The Uncertainty of the 2020 Cubs

The 60-game sprint that is the 2020 MLB season begins in earnest Thursday evening with a marquee pitching match-up (Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer) that should immediately satiate hungry baseball fans. After everything that’s been thrown our way this year (and it’s still only July!), opening up the abbreviated baseball season with two of the best hurlers in the world provides some sort of comfort, however minor and hollow that comfort is.

For Cubs fans, however, that hunger for baseball is accompanied with a certain curiosity. Or perhaps bemusement is the more appropriate term. While these words are being penned after a generally lackluster (or terrifying) two game performance against our Southside brethren — a team that is exuding moxie while building momentum for this season — my feelings have little to do with the performance of those games.

Instead, the credible concern of an abysmal 2020 campaign has been shaped by nearly two years of roster stability despite performance instability. These exhibition games against the White Sox were disappointing not because they were losses. It’s that they very well might portend how the 2020 season unfolds, seemingly predictable outcomes given the slow burn that has been the post-2018 Cubs.

And that slow burn feels like it’s about to ignite an explosion.

Don’t twist my words. This roster is loaded with talent. David Ross appears confident as a leader, comfortable addressing the media, and competent in the dugout from exhibition affairs. And there’s a very real chance this team is competitive in 2020.

And yes, some positives can be gleaned from these recent Summer Camp matchups. Kyle Hendricks looked really good for four innings, and his consistency over the years should shine through once again in 2020. Yu Darvish settled in after an atrocious first inning — and that sort of poise will be necessary if he’s to reestablish himself, or at least eat-up innings this year. Nico Hoerner showed off his defensive versatility, and could be a key cog this season.

Yet there’s an equally strong chance this team builds upon the collapses of 2018-2019.

Aside from Hendricks, the rotation has more questions than answers. Relying on Tyler Chatwood is a risky gamble, Jon Lester will continue to battle regression, and the uncertainty of Jose Quintana can’t be overstated. The bullpen is relying on a rejuvenated Craig Kimbrel (who did look good Tuesday night), sustained success from Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan, satisfactory performances from a variety of ancillary arms, and perhaps the hope that Burl Carraway quickly proves dominant when he makes his debut.

While the lineup is generally a strong suit, questions persist nonetheless. How will Ross handle rotating DH duties? Will Steven Souza prove valuable in a quasi-platoon role with Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward? Can Jason Kipnis offer value at the plate while also mentoring Hoerner? Will Anthony Rizzo‘s back hold up in a season determined not by a marathon but a sprint?

Experts still like the Cubs

Everywhere you look, expectations endure that the Cubs will compete for a playoff spot — if not outright win the division. Fangraphs places the Cubs at 32-28, tied with the Brewers for best record in the NL Central, and tied for eighth best record in the league. Outlets from The Athletic, to, to The Ringer all place the Cubs as a top-10’ish team in the game, certainly expressing optimism this is a playoff caliber roster.

These projections and power rankings feel optimistic. Sure, it’s beyond impossible to predict what might happen in a 60-game stretch, so relying on known commodities (of which the Cubs have plenty) is a suitable argument, even if a potentially lazy one. While I’ve confidence the Cubs will be competitive, I sincerely don’t know how they’ll look in a sprint of a season.

Traveling less than most teams and having one of the easiest schedules certainly helps, but that luxury has also been extended to the Cubs biggest rivals: the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals. In a four-team race for the division title, no decided edge has been dictated by the scheduling changes. And while each of these teams have their own questions, the likelihood they beat each other up over the next two months is far likelier than one team pulling ahead of the pack.

This means 2020 will be an absolute dog fight, making depth a premium like its never been before. And correct me if I’m wrong, but the Cubs lack confident depth, meaning everything has to go right for this year to be a success.

I’m trying to maintain optimism, but realism (or perhaps cynicism) keeps getting in the way. Betting on a number of moving parts magically working out in unison just doesn’t feel like a gamble worth making.

So it goes with the 2020 Cubs. They’ve dealt themselves a hand eerily similar to the past two seasons. Friday night we’ll begin to see if they’re able to make it a winning one.

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