Baseball may get back to some type of normalcy in 2021. Limited fans will be allowed at into ballparks, which is a great sight to see. The 2021 Chicago Cubs hope to bring excitement back to Wrigley Field. It will be their second season with David Ross as manager, and their first season, since 2011, without Theo Epstein in the front office. They’re the reigning NL Central champs, but it doesn’t feel like it for the organization. They followed up their division crown with a disappointing loss in the newly-added Wild Card Series to the Miami Marlins. They made some notable moves in the off-season, but was it enough to reclaim their spot at the top of the division?
Chicago had two objectives heading into the off-season: freeing up space under the luxury tax threshold and retooling their roster. There was a potential rebuild in the works, but they decided against diving head first in the trade market. However, they tested the waters, and found a suitor for Yu Darvish. Darvish was their ace in 2020 and finished in the top three for NL Cy-Young voting.
The San Diego Padres were more than willing to take on his contract as they prepare to make a run at their division-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. In the deal, Chicago got several prospects, but the headliner was Zach Davies. He has been great in Spring Training. In four games, Davies has a 0.68 ERA with a 3-0 record. He will likely be the Cubs’ most reliable pitcher, behind Kyle Hendricks, of course.
Victor Caratini was also included in the Padres deal, which hurt Chicago’s depth at catcher. They did add veteran Austin Romine, who spent last year with the Detroit Tigers, and his first eight seasons with the New York Yankees. His upside isn’t as high as Caratini’s, but the 32-year-old backstop is a reasonable replacement. In addition to Romine, the Cubs found more help at the plate by signing Eric Sogard and Jake Marisnick. Both of them should be in contention for an Opening Day roster spot. They also acquired some new pitching arms. Trevor Williams, Shelby Miller, Jonathan Holder, and Brandon Workman are some names that could make a difference.
Most excitingly, the 2021 Chicago Cubs welcome back Jake Arrieta, and they signed power-hitter Joc Pederson. Arrieta has been a fan favorite since his first stint with the team. He provided some of the best pitching performances in Cubs’ history, and won himself a Cy Young Award in the process. After an injury-riddled stay with the Philadelphia Phillies, he is back in Wrigley Field, with hopes that he can solidify himself in the starting rotation. As for Pederson, he has been one of the most promising players in Spring Training. Pederson has a batting average of .366 to go with seven home runs and 15 RBI. Although these are just exhibition games, it’s still impressive nonetheless.
Staying on topic, Chicago’s outfield could be a strength this season. Pederson will replace Kyle Schwarber in left, which should be a slight defensive improvement. He’ll be joined by Ian Happ and five-time Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward. That trio should give right-handed pitchers trouble all season long, however, it will be the exact opposite against lefties. Heyward and Pederson struggle to get on base against elite southpaws. The same goes for Happ, who is a switch hitter, but bats much better from the left side of the plate. If anyone can figure it out against lefties, it would be Happ. He was arguably the team’s best hitter for most of last season.
Knowing their starting outfielders’ weaknesses, Chicago may turn to a guy like Jake Marisnick. He could be effective against left-handed pitching, and had a great Spring Training. With an average of .389 and four home runs, he has likely earned himself a spot on the Opening Day roster. He may not get at-bats everyday, but he’s set-up to be a vital player. It will be interesting to see just how much he’s used by David Ross. Especially after they released Cameron Maybin, then re-signed him to a minor league deal. There aren’t many other options, unless they transform someone into a utility player.
A position that was in question for most of the offseason will belong to Kris Bryant yet again. Bryant has been included in trade rumors for what feels like an eternity. He’s entering the final year of his contract with Chicago, and there’s a good chance that he leaves in free agency. The star third baseman hasn’t played like his former-MVP self, but several factors have played into that. He has struggled with injuries in recent years, and doesn’t know where he stands with the front office.
Bryant is still a premier player in the league. He’s been a fan favorite ever since he was drafted. His teammates and manager still have a lot of trust in him. He’ll likely be batting clean-up with high expectations for a bounce back season on the 2021 Chicago Cubs. It would be a great time for him to prove any doubters wrong, while setting himself up for a big payday in the near future. It may come down to his health. Neither him or the team can afford to have him be a mainstay on the injured list.
Javier Baez is coming off his first gold glove season. He’ll be looking to continue his defensive excellence with pitchers that rely on soft contact to get outs. Like most of the Cubs’ players, he had a down year at the plate last season. His averages were some of the lowest of his career. Baez also struck out 75 times. High strikeout rates have plagued his career. With his raw power and smart baserunning, really the only aspect holding him back is his plate discipline.
If there’s one thing guaranteed with Baez, it’s the excitement he brings to the game. Whether he’s hitting the cover off the ball, making a diving web gem, or contorting his body to avoid sure-handed tags. He will have the fans on their feet throughout the game. Matthew Duffy and Eric Sogard could get reps at shortstop as well although it is possible they’ll be needed more at second base, which has been an uncertain position for Chicago for quite awhile now.
Nico Hoerner was looking primed to secure the starting role at second base when Spring Training began. Surprisingly, he was optioned down to Triple-A. The reasoning behind the decision could point to future contract negotiations. If he spends enough time in the minors, he won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2023. That would be more beneficial for the organization. David Ross insists that it was solely a personnel move. With the minor league season being delayed, it’s a wonder of how much in-game action Hoerner will actually see. It may end up hurting his progression, more than it could help.
David Bote will be the starter and deservedly so. He has been effective in limited at-bats for the Cubs. This move could add some consistency to the lineup, rather than having several players splitting time. The 2021 Chicago Cubs still have reinforcements ready if Bote doesn’t pan out, but Bote should be a solid hitter toward the bottom of the lineup. He’s earned the reputation of a clutch hitter. That started with his walk-off grand slam against the Washington Nationals on national television, and continues on today.
There’s no doubt at first base. Anthony Rizzo will be starting there every day after winning his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2020. He’s arguably the face of the franchise, and a player that the organization would love to retire a Cub. At his best, he is a top five player at his position. Unfortunately, he was not at his best in 2020, and the shortened season didn’t treat him well. His slash line of .222/.342/.414 was the worst in his time with Chicago.
There seems to be a common theme for many of these 2021 Chicago Cubs players: they need to bounce back this season. It’s odd to say because they did just win the division, but they can certainly play much better baseball. Rizzo will be featured at the top of the lineup, where he has always found success in the past. He will contribute to the onslaught against right-handed pitchers, along with the aforementioned outfielders.
Willson Contreras will be their backstop. Already a two-time All Star, Contreras is going into the prime of his career. He has improved defensively every single year, and is known for his incredible arm strength. Runners know that stealing bases against him is no easy feat. He is one of the fastest catchers in terms of pop time.
At the plate, he is more than capable of hitting for power. With a universal designated-hitter last season, he benefitted by being able to focus on his at-bats. That won’t be the case this year because MLB has opted to let pitchers hit again in the NL, but that won’t stop the team from maximizing his batting potential. When he doesn’t play, he’ll probably be used as a pinch hitter. Chicago really values his production, which is probably why they held onto him over the offseason. Even though, many teams saw him as a valuable asset on the trade market.
Chicago’s starting rotation will look as expected with one minor change. Alec Mills will move to the bullpen, despite his solid outings last season. Newcomer Trevor Williams and Adbert Alzolay will round out the starting five. Williams was a low-risk addition in the offseason that has a high upside. Alzolay is a long-time Cubs’ prospect, who finally gets his shot to prove himself at the highest level.
Kyle Hendricks will be their ace, which wasn’t ever in doubt. Jake Arrieta and Zach Davies will be in the second and third spot respectively. For Arrieta, he is back in a familiar system with many of his old teammates. It’ll be interesting to see how well he plays earlier on, and if he can avoid injuries. Davies seems poised to have a breakout year. His pitching style is very similar to Hendricks, so much of their success could be reliant on the defense around them. This rotation features only one pitcher from last year. Their production is almost guaranteed to drop off, but it’s too early to tell whether it will be a major problem.
It seems funny to say that the bullpen is headlined by none other than Craig Kimbrel. The 32-year-old closer hasn’t been himself for Chicago. Kimbrel has a 6.00 ERA with the team with only 15 saves. Aside from him, there aren’t many well-known relievers within the 2021 Chicago Cubs’ bullpen. Not much has changed from years prior.
Jeremy Jeffress was the single bright spot for the unit in 2020, but is no longer with the team. Other players will have to step up, especially if the starting pitchers struggle, which is a real possibility. Andrew Chafin could be someone to look out for. He seems to be a lock to see batters out of the bullpen, and is a relatively established pitcher. Rowan Wick will need to get healthy, but when he does, he could be a key player as well. Past that, Chicago’s bullpen looks like it will be constantly fluctuating with dozens of players that could have appearances.
The 2021 Chicago Cubs definitely have their flaws, but should be able to contend within their division. The favorite in the NL Central seems to be the St Louis Cardinals, after they traded for Nolan Arenado. However, Chicago is still good enough to compete with them. This offseason wasn’t nearly as hectic as most people thought it would be for the Cubs. They seemed content to maintain their young core.
Pitching will be the biggest question mark, for both the starters and the bullpen. There are many new names that could make a big impact. As for the bats, they haven’t been nearly as lethal as they once were. This team’s success will be on the shoulders of their sometimes inconsistent stars. It will be the final run for this group of players, unless they pull off an improbable playoff run. Who knows, crazier events have happened at Wrigley Field.
David Ross, Yu Darvish, Zach Davies. Kyle Hendricks, Victor Caratini, Austin Romine, Eric Sogard, Jake Marisnick,Trevor Williams, Shelby Miller, Jonathan Holder, Brandon Workman, Jake Arrieta, Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Cameron Maybin, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Nico Hoerner, David Bote, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Craig Kimbrel, Jeremy Jeffress, Andrew Chafin, Rowan Wick, Nolan Arenado