Two weeks into the season the Chicago Cubs are right where a lot of people thought they would be at the end of it: around .500.
As you would imagine with a 6-5 team there are equally good things to dissect as there are bad. The offense is going through a positive transformation while the pitching staff is being a little exposed for not being deep enough. Who could have predicted two key relievers would be on the disabled list already? Or that the Cubs would be 1-2 in games started by Jon Lester and he would be without a quality start as a Cub.
But that’s the beauty of the game, things happen, and we get to find out if the Cubs can overcome. The great teams do.
The offense: As good as it has looked at times, it’s not that different than last year in terms of runs scored through 11 games. Of course we’re dealing with an absurdly small and unscientific sample size (cold weather games, etc.) but is there anything that can be learned after two weeks?
The Cubs are hitting just .227 as a team. That’s not very good but maybe more surprising is there are five teams hitting worse in the National League and three reside in the central division. No wonder the Cubs are in second place though just a game above .500. Last year, after 11 games the Cubs were hitting .244 but their on-base percentage was just .308. It’s .316 right now, good for fifth in the NL. That’s the important offensive statistic and the Cubs might be starting to turn the corner thanks to some new plate discipline. They’re averaging 3.91 walks per game, second in the league behind the Dodgers. Let that sink in. Two weeks or not, the Cubs are becoming a more dangerous team on offense simply because they are willing to take more free passes. And they’re seeing 3.94 pitches per plate appearance, tops in the NL. If that doesn’t scream Boston Red Sox nothing does. It was a key to the success of their offense when things were going well under Theo Epstein and finally the Cubs are mimicking that kind of discipline. Seeing more pitches and walking more will take the Cubs a long way.
Kris Bryant: The addition of Bryant will undoubtedly help in this department as well. His three-walk game -- plus two hits -- on Saturday was Bryant at his best. Well, close to it. His best is hitting home runs but his eye at the plate combined with his ability to adjust will keep his slumps shorter than most. Make no mistake, this is what will make him special. Bryant will have days like Friday when he understandably wasn’t at the top of his game in making his debut after just three hours of sleep, but when he makes the adjustments after an off-day or even an off-week he’ll go on a tear. If you watched him the rest of the weekend you saw a batter contributing in many ways but also one just missing on some pitches he’ll hit a long way sooner rather than later. The home runs are coming.
The injuries to Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez are proving to be big. That can’t be a surprise as both are important cogs late in games, especially Ramirez and especially in close games. All of a sudden Brian Schlitter and Zac Rosscup have been thrust into roles no one saw coming. It was only a few days ago the bullpen was pitching lights out but Hector Rondon left some balls over the plate in the ninth inning on Saturday while Schlitter inherited a couple of runners on Sunday and let one score. Then Jason Motte gave up a home run.
The pen just doesn’t feel or look right with Grimm and Ramirez down. It’s no wonder the team dipped back down to Iowa and called up a 13th pitcher. But the extra arms can only help if their effective. Gonzalez Germen joins Schlitter and Rosscup as three pitchers that didn’t make the team out of spring training who are being asked to help. It’s not how anyone saw it going down as the season began.
It will be interesting to see if Edwin Jackson is given a more prominent role. He’s thrown four clean innings out of the bullpen and he might just have the veteran know-how and mentality to get some outs in high leverage situations. Wouldn’t that be a surprise? Jackson, the set-up man. At this point, you can’t rule it out.
Jon Lester: Lester is having problems with his best pitch, the cutter. Once again it betrayed him as Will Middlebrooks hit a home run on Sunday off a cutter and according to ESPN Stats and Information opponents are still hitting obscenely high (.462) off the pitch so far in three starts. Catcher David Ross indicated after the game he was better with it from the windup but not as much when throwing from the stretch. Once Lester fixes that pitch he’ll be the Lester the Cubs invested so much in. Until then, he’s just an average pitcher trying to get through 5 or 6 innings without too much damage. It hasn’t been easy to watch.
Other notables: Starlin Castro is off to a good start, as much on defense as anywhere else. Once again the Cubs will have a good problem when Addison Russell is ready. Russell is too good to move off shortstop long-term but it sounds like the Cubs will kick that decision down the road as he’s starting to play more at second base in Iowa. That’s where the Cubs still don’t have an everyday starter on the big league club. Choosing between a 3-time all-star and an all-world prospect, especially on defense, is an issue 29 other teams would love to have.
Jorge Soler simply doesn’t look like he likes to hit in cold weather. Can you blame him? How much has he done it over the years? And until this season he’s never done it against the best pitchers in the world. As the weather heats up so should he.
The Cubs have survived their three-headed catching situation mostly because Welington Castillo has been valuable off the bench. Bryant’s addition to the lineup will only help matters as he’s one of those players that won’t be pinch-hit for so Joe Maddon has one less position to deal with in that regard. That’s a big part of the roster strategy: which players on a given night, besides the pitcher, might be hit for? Left field, second base and potentially catcher are the only three now so there’s more flexibility for the manager.
Summary: Two weeks in and already there have been plenty of storylines. With Bryant here and Lester’s “spring training coming to an end,” as Maddon put it on Sunday, maybe the Cubs can find some rhythm. They’ll need to get some arms healthy or re-work some bullpen roles before they can get where they want to be. Right now their record is reflective of their play. They should be about .500.
But we’re just getting started. Eleven games have proven at least one thing: the Cubs are fun to watch again.