It's the week when love renews itself: Wednesday, February 14 is the day that pitchers and catchers report, and our hearts fill with hope. It's a nice bit of reality following a new winter tradition: projections week, which brackets our hopes, or hopelessness, with seemingly realistic expectations for the new season to come.
And the projections are… pretty realistic. Fangraphs's Jeff Sullivan ran some numbers and found that there is a correlation between projections and a team's actual record, but it's not so accurate as to dash anyone's hope or overly comfort anyone. Over 13 years, the average error is seven wins. The Cubs won the NL Central last year by six games (ahead of a Brewers team that substantially exceeded its projections).
This year's projections started rolling out early this month. And the Cubs' projections looked, for a team with high expectations, not so hot.
— Pondering Jefe (@JeffMoore78) February 8, 2018
That was the 8th of February. Now it's the 12th, and the Cubs are projected for 92 wins, eight games ahead of the Cardinals and nine games ahead of the Brewers in what's likely to be the National League's most (only?) competitive division. It gives the Cubs a decided advantage over two teams that made improvements during the offseason, with the Cardinals adding Marcell Ozuna, who's likely to be their best position player, and the Brewers adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, who are likely to be their two best position players.
And, due to the Cubs' recent signing of pitcher Yu Darvish, the North Siders vault back into the top tier of baseball's best teams at the expense of last year's National League champions, the Dodgers. Darvish, had he remained with Los Angeles, likely would have been their second-best pitcher after Clayton Kershaw. Brandon Morrow, the Cubs' likely closer, was their second-best reliever behind Kenley Jansen (and is about a $6 million per year discount compared to Wade Davis's new contract with the Rockies). Per Fangraphs' projected wins above replacement, the Darvish signing puts the Cubs at 50.1 WAR, one of only three teams to pass the 50 mark: the Dodgers are at 50.5 WAR, and last year's champion, the Astros, are at 52.1 WAR.
Travis Sawchik notes that Darvish boosts the Cubs' rotation from the 12th-best in baseball to the fourth-best, behind the Dodgers, the Astros, and the Indians, last year's World Series favorites and three of the four teams in last year's League Championship series. (The Indians were edged out by the Yankees, who have the fifth-highest WAR projection this year, just behind the Indians.)
The Cubs get something else from the Dodgers, too: the work that went into improving Darvish as a pitcher. Eno Sarris did a deep dive into Darvish's 2017, showing how tweaks to his delivery and pitch sequencing repaired what had been a rough start to the season with the Rangers, bringing him down from an ERA that sneaked over 4.00 to a good 3.44. Those pitches are a joy to watch; Darvish has one of the widest repertoires in baseball. In a lot of ways, this coming season will look a lot like 2017, but with a new-look ace to enjoy.