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It’s still early. The baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint.
We’ve seen teams lie in the weeds in the first month or two of the season before busting out. So by July this argument will be as relevant as going to a video store after you get your milk delivered by the milkman while you type on a typewriter today. And given how I jinx things…..well….watch the Cubs string up 20 wins in a row.
Anyway, before the season started I figured the Cubs would be back after a 2017 year where they were mentally exhausted from the season before, with winning a world championship for the first time in 108 years. When a fan base has waited on the Cubs for the longest time to win one, you pretty much will be at the front & center of everything in the town and in the media, both national and local. It happened in 2005 with the Red Sox somewhat when they broke the Curse the year before. Even Joe Maddon said at the All-Star Break the team just needed to get their minds in order and just take a nice break. You saw it on how the Cubs acted as if they were just ready for the break as they lost 3 of their final 4 including two blowout home losses to the Brewers and Pirates. Now the Cubs recuperated in the 2nd half and rolled over the competition and in the NL Central to win while advancing to the NLCS before bowing out to the Dodgers (by then you saw that the 2nd half and the NLDS series win against Washington took everything out of them).
“Okay,” I thought, “the spotlight will be on the Astros so the Cubs will get their batteries FULLY recharged in 2018 and will be a threat for the World Series once more.”
So after April, the Cubs have found themselves in a bit of a head-scratching situation. They’ve gone extremely high, taking a 4-game sweep over the rival Brewers where no starter allowed an ER in the entire series to an extreme low where they have lost 4 in a row after winning 5 in a row and 7 of 9.
So what the heck is happening in Chicago? I think there are a few reasons for it.
STARTING PITCHING REMAINS STREAKY: I mentioned the Cubs rolled against the Brewers where the entire rotation didn’t allow an ER in the 4-game series sweep. Since then, the Cubs starters have gone 4.95 with only 1 quality start. And the one guy who didn’t give up any ER’s in his start, Jose Quintana, gave up a HR and couldn’t make it to the 5th inning and gave up 5 hits and 4 walks in 4 innings to give him a 2.25 WHIP. The starters also have allowed 8 HR in that stretch. So whatever momentum they had against the Brewers is already long gone. And the two guys they paid a steep price for with Jose Quintana (via prospects including Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez, who are tearing it up in Birmingham) and Yu Darvish (6 years, $126 mil), have not panned out at all. Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester have been the rocks of the rotation and while Tyler Chatwood has been solid in terms of the ERA, the WHIP is pretty high, meaning he may be more lucky than good at this point. Had it not been for the Cubs bullpen right now, things would be really sour on the Northside.
OFFENSE HAS BEEN INCONSISTENT TOO: Unless you’re named Schwarber, Baez, or Bryant, who are all doing their parts, the rest of the lineup have not picked it up. Anthony Rizzo (more on him later) has been horrid while Addison Russell is just slightly above that. Of course, Jason Heyward hasn’t done much at the plate in his tenure in Chicago and that has shown this season. Willson Contreras is only hitting .235 with 1 HR (though his contributions are more behind the plate than at the plate) right now. So the offense has to pick it up because you do wonder if Schwarber continues this pace (though it seems like that Minor League stint last year did him wonders), but even if he will, three guys doesn’t an offense make.
INEXPERIENCE OR IMMATURITY? I know some are going “what are you talking about? This team has made the playoffs 3 straight years with a World Championship in the middle of it!” But hear me out. Chicago’s position player roster, the everyday starters are all under 30 and only one position player, Zobrist, is over 30 (37 years old). He already has 2 rings to his credit (Kansas City in 2015). The pitching, notably the bullpen have a veteran bunch (which probably explains why that is their biggest strength right now). The one thing I do remember about the Cubs in 2016, notably the hitters, was that they played with an edge to them. They knew that 2016 was a special year and they believed they could have gone 162-0 that year. But since then and save for a portion of the 2nd half of 2017, there hasn’t been that same drive by the likes of the hitters. I’m not saying all of them are that way (especially not Schwarber), but it is also natural to have that “buzzkill” a bit after you accomplished something very big and it is hard to find that drive.
However, Anthony Rizzo didn’t do any favors when earlier this season saying baseball players play too many games and the season should be shortened. Whether or not you agree with him or if his teammates agree with him, it probably didn’t need to have been said in the media like that. Because now there leaves doubt that when he plays now it is because he is playing only because he has to play and there may not be any intrinsic drive to him (though he’s hit better in the Cubs 4 game losing streak, going 6 for 17 with 3 HR, but is it because he is facing the rival Cardinals or what?) But overall you do have to wonder if Rizzo and some of the Cubs stars’ mentality still have that drive like they did in 2016. Yes it is hard to replace that year if you are a Cubs or a fan of the Cubs, but they have the best overall team in the NL if you just look at it from a talent perspective. But you do have to wonder when Chicago will fully get off of their butts and do something about it.
THE NL CENTRAL IS BETTER THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT: We figured the Brewers would be a threat in 2018 and the same holds true after the 4-game sweep is Milwaukee has won 4 of 5 since (nice to play the Reds right now). But the Cardinals have been playing above their heads and having good years from the likes of Paul DeJong, Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, and Yadier Molina. And Carlos Martinez & Miles Mikolas have been dealing for the Cards in the rotation. Alongside those two teams, the Pirates have been playing better than many thought. Of course, part of the reason has been the three teams I mentioned have bloodied the other NL Central team, the Reds into a pulp, as those three are a combined 15-2 against Cincinnati, while the Cubs have only faced them once (0-1). So when the Cubs get their dosage of the Reds, things may be a little different.
Overall, I do think Chicago by September will be ahead in the NL Central barring injury. But you do have to wonder when or if Darvish and Quintana can really help this team. And with a farm system that has graduated their star guys to the Majors (Bryant, Contreras, Schwarber, etc.) and then bet the farm to the South Side and Detroit, getting a front-end starter in 2018 in case that either Quintana or Darvish fail to get it together will be very tricky. And that may be a problem come October if the Cubs have to go against the Nationals, Dodgers, and to an extent the Diamondbacks. So if the Cubs were to go after a pitcher like Michael Fulmer or Chris Archer, they probably would get trumped out of it as there isn’t much left in the well, which means another up-and-coming NL team like Atlanta, Philadelphia, or a team with a good farm like Colorado would stand a better chance.
The Cubs window will remain open for a while. However, the window may not be as wide open as many think. There has been talk about possibly Bryce Harper joining the Cubs after 2018, but Chicago is already strung with Heyward’s contract until 2023 as well as Darvish’s (BTW, they will amass $41 million in that final season for both guys). While most of the young guns are locked up for the next 3-4 years, they will be arb eligible and options for the likes of Quintana (can make an average of $11 mil for the next 2 seasons after this one), Rizzo ($12.3 mil in 2019 and then $16.5 mil the next two years after that), then you have Bryant (who will be due for a MASSIVE payday), Russell (represented by Scott Boras), Baez (also going to get paid), and Schwarber all slated to be free agents after the 2021 season (which is closer than many think). So for as good as the Cubs are, they can be far better, but they need to get it together before they realize what they could have done besides 2016.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat