With the home opener behind them, Cubs have started 2016 as their fans would hope: 6-1 against a couple playoff contenders in the Angels and Diamondbacks. The rest of the season will go as no one wanted: without Kyle Schwarber, who suffered a season-ending injury Thursday, and whose early emergence as a major-league-ready power hitter was a critical aspect of the team’s ability to compete a year ahead of schedule for a playoff spot in baseball’s most competitive division.
From the moment it happened, Cubs fans were already cursing the team’s luck (never mind that the Cubs were in the process of beating up on the Diamondbacks, who just lost star center fielder A.J. Pollock, a much harder blow from which to recover). But the only solution to bad luck is good planning, and Schwarber’s loss will be a test for the deep, flexible team that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer built for Joe Maddon.
When we finalized the numbers for our Math Nerd’s Guide to the Cubs, the numbers from Fangraphs had them projected to have the fifth-best left field, where Schwarber was expected to spend most of his time. Right now Fangraphs has them projected for 12th, with Jorge Soler, Matt Szczur, Kris Bryant, and Ben Zobrist expected to all spend time at the position. (Szczur actually played left field in the second game of the season, before Schwarber’s injury, because left-hander Andrew Heaney was pitching; in an admittedly small sample size, Szczur, not known for his bat, has hit right-handers pretty well.)
It’s not a huge decline, and it’s based on what might be rather conservative projections. When I spoke to Christina Kahrl for the article, she told me that she thought Soler’s true talent was closer to the player he was in 2014 than in his injury-riddled 2015. In the former year, Soler put up excellent numbers at every level:
Compare that to Kyle Schwarber’s 2015:
Schwarber is obviously the better power hitter, but Soler’s gap power meant his OPS (on-base plus slugging) stayed high. It wasn’t that long ago that Soler was considered as good a prospect as Schwarber; Eno Sarris looked at his underlying numbers at the end of last year and liked him as a breakout candidate in 2015. The loss of Schwarber, frustrating as it is for fans, opens up an interesting new narrative for Soler in 2016, a far cry from teams that would have to scramble for a replacement player in the absence of a gifted young player like Schwarber.
If Soler can’t pull it together this year, the Cubs’ depth offers them further options. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist can both play left field, which could open up more playing time for Javier Baez in the infield. Kahrl told me that Baez could easily start on lesser teams and hit 20+ home runs; if he can pull his awful strikeout rate down (which he did in his two stints at triple-A from 2014 to 2015) he would represent not too big a falloff from Schwarber’s power, with a playable on-base percentage.
When we did the Math Nerd’s Guide, the Cubs were projected to be worth 0.1 WAR fewer than the Dodgers; it’s now 1.3, but still good for second in the majors. Baseball Prospectus still gives them the best odds of making the playoffs, at 83.7 percent. Projections don’t account for injuries, but they also don’t account for late-season acquisitions either. The Cubs have plenty of time to see what they have in Soler and Baez before the stretch-run market emerges.
In the meantime, the Cubs’ talent gives them enough cushion to experiment with two entertaining players. Without Schwarber, they’re really not that much worse a team; and, not insignificantly, not that much less compelling.