Previewing The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Division Rivals: Chicago Cubs
By Jim Sutter
What follows is the fourth of a series of four articles providing a look at the Pirate Division Rivals going into 2017:
As we get ready for what should hopefully be an exciting and successful season, I’m going to be examining the outlook of other NL Central teams. Almost half the schedule is composed of Pittsburgh Pirates Division Rivals so we’re going to be seeing a lot of them.
Because of this, I think it’s worth getting to know them better and getting an idea of what to expect. Before the season starts I’m going to give a look at each, going in reverse order of their 2016 finish. This final installment will look at the Chicago Cubs, who won the NL Central and the World Series last season.
2016 Record: 103-58
Pirates Record vs. Cubs in 2016: 4-14
- Jon Jay (LF) – Free Agent Signing
- Brett Anderson (SP) – Free Agent Signing
- Koji Uehara (RP) – Free Agent Signing
- Dexter Fowler (CF) – Signed with St. Louis Cardinals
- Aroldis Chapman (RP) – Signed with New York Yankees
- Jason Hammel (SP) – Signed with Kansas City Royals
- David Ross (C) – Retired
- Catcher: Willson Contreras
- First Base: Anthony Rizzo
- Second Base: Ben Zobrist
- Third Base: Kris Bryant
- Shortstop: Addison Russell
- Left Field: Kyle Schwarber
- Center Field: Albert Almora
- Right Field: Jason Heyward
- Jon Lester (L)
- Jake Arrieta (R)
- John Lackey (R)
- Brett Anderson (L)
- Kyle Hendricks (R)
Games vs. Pirates
- At Pittsburgh: April 24-26, June 16-18, September 4-7 (10 games)
- At Chicago: April 14-16, July 7-9, August 28-30 (9 games)
Last year’s World Series Champions are a popular pick to do it all again despite experiencing minor roster turnover. Gone are key players Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel, David Ross, and Aroldis Chapman. Despite not making any splashy offseason additions to shore up the roster, the Cubs remain the class of the National League. With a core composed of players like 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, and Jake Arrieta it’s hard not to like their chances to repeat.
The biggest difference between last year’s Cubs and this year’s edition will be seen in the outfield. As mentioned already, Dexter Fowler and his .393 on-base percentage are now in St. Louis. Replacing Fowler will likely be a platoon of the soon-to-be 23-year-old Albert Almora and free agent signing Jon Jay.
Almora made his Major League debut last year and slashed .277/.308/.455 in 47 games over 117 plate appearances.
He is still considered to be very much a work in progress at the plate, but his fielding ability is what earns him a place in center field. The advanced fielding metrics back this up as he had a UZR/150 of 23.7 in the outfield last season and 3 defensive runs saved. While these numbers should be taken very much with a grain of salt given the small sample size, they back up his reputation as a strong fielder.
Veteran Jon Jay will be fighting with Almora for playing time in center field. The former Cardinal is back in the NL Central after spending 2016 with the San Diego Padres. The 32-year-old is likely already nearing the end of his usefulness as a Major League player.
While Jay hits for a pretty good average (.291 in 2016 and .287 for his career), he has little to no power (.097 career ISO) and his walk rate and strikeout rate have moved in the wrong directions in recent years (5.1% and 20.9% respectively in 2016). The best case scenario for the Cubs would be if Almora takes significant steps from the plate in his development so that Jay can be used primarily as a deep bench option.
The other major change in the Cubs outfield will be the addition of Kyle Schwarber. After missing almost all of 2016 with a knee injury, expectations are sky high for Schwarber. The 24-year-old has yet to play a full season, but his breakout 2015 season that saw him hit 16 home runs in 69 games and going 7-for-17 in the World Series has instilled confidence in the Schwarber.
The young outfielder is still very much a work in progress, though. During 2015, he only hit for a .246 average and struck out in 28.2% of at bats. This combined with very minimal game action over the last year means that it’s likely Schwarber may not meet expectations.
More from Rum Bunter
- Pittsburgh Pirates Continue to Spend Embarrassingly
- Pittsburgh Pirates: Potential AL West Fit For Bryan Reynolds
- Pittsburgh Pirates Still Searching for Catcher Help
- Pittsburgh Pirates: Questioning the Vince Velasquez Signing
- Pittsburgh Pirates: Top Pitching Prospects Fans Could See Early in 2023
Overall, despite promise Schwarber is still something of an unknown commodity. Though Jason Heyward will likely have something of a bounce-back season in right field, this can’t be counted on. Combine this with the young Almora in center field, the group as a whole is largest variable for the Cubs in 2017.
The infield as a whole is much more stable than the outfield. All four primary position players in the infield remain the same. First baseman Anthony Rizzo remains one of the best players in the league, and at only 27 years old is still likely towards the beginning of his prime years.
Rizzo slashed .292/.385/.544 with 32 home runs. He is also one of the premier defensive first basemen as well with 5.0 UZR/150 and 11 defensive runs saved in 2016 en route to winning his first career Gold Glove.
On almost any other team Rizzo would likely be the star player. He shares an infield with Kris Bryant though. Bryant will be entering only his third season in the Major Leagues this year and he is well on his way to a Hall of Fame caliber career. At only 25-years-old he has already won a Rookie of the Year, MVP Award, and a World Series. He showed significant improvement in 2017 on an already impressive Rookie campaign and he may not have even hit his ceiling yet.
In the middle infield spots are Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist. Though no Rizzo or Bryant, they are no slouches themselves. Russell still likely has room for development at only 23-years-old. Though he hasn’t hit for very high average thus far in his career (.240 career average in two seasons) he provides a steadying presence in the field.
Last year he had a 14.3 UZR/150 and 19 Defensive Runs Saved from the demanding Shortstop position. Meanwhile, Zobrist at Second Base is the old man of the Cubs’ infield at 35 years-old. Despite his age, he shows no signs of slowing down. However, he is unlikely to hit the 18 Home Runs he hit in 2016.
Four-fifths of the Cubs’ fearsome pitching staff returns. Former Dodger Brett Anderson is the new face taking Jason Hammel’s spot in the rotation. Anderson missed almost all of 2016 due to a back injury suffered in spring training. A spot in the back end of the Cubs rotation is a good spot for him to attempt a bounce-back season. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are still at the top of the Cubs rotation. Arrieta will be looking for to revert to his 2015 form after a relatively disappointing 2016. His FIP jumped to 3.52 from 2.35 in his Cy Young season.
The Pirates will have an opportunity against the Cubs early in the season, playing them six times in April. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that the Pirates will match their 2016 win total against the Cubs in the first month of 2017.
While Pirates have a brutal April as a whole, thanks largely to the two series’ with the Cubs, early in the season may be the time to play them. If the Cubs are going to suffer any kind of World Series hangover, it’s going to come in the first month.
Additionally, it may take time for the re-tooled outfield to hit their stride if they do at all, so there’s another reason to play them early. If the Pirates can get 4 wins out of their 6 games with the Cubs in April, it could be a sign that the Pirates will be “back” in 2017 and the Cubs may not be the quite the same team that won 103 games last year.
Another key series could come in early September when the Pirates and Cubs play 4 games in Pittsburgh. Depending on their relative positions in the standings, 3 or 4 wins from the Pirates could provide a springboard into the rest of their relatively easy September schedule. This could lead into a playoff berth and a significant October run. On the flip side, losing 3 or 4 could hasten the ending of Pirates’ season if it proves to already be tenuous heading into the series.
On the flip side, losing 3 or 4 could hasten the ending of Pirates’ season if it proves to already be tenuous heading into the series.
Next: Adam Frazier To Lead Off On Opening day
Overall, I expect the Cubs to win the NL Central again and contend for another World Series. This pains me to say, as I’ve never exactly hidden my distaste for the Cubs (or the Cardinals for that matter). To provide a bit of a recap of the whole division after doing these previews I expect the standings to actually finish in the same order as last season. While variation in the middle 3 teams wouldn’t surprise me, I fully expect the Cubs to win the division and the Reds to finish in last.
To put it in writing:
The Cardinals will be one of the Wild Card teams, but the Pirates will just miss the playoffs finishing 6th overall in the National League. Hopefully, I’m wrong though and the Pirates will finally break through and win the division. It would also be nice to complement it with a deep playoff run.
*Stats courtesy of baseball reference and FanGraphs
*Transaction information courtesy of espn.com