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How the Cubs Could Miss the Playoffs

Chicago is good. Really good! But no team is immune to setbacks. Here are six that could potentially derail the world champions’ repeat quest.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Don’t let the inquisitively pessimistic tone of this post confuse you: The Cubs are almost certainly going to make the playoffs in 2017. Chicago is a combination of young and talented, flexible and experienced, with a complement of unrivaled stars leading the way: Three of the team’s starting pitchers received Cy Young votes last year, and three position players received MVP consideration, including near-unanimous winner Kris Bryant.

The 103-win Cubs ended a 108-year title drought in thrilling fashion, and they’re heavy Vegas favorites to become the first MLB team to repeat since the 1998–2000 Yankees won three straight. Even if they don’t raise another World Series trophy, though, the Cubs are almost a sure thing to at least reach October: FanGraphs places their postseason odds at 94.5 percent.

Recent history suggests that Chicago is not immune to a surprise playoff miss, though: Both of the last two teams to win 100 games (the 2015 Cardinals and 2011 Phillies) missed the playoffs the following year, and in the wild-card era, five of 21 100-game winners have done so. Even the 116-win Mariners went golfing the following October. So though the Cubs seem destined for more October dramatics, they are not immune to such a relapse. Here are six potential ways — some based in analytics, some in pure comedic speculation — the Cubs could flop in 2017.

1. The Defense Regresses

Let’s start with the most obvious item on the list. No team in MLB history turned balls in play into outs, relative to the league-average rate, better than the Cubs did last season: As Ben Lindbergh calculated earlier this month, Chicago gained in the range of 13 wins thanks to its historic hit prevention, compared to if it had posted a league-average opposing BABIP.

Even if the defense doesn’t regress all the way to average, it should decline somewhat — first, because outliers naturally revert to the mean, and second, because roster changes portend possible defensive difficulties in 2017.

With erstwhile Cub Dexter Fowler moving south down I-55 to St. Louis via free agency, Chicago has a hole in the outfield; FanGraphs’ projections peg the Cubs as finishing in the top eight in WAR at every position except center field, where they place a lowly 28th. None of the replacement plans sound appealing; one possible solution is to move Jason Heyward over from right on occasion, but that would place his greatest source of value in flux. Certainly, the potential configuration of Heyward flanked by Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist — who could play more outfield this year to allot Javier Báez additional time in the infield — seems a notch below last year’s unit.

The switch to Willson Contreras as full-time catcher is cause for further concern. Last year, Miguel Montero and the since-retired David Ross caught more than two-thirds of the Cubs’ total innings, and both veterans excelled when working with the pitching staff; the rookie Contreras, meanwhile, struggled relative to his teammates.

Among players who caught at least 200 innings last year, Ross (2.39) and Montero (3.18) ranked first and fourth, respectively, in catcher ERA, while Contreras ranked 25th (4.04). This disparity is likely just statistical noise, given the sample sizes, but it does hint at a defensive dropoff. For one, the three catchers exhibited a similar gap in pitch framing, as the numbers at StatCorner rated Montero as the best framer in the majors on a per-game basis last year (min. 1,000 pitches received), while Ross ranked fourth. Contreras still graded as an above-average framer, but he placed just 18th in the category.

FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen has described Contreras as “okay” defensively, writing of the young Cub last year, “His receiving is not great but not so horrendous that he’s unplayable” and “He also struggles with some of catching’s finer points,” but also that due to his athleticism, “most of the industry thinks we’re going to see continued defensive improvement.” That assessment fits with his performance last season — OK, but not great, which on a club that just set defensive records makes him stand out as a factor behind a potential decline.

2. The Rotation Experiences Strife

Sticking with the run-prevention theme, the Cubs benefited from remarkable injury luck in 2016. Chicago had five of its pitchers qualify for the ERA title, which before last year 22 teams had done in the wild-card era. None of those teams managed to repeat the feat the following season, when they averaged only three ERA-qualifying starters.

Given that the Cubs are set on replacing departed free agent Jason Hammel with Brett Anderson, who has reached a triple-digit innings total just once in six seasons, it’s a safe guess that they will require more rotation depth this year. If Mike Montgomery doesn’t fare better in his second go-round as a starter, the staff is perilously thin — no team chasing a pennant should have to rely on Eddie Butler or Dallas Beeler on the mound.

Of course, the Cubs could make a trade if they need a new, more reliable fifth starter, but an injury to any of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, or Kyle Hendricks could reverberate throughout the roster.

3. A Joe Maddon Team-Building Stunt Goes Awry and Sends the Entire Starting Infield to the Disabled List

It’s dark, but there are plenty of possibilities here. Anthony Rizzo could catch Ben Zobrist awkwardly in a trust fall, hurting both players. A snake could go rogue in the clubhouse and treat Bryant the way Nagini treated Charity Burbage in Malfoy Manor. Addison Russell could be stranded on a team field trip to the local Mystery Spot.

Of course, a lineup featuring Báez and prospects Jeimer Candelario and Ian Happ would still make a run at a wild-card berth. The Cubs are good.

4. A Division Rival Catches Them

A year after winning a record-tying 116 games, the Mariners won 93 in 2002 but finished third in the AL West, behind the Moneyball A’s and the eventual World Series champion Angels. While there was only one wild card in each league then, the Red Sox also won 93 games that year, so even under today’s format, the Mariners would have had to win a play-in game just to make the wild-card game.

It’s more difficult to imagine any of the Cubs’ division rivals surpassing Chicago this year — FanGraphs projects each of them below 85 wins — but it’s too early to discount the possibility entirely. Despite its stumble to 86 wins last year, St. Louis still has seven of the top eight hitters and six of the top eight pitchers by WAR from its 100-win 2015 squad, and the Cardinals poached Fowler this offseason to bolster their lineup. If the Cards can gain some rotation stability, they might derail the Cubs’ quest for a repeat division title, even if Chicago remains a winning team.

5. Small Steps Back Across the Roster Add Up

The Cubs tallied eight more wins than the second-place finisher last year and also unsurprisingly led the majors in team WAR, with 6.5 more wins than any other club. Let’s chip away at that total with 2017 in mind and see what happens.

First, Fowler (4.7 WAR in 2016) and Ross (1.7) are gone, to the Cardinals and Dancing With the Stars, respectively; balance those losses with the gains from Fowler replacement Jon Jay and more playing time for Contreras behind the plate, and that’s about a five-win deficit from departed players.

Pitcher Jake Arrieta was worth 0.9 WAR as a hitter last year, thanks to a .429 BABIP. He’s one of the best-hitting pitchers in baseball, but that’s not saying much — he had never exceeded 0.3 batting WAR before last season, so assuming he won’t repeat his outlier performance, let’s lop off that win from the Cubs’ total.

Bryant is a bigger fish, having given Chicago 8.4 wins last year. In the wild-card era, though, there have been 39 occurrences of a position player reaching that total (not counting Bryant or Mike Trout last season), and 35 of those times, the player’s WAR decreased the following year. The only players who increased their production the next year were Barry Bonds (in 2002 and 2004) and Trout (in 2013 and 2016); Bryant is excellent, but he’s no Bonds or Trout, so he’s likely due for some regression. On average, players following an 8.4-plus-WAR season lost 3.2 wins from their total, which for Bryant would be a rounding error away from his 5.6 WAR projection. Let’s say the Cubs lose three wins from their MVP.

Elsewhere, losses could come from Zobrist (take away two wins, per his 2017 projection), who is entering his age-36 season and managed to double his WAR total from 2015 to 2016; Báez (one), who is still inconsistent on offense; and overperforming bit players like Matt Szczur and Tommy La Stella (one combined). On the pitching side, Kyle Hendricks probably isn’t going to keep performing like Greg Maddux redux (one), and Anderson and his inevitable injury replacements are a dropoff from Hammel (one).

Even projected improvements come at the expense of contributors from a season ago. Schwarber, for instance, is bound to produce more than he did last year, when he tore his ACL in just his eighth inning of play. But he’s also replacing Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan, who combined for 1.7 wins, so the respective WAR totals might come out as a wash.

That’s 15 wins gone from the Cubs’ ledger, without making any assumptions about injuries or further decline from the likes of Heyward, whose .152/.264/.326 slash line in spring training isn’t encouraging as he tries to bounce back from a dismal offensive campaign in his first year with the team. Subtract those 15 wins from the Cubs’ 2016 record, and they sit at 88, on the precipice of playoff qualification.

6. An Errant Jon Lester Pickoff Throw Hits Bill Murray in the Stands, Meaning a Year After the Curse of the Billy Goat Busted, the Franchise Faces a New Curse of the Bill Ghostbuster

Have you seen Lester try to throw to first? It’s plausible.