Cubs find last-place prediction ‘entertaining’

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MESA, Ariz. — From four consecutive playoff seasons to last place?

It depends on whose geek department you believe.

Multiple outlets project the Cubs to finish on top of the National League Central again with 88 victories, but the latest PECOTA projections by Baseball Prospectus say the Cubs will win only 80 games — good for last in the division.

‘‘That’s cool. They want to be different, right?” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “I guess they want to get some publicity. I think we all know what we have in this clubhouse.”

If anything, the surprising prediction of a 15-win drop for the Cubs by a respected metric might speak to the hard-to-define nature of a team that averaged 97 wins the last three years but is perceived by some to be in decline.

The Cubs were conspicuously quiet this winter as division rivals added impressive names to their rosters. Team president Theo Epstein also made it clear after the Cubs’ quick playoff exit in October that he considered the lack of production late in the season ‘‘unacceptable’’ and questioned the team’s “killer instinct” at times throughout the season.

But 95 wins to last place in a division with the Reds and Pirates?

“It might happen, but I’m betting it won’t happen,” Schwarber said. “I don’t think we’ll do that, so next question.”

As if the Cubs needed any more motivation after the shock and bitterness brought on by last year’s early exit.

“We were all pissed off that it ended the way it did,” Schwarber said.

The Cubs already knew they probably were back to being hunters in the NL after a three-year run of being the hunted.

But even with a disappointing finish to 2018, no significant offseason acquisitions and their most successful manager entering a lame-duck season, it was hard for those in Mesa to do anything but scoff and laugh at a last-place projection.

“We added Cole Hamels last year and kept him, so that’s obviously huge,’’ closer Brandon Morrow said. ‘‘And we’re adding a healthy Yu Darvish and hopefully a healthy Brandon Morrow [around May], and a full season, hopefully, of a healthy Kris Bryant. What was our record last year?”

Uh, 95-68?

“So there you go.”

For what it’s worth, the Cubs have outperformed annual PECOTA projections three of the last four years — by a four-year total of 29 wins.

In fact, the Cubs’ own internal projections hit last year’s 95-win total exactly despite significant injuries to their newly signed $126 million starter (Darvish), 2016 MVP third baseman (Bryant) and shutdown closer.

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They won’t say what they project for their win total in 2019. But insiders suggest it puts them in line for another division title.

“It is entertaining,” manager Joe Maddon said of the PECOTA shade. “Who knows why or how they arrive at that stuff? It really means nothing. You’ve got to go out and play the game.

“I have zero interest in something like that.”

Obviously, propeller-headed programs don’t account for emotion, lame-duck managerial status or hunch-based observations.

BP’s analysis of this year’s Cubs includes a projected 743 runs allowed (second-most in the NL) — a 15 percent spike for a team that ranked as high as first and no worse than ninth in the majors in fewest allowed the last four years.

And it projects one of the team’s strengths in recent years, team defense, among the three worst in the league despite only one platoon-level change at any position (second base) since the end of last season.

“I really don’t pay attention to that stuff in the offseason,” reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said. “I come in and look at my team only, and I know how good we can be.

“The last couple of years we have been that team to beat. I still feel like we’re the team to beat, regardless of how teams are stacked up.”

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