Fantasy Baseball Team Previews – Chicago Cubs

(Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs were the surprise team in the NL Central last year winning 97 games. It was long overdue and was the Cubs first winning season since 2009. Playing in the NL Central wasn’t a cakewalk, and as good as the Cubs played as a team they only managed to finish third in the division behind their arch rival St. Louis Cardinals and the up and coming Pittsburgh Pirates. They carried over their momentum from the regular season into the playoffs winning four games making it all the way to the NLCS. That’s when they ran into a red-hot Mets team and were no match for their young staff of aces led by Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard. The Cubs have hands down the best farm system and savvy Baseball operations president, Theo Epstein, who is determined to bring the beloved Cubbie faithful their first World Series title since 1908. He’s a magician who continues to give Cubs fans hope by making smart trades and inking some key big name free agents.

There is a lot of optimism in 2016 for Cubs fans considering their team is very young. Last year their average hitter’s age of 26.9 years was the second lowest in club history over the last 50 years. Theo continues to press all the right buttons like trading away enigmatic shortstop Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan. On the surface the trade appears to favor the Yankees but in doing so it freed up extra money to spend in the free agent market. Theo wasted no time signing utility man Ben Zobrist to a four-year $56 million dollar contract. The move reunites Zobrist with his former skipper, Joe Maddon, while bringing a veteran presence to a young club. Zobrist is a proven winner who helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series in 2015. His versatility is his most valuable asset given his experience playing second base, shortstop, and right field. He’s also an option for the Cubs to bat leadoff occasionally and you can be sure Maddon will make good use of his versatility.

The next domino to fall was the most notable free agent signing for the Cubs since Alfonso Soriano, back in 2006. Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer managed to land one of the biggest free agent acquisitions by signing Jason Heyward to an eight-year $184 million dollar contract. It was a massive signing and instantly made the Cubs the frontrunners to win the NL Central. The Cubs followed up the Heyward signing by inking wily veteran and proven winner John Lackey to fill the role of their third starting pitcher. The most recent signing might be the biggest shocker after Dexter Fowler was reported to have signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Bringing Fowler back gives the Cubs a table setter at the top of their potent lineup in addition to one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. It’s the icing on the cake for the Cubs front office and yet another reason to believe this WILL be the year the Cubs win the World Series!

AL East

AL Central AL West NL East NL Central NL West

Baltimore

Chicago WS Houston Atlanta Chicago

Arizona

Boston

Cleveland Los Angeles A Miami Cincinnati Colorado

New York Y

Detroit

Oakland New York M Milwaukee

Los Angeles D

Tampa Bay

Kansas City Texas Philadelphia Pittsburgh

San Diego

Toronto Minnesota Seattle Washington St. Louis

San Francisco

Projected Starting Line-up

  1. Dexter Fowler
  2. Jason Heyward
  3. Anthony Rizzo
  4. Kris Bryant
  5. Jorge Soler
  6. Kyle Schwarber (vs RH) Ben Zobrist (vs LH)
  7. Miguel Montero
  8. Addison Russell

Dexter Fowler, OF

The Cubs somehow managed to re-sign speedy center fielder Dexter Fowler to a one-year eight million dollar contract.  All of this after ESPN’s own Buster Olney reported the O’s had signed him to a three-year 33 million dollar contract. Fowler enjoyed career-high totals across the board last year with the Cubs. He set personal records in games played (156), AB’s (596), hits (149), runs scored (102), home runs (17), and walks (84). Needless to say, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field were very kind to Fowler. Sitting atop the Cubs lineup on most days I’m expecting Fowler to have another productive fantasy season for his owners. He’s an excellent outfielder to target in the late rounds of your draft and should provide top 50 fantasy production at the outfield position.

Jason Heyward, OF

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Still only 26 years old, Jason Heyward is a budding star who has yet to fully reach the expectations that were placed on him after his monster 2012 season with the Atlanta Braves. In his third season as a pro he collected 63 extra base hits with 27 of them leaving the yard. Since then Heyward has yet to top 14 home runs, but that’s fine because he does so many other things to make up for the lack of power. Heyward is arguably the best defensive right fielder in the game and possesses a great arm with plus range to help bail out his pitchers. Heyward joins a crowded group of Cubs outfielders that includes Fowler, Soler, Victorino, and Schwarber. Heyward will be the mainstay out of the group in the Cubs lineup and Maddon will move him around from RF to CF. He’s a good contact hitter who knows how to get on base (career .353 on-base percentage) and score runs. I’d expect he’ll run plenty this year considering the Cubs were a top-10 team in stolen-base attempts last year. Heyward’s game is very fantasy friendly and the possibility of a 20/20 season makes him an attractive player to target in the fourth or fifth round of your fantasy drafts.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B

Anthony Rizzo is coming off back-to-back 30-homer seasons and is locked in as the Cubs three-hole hitter. Rizzo has developed into a complete hitter over the past two seasons figuring out how to hit lefties which was an issue early in his career. In 2015, Rizzo set a career-high in runs (94), hits (163), triples (three), RBI’s (101), walks (78), stolen bases (17), and OBP (.387). While I don’t expect Rizzo to steal 17 bags again, I do think he can increase the rest of his counting numbers especially if Heyward is hitting in front of him. Rizzo has earned the right to be one of the top first basemen selected after Paul Goldschmidt. Evidence of that would be Rizzo going before Miggy in both the FSTA and LABR expert drafts, 9th and 5th overall.

Kris Bryant, 3B

It’s safe to say that last year Kris Bryant exceeded everyone’s expectations on his way to unanimously winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. At the ripe age of 23, Bryant smacked 26 home runs while batting .275 and driving in 99 runs. The sky is the limit for Bryant and 40 home runs isn’t out of the question considering he’ll be batting cleanup right behind Rizzo in a loaded Cubbies lineup. Bryant does have some warts and needs to work on limiting his strikeouts after leading the NL last year with 199 K’s. In addition, his home/road splits were pretty extreme batting .311 at home (.243 on road) with 21 of his 26 home runs coming at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. While these are concerns they are also things that Bryant can work on as far as being more patient and disciplined at the plate. Expect him to be the fourth third baseman off the board in fantasy drafts after the top-tier that includes Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado are gone.

Kyle Schwarber, OF/C

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Kyle Schwarber started out his 2015 campaign by tearing up Double-A (Tennessee) and Triple-A (Iowa) pitching putting up a triple slash line of .323/16/49. After 75 games between the two levels he finally got the call to the bigs. Schwarber made a big impression from day one and belted another 16 home runs in 69 games with the Cubs. Schwarber has nothing left to prove in the minors and the Cubs know that so I’d expect Maddon to find creative ways to keep him in the lineup, especially when he’s red-hot. The logjam in the Cubs outfield is a real issue but regardless expect him to find enough playing time behind the plate to gain eligibility at the position. There are rumors floating around that Schwarber may become Kyle Hendricks personal catcher. Schwarber like Bryant will need to cut down on the high strikeout rate and prove he’s not a liability defensively in left field or behind the plate.

Any Other Business?

Jorge Soler, OF

Jorge Soler is another home-grown Cubs prospect who came up late in the 2014 season and turned heads by hitting five home runs in 24 games. Soler flashed at times last year and finished the season strong hitting .341 in his final 50 at bats. He has all the physical tools to become a dominate offensive force but he’s still very young at 24. In 2016 expect him to platoon with Kyle Schwarber in left field. The main concern with owning Soler is the possibility of lack of playing time with all the depth in the Cubs outfield.  If he goes on a pro-longed slump Maddon might be quick to sit him in favor of Ben Zobrist or Kyle Schwarber. Soler could also be used as a trade chip to acquire another ace in the rotation for the stretch run.

Miguel Montero, C

Miguel Montero is the Cubs opening day catcher and brings a veteran presence to the clubhouse. His defense is stellar and he’s known for being a very good pitch-framer. On the offensive side, Montero has good plate discipline and draws a lot of walks but don’t expect anything more than 12-15 home runs. He could also lose a lot of starts to Schwarber and David Ross on days when Jon Lester takes the hill.

Addison Russell, SS

Addison Russell gets lost in the sea of young talented players on the Cubs roster. In 2015 Russell quietly scored 60 runs and collected 43 extra-base hits while batting at the bottom of the Cubs lineup. He’s only 22 so there’s room for growth in the power and speed categories. Russell is an instant upgrade defensively over Starlin Castro and you can expect to see him flashing his leather a lot at shortstop this year.

Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF

Ben Zobrist is going to bring his veteran presence and versatility to a young team in need of both. Zobrist will be reunited with his former manager Joe Maddon in Chicago but understand that he isn’t the same player he was back in his days with the Tampa Bay Rays. The years of stealing 20 plus bases are long past him but he does know how to get on base, owning a career On-base percentage of .355. In fantasy terms his biggest asset is his multi-position eligibility. Zobrist isn’t going to help you much offensively outside of providing a decent amount of runs scored and in the OBP category. He will get a bump in his fantasy value if he proves to be Maddon’s choice to bat in the two-hole and leadoff which could happen occasionally.

Javier Baez, 2B/SS

Javier Baez was a highly touted prospect that the Cubs selected with the ninth overall selection in the 2011 draft. Baez tore through the minors putting up some gaudy power numbers that included 89 home runs in 393 games. Javier has bat speed reminiscent of Gary Sheffield and brings the power/speed combo to his game, having stolen 80 bases in the minors. With his massive power comes a boatload of strikeouts, which will drain his batting average. Baez will need to hit to earn regular playing time but early reports suggest he’s going to be like Zobrist and play pretty much all over the place. Maddon has talked about using him in the outfield and first base in addition to second base and shortstop, where he’s played the majority of his minor league career.

Projected Rotation

  1. Jake Arrieta
  2. Jon Lester
  3. John Lackey
  4. Kyle Hendricks
  5. Jason Hammel

Jake Arrieta

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Jake Arrieta dominated the National League last year in route to winning his first Cy Young Award. Arrieta was flat-out unhittable down the stretch when the Cubs needed him the most. In his last nine starts he went 8-0 with a 0.27 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, and 73:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Arrietta is legit and while it might be hard for him to repeat his magical 22-win season, I wouldn’t bet against him flirting with at least 20 wins. On paper the Cubs have arguably the most dangerous lineup in baseball. Arrietta brings a full arsenal to the bump with a mid-90s fastball and sinker, low-90s cutter, and a curve with some bite. If that’s not intimidating enough, he has a slider-cutter hybrid pitch that touches the low-90s. In fantasy drafts Arrieta is deserving of being one of the top five pitchers selected in that top-tier that includes Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale and Bumgarner.

Jon Lester

Jon Lester started out slow last April but like a fine wine he got better as the season progressed. In his final 29 starts Lester was dialed in compiling a 2.99 ERA, 183 strikeouts and only 42 walks in 183 innings. Lester has mastered his three-pitch arsenal that’s mainly dependent on location. For the second straight season Lester recorded at least 200 strikeouts while pitching at least 200 innings for the seventh time in his career. In fantasy terms, Lester may never be a top-tier ace but he’s still in the top 20 discussion. In fantasy drafts Lester is an ideal SP2 with upside due to his high strikeout rate and 20-win potential.

John Lackey

The Cubs addressed their lack of a quality third starter by signing veteran free agent John Lackey. Lackey is about as reliable as they come and profiles as a great mid-rotation anchor for the Cubs pitching staff. At age 37 Lackey is no spring chicken but is a proven workhorse whose fastball/slider combo is good enough to get outs. Lackey quietly put up career highs in ERA (2.66), strikeouts (174), and quality starts (26). He’s a great target as your fourth or fifth starter in mixed leagues

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks was a rollercoaster ride for Cubs fans and his fantasy owners in 2015. He rebounded to post a 3.95 ERA after a miserable April that saw his ERA balloon to 5.23.  Hendricks isn’t going to blow anyone away with his upper-80s fastball, but surprisingly struck out 167 batters in 180 innings (8.4 K/9). His peripherals were solid across the board and his advanced metrics, most notably his 3.36 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) ranked 18th among the 78 qualifying starting pitchers. In 2016 I’m expecting a slight regression in strikeouts but feel he can easily improve his ERA and win total. He profiles as a great arm to stash at the end of your bench given he’s still only 26 with room to grow.

Jason Hammel

Jason Hammel is nothing special but has pitched his best games as a Cub. In his last two years with the Cubs Hammel has a 3.45 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 4.4 K/BB ratio. Hammel was much better in the first half of last season posting a 2.86 ERA, five wins, and 105 strikeouts in 103.2 innings. He faded after the All-Star break posting a 5.10 ERA while allowing opponents to bat .285 against him. His saving grace was his ability to rack up the K’s with a 9.1 K/9 and 24.2% strikeout rate. He’s not a sexy name but will still hold plenty of value in mixed leagues as a back of the rotation starter.

Closer:

Hector Rondon

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

Hector Rondon doesn’t get much love in fantasy circles and isn’t considered in the top-tier of closers conversation, but he should be. Most people don’t realize that Rondon has saved 59 games over the past two years for the Cubs. Last year he compiled a 1.67 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and 30 saves in 34 opportunities. He has the heater at 96 mph to blow by opposing hitters and manages to keep the ball in the park which is key for a closer. Rondon also has a nasty slider in his repertoire that generates a lot of ground balls. Rondon is a top-10 closer on a team that’s projected to win 100 so you do the math.

Next Man Up:

Pedro Stroup

Pedro Stroup has arguably been the most consistent pitcher in the Cubs bullpen over the last three seasons. He’s locked in as the Cubs setup man after compiling 28 holds last year which was third-best in the National League. Stroup also struck out a career-high 10.7 batters per nine innings last year. Maddon is known to have a short leash for his closers when they struggle and if that happens Stroup will be next in line waiting to take the ball in the ninth. If you’re the type of owner that waits on closers Stroup is an excellent reliever to target late in hopes of possibly closing for one of the best teams in baseball.

Prospect Potential

Albert Almora, OF

As I mentioned before, the Cubs farm system is loaded with young talent so picking out a couple of prospects to highlight was a tough task. I decided to focus on a couple of players who can make an immediate impact as early as this season. Albert Almora is only 21 and currently has a road block to the bigs with the logjam in the Cubs outfield. Regardless, he’s still highly regarded by the Cubs front office and Theo thinks he isn’t far off from making his debut with the club. Almora hasn’t followed the same fast track to the Majors as the Cubs other top prospects but don’t write him off just yet. The opportunity could arise before you know it if the Cubs outfield is hit by the injury bug or if Soler is dealt away before the trade deadline. He’s a name to stash away and a player to monitor, especially in keeper leagues.

Willson Contreras, C

Wison Contreras absolutely tore up Double-A Tennessee in 2015 batting .333 with 75 RBI’s and 71 runs for the Smokies. Unfortunately his best season as a pro was lost in the hype that surrounded Kyle Schwarber and his promotion to the club. Contreras is a converted infielder and unlike Schwarber isn’t being miscast as a backstop. Theo Epstein had this to say when asked about Contreras.

“He’s an incredibly talented, athletic catcher who can really throw, can really block and his receiving is much improved.” He went on to say that “He projects to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues for a long time. We’re excited about his development.”

With Schwarber most likely starting most of his games in the outfield and David Ross hanging it up after this season Contreras should have an opportunity to take over behind the plate in 2017. Keep in mind that Miguel Montero has struggled to stay healthy so an injury could expedite his arrival to the Majors.

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