For most of the Wild Card Era, 90 wins has been the magic number in the National League. If your team tallied 90 wins, it was almost certain to make the playoffs. Over recent history, the only 90 win National League team not to make the postseason was the 2010 San Diego Padres. In the 2 years of the expanded Wild Card, the most wins a team who has not made the playoffs out of the National League is 86.
But 90 should be viewed as the magic, shoe in number. Which leads to the question of how the Cubs, a 66 win team in 2013, could add 24 wins in 2014?
Step One: Better Luck
The Cub’s Pythagorean Record, a measure of what a team’s expected record based upon a team’s run differential, was 71-91. Cubs players accumulated 27.4 fWAR (FanGraphs version of WAR) and 25.9 rWAR (Baseball Reference’s version) in 2013. In other words, WAR would have expected the Cubs to win 73 or 74 games. But why did the Cubs only win 66? Whether it’s luck, decision making, a lack of “clutch” performances, or randomness, the ball did not bounce the Cubs way on certain elements that are not predictors of future success. It would require a near miracle for the 2014 Cubs to compete without at least performing to their WAR and Pythagorean Record. So the first thing the Cubs will need is getting those games that those measures say they should have won into the win column. We’ll use the the middle number of the three, 73 wins, for the sake of simplicity. That leaves us with 16 more wins to find through improved performances.
Step Two: The Young Hitters Improving
What was the worst thing about 2013? For me, it was Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Darwin Barney combining for just 1.9 fWAR. Without the Cubs getting more production for the shortstop, first base and second base positions, getting to 90 wins in 2014 will be impossible.
So let’s have some reasonably optimistic predictions: (1) Starlin Castro returns to his 2011 and 2012 value and puts up 3 WAR, for a 3 win improvement over 2013. (2) Rizzo has a BABIP rebound but only marginal other improvements and is a 3 win player, good for a 1.5 win improvement over 2013; (3) Barney has a BABIP rebound and at least isn’t a black hole on offense, with his defense propelling him back to a 2 win player, a 1.5 win improvement.
That gets us 6 more wins, bringing us to 79. 11 more to go.
Step Three: A Better Bullpen
The Dale Sveum led Cubs suffered from some truly awful bullpen pitching, particularly in the early parts of both seasons. Even with the improved bullpen in the second half of 2013, the Cubs bullpen tallied a miserable -0.2 fWAR for the season, although that was largely due to three pitchers: Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp, and Kameron Loe (combined for -1.8 fWAR). Baseball Reference was slightly more charitable to Cub relievers as a whole, giving them 1 win. However, as Baseball Reference’s pitcher WAR is based on ERA and FanGraphs is based on FIP, I have found that FanGraph’s WAR is a better predictor of future performance.
At -0.2 fWAR, the Cubs’ bullpen was tied with the Padres for the second worst in baseball, ahead of only the Houston Astros (who were so bad that they were 5 wins worse than the Cubs and Padres).
I’m aiming for realistic expectations here, so let’s aim for a league average bullpen. In 2013, the median relief core tallied 3.7 fWAR. We’ll just round up and say the Cubs would need a bullpen who could post a 4 win year.
Could the Cubs’ current core of relief pitchers do this? Sure. Pedro Strop and Blake Parker, who are likely to see significant innings out of the bullpen in 2014, posted a combined 1.5 fWAR in partial seasons with the Cubs, with some peripherals that should continue to play well in the Majors. And bullpens are notoriously unpredictable from one year to the next, sometimes with good results, sometimes with bad results.
In other words, I can’t tell you exactly how the Cubs’ bullpen will get to four wins. Unfortunately, I forgot my crystal ball at the condo in the city when I moved out to the suburbs. What I can tell you is that the Cubs almost certainly won’t be good enough in 2014 to get to 90 wins with a bad bullpen sabotaging half the season. A 4 win bullpen would get them to 83 wins.
Step Four: Jeff Samardzija Taking The Next Step
When I look at the fWAR of the Cubs’ starting pitchers, I’m honestly not seeing much room for improvement from what the Cubs averaged in the rotation in 2013. The Cubs didn’t have a black hole in the rotation or an exceptional performer, since fWAR’s use of FIP both regressed Travis Wood (negatively) and Edwin Jackson (positively) to their expected performance based upon their peripherals. According to FanGraphs, Wood was a 2.8 win pitcher and Jackson was a 2 win pitcher.
The Cubs’ ranked 20th in starting pitcher fWAR in 2013, but another 2 wins above replacement would have tied them with the Reds at number 14. Based on the Cubs’ current roster, I only see one place where those 2 extra wins could come from: Jeff Samardzija.
After starting out hot in 2013 (3.34 ERA, 9.53 K/9, 2.94 BB/9) Samardzija struggled mightily in the second half (5.47 ERA, 8.43 K/9, 3.68 BB/9). Samardzija was a 2.8 fWAR pitcher, Samardzija has the talent to be a 4 to 5 fWAR pitcher. We’ll be conservative and say 4, which gets us one extra win and to 84 wins.
Step Five: Avoiding Black Holes
The Cubs also desperately need to avoid positions that contribute negative value. For the most part, I’ve already discussed these, as the Cubs’ biggest black holes were shortstop, second base and the bullpen. But there was one other spot that was a big gap: the right handed parts of certain platoons. Well, specifically the platoons in the outfield in the first half of the season, although if you’d told me before the season that Donnie Murphy and Cody Ransom would combine to be a solid right handed portion of a third base platoon, I’d have thought you were a crazy person.
Dave Sappelt was just bad in his shot to nail down the right handed part of the center field platoon. Scott Hairston just ran into bad luck, as he hit for power but had a crazy low .129 BABIP. Combined they were worth -1.1 fWAR. If they were able to flip that to a positive 1, that gets us to 85 wins. We’re five away. But wait…
Step Six: Regression of Good 2013 Performances
I’m a Welington Castillo believer. While defensive stats aren’t as refined as their offensive or pitching counterparts, the scouting reports also have him pegged as an elite defensive catcher. I think his 3.2 fWAR in 2013 is real. But Dioner Navarro (1.7 fWAR) was the best backup catcher in baseball last season, and that person usually plays himself into a starting role the next year. The odds of the Cubs getting a similar performance from their backup catcher is… well, unlikely. So let’s take a win off for that. We’re back down to 84.
The Cubs’ pitchers also hit like crazy, at least for pitchers, this season. You can’t rely on that continuing. Take a win off for that, and we’re down to 83.
Step Seven: So…..
This is the Cubs’ WAR per position for 2013:
First Base: 1.6
Second Base: -0.5
Third Base: 3.2
Left Field: 3.4
Center Field: 4.4
Right Field: 0.6
Starting Pitcher: 10.0
Relief Pitcher: -0.2
We’ve maxed out expected contributions from current roster members, or from the sort of free agents the Cubs can be expected to pick up for 2014. Even if the Cubs picked up Shin Soo Choo to play left field (which is where he should be playing), there’s no guarantee he’d do any better than what the Cubs had in that position in 2013.
So what would need to happen for the Cubs to get 90 wins? I would say at least two of the following three things would have to happen.
1) At least one of the players on the current MLB roster who has the potential to become a star (Rizzo, Castro, Samardzija), has to become one.
2) One of the big time prospects who could debut in 2014 (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara) has to hit the Majors, and become an instant star.
3) Adding a David Price or Giancarlo Stanton type through a trade.
The End Result
Getting to 90 wins on true talent is going to be rough, and highly unlikely. Just as the Cubs underperformed their Pythagorean Record in 2013, they’ll likely need to outperform it in 2014 to compete. But I’d look at 2014 this way: even if the Cubs are only mediocre at best, if Rizzo, Castro and Samardzija take the steps forward I’m hoping, and the big time prospects largely continue to excel, I’ll be a decently happy camper.