Since taking over as general manager in 2011, Theo Epstein has transformed the Cubs from cellar dwellers into a team that is one of the favorites to win the 2016 World Series. The Cubs won 97 games in 2015, but since they play in the NL Central along with the Cardinals and Pirates, who won 100 games and 98 games respectively, they finished in third place. The Cubs eventually knocked the Cards and Bucs out of the playoffs, but their dreams of playing for a World Series title were crushed when they were swept by the New York Mets in the NL Championship series. The Cubs quickly put the ugly memory of that stunning defeat behind them, and manager Joe Maddon and Epstein worked together to add some noteworthy veteran players to a talented roster that already includes potential future superstars like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.
The hope is that the addition of players like Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist will strengthen the Cubs and weaken the teams who will be competing with them to represent the National League in the 2016 World Series. Heyward and Lackey both made big contributions to the NL Central Champion Cardinals and will be sorely missed by the “Red Birds.” The signing of Zobrist not only reunites him with Maddon, his manager for nine years with the Tampa Bay Rays, but it also prevented the Mets from signing the versatile player, who could be eligible as both an infielder and outfielder depending on your Fantasy league’s rules.
The Cubs also traded for RHP Adam Warren (giving up IF Starlin Castro), and re-signed RHP Trevor Cahill. Neither of them have much Fantasy value (unless you play in a league that tracks holds) and will primarily work out of the bullpen, but each has starting pitching experience and provides the Cubbies with insurance in case they need to replace one of their starters.
Here’s a look at the Fantasy outlooks for some of the other players mentioned above.
Jason Heyward, OF
After Jason Heyward hit 27 home runs, drove in 82 runs and stole 21 bases in 2012, many thought he’d develop into a perennial 30 home run, 20-plus stolen base, elite Fantasy outfielder. Although he still steals bases, Heyward’s power has waned and he hasn’t hit more than 14 home runs since that season. With an average fly ball distance that has decreased from 290.25 feet in 2012 to just 276.98 last season, along with the fact that he recorded the lowest fly ball rate of his career (23.5 percent) in 2015, it’s unlikely that he’ll approach the 30 home run plateau again.
He does have a history of hitting well in Wrigley Field. For his career, Heyward’s .268 batting average and .431 slugging percentage jumps to .311 and .522 respectively, when he plays in the north side of Chicago. After spending the majority of his major league career playing home games in pitcher-friendly ballparks in Atlanta and St. Louis, Heyward will now get a chance to call the stadium that features the third-highest home run rate in all of baseball, home.
According to Fantasypros.com, Heyward had an ADP of 22 among outfielders in 2015. Whether his eight- year $184M dollar contract increases his current ADP remains to be seen. However, if you draft him, don’t panic if he gets off to a slow start. Its par for the course. For his career he’s batting .237 through the end of May.
Heyward has become a disciplined hitter, swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and also lowering his K percentage from 23.3 in 2012, to a career low of 14.8 in 2015. He should also benefit from playing for Maddon, whose aggressive managing
style encourages his players to take advantage of base stealing opportunities
. For what it’s worth, on August 9 Heyward will turn 27 years old, the age that some baseball analysts consider to be a magical number in the development of major league hitters. Heyward is expected to bat second in the Cubs’ power laden lineup, and should see plenty of good pitches to hit. Statistically, I expect him to approach 20 home runs, bat somewhere around the .285 range, drive in approximately 85 runs and steal 20 to 25 bases this season.
Ben Zobrist, 2B
In the prime of his career, Ben Zobrist was highly sought after in Fantasy circles due to his multi-position eligibility, and the fact that he regularly reached double-digits in home runs and stolen bases. Between 2009 and 2012, he averaged just over 19 home runs and slightly more than 18 stolen bases per season. Zobrist stole just three bases last season, however, he is expected to lead off for the Cubs, and is another player who could benefit from Maddon’s tendency to encourage his players to steal bases. He reached double-digits in steals during six seasons under Maddon. Zobrist has a lifetime .353 batting average in limited playing time at Wrigley Field (20 plate appearances) and should benefit from playing in a hitter’s park. With Maddon expected to use him as a late game defensive replacement for either Schwarber or Jorge Soler, Zobrist should maintain his outfield eligibility and Fantasy value. Zobrist’s ability to play the outfield will also allow the Cubs to give 23-year-old Javier Baez, whom the Cubs seem to be auditioning at several different positions, the occasional spot start at second base. Zobrist is a patient hitter who’s above average walk rate can help you in Fantasy leagues that track OBP. He should see a slight uptick in his power numbers as a result of playing in Wrigley Field. Anticipate a batting average in the .270 range and approximately 15 home runs. As the Cubs’ potential leadoff hitter he should score at least 85 runs, and don’t be surprised if he steals 10 to 12 bases.
John Lackey, SP
As I alluded to earlier, signing Heyward and RHP John Lackey away from the division rival Cardinals could directly help the Cubs end their 108-year World Series Championship drought. Lackey’s career best 2.77 ERA and 13 wins helped the Cards repeat as NL Central division champs last season, despite losing perennial Cy Young Award contender Adam Wainright for most of the year. It’s going to be difficult for the Cards to replace Lackey, who had the seventh best WAR (5.59) among pitchers last season according to ESPN. Contributing to Lackey’s overall success last season were his nine wins, 1.93 ERA and 1.17 WHIP when he pitched at home. We know he can pitch well in St. Louis, but his 3.82 road ERA in 2015 and 6.87 road ERA with the Cardinals in 2014, tell me that he might be due for a bit of regression. Another reason to speculate that Lackey might take a slight step back this season is that his 82.6 percent strand rate, which is just about 10 points above the league norm and his career average, is largely unsustainable. Lackey has pitched just 13.2 career innings at Wrigley, and although he was effective, (12 strikeouts, 1.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), there’s simply not enough data to determine what the long-term effects of making half his starts in a stadium that is traditionally known as a hitter’s park, will be. There is cause for a bit of optimism for Lackey in 2016 as well. Although Wrigley Field has a reputation for yielding its fair share of homeruns over the years, Lackey’s 2015 HR/9 rate (.87) was his lowest since 2010. He should get plenty of run support, as the Cubs have improved what was already a very good offense. Also, despite being 37 years old, Lackey hasn’t lost much off of his fastball, and he has good control. He often gets ahead of hitters, and his first pitch strike percentage has increased in each of the last four seasons. Lackey should provide Fantasy managers with double-digit wins, an ERA close to 3.75, a WHIP in the 1.25 range and 150-plus strikeouts.