The Cubs Are Winning Without Their Offensive Starson September 23, 2020 at 7:55 pm

The Cubs Are Winning Without Their Offensive Stars

If I told you at the start of the 2020 season that the Cubs would win the division by a comfortable margin, you probably would rightly make some assumptions about the events that led to this result. Probably the most obvious is that a National League Central victory would involve big years from the three biggest names in the lineup: 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, 2018 MVP runner-up Javier Baez, and three-time All-Star and Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo. But that most obvious of assumptions would be wrong in this case. Through Tuesday’s games, these key contributors to the team’s success over the last five years have combined for just 1.1 WAR in 581 combined plate appearances, about the same WAR as players such as Kevin Pillar and Victor Reyes. In 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series, this trio combined for 15 WAR, or 4.8 WAR per 581 plate appearances.

All three are eligible for free agency no later than the end of the 2021 season and their poor performances have changed their outlooks enough to potentially have consequences for both their career trajectories and future contracts. With their performance this year, the Cubs have gotten a taste of what the team’s future might hold if all three depart Chicago. There are mitigating factors all over the place — the shortened, odd 2020, Bryant’s plethora of injuries — but the fact remains is that for stars, the risk is fairly one-sided. What this means is that for the best players in baseball, it’s far more likely that events will reduce their value than increase their value; I can think of a lot of scenarios that would cause Mike Trout to underperform his WAR projection by five wins, but very few in which he’d exceed it by the same margin. Poor baseball is one thing, but uncertainty is also a problem for a superstar. How have the outlooks for these three changed over 2020? Let us count the ways.

Anthony Rizzo

Of the three, Rizzo has had the mildest decline season and is the one primarily responsible for the combined 1.1 WAR. Having 0.9 WAR in 228 plate appearances would put Rizzo on course for his worst season since before he broke out in 2014, but his .220/.338/.403, 99 wRC+ line is more in the vein of a disappointment rather than a wreck of disaster-movie proportions. He’s still contributed defensively and has the least dropoff in terms of hitting the ball hard. Rizzo is also the player most struggling with the cruel vagaries of BABIP, as his .218 mark is a galaxy or two below the .297 zBABIP that ZiPS generates from the advanced data for 2020. Technically, he can hit free agency after this season, but as, uh, “thrifty” as the Cubs are, I can’t imagine them not jumping at the chance to effectively have Rizzo for one year at $14.5 million ($16.5 million salary vs. a $2 million buyout).

Rizzo was never going to have a huge payday by virtue of being a few years older than Baez and Bryant, not to mention baseball’s front offices falling quite out of love with slugging first basemen. Still, ZiPS projected him to age well to merit a four-year, $80 million contract, not that dissimilar from the one J.D. Martinez signed for five years and $110 million, considering the latter was coming off a monster season.

ZiPS isn’t projecting a full trampoline bounce from Rizzo, but it does think that he’ll rebound to the three-win level for a few years, pegging a four-year, $70 million for his valuation post-2021.

Kris Bryant

Whereas Anthony Rizzo has had a normal down year, Kris Bryant’s season has pretty much nothing on the positive side of the ledger. In just two months, Bryant has missed time due to or played through injuries to his wrist, elbow, finger, back, and even missed a couple games with a stomach ailment that initially triggered a COVID-19 test. Now as the Cubs prepare for the postseason, he’s out for an indeterminate period of time with an oblique injury. The results when he’s been on the field have been even uglier, with his 2020 amounting to a .195/.283/.301 line thus far, good for a 62 wRC+ and 0.1 WAR. It’s not even a season that can be blamed on a fluke BABIP, with ZiPS thinking he’s only earned a .275 mark compared to his actual .268.

The power loss has been extreme to the extent that Bryant’s average exit velocity ranks 228th among 257 qualifiers in baseball, behind noted burly sluggers like Martin Maldonado and Cedric Mullins. And it’s not just the average exit velocity that has gone down, but also those spikes that lead to home runs, as he’s only hit four barrels all season. Overall, Bryant’s hard-hit percentage has declined every year of his career (with the exception of 2019), and his latest career-low of 32.1% risks dropping him into the lowest-quintile in baseball.

The hope, of course, is that it’s purely the injuries causing these issues. But we don’t really know — and won’t until we see a healthier Bryant, hopefully in 2021 — just how much of the down year is indeed due to health. That creates a great deal of uncertainty in his future projections.

Entering 2020, ZiPS projected Bryant to get a five-year, $124 million in free agency after the 2021 season. When I projected players who would be the biggest losers if the 2020 season was unplayed and players did not receive service time, Bryant was projected with the most to lose. That would have been an especially bitter pill given that he had already lost his grievance against the Cubs for the manner in which the team allegedly manipulated his service time. Considering he had been prognosticated as the player with the most to lose dollar-wise should this season not occur, a lost campaign due to injuries and ineffectiveness having a similar impact on his future payday shouldn’t be a surprise.

The effect of 2020 is enough that ZiPS now suggests that Rizzo is a better bet than Bryant in free agency. ZiPS is only projecting a four-year, $57 million contract based on what we know today. Oddly enough, 2020 being what it is diminishes the negative impact of Bryant losing that year of service time; coming off a short season and struggles on and off the field, this would not have been a great winter for Bryant to try to score a big contract.

Now let’s assume that 2020 is a pure outlier and given another chance, Bryant completely wipes out this season and performs at exactly the same level of his 2019.

In this scenario, Bryant gets right back to where he was pre-2020. Any metaphors involving Bryant at a crossroads or a fork in the road are justified.

Javier Baez

Baez is having just as much of a down year as Bryant, but he doesn’t even have the injury excuse for his dreadful performance. At .207/.237/.355 and a 55 wRC+, let’s just say that it’s fortunate for him that he can more than handle himself defensively at shortstop. Despite striking out at career highs, he hasn’t actually had a setback in terms of plate discipline; he’s having his best season in terms of not swinging at out-of-zone pitches (40.7% vs. 43.5% for his career). Known as an aggressive hitter against fastballs, Baez has been the third worst against the hard stuff in 2020, ahead of only Evan White and Eduardo Escobar in wRC. Missing 44% of fastballs offered at (compared to 36% in 2019, 31% in 2018, and 33% in 2017), one has to wonder if his bat speed has slowed just enough that his aggressive approach, which formerly made him one of the most exciting players at the plate, is now causing him to decline as an overall hitter faster than he would have otherwise.

Entering 2020, ZiPS projected a six-year, $160 million contract for Baez once he hit free agency after the 2021 season. ZiPS liked him more than Bryant long-term, thanks in part to Baez playing a premium defensive position and playing it well, giving him more breathing space if his defense declined. With just a week left in the 2020 season, ZiPS is setting its algorithmic eyes much lower.

ZiPS now only projects Baez to get a four-year deal for $85 million, and over the same six years as the preseason projection, $99 million, a loss of $61 million from what was forecasted before 2020. A Baez without cashing in on his aggressive approach as frequently is still projected to hit for power, but also with BABIPs that drop enough to make him a .260 hitter who falls short of the .300 OBP line. He’s still a good player with these assumptions, but not a star, and MLB teams aren’t particularly incentivized right now to open their wallets.

If the Cubs steamroll their way through the 2020 postseason, all will likely be forgiven when it comes to their struggling core. But 2021 is looking like an absolutely crucial year for these three, one that could make or break their places in history, not to mention their wallets.

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