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Why Cubs are poised for another deep postseason run

Sportsnaut logo Sportsnaut 5/25/2019 Andrew Wegley, Sportsnaut
a group of baseball players standing on top of a field © Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs are doing it again. While most of MLB and its fans are enamored with Bryce Harper’s Phillies or busy focusing on the darling Minnesota Twins or the powerhouse New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs are on pace for their fifth consecutive 90-plus win season.

Their run has been historic and impressive, even if it’s being overlooked. PECOTA, a projection system and the brainchild of Baseball Prospectus, predicted the Cubs would win just 79 games this season. The system, of course, got it wrong.

PECOTA also projected the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central, the division they lead by two games with more than a third of the season in the rearview. That’s not going to happen.

The big picture: Chicago is going win at least 90 games, win the division and make some noise in October for the fifth year in a row.

What the projections got wrong: For the most part, PECOTA does a fairly accurate job of projecting team win totals. We don’t really hear the uproar when a team PECOTA projects to finish right around .500 finishes right around .500. The projections, though, have been sorely mistaken in the past. The system predicted the Kansas City Royals would win 72 games in 2015. They won 95 and the World Series.

Expect a similar surprise season from the Cubs.

  • Jon Lester: PECOTA projected Lester, a dominant left-hander, to finish the 2019 campaign with a 4.42 ERA. It looks like someone forgot to tell Lester that, though. The 35-year-old has a 2.09 ERA in 43 innings pitched this season.
  • Cole Hamels: Perhaps rightfully so, PECOTA seems to have something against Chicago’s aging left-handed starting pitchers. And perhaps rightfully so, the Cubs' aging southpaws have a bone to pick of their own. Hamels’ projected ERA was 4.09. He’s sitting with a 3.13 mark after 54.2 innings pitched.
  • The pen: Tyler Chatwood, Steve Cishek, Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler were all projected to have ERAs approaching or above the 4.00 mark. They’ve each handily exceeded expectations and logged important innings. Chatwood’s ERA sits at 2.96, Cishek’s at 2.45, Brach’s at 2.75 and Kintzler’s at 3.18.

Both sides of the ball: The Chicago Cubs join the Houston Astros as one of just two teams to rank inside the top five in the MLB in both team ERA and team batting average. The Cubs are tied for the No. 5 spot in team average, hitting .257 on the year. Chicago’s pitching staff has been dominant, too, sitting at No. 5 in the league and No. 3 in the NL with a 3.58 ERA thus far, according to ESPN.

  • Starting right: The Cubs’ starting rotation ranks third in the league with an ERA of 3.34, trailing just the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. Yu Darvish, whom the Cubs signed to a six-year deal before the 2018 season, has been the rotation’s worst pitcher. He’s pitched to the tune of a 5.06 ERA in 10 starts.
  • Average: Chicago has the second-best team batting average in the national league thus far, in large part thanks to star infielder Javier Baez. Baez leads the team with a .323 mark and should contend for the NL MVP award for the second year in a row.
  • Power: The Cubs offense has managed a balanced attack so far, touting four players tied for the team lead with 11 home runs each. Baez, Wilson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who hit three bombs in one game last week, are leading the way.

Winning with walk-offs: After a Baez walk-off single against the Phillies on May 21, the Cubs now lead the MLB with five walk-off victories. Five wins, on a larger scale, doesn’t sound like much. But those five wins are more than the difference between the Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers, who sit second in the NL Central.

  • Marathon: On May 11, the Cubs outlasted Milwaukee in a 15-inning marathon that ended courtesy of a walk-off homer. Contreras stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 15th and deposited a solo home run into the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, giving the Cubs a 2-1 victory.
  • Three-run blast: Former NL MVP Kris Bryant provided perhaps the most exciting moment of the Cubs’ season so far when he cranked a three-run shot in the bottom of the ninth against the Miami Marlins May 7. The homer gave the Cubs a 5-2 win.

Where they can improve: The Cubs have proved to be one of the league’s best teams in each of the last five seasons, and they’ll likely look to improve at the trade deadline to gear up for another postseason run. The Cubs made a splash at the 2016 deadline, trading for closer Aroldis Chapman, a move that proved vital in their World Series run.

Here’s what they need going forward:

  • Closer: The Cubs rank just 12th in the MLB in bullpen ERA with a mark of 3.97. With Brandon Morrow out with an injury, and his replacement at closer Pedro Strop on the IL too, the Cubs are going to need some back-end help.
  • Doolittle: With the Cubs operating on a tight budget, the trade market is likely the only place they’ll be able to find an upgrade. Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle could be a good candidate. He’s got a  1.71 ERA this season and is 8-of-9 on save opportunities.
  • Smith: San Francisco Giants closer Will Smith has been quietly excellent this season, posting a 2.89 ERA across 18.2 innings while converting all 12 of his save opportunities. With the Giants in dead last in the NL West, he should be available.

Final thoughts: It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Cubs are in position for another postseason run. It’s what they’ve been doing for five years now, and the young core that ran away with the 2016 World Series title is still intact for the most part. Now, they’ve got experience, they’ve got power and pitching and they’ve got a chip on their shoulder from PECOTA projections and an early postseason exit last fall.

The Cubs are aiming to be the next great dynasty in Chicago sports, even if no one is paying attention. It starts with what they do this October.

Related slideshow: 2019 MLB season (provided by imagn)

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