Five players who must improve for Cubs to return to supremacy in 2019
Five players who must improve for Cubs to return to supremacy in 2019
For the Cubs, a massive roster overhaul is both unlikely and unfeasible. In addition to trades and free agency, the team needs internal improvement to overtake the Brewers and re-stake its claim to the NL Central.
In the wake of the disappointing end to the Chicago Cubs' 2018 season, Theo Epstein was blunt about needing to find ways to improve the team going into next year. The offense too frequently let the team down in the second half, averaging just 4.1 runs per game over the Cubs’ final 70 games. Improving the team might mean some personnel changes, either via free agency, the trade market or both. But a massive roster overhaul is both unlikely and unfeasible. The majority of the big league roster is under contract for 2019, minus Daniel Murphy, Jesse Chavez and Justin Wilson, so even a handful of trades and free agent additions won't fix everything. The Cubs need internal improvement if they're to overtake the Milwaukee Brewers and re-stake their claim to the NL Central. Before we get to the list of Cubs players who need to improve, let's caveat this. Addison Russell should be looking to improve his overall game, but he has [fallen out of favor](https://www.betchicago.com/theo-epstein-addresses-addison-russell-joe-maddon) and the Cubs are looking to move him. For that reason, he's not included. On the other side of it, there are players who had disappointing seasons in 2018 – Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow come to mind – but just need to get healthy. They were also not included. ## Ian Happ One interesting factoid about Ian Happ is that he won't turn 25 years old until August next year. That is to say, he's still very young. A lot of Cubs fans were disappointed with Happ this year, and that feeling is understandable. The outfielder was a top-rated prospect, as high as No. 28 on the MLB top-100 list. He came up as a rookie in 2017 and was exceptional, hitting 24 home runs (after hitting nine at Triple-A). Happ then came to Arizona and crushed the baseball in spring training, putting a stranglehold on the open leadoff job. He even led off the major league season with a homer on the first pitch from Marlins starter José Ureña. Suffice it to say, expectations were high for Happ in 2018. But the good times didn't last long. Instead of improving on his 31.2 percent strikeout rate from 2017, Happ regressed, striking out 36.1 percent of the time. With those additional strikeouts came a drop in power, as his slugging percentage fell over 100 points, from .514 to .408. Happ's walk rate improved to an outstanding 15.2 percent, but overall, his 100 OPS+ signified a step backwards. Happ was playing inconsistently down the stretch, and his 0.6 WAR ranked fifth among Cubs outfielders. __The "Easy" Solution__: Cut down on the strikeouts and the rest will fall into place. __Also read:__ [Cubs' free-agent options](https://www.betchicago.com/cubs-free-agency-options) ## José Quintana It’s easy to say that José Quintana has been disappointing since coming over from the Chicago White Sox in 2017, but that's not a perfect characterization. Quintana's numbers in 14 starts with the Cubs that year were outstanding, even if his ERA wasn't totally reflective of that fact. In those games, Quintana threw 84 1/3 innings with a 3.74 ERA, a 3.25 FIP, 10.5 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9. Those may not be ace-like numbers, but they're solid. However, 2018 was a different story. Quintana set a career-high in walks while striking out the fewest batters since his rookie season in 2012. He still started 32 games, which he does pretty much every year, but failed to reach 180 innings. Quintana's ERA (4.03) was the second-highest of his career and his FIP (4.43) was the worst. A lot of fans will probably always hate on Q because of what the Cubs had to give up to get him. Having to suck it up and watch Eloy Jimenez club balls into the bleachers at Guaranteed Rate Field for the next six or seven years is bad enough, but don't forget that pitching prospect Dylan Cease was also involved in that trade. At any rate, Quintana is only 29 years old and doesn't rely on elevated velocity to get outs, so he should be able to right the ship. __The “Easy” Solution__: Go back to [throwing the change-up](https://www.betchicago.com/jose-quintana-needs-a-change) and become a four-pitch pitcher again. __Futures__: [Odds to win 2019 World Series](https://www.betchicago.com/white-sox-world-series-odds-2019-free-agency) ## Albert Almora Jr. Albert Almora Jr. was making a strong case to be an everyday – or nearly everyday – player in the first half of the 2018 season. On July 1, he was hitting .331 and had an OPS of .826. But over the final three months of the season, Almora posted a slash line of .232/.267/.281 with just one home run in 218 plate appearances. He finished the year with a .286 batting average and an OPS of .701. Like Happ, Almora is just 24 years old. He's a former prospect and a first-round draft pick, so there are some expectations here. There is plenty to like about Almora, including the high contact rates and the fact that he crushes left-handed pitching. He's also an excellent defensive outfielder, so at worst he's a platoon guy who comes in to play defense late when he's not starting. Those guys have value. But the talent is there, and the Cubs would like to see Almora become a more complete player. He may never walk a ton, as his 5.0 percent walk rate in 2018 suggests. However, if there was any show of improvement last year, it was that he hit relatively well against right-handed pitchers (.282). If Almora can continue to hit for contact and develop 10-15 home run power, that should be good enough. __The “Easy” Solution__: Get that slugging percentage over .450 without surrendering the higher batting average. ## Victor Caratini The Cubs would be wise to bring in a veteran backup catcher for next season, but until they do, let's go forward as if Caratini is going to be around. Through 266 plate appearances in his major league career, Caratini has an OPS+ of 63. That's bad. Even worse, though, is the fact that his slugging percentage is somehow just .317. This is a guy who hit .334/.397/.536 in 463 plate appearances at Triple-A with 14 homers, and he's only 25 years old. Caratini has never held the prospect status of Happ or Almora, but the potential has been obvious for some time. As a converted catcher – he was a third baseman until 2014 – he needs to continue to work on some of the more difficult aspects of the job, including pitch framing. But the bat, it was once thought, was fairly advanced. He was kept on the big league roster for Opening Day because he can hit. But then, he just didn't. The best value Caratini can provide the Cubs going forward is as a trade asset. Willson Contreras is the starting catcher on this team, and it's possible that infrequent playing time has contributed to Caratini being unable to figure out major league pitching. If he is backing up Contreras again next year, showing some promise at the plate will help the Cubs find him a new home. The “Easy” Solution: Start hitting the ball with authority, and you'll find yourself as the Texas Rangers' starting catcher soon enough. __Odds to win HR title:__ [How are Cubs players priced?](https://www.betchicago.com/odds-to-win-2019-home-run-title-mike-trout) ## Carl Edwards Jr. You're probably wondering why Carl Edwards Jr. is on this list. He had a good year, right? According to the overall numbers, he certainly did. The Stringbean Slinger pitched 52 innings out of the bullpen, recording a career-best 2.60 ERA with 67 strikeouts. But he also set a career-high with 5.5 BB/9, and down the stretch he was practically unusable. In September, Edwards threw seven innings, allowed four earned runs and walked 12 batters. The point here is that even with his erratic and inconsistent pitching, Edwards was still good enough to put up a 2.60 ERA. His fastball-curveball combination rivals any pitcher the league, and therein lies the problem: He could be so much better. At least once per year, Edwards goes through a brutal stretch in which he can't command his pitches. That leads to a ton of walks and blown leads, and suddenly Joe Maddon can't trust him in high-leverage situations. It's unfair to compare them, but what Josh Hader is for the Brewers is what Edwards could be for the Cubs. He has the stuff to be a relief ace. The only thing standing in the way of that is his own confidence, it seems. __The "Easy" Solution__: If you can overcome the inconsistency and trust your stuff, you'll be one of the elite pitchers in baseball. __More on Cubs__: [What bringing back Cole Hamels, trading Drew Smyly means for Cubs](https://www.betchicago.com/cole-hamels-contract-drew-smyly-trade-cubs)2018-11-27T17:20:35.505Z2018-11-27T12:20-05:00