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The case against the Cubs in the NL Central

The Chicago Cubs are prohibitive favorites to win the National League Central. Here's why they might not win it.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Chicago Cubs won 97 games and made the NLCS. The Cubs led Major League Baseball in Team Wins Above Replacement, with 50.1 fWAR. In spite of finishing behind both the Cardinals and Pirates in the standings, the Cubs led the division in 3rd Order Winning Percentage, which measures a team's "deserved" record based on its underlying statistics.

And in the offseason, the Cubs improved, signing arguably the best position player and best pitcher from the Cardinals in 2015, somehow managing to render the signing of Ben Zobrist a footnote. The Chicago Cubs are the clear Vegas favorite to win the World Series in 2016, and by extension, are favorites to win the NL Central. And they should be. They are the biggest division favorite in baseball, and are the biggest division favorite baseball has seen since the 2015 Washington Nationals.

Last year's Nationals, of course, did not win their division. In spite of the MVP campaign of Bryce Harper and the Cy Young-caliber performance of Max Scherzer, it was the New York Mets who won the NL East by seven games.

The fact that anything could happen does not mean that anything will happen. But the larger point remains the same: as objectively exciting as the Cubs are projected to be in 2016, and as seemingly limitless as their potential is, it does not take a wild imagination to picture the Cubs not winning their division this season.

A look at the Cardinals and Cubs by position

Here is a side-by-side comparison at the projected starting lineups of the Cardinals and Cubs.

Cardinal 2015 WARP 2016 Proj. WARP Cub 2015 WARP 2016 Proj. WARP 2015 Edge 2016 Edge
C Yadier Molina 1.9 2.9 Miguel Montero 3.9 2.7 2.0 Cubs 0.2 Cards
1B Brandon Moss 0.2 1.1 Anthony Rizzo 5.3 3.8 5.3 Cubs 2.7 Cubs
2B Kolten Wong 3.1 2.7 Ben Zobrist 2.9 3.5 0.2 Cards 0.8 Cubs
SS Jhonny Peralta 4.1 2.9 Addison Russell 1.6 1.5 2.5 Cards 1.4 Cards
3B Matt Carpenter 4.8 2.6 Kris Bryant 5.9 4.8 1.1 Cubs 2.2 Cubs
LF Matt Holliday 0.9 2.9 Kyle Schwarber 2.0 3.6 1.1 Cubs 0.7 Cubs
CF Randal Grichuk 2.6 1.2 Dexter Fowler 3.7 1.7 1.1 Cubs 0.5 Cubs
RF Stephen Piscotty 1.0 1.6 Jason Heyward 5.9 2.7 4.9 Cubs 1.1 Cubs

If there is one position at which the Cubs have an undeniable edge over the Cardinals, it is first base. Anthony Rizzo is not only younger than either Matt Adams or Brandon Moss, but in each of the last two seasons, Rizzo more than doubled the career high fWAR of either first baseman.

The Cubs also have an edge in right field, which is even harder to deny given that the Cardinals actively tried to have Jason Heyward as their everyday right fielder instead of Stephen Piscotty. Baseball Prospectus projections do not love Heyward nearly as much as other systems (Steamer, for instance, projects him for 5.1 WAR), perhaps reflecting on doubts about just how much to trust advanced defensive metrics.

Meanwhile, Piscotty has played well over a relatively short timespan, surpassing Heyward's wRC+ in 2015. Heyward is clearly the safer pick, as he's been a good MLB right fielder for six seasons as opposed to 63 games, but unlike with Rizzo vs. Moss, it wouldn't require a calamity to imagine a universe in which Piscotty, while lacking Heyward's all-around game, is a better hitter.

There are two positions at which 2015 real data and 2016 projected data differ in determining the better player: catcher, where WARP believes Yadier Molina will bounce back from a relatively lackluster 2015 and that Miguel Montero, fresh off his best season since 2012, will regress somewhat to the mean; and second base, where Ben Zobrist is expected to have a bounce back season in 2016.

The Cardinals appear to have an edge at shortstop. While Addison Russell, who turned 22 last month, has worlds of potential, Jhonny Peralta projects as better at the moment. Assuming he can bounce back from his poor second half in 2015, Peralta could easily surpass present-day Addison Russell, who probably has a higher ceiling but almost certainly has a lower floor and, according to Baseball Prospectus, has a lower median.

There are five positions at which the Cubs have edges both in 2015 production and 2016 projections. It is hard to not concede first base and right field, but otherwise, the Cubs have less pronounced edges.

In left field, Kyle Schwarber posted a 131 wRC+ in an impressive, abbreviated rookie campaign. But aside from last season, in which Matt Holliday in limited action posted a perfectly respectable 124 wRC+, Holliday has cleared 131 in every season since 2005. And while criticisms of the current state of Matt Holliday's defense are fair, Kyle Schwarber isn't exactly Alex Gordon in left.

At third base, Kris Bryant was better than Matt Carpenter in 2015, which is far more a compliment to Bryant than an indictment of Carpenter. Because Bryant was a 23 year-old rookie and Carpenter was a deceptively grizzled 29 years old, this just bolsters Bryant's case going forward, but there were some elements of Bryant's 2015 which suggest regression.

Bryant struck out a ton (30.6%), he had a very high BABIP of .378 (he was a high BABIP hitter in the minors, but I'd hesitate to forecast a player to have a .378 BABIP based on one season of MLB data), and his defense, as measured by UZR/150, was better than that of the highly-esteemed Nolan Arenado in spite of being considered a potential defensive liability before his MLB debut.

Long term, I would rather have Kris Bryant. In 2016...I'd still rather have Bryant, but it's far closer than each's reputation suggests.

And in center field, the Cubs will have Dexter Fowler, their 2015 CF who re-signed on Thursday. While the Cubs had been looking likely to field poor corner defenders Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler with Jason Heyward, an excellent defensive corner outfielder who is unproven in center, the Fowler acquisition allows Heyward to shift to his normal spot in right field.

But the Cubs outfield defense is still a bit dubious. While we still don't really know what Randal Grichuk is as a defender, we have many years of data to know what Dexter Fowler is as a defender, which is...not great. He is a more consistent bat than Soler, and the Cubs are a better and certainly deeper team with Fowler than without him.

But of the 43 players with at least 2000 innings in center field in the 2010s, only Matt Kemp has a worse UZR/150 than Fowler. And this was during what should have been Fowler's defensive prime: his game has been built largely on speed, and he turns 30 before Opening Day.

Of course, if the Cubs get the caliber of pitching they got in late 2015, they could play me in center field (note: even for a baseball blogger, I'm remarkably slow) and survive. However...

The Cubs have question marks at pitcher

Jon Lester, his 2012 performance dip with the Red Sox aside (a performance dip with the 2012 Red Sox was such a foregone conclusion that it barely counts as one), has been a model of consistency since 2008. Lester sported a solid 3.34 ERA in 2015 in spite of his defensive support letting him down by including Jon Lester.

But aside from him, things get a little dicey.

This includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. To predict regression borders on cheating: while a pitcher could repeat a 1.77 ERA, few would be brazen enough to expect it. But Arrieta is especially difficult to project going forward because relatively recently, he was bad. Not "bad" in the sense that in 2014, he was "only" a 5-win pitcher; bad in the sense that through 2013, Arrieta had 409 2/3 innings with a 5.23 ERA and a 4.75 FIP. Compared to fellow Cy Young finalists Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Arrieta has far less of a track record preceding his recent dominance to suggest that he could smoothly regress from Otherworldly to Very Good.

Beyond Lester and Arrieta, the Cubs are relying on significant contributions from John Lackey, who had something approaching a career year in 2015 with the Cardinals, but he will be 37 this season and his ERA outperformed his FIP by 0.8 runs.

If their top three starters match 2015 results, the Cubs might as well start planning the parade down Addison (the street, not the shortstop). But this is a very tall order, and assuming they (along with Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks) need relief help, the Cubs are relying heavily on Hector Rondon, who has pitched well, Pedro Stropwho has pitched better than Bob Costas thinks he has, and...a lot of former starters: Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Justin Grimm, Clayton Richard, and Adam Warren. Sometimes, these guys turn into Wade Davis or Eric Gagne. Other times, they remind fans of why they became relievers in the first place.

Can the Cardinals realistically win the division?

It won't be easy. The Cubs are clearly contenders, and while the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost big pieces in A.J. Burnett and Neil Walker, while losing Jung-ho Kang for the beginning of 2016, they project to be contenders this season as well.

Some Cardinals fans scoff at the notion of the Chicago Cubs as contenders simply because of historical precedent: cries of "1908" will be common when the  Cubs play at Busch Stadium until (and perhaps after) the Cubs hoist a World Series trophy. I'm not that guy--the idea that players born in the late 1980s and early 1990s are destined to failure because Leon Durham made an error in an NLCS game in 1984 is absurd to me.

Rather, I scoff only at the notion that this Cubs team cannot be beaten. Almost all national baseball pundits who have made picks have picked the Cubs to win the NL Central, and each will present very fair arguments to how the Cubs can win this division. And they can. But there is also a realistic confluence of circumstances which could unfold under which they will not. And if things don't work as smoothly as the Cubs hope, the Cardinals should be right there to pounce on the opportunity to win their fourth consecutive division title.