The Chicago Cubs just completed a three-series, nine-game run through three of the current or expected top teams in the National League. Let's review what happened.
Cubs at Washington Nationals, June 13-15: Cubs went 1-2
At this moment in time, the Nationals could be the toughest test for the Cubs when the playoffs roll around. The Nats can nearly match the Cubs on the mound, while Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy provide a 1-2 punch on the left side of the plate that the Cubs may not be able to contain. Without a lefty specialist in the bullpen, a reliever like righty Justin Grimm would have been called upon in the past to face guys like Harper and Murphy. But left-handers are hitting a whopping .324 off Grimm this year. Last year they hit .140 against him. Reliever Travis Wood is the Cubs' best option from the left side unless Gerardo Concepcion emerges as Joe Maddon’s go-to guy.
When healthy, the Cubs are deeper than Washington, so facing the Nats in a seven-game series would be better than a five-game series. While the lack of a trusted lefty is a problem now, it might not be by the time trading season is over. It’s undoubtedly a high priority for the Cubs' front office.
Lesson learned: The Nationals are a near mirror image of the Cubs, playing the game the right way and with a little competitive flair. Maddon said as much – and Nats star Jayson Werth backed it up -- at the conclusion of the series. The Nationals would be a formidable foe in the postseason.
Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, June 17-19: Cubs went 3-0
The Cubs have owned the Pirates this season, going 8-1. The Pirates simply doesn’t have the payroll flexibility to compete, and while they have a good lineup, they haven’t been able to augment their pitching staff in the same way the Cubs have. While the Cubs have picked up Jon Lester and John Lackey the last couple of offseasons, the Pirates have settled for acquiring names like Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong. The Pirates needed additions that would put them over the top after knocking on the division door for several years; instead, they had to settle.
Lesson learned: Both teams are dealing with injuries, but as good as the Pirates' farm system has been, the Cubs are deeper. That could be due to development or simply having more money. Either way, the Pirates simply aren’t as good as many thought they would be.
Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals, June 20-22: Cubs went 0-3
After sweeping Pittsburgh, the Cubs came back down to earth in three straight losses to the Cardinals, but one game really stands out: Wednesday's finale just didn't feel right, especially coming on the heels of close contests in the first two games of the series. Jake Arrieta was off his game and the Cubs failed both at the plate and in the field. The standings and Chicago’s recent dominance of St. Louis tell us otherwise, but an outside observer could easily have concluded that the Cubs are a little behind the Cardinals from watching the three games. It’s important to remember that injuries and rookie playing time may have contributed to the Cubs’ struggles this week.
Lesson learned: There were two lessons to be learned in this series: The Cardinals still have some life in them and the Cubs have a rising catcher of the future in Willson Contreras. His arrival is a bigger story than the three losses, as they mean less than what he can provide moving forward. The Cardinals won the series, but Contreras proved he can be a factor in the rivalry for years to come.
The Cubs head on the road for four games against an upstart Miami Marlins team, with Lester on the mound for Game 1. Last June, Miami was the sight of one of Lester’s worst performances as a Cub when he gave up six runs in just five innings.