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Russian Representative: “The Soviet Union will be pleased to offer amnesty to your wayward vessel”
U.S. Representative: “The Soviet Union? I thought you guys broke up.”
Russian Representative: “Yes! That’s what we wanted you to think! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!!”
They had us fooled, really. Several players had down seasons. The Milwaukee Brewers overtook them as NL Central champs. Their 95-win season, which actually represented a three game improvement over 2017, wasn’t good enough. Whatever remained of the organization’s morals was eroding rapidly. It was time to fire anyone and everyone. Surely, the era of good feelings on the North Side was coming to an end, and the team was beginning to enter its decline. Our old friend Paul-Evan spat out an 82-win projection. The team was looking mortal, mundane, and mediocre.
Yet, despite a quiet offseason amidst the loud noises emanating from their division rivals, the Chicago Cubs are right there in the thick of it, a great bet to once again boast a win total starting with ‘9’ and see postseason baseball for the fifth consecutive year. The lineup is humming, with familiar faces Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Kris Bryant posting an OPS over .900. Javier Baez was right there with them before running into his current nine-game slump (.158/.158/.289). The emergence of David Bote has allowed the Cubs to plug their Daniel Descalso-shaped hole in the lineup and field a complete lineup of above-average hitters. While he’s played plenty of third, Bote’s been charged lately with second base duties, particularly given the sagging performance of the disgraced Addison Russell.
Joe Maddon does a lot of things that I do not understand, and one of them is his use of Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot. He walks a lot, but there’s better choices on this team from an OBP perspective. “The Babe” has a history of struggles with lefties, but they haven’t manifested themselves this year. Albert Almora is a stellar defensive outfielder, but his droopy bat has caused him to lose playing time indirectly to the newly acquired Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez got off to a hot start with his new team before hitting a rough strikeout-laden patch. The Cubs make room for Gonzalez in the lineup by shifting Jason Heyward to center on occasion. Heyward’s in the midst of his best offensive season with the Cubs, thanks to a surging walk rate and power levels that he hasn’t displayed since his Braves days. He’s not the star he once was, but nor is he the deadweight that the Cubbie faithful once feared he might be.
The Cubs’ rotation has been far more stable this year than in 2018. Cole Hamels’ career seemed to be rejuvenated upon being traded last July from the hapless Texas Rangers to an NL Central contender. As always, Hamels’ changeup is his deadliest pitch, and it’s been nothing short of devastating in 2019. Kyle Hendricks is the Cubs’ answer to Mark Buehrle, a unicorn whose impeccable command makes an effective pitcher out of unremarkable stuff. One of the great wonders of today’s game is that Hendricks is able to not only survive, but thrive in a major league rotation despite throwing starboard, averaging less than 88 mph on the fastball, and only rarely using an actual breaking pitch. The Sox might not wind up facing this rare soft-tossing righty this season, however, as shoulder inflammation has him out for an indefinite period of time.
Old friend Jose Quintana (screw that, he’s still my friend, I LOVE YOU JOSE!!!) continues to do his Quintana thing, meaning putting up the same very good results via a strategy he’s never used before. The Colombian Chameleon just keeps right on adapting, as Sahadev Sharma highlighted his new added focus on a changeup this season. Lefty Jon Lester has aged remarkably gracefully; while many Cubs fans thought he’d provide a huge short-term boost to the rotation, few probably thought he’d be collecting down-ballot Cy Young votes in the fourth year of his deal. There’s some chance that he does so again this year. As Lester’s velocity has declined to close to 91 mph, he’s shifted more and more emphasis to his cutter.
There have been a couple issues with the Cubs’ pitching staff that have held them back. Yu Darvish still has swing-and-miss stuff but his control has been so poor that it hasn’t translated into good results. In addition, the bullpen has often been unreliable and a source of scrutiny. The addition of Craig Kimbrel should help down the road, but the Cubs are taking it slow with the relief ace and giving him a condensed spring training followed by a rehab assignment.
The Cubs may not be the juggernaut that they were during their World Series run, but any assumption that they were going to fade into the middle of the pack seems faulty. They’ve gone from having the target on their backs to being sort of slept on. Still, the league’s upper third has strengthened considerably since 2016. If the Cubs are to win another title, they’re going to face a much tougher road to get there.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Tuesday, June 18: Ivan Nova vs. Cole Hamels
- Wednesday, June 19: Lucas Giolito vs. Jon Lester
- Kyle Schwarber – LF
- Kris Bryant – 3B
- Anthony Rizzo – 1B
- Javier Baez – SS
- Carlos Gonzalez – RF
- Willson Contreras – C
- Jason Heyward – CF
- David Bote – 2B
- SP1: Cole Hamels – LHP
- SP2: Jose Quintana – LHP
- SP3: Jon Lester – LHP
- SP4: Yu Darvish – RHP
- SP5: Kyle Hendricks – RHP (IL)
- CL: Pedro Strop – RHP
- RP1: Brandon Kintzler – RHP
- RP2: Steve Cishek – RHP
- RP3: Kyle Ryan – LHP