Are They Back? Revived Cubs Look Like World Series Contenders Once Again

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 13, 2020

Chicago Cubs' Jason Heyward, left, is congratulated by Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 7-1 in a baseball game, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

For a great many reasons, 2020 has been an odd year in Major League Baseball. Yet there's one thing happening right now that has an "all is right with the world" feel to it.

The Chicago Cubs are not only back atop the National League Central, but they're also a World Series favorite again.

Despite some coronavirus-related hitches, the Cubs have checked off 15 games from their 60-game schedule. They've won 12 of them, putting them safely in first place in a division wherein no other team has more than eight wins.

As if to prove the point that they're well and truly back, the Cubs returned to Cleveland—i.e., the city where they ended their 108-year championship drought in 2016—this week and won two straight over the home team.

"There's definitely some memories here," first-year manager David Ross, who caught for the Cubs in 2016, told reporters. "It's good to be back."

Given that the Cubs' triumph in the Fall Classic four years ago was preceded by a 103-win regular season, it was easy to think then that they were a dynasty in the making.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press
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Slowly but surely, though, they turned from that path. The 2017 and 2018 seasons brought diminished returns, and the 2019 campaign all but killed the dynasty talk as the Cubs won only 84 games and missed the playoffs.

That was it for manager Joe Maddon, who was promptly shown the door. And while the Cubs' hiring of Ross was generally well-received, the club's Theo Epstein-led front office did little to overhaul the roster that had failed his predecessor. Accordingly, expectations for the Cubs in 2020 were, well, mixed.

In a normal 162-game season, a 12-3 start would be cause for excitement but not necessarily a game-changing omen. But in this year's 60-game season, the Cubs have already moved some needles.

According to FanGraphs, their chances of finishing first in the NL Central have already more than doubled from roughly 30 percent at the start of the season to over 70 percent now. Their chances of winning the World Series have likewise improved from about 3 percent to about 6 percent.

Mind you, the Cubs haven't traveled the most difficult path to this point. Before they arrived in Cleveland, they'd played the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. All four clubs have losing records.

Rather than the schedule, though, Chicago's biggest concern is a bullpen that has a 6.56 ERA. That's partially due to Craig Kimbrel, who's failed to recover from his rough 2019 season by allowing seven runs in only 2.2 innings. In Ross' words, it's "going to take a minute" to repair the once-mighty closer.

The Cubs are also getting less than expected out of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. After combining for a 130 wRC+ in 2019, they're down to a 118 wRC+ in 2020. That is, they've gone from 30 percent better than average to only 18 percent better.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

And yet it's not by accident that the Cubs have established such a strong presence in the win column. 

Above all, they're being driven by strong starting pitching on the part of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills. They've succeeded in avoiding free passes with an MLB-low rate of 1.7 walks per nine innings, and their 2.65 ERA is third behind only Cincinnati's and Cleveland's starters.

To be sure, Cubs starters owe a tip of their caps to their defenders. Despite the small sample size, it's a good sign that Chicago defenders have improved from minus-seven defensive runs saved in 2019 to plus-nine so far in 2020.

On the other side of the ball, the Cubs are actually among the more notable offensive movers from 2019 to 2020 despite the slow starts of their three big stars: 

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

For this, the Cubs can mainly thank Willson Contreras, Ian Happ and Jason Kipnis. Those three have a 172 wRC+ and seven home runs between them.

Will that last? Probably not. Yet Bryant, Rizzo and Baez could heat up as soon as those three cool off. Combined with Kyle Schwarber's reliable power supply, Chicago's offense could therefore stay steady or perhaps even get better.

The Cubs' strengths, which, to recap, are starting pitching, defense and offense, appear sturdy enough to keep them in the NL Central lead. Everyone else in the division is below .500 and with real issues. The Reds have a bad bullpen of their own. The Brewers are without their second-best player. The St. Louis Cardinals haven't even played in two weeks.

It's harder to take a deep playoff run for granted. One, because anything can and will happen in the playoffs. Two, because conventional wisdom holds that the Cubs' bullpen will be their doom in October.

But at least as far as the bullpen wisdom is concerned, the Cubs can look to last year's Washington Nationals for a blueprint as to how they might survive their weak pen.

The Nationals had a weak relief corps of their own, yet they won the World Series by funneling postseason innings to four starters (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez) and two relievers (Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson). The Cubs could potentially do the same with Lester, Hendricks, Darvish and Chatwood, plus as-of-yet-unscored-on relievers Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress.

The hunger factor may be another reason to buy back into the Cubs as World Series contenders. Even though many of their players have been there and done that, they may feel like they have to redeem themselves after 2019. And also, they may just want to bring some positive energy to less-than-positive times.

In the words of outfielder Jason Heyward, via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic:

"We're all going through something that's very weird. We got to continue to remind ourselves to go out there and have fun, enjoy competing. The camaraderie that we have is something that I don't take for granted. It's not always easy to have that. It takes time to build. But these guys know that we have an opportunity to play baseball right now, and we show up for work every day."

So far, what the Cubs are doing is working. And extraordinary circumstances be damned, there ultimately aren't many reasons to think it can't keep working.

           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.