While the Chicago Cubs have been a threat to the Cardinals every year since 2015, they faded last season, winning just 84 games after winning 92 or more in each of the previous four seasons. However, 2019 seems to be a sign of things to come as the Cubs appear to have hit their ceiling and are now on the decline. Depending on what the front office does, this decline may not be more than a couple years, but it seems likely that the Cubs will miss the playoffs again in 2020 as they have not made any significant acquistions, are shopping most of their best players, and were ranked 29th in the MLB in organizational talent by Baseball America in the middle of August.
Additions (position, 2019 fWAR): C.D. Pelham (RP, 0.0), Jharel Cotton (SP/RP, 0.0), Dan Winkler (RP, -0.3), Ryan Tepera (RP, -0.2),
Subtractions: (position, 2019 fWAR): Derek Holland (SP/RP, -1.0)*, Tony Barnette (RP, -0.1)*, Kendall Graveman (SP, 0.0), Danny Hultzen (RP, 0.1)*, Addison Russell (SS, 0.5)*, David Phelps (RP, 0.1)*, Nicholas Castellanos (3B/OF, 2.0)*, Steve Cishek (RP, 0.2)*, Ben Zobrist (UTIL, 0.4)*, Cole Hamels (SP, 2.5), Pedro Strop (RP, 0.0)*, Jonathan Lucroy (C, -0.5)*, Xavier Cedeno (RP, 0.0)*, Brandon Kintzler (RP, 0.9)*, Dixon Machado (2B/SS, 0.0)
The Cubs have let some of their key players leave in an attempt to save money and shake up the team after a disappointing campaign in 2019. They have lost key contributors such as Castellanos, Hamels, Kintzler, and to a lesser extent Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist who played large roles in the Cubs past successes. As of right now, they have not brought in any significant reinforcements other than a couple of dart throw relievers to fill out the bullpen.
It seems like an 84-win team has gotten significantly worse. And the outlook for 2020 is not going to get better as Theo Epstein is rumored to be shopping nearly every one on the team. Kris Bryant has been the big name on the trading block, but Anthony RIzzo, WIlson Contreras, Javy Baez, and Kyle Schwarber also appear to be available. Some of these trade scenarios seem more likely than others, but the point remains that the Cubs are trying to become more flexible in the future, and not better right now.
There is still plenty of talent on this team, if no, or few, trades are found. Young players such as Nico Hoerner and Victor Caratini also appear to be ready for full time starting roles and could provide solid production for the team in 2020. Adbert Alzolay (RHP) could be another prospect that is ready to help at the big league level next season, but other than that there are few prospects that could reinforce the Cubs roster. Overall, their farm system is weak and with a large payroll and talented players needing extensions soon, it appears likely that the Cubs will disassemble this team and try to become more sustainable for the future.
The 2020 season will bring about more than just player personnel changes for the cubs as they fired Joe Maddon at the end of the season and replaced him with former catcher David Ross. Whether this was a smart hire remains to be seen, but this has led to many other staff changes. Former Padres manager Andy Green is now the bench coach while former MLBer Will Venable will man then third base coaching box. Chris Young (not the former pitcher) is the new bullpen coach for the Cubs, after serving as the Phillies pitching coach in 2019. Also, another former catcher - Mike Napoli - was brought in to serve as quality assurance coach for Ross while Craig Driver was hired away from the Phillies to be the first base and catching coach. He worked with J.T. Realmuto when he won the gold glove, and apparently Driver has a strong reputation among catchers and coaches despite being just 31 years old. This fills out David Ross’ staff, and it appears that he had a lot of control in choosing who he worked with. It will be interesting to see how that new look staff can manage a declining Cubs team.
On the trade front, there has been a lot of smoke but no fire so far; however, it seems likely that the trade(s) will come, but Epstein is not going to force anything unless he gets a solid prospect haul in return. It appears that the Cubs will be more of a tertiary threat to the Cardinals with the Reds and the Brewers likely being more dangerous, especially if the Cubs trade some of their key players in an attempt to rebuild a weak farm system and create future financial flexibility.