Pressing fantasy baseball questions: The 2018 Chicago Cubs

Fans of the Chicago Cubs have suffered sixteen long months without a World Series title. It’s been four months since Chicago’s last postseason appearance. The team has not made a splashy nine-figure free agent signing in over a week.

All this waiting, it’s interminable. Please, Cubs, do something.

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We are, of course, well past the days when Chicago appeared to be a doomed franchise, slouching through an unending series of bad-to-mediocre seasons. Under the ownership of the Ricketts family and the front office leadership of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the Cubs have become a sort of big blue machine. This team has made three straight trips to the NLCS, and no one will be at all surprised if they return again in 2018. Chicago’s starting rotation should be among the best in baseball, the roster is loaded with excellent defensive players, and the everyday lineup is stacked with stars, superstars and potential stars.

Honestly, very few questions surrounding this team are truly pressing. Most major league franchises would love to have the Cubs’ problems. These are good days in Wrigleyville.

Yu Darvish signed a six-year deal with Chicago, giving the Cubs one of the N.L.’s most impressive starting rotations. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

How soon is too soon to draft Yu Darvish?

Darvish is the eleventh starting pitcher off the board in an average Yahoo draft (ADP 46.1), which seems aggressive, though not recklessly so. He’s typically drafted a few spots ahead of his placement in our consensus ranks, so we can’t necessarily call him a bargain. But Darvish is nonetheless a bankable fantasy asset who belongs to a deep second tier of high-K starting pitchers. He’s healthy and well-compensated ($126M/6Y), three years removed from TJ surgery, and his new teammates have been wowed so far this spring. The man has a ridiculously impressive pitching arsenal, and he threw harder than ever last season (94.2 mph average fastball).

Darvish is a decent bet to outproduce Jake Arrieta in 2018, at least modestly, so that’s a win for the Cubs. When he isn’t pitch-tipping, he’s nearly unhittable. No one should be shocked if Darvish reproduces the numbers he delivered for the Dodgers last season; his ratios in L.A. almost perfectly matched his career stats. If you need a full-season Darvish projection, here you go: 14-7, 182.0 IP, 3.48 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 209 Ks.

Wade Davis relocated to Colorado, so who’s closing for the Cubs? Any chance it’s a committee?

There will be neither a committee nor a competition for ninth inning duties in Chicago. Epstein himself has been perfectly clear on this subject:

Brandon Morrow was outstanding in relief for the Dodgers last season, delivering a WHIP of 0.92 and missing bats at an obscene rate (15.9 swinging strike percentage). Morrow has been a filthy steal in early Yahoo drafts (ADP 152.1), considering the quality of his stuff and the role that awaits him. It isn’t hard to imagine him saving 30-plus games while posting elite fantasy ratios. He might very well be the best fantasy bargain at his position in 2018.

You lied to us about Kyle Schwarber last year, Andy. YOU LIED. How can we ever trust you (or Schwarber) again?

Yeah, um … my bad. If it makes you feel any better, I owned Schwarbs everywhere last season. He torpedoed several otherwise excellent rosters. It’s almost impossible to manage around 422 at-bats of Mendoza-ish batting average, so he became a burden. Schwarber fully earned his demotion to Triple-A last season — he was slashing .171/.295/.378 at the time. When he wasn’t striking out, he was scalding grounders into the teeth of severe defensive shifts.

The good news, of course, is that Schwarber still cleared the fence 30 times for the Cubs last year, plus he hit another four bombs in his brief visit to Iowa. He returned to the big leagues in July with seemingly more of a whole-field approach, making better contact. His hard-hit percentage in the first half of the season was 31.0; it jumped to 43.9 percent after the break.

Schwarber was by no means an elite hitter when he returned from the minors last year, but he wasn’t a liability, either. He hit a respectable .255/.338/.565 from July 6 through the end of the season, launching 18 home runs. It’s hardly unreasonable to expect Schwarber to sustain that level of performance in 2018. He’ll see only limited plate appearances against left-handers, which should suit fantasy owners just fine.

As you might have already heard, Schwarber entered camp as a member of the best-shape-of-his-life club. He’s reportedly lost 20 or more pounds. There’s no obvious reason to think his commitment to better nutrition and fitness will impact his hitting, but it surely says something positive about his drive to generally improve. If he’s going to be a viable everyday National League player, he needs to increase his range in left field.

Kyle Schwarber works the room. He enters spring training 20 pounds lighter, eying a bounce-back season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Short hops

Despite disappointing seasons at the plate from Schwarber, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the Cubs still finished fourth in MLB and second in the NL in runs scored (822). … Just in case you missed it, Willson Contreras was a post-break monster last season: .305/.407/.586, 22 BB, 26 Ks. … Don’t look to the Cubs for stolen bases. The team ranked twelfth in the NL in steals (62), well behind the league average (84). Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez shared the team lead in stolen bases with 10 apiece.

And speaking of Rizzo: Yes, he earned second base eligibility last season, officially making 10 appearances at the position. No, he was not standing anywhere near second base when he made these official appearances. It’s kind of insane. You can find details right here. Yahoo doesn’t make independent determinations about fielding appearances; we’re tied to MLB’s official scoring. … Darvish was clearly the Cubs’ buzziest free agent signing, but the upgrade from John Lackey to Tyler Chatwood should be significant. You can read some Chatwood propaganda right here. His numbers away from Coors Field over the past two seasons are exceptional. He’s also a ground-ball machine, now with a tremendous infield defense behind him.

Joe Maddon has been know to use a random lineup generator, so predicting his batting order for any given day seems a bit silly. Chicago’s 2, 3 and 4 hitters are probably set, but everything else is a name from a hat. Here’s a guess…

Cubs Projected Lineup

2B/LF/RF Ben Zobrist or CF Albert Almora
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
C Willson Contreras
LF Kyle Schwarber or 2B/LF/CF Ian Happ or CF Almora
SS Addison Russell or 2B Javier Baez
RF Jason Heyward
SS Russell or 2B Baez. Or possibly that day’s starting pitcher

Cubs Projected Staff

SP Jon Lester
SP Yu Darvish
SP Jose Quintana
SP Kyle Hendricks
SP Tyler Chatwood
CL Brandon Morrow
RP Carl Edwards Jr.
RP Pedro Strop
RP Steve Cishek
RP Justin Wilson
SP/RP Mike Montgomery

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