The Cubs began last season playing in front of unfinished bleachers—a nice metaphor for a team in turnaround. But their rebuilding, as we all know, came in ahead of schedule, with the squad posting 97 wins, the third most in baseball, and falling one playoff series short of the World Series. Then, this winter, the Cubs went out and got three key free agents to make themselves even better.
So is this the year?
“I don’t know if this team has a weakness,” says Christina Kahrl, a baseball writer for ESPN online and a cofounder of the legendary stats-oriented website Baseball Prospectus. “This team has so much going for it, in terms of depth and talent. You could totally see the Cubs winning a hundred or more games and putting away the best record in the league.”
How the Cubs Stack Up
When it comes to roster-wide WAR—wins above replacement, a good measure of overall strength—the Cubs are in a virtual dead heat with the Dodgers. But the Cubs have a better chance of winning the World Series, according to simulations by baseball-analytics website FanGraphs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
$244 million payroll ($4.68 million per WAR)
$167 million ($3.21 million)
New York Mets
$132 million ($2.83 million)
$145 million ($2.83 million)
$97 million ($2.27 million)
Chicago White Sox
$123 million ($3.47 million)
Wins above replacement
Combines various offensive and defensive metrics to project how many wins a player is worth to a team over the course of a season, compared with his potential replacement.
Chances of Winning the World Series
Los Angeles Dodgers
Boston Red Sox
How Key Players Add Value
Barely 21 when he was called up from the minors early last season, Russell proved so skilled on defense that he pushed stalwart shortstop Starlin Castro to second base—and ultimately made him expendable. According to the metric UZR, among players with at least 400 innings at the position, Russell was the best fielding shortstop in baseball last year—and a serious glove upgrade from Castro.
Defensive Rating (UZR/150)
At the plate, Russell struggled. But if he fulfills the hitting promise he showed in the minors, he could become the best player out of the Cubs’ extraordinary young core.
Ultimate zone rating
Measures how many runs a player saved with his defense, compared with an average fielder at his position. UZR/150 projects that total over 150 games—roughly a season.
Trading for Arrieta in 2013 bolstered the team’s pitching staff more than any other move. Not just because he turned out to be arguably the best pitcher in baseball last season, but also because the Cubs acquired him on the cheap. And for good reason: His last full season with the Orioles, in 2012, he racked up a hideous 6.20 earned run average and posted a dismal 3-9 record.
ERA (the lower the better)
But advanced statistics—specifically, strikeout rate (percentage of hitters he K’d) and WHIP—suggested an improving talent, the kind of risk a rebuilding team like the Cubs was wise to take. That bet, of course, paid off big.
Strikeout Rate (the higher the better)
WHIP (the lower the better)
Walks plus hits per innings pitched
Measures a pitcher’s propensity for allowing runners to reach base, factoring out fielding errors. Calculated by adding walks and hits, then dividing by innings pitched.
One of the Cubs’ few disappointments last season was Jorge Soler. Predicted to be a Rookie of the Year candidate, he hit a mere .262, with a .324 on-base percentage. Heyward, the prized off-season acquisition who will replace him in right field, represents a big upgrade. And not only at the plate, where he put up numbers of .293 and .359 in 2015. He’s a much better fielder and—as measured by BsR—baserunner.
The addition of Heyward also allows the Cubs to platoon Soler in left field with Kyle Schwarber, giving that slot in the batting order power from both sides of the plate.
Calculates the number of runs a player’s base–running skills produced for his team, compared with that of an average baserunner. It factors in such stats as stolen bases, advancing (or being thrown out) on batted balls, and grounding into double plays.
Manager Joe Maddon likes to move his players like chess pieces, which makes Zobrist, who was signed in the off-season and had played for Maddon in Tampa Bay, particularly valuable: Other than pitcher and catcher, he’s played every position.
Where Zobrist Has Played (number of games in his career)
Another reason he was a stellar pickup: He has one of the best batting eyes in baseball. Only six major-leaguers walked more than they struck out last year. Zobrist was one.
A Loaded Team
The Cubs have few weak spots, which makes them particularly formidable. In terms of WAR, all but two of the team’s starters rank in the top 10 in the majors at their respective positions. Even the no-name bullpen is among baseball’s best.
Meet the Geek Squad
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have upped the Cubs’ front office IQ in the past three years by hiring these stats-driven baseball analysts.