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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Much like the pandemic charts that have become part of our daily lives, the Cubs appeared to have been past the peak. They began with a 61-win team in 2012, then moved to 66, then 73, then 97, before peaking at 103 wins and a World Series title in 2016. After the party, they showed signs of receding, calming down to 92, then 95 wins in the following two years and declining to a non-threatening 84 win total in 2019. That most recent season culminated in the firing of Joe Maddon, the most successful Cubs manager since Frank Chance (1906-1912), and was supposed to close the book on the juggernaut squad assembled by Theo Epstein a half-decade ago.
It seemed over, but the Cubs are now making a push for a second wave. They enter this weekend’s series with the second-best record in the National League, and have done it on the strength of starting pitching even after Jose Quintana sliced his finger open. Yu Darvish finally looks like the ace the Cubs thought they were signing before the 2017 season. As of this writing, Darvish is baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts-per-nine-innings (seriously) and he seems to be over the control problems that had defined the early portion of his Cubs career. Kyle Hendricks is still flipping soft 87 mph sinkers while absolutely chewing up hitters with his changeup. He has elite command and could keep doing this for a long time.
Jon Lester keeps working on that Hall of Fame case and is just eight wins away from the 200 mark. He now sits consistently below 90 mph on his fastball, down about a full tick from last season. One thing to keep an eye on this year is that Lester’s strikeouts have dipped considerably in the early going, and continuing to rely on batted ball outs more than he has in the past could catch up to him. Alec Mills is a sinkerballer who cracked the Cubs’ rotation last year and has more than held his own. In the absence of a heavy strikeout total, the righty wormkiller has managed contact exceptionally well so far this season.
The Cubs have managed all of this success despite two of their best players in Javier Baez and Kris Bryant being mired in horrible slumps to begin the season. One of the guys picking up the slack is Ian Happ, who could be on the verge of a breakout campaign. Happ’s always been good for a strikeout, but walks, power, and some batted ball luck have helped him to become the Cubs’ best hitter this season. Also carrying the weight is Anthony Rizzo, who’s putting up his typical power numbers in the middle of the lineup. While Rizzo’s walk rate is usually pretty strong, his OBP is further propped up by a steady diet of beanballs; he’s led the majors in getting drilled three of the last five years and is on pace to do so again this season, with six so far.
Catcher Willson Contreras seems to be alternating strong and weak seasons at the plate; this season’s been a weak one as his strikeout rate is uncomfortably high. After the Cubs swallowed four years and $98 million of Overpriced Outfielder, Jason Heyward is finally producing at the plate this season like the guy they thought they were signing all those years ago. Unfortunately, he’s now on the wrong side of 30 and isn’t as superlatively great defensively as he was when he was younger.
For what seems like forever, Kyle Schwarber has been labeled as an “American League player”,and now that his team finally gets a DH slot, he’s only appeared there three times. He’s still sluggish going to his left in the outfield, never really developed into the hitter everyone thought he would be, and is responsible for this embarrassing outburst, so for all the hype this guy’s received, his career is a big pile of “meh”. David Bote hit a big walk-off grand slam once and has otherwise had flair for dramatic moments, but his overall career numbers aren’t all that great. His power is just OK for a corner player and doesn’t have the best bat-to-ball skills. If he couldn’t draw walks, he’d be gone.
The Cubs have been using a tandem of 23-year-old Nico Hoerner and long-time Cleveland fixture Jason Kipnis at the keystone. Kipnis has been demolishing the ball and Hoerner has an OPS+ of 47, so Kipnis has understandably dominated the playing time of late. The Cubs have been utilizing the DH spot to get reserve catcher Victor Caratini and Contreras into the lineup at the same time. Caratini can certainly hit well enough to start behind the plate somewhere, but the bat plays less well at first or DH.
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In a rebuild, teams become fixated on the idea of sustained success. There’s two ways to extend success: get there quicker and keep the good times rolling longer on the back end. The Cubs seem to have achieved both. 2015 was supposed to be a transition year for the Cubs; they won 97 games. 2020 was supposed to further the Cubs’ fall toward mediocrity; they’re 16-8 in a short season. At some point, a relatively weak farm system and the core players getting closer to free agency will dismantle this run, but six years of (mostly!) great baseball is a victory for any long-term plan.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Friday, August 21 – Jon Lester vs. Dallas Keuchel
- Saturday, August 22 – Kyle Hendricks vs. Dylan Cease
- Sunday, August 23 – Yu Darvish vs. TBD
- Kris Bryant – 3B
- Anthony Rizzo – 1B
- Javier Baez – SS
- Kyle Schwarber – LF
- Willson Contreras – C
- Ian Happ – CF
- Jason Heyward – RF
- Victor Caratini – DH
- Jason Kipnis – 2B
- SP1: Yu Darvish – RHP
- SP2: Kyle Hendricks – RHP
- SP3: Jon Lester – LHP
- SP4: Alec Mills – RHP
- SP5: Jose Quintana (IL) – LHP
- CL: Rowan Wick – RHP
- RP1: Jeremy Jeffress – RHP
- RP2: Ryan Tepera – RHP
- RP3: Kyle Ryan – LHP
Photo credit: Ian D’Andrea