Perhaps the most disappointing team this off season was the Cubbies. Sitting dead center in the incredibly crowded top of the NL Central Division, Chicago elected to do little in the vein of improvement to their roster. Meanwhile they watched the Cardinals, Brewers, and even the Reds make moved to improve themselves. This has many baseball writers and fans alike scratching their heads and fearful that the 2016 World-Series Champions could potentially be relegated to the divisional cellar just three seasons later.
You read that right. People are legitimately projecting the Chicago Cubs to be the worst team in their Division in 2019. That means even the perennially-average Pirates and the poorly-run Reds would theoretically do better than Chicago this season. How the hell is that possible?
Well, it’s actually not a terribly unfair assessment. The Cubs return studs like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez; but quite frankly there’s little more to really be excited about in terms of current star power. The Cubs’ bullpen ranks as one of the most dreadful in baseball. And their rotation features the most exciting names of 2012, but sadly none of them are living up to that moniker post-prime nor the gobs of cash that the team is handing them.
Position players laced throughout the Cubs’ roster do pack some serious upside however, and there is an abundance of breakout caliber talent who could theoretically help the team stay a float in the shark infested waters of the NL West. Guys like Wilson Contreras and Ben Zobrist have been successful in the past, and could continue on that route in 2019. Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber are still very much high-ceiling talents waiting to find their niche. Jason Heyward might’ve taken exception to months of trade talks and people calling his contract dead-weight, and turn up the intensity back to his former glory. Heck, even Addison Russell is still just 25 years old so when he returns from his suspension in May he could always flip the switch.
Ultimately, the guy I like the best to breakthrough for the Cubs in 2019 is Albert Almora. The prototypical center field talent has been phenomenal defensively since he debuted back in 2016, and his hit-tool hasn’t been far behind. He’s hurt by playing in an era that for the first time in history, doesn’t care about a players’ batting average; because Almora has hit .298 & .286 in the past two seasons respectively. Add to that his injury-free history, and Almora is a guy who will not only light opposing pitchers up…he’ll do it every single game of the year.
It’s hard to really pin down a contact hitter as a breakout talent in today’s game that leans so heavily on baseball’s three true outcomes (home run, walk, strikeout). But if he continues to progress on his most prominent tool, there’s no way the baseball world could possibly ignore him. A frighteningly good middle of the order that features a Bryant, Baez, Rizzo, Schwarber, and Contreras combination will only be effective if they have an efficient table setter hitting in-front of them. And in a league that appears to be devoid of that type of player, Almora’s emergence could prove to be a breath of fresh air for baseball.