 WAR in his sophomore year is just a taste of what Cubs fans should grow to expect out of the talented catcher.

Last but certainly not least in this Cubs infield is the first baseman, Anthony Rizzo. It’s crazy how Rizzo is considered a veteran already throughout the league, as it seems like just a couple of years ago he was the young, exciting talent poised to make the Cubs relevant again. He’s going into year eight in 2018 and is an established superstar right in the thick of his prime. I believe Rizzo’s best years are still in front of him, so expect some MVP type numbers from him out of the three hole this year.

You can make a case for each of these five guys to be all-stars this year, and we haven’t even discussed the talent this Cubs team has sprinkled elsewhere. You’d be hard pressed finding a group of infielders as well rounded as this one.

Outfielders: B-

Like I mentioned above, the talent throughout this Cubs lineup doesn’t end in the infield. The three guys that will get the most time in the outfield this season are Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Jason Heyward. Defensively this Cubs outfield is excellent. It’s nothing special, but it has and will get the job done.

Part of the reason this is is that of Schwarbers development as a left fielder. Kyle came into the league as a catcher, and the Cubs have been hiding him out in left ever since he made the switch. There is no alternative when it comes to Schwarber because he’s the kind of bat you need in the lineup and this being the National League, you don’t have the luxury the DH role provides for players like him in the AL.

The defensive skills that both Happ and Heyward possess should be able to make up for Schwarber’s subpar play in left though, and the Cubs still have some insurance in Ben Zobrist if things start to go south there. Speaking of Happ, this is a guy the Cubs are extremely high on, and someone who they believe can be a leader in their outfield in the coming years.

Happ was eighth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, showing his versatility by starting games at all three outfield positions, as well the 44 games he started at second base. Albert Almora Jr. will get a reasonable amount of time in center as well but expect to see Happ out there on a much more regular basis.

I’ve always liked Jason Heyward and the way he plays the game, but it seems like we’ve been waiting forever for his bat to produce the way we all thought it would. He’s always been fantastic in the outfield, so that’s not a concern for Heyward, but the question again in 2018 will be whether or not he can get hot and stay hot at the plate. He’s shown the ability to produce offensively in spades, so if he can find a way to spread that production out over a full season, he could be a dark horse at the bottom of this Cubs lineup.

Lineup: A-

  1. Ian Happ
  2. Kris Bryant
  3. Anthony Rizzo
  4. Willson Contreras
  5. Kyle Schwarber
  6. Javier Báez
  7. Jason Heyward
  8. Addison Russell

This is a full starting lineup with a pretty solid bench to go along with it. You’ll see that leadoff role go by committee all year long, with Heyward and Russell getting some looks at the top depending on how they’re hitting. You’ll see Zobrist getting worked in a bunch as well, as his versatility gives him the ability to slide in anywhere rest is needed. Look for Tommy La Stella to get his fair share of at-bats too, as he’s another force to be reckoned with off the bench.

Joe Maddon is a manager known for going off the book, so don’t be surprised if you see several different versions of this Cubs lineup throughout the year. Overall, this group of guys won’t have any trouble scoring runs and have all-star caliber talent from top to bottom.

Rotation: B+

  1. Yu Darvish
  2. Jon Lester
  3. Kyle Hendricks
  4. Jose Quintana
  5. Tyler Chatwood

There’s nothing wrong with this starting five for the Cubs going into this season. These are all guys who can eat up innings and keep the pressure off of the bullpen while keeping the offense in the game in the process. Their weakest link in my mind is Chatwood as the fifth starter, but in his case, I do think the Coors Field effect was genuine.

Even so, he wasn’t a bad pitcher by any stretch of the imagination and would be a middle to back of the rotation guy for most clubs around the league. You’ll see a significant uptick in Chatwood’s numbers this year playing in Chicago and having more consistent support from his offense.

The most significant question mark among these five is veteran left-hander Jon Lester. Lester is going into his 13th season, and while he’s always been a reliable arm at the top of every rotation he’s been a part of, his ERA dropped off a good amount in 2017. There’s no reason he can’t return to his 2016 form this season in which he won 19 games and posted a 2.44 ERA, but if last year was any indication, he’s entering the back end of his career when it comes to overall production. Barring any significant struggles though, he should be able to hold his own following Darvish every five days.

Bullpen: A-

As was previously mentioned, the bulk of Chicago’s offseason activity was aimed at improving their bullpen. Morrow, Cishek, and Duensing offer some much-needed depth towards the end of ballgames, and with the number of innings all five of the starters should be able to eat up the arms in the bullpen should be more than enough to shut the door in most situations.

Look for Pedro Strop to be the catalyst among this group. It looked like Strop was primed to become the everyday closer for this team, but with the addition of Morrow, he’ll have that kind of pressure removed from his shoulders. Regardless, he’s one of if not the most electric arm in the Cubs have coming out of the pen, so as far as I’m concerned, this bullpen goes as Pedro Strop goes.

Overall Grade: A

Projected record: 95-67 (1st in the NL Central)

In a division as well-rounded as the NL Central, it’s tough to pick a winner going into the season. That said, the Cubs look better on paper this year as opposed to 2017, and after winning the division last year, there’s no reason to believe they won’t repeat as Central champs in 2018. Milwaukee has made some impressive acquisitions this offseason, and the Cardinals always seem to be in the mix.

Coming away with another NL Central title won’t be easy for the Cubs, but they have the talent and the leadership in Joe Maddon to do so. They are my favorites coming out of the Central in 2018.