In this look at MLB History, I’ll take a look at the best season from a Chicago Cubs player at each position to compile the all-time Chicago Cubs all-star team. These will be based on single seasons from the players, and they didn’t need to make the actual all-star team, mainly because the Cubs had some great players prior to the all-star game’s inception. Repeat seasons from the same player won’t be used, and players from the dead-ball era will be excluded.
Fergie Jenkins, 1971
The three highest seasons according to WAR (since 1919), all belong to Jenkins, who spent the prime of his career in Chicago. Jenkins was acquired in a 1966 trade with the Phillies when he was 23, and in his age-28 season in 1971, he won the Cy Young award. In 1971, Jenkins threw 325.0 innings, with a 2.77 ERA, 2.38 FIP, and 9.5 WAR, with a 24-13 record. His ERA- of 73 was the best of his career, excluding his 1965 season when he only threw 12.1 innings.
It was only his second all-star appearance, as he paced the league in innings, wins, starts, complete games, and K/BB ratio. In 1991, Jenkins was cemented into MLB history as a Hall of Famer, and now, the Cubs have announced that he will also be getting a statue outside of Wrigley Field.
Mark Prior, 2003
Prior was the ace of the infamous 2003 Cubs, when they went all the way to NLCS and were five outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945. In his 2nd MLB season as a 22-year-old, Prior made 30 starts and went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 2.92 xFIP, 2.82 SIERA, 18.4% K-BB%, and 7.8 WAR. He’s one of the most interesting players in MLB history, as his breakout season seemed like the start of the great career, but injuries derailed his career and he only made 106 career starts. In 2003, his only season with a sub-3.00 ERA, Prior finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and led MLB pitchers in WAR, finishing fourth in ERA and second in K/9 (trailing only his teammate, Kerry Wood).
Jake Arrieta, 2015
In his first stint with the club, Arrieta was one of the best pitchers in the entire league. The year prior to the Cubs’ first World Series championship in the live-ball era, Arrieta rode a stretch that’ll go down in MLB history as one of the best 2nd halves to a Cy Young award and even threw a complete game shutout in the Wild Card game. Arrieta threw 197.1 innings in 33 starts, and had a 1.77 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 2.61 xFIP, 21.3% K-BB%, 2.75 SIERA, and 7.0 WAR.
Whether or not he deserved the Cy Young is debatable (Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw both have a case), but Arrieta had a great year regardless. Arrieta wasn’t an all-star, due to the majority of his production coming in the 2nd half, but he led the league in wins (if you care), and even finished sixth in MVP voting.
Greg Maddux, 1992
In his final season with the Cubs, Maddux began his trek to MLB history, winning the 1st of four consecutive Cy Youngs. In his age-26 season, Maddux had a 2.18 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 1.01 WHIP, and 7.0 WAR despite only striking out 199 batters in 268.0 innings and having a 12.2% K-BB%. Although ’92 was his true breakout year, he wouldn’t peak until Atlanta, where he signed a five-year, $28MM deal following his first Cy Young season. The 1992 Cubs were just a 4th place team and had a below-.500 record, but Maddux was a true bright spot as he began a stretch that would propel him to a top-10, if not top-five, career for a pitcher in MLB history.
Dick Ellsworth, 1963
There were a few other candidates for the final rotation spot, but Dick Ellworth’s 1963 season was the best. In 1963, the 23-year-old broke out with the best season of his career, as he finished with a 2.11 ERA (61 ERA-), 2.63 FIP (77 FIP-), and 6.6 WAR in 290.2 IP. Ellsworth’s, like Arrieta’s, was another case where he won the Cy Young but didn’t make the all-star team, a weird blip in MLB history. Ellsworth made his only all-star appearance the next season, 1964, despite having a 3.75 ERA, 4.04 FIP and 10-14 record. Ellsworth’s 19th place finish in MVP voting was the best year out of an otherwise average career.
Bruce Sutter, 1977
As a closer, Sutter threw 107.1 innings and had 31 saves while racking posting a 5.2 WAR, one of the greatest for a reliever in MLB history. He had a 1.34 ERA, 1.61 FIP, and 10.82 K/9, while stranding 83.7% of the baserunners he gave up. It was just his 2nd season, and his first all-star appearance. Although he won the Cy Young Award in 1979, his 1977 season was the best of his historical Hall of Fame career.
Lee Smith, 1987
In Smith’s last year in Chicago, he made his 2nd all-star appearance as a Cub and finished the year with 36 saves and a 3.12 ERA, 2.35 FIP, and 2.9 WAR in 83.2 innings. Smith is also a Hall of Famer and although he won four Rolaids Relief Awards, his best season (1987) was not one of those years.
Catcher – Gaby Hartnett, 1935
Hartnett only played 116 games in 1935, but he won the MVP award as a 34-year-old catcher. In the games he played, he slashed .344/.404/.545 with a 151 OPS+ and 154 wRC+, 5.1 WAR (second-highest of his career), and won the only MVP of his Hall of Fame career. Although Hartnett isn’t usually mentioned with the greatest catchers in MLB history, he played 20 years (19 with Chicago) and is far and away the best catcher in Chicago Cubs history.
1st Base – Derrek Lee, 2005
Cap Anson and Frank Chance both had great seasons in their careers, but they played in the late-1800s or early-1900s, eras of MLB history that were excluded from this team. Lee’s 2005 season was the best of his career and his first all-star appearance in his second year with Chicago. He played 150 games and led the National League in hits, doubles, batting average, slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases while winning the gold glove, silver slugger, and finishing third in NL MVP voting. He led the National League in wRC+ (170) and only trailed AL MVP Alex Rodriguez (174) for the league lead.
2nd Base – Rogers Hornsby, 1929
This one may be tough to swallow for Cubs fans, but Hornsby’s first year in Chicago was one of the best in MLB history. The Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest to ever play the game, spent the majority of his career with St. Louis, but after he was traded from the Boston Braves, he immediately had one of the best seasons of his career.
He won the 2nd and final MVP award of his career, as he led the National League with a 1.139 OPS, 178 OPS+, 174 wRC+, and led the entire MLB with 11.1 WAR, the 22nd highest in MLB history, and 3rd highest for a 2B, trailing only himself in 1924 and 1921.
3rd Base – Ron Santo, 1967
Recency bias and the ring nearly led me to pick Kris Bryant‘s 2016 MVP season for this spot, but Santo has the three highest seasons according to WAR while playing significantly better defense than Bryant ever did. Out of Santo’s three best seasons, 1967 was his worst at the plate, best with the glove, and highest MVP finish, despite being the only year he didn’t make an appearance in the Midsummer Classic, a testament to how interesting MLB history can be. Santo had a .300/.395/.512 slash line with a .400 wOBA, 153 wRC+, and 9.5 WAR in 1967, the best year of his illustrious career.
Shortstop – Ernie Banks, 1959
Who else? Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub himself, is the obvious pick for the shortstop position for the best Cubs lineup in MLB history. Banks has the three best, and five of the top seven, seasons in WAR in Cubs’ history, with his 1959 MVP year taking the cake as his best year. He played in both all-star games that year, as he won his second straight MVP award. In 1959, he slashed .304/.374/.596 with a .409 wOBA and 9.7 WAR while hitting 45 home runs, scoring 97 runs and knocking in 143. He also played great defense, and although it’s tough to quantify, he had a 32.4 DEF and 23 TZ (both career bests).
Left Field – Billy Williams, 1972
Alfonso Soriano led him in WAR in his 2007 season, but Williams played more games and was much better offensively despite being a horrible defender in left field. Williams’ 1972 season was at the tail-end of his career, but at age-34, he had the best season of his Hall of Fame career. He won the batting title, led the league in SLG and OPS, and finished second in MVP voting in a bounceback year. Williams slashed .333/.398/.606 with a .441 wOBA, 170 wRC+, and 6.5 WAR (the 2nd highest of his career, trailing just his 1965 season, when he played RF).
Center Field – Hack Wilson, 1930
Wilson has the top-three years in WAR among Cubs’ center fielders, headlined by his 1930 season. Although Wilson was an MVP-finisher five times, 1930 was not one of those years, despite it being the best year of his career. Wilson’s .723 SLG ranks 22nd in MLB history for a single season, 11th if you exclude Bonds and Ruth, and is the 2nd highest in Chicago Cubs history. Wilson led the league in HRs, RBI, BB, SLG, OPS, and OPS+ while he finished with a 171 wRC+ and 8.0 WAR.
Right Field – Sammy Sosa, 2001
The home run chase of ’98 was one of the most exciting years in MLB history, but his 2001 season was the best of Sosa’s career. Sosa didn’t win MVP because 2001 was the first year of Barry Bonds‘ four-year stretch which he won MVP each year and made MLB history, but Sosa finished in 2nd while slashing .328/.437/.737 (1.174 OPS) with a 186 wRC+, and 9.9 WAR. It was the fourth of seven straight all-star appearances for the former MVP award winner.
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