Okay, let’s open with a little exercise: Everyone stand up. Now sit down if you had David Bote as this year’s breakout performer in place of Kris Bryant. Sit down if you thought we’d see Anthony Rizzo excelling as Joe Maddon’s leadoff man for weeks on end. Or if you had Jason Heyward and Javy Báez batting 3-4 in the lineup. Finally, grab some pine if you predicted the Cubs trading for Cole Hamels.
Looking at the standings as of Aug. 7, the Cubs lead the NL with a 65-47 record. Not so unusual given the club’s recent history, offseason acquisitions, and a very good roster with a good balance of youth and experience. But it’s the manner in which they’re achieving this success that has fans scratching their heads.
The Cubs have scuffled through disappointing production from a starting rotation Maddon billed before the season as potentially the best he’s ever had, whether due to injuries or an inability to throw strikes. Likewise, the hitting seems to run hot and cold, with double-digit outbursts followed by a run or two on what feels like a regular basis.
That fueled the whispers of a Manny Machado trade that continued to reverberate throughout social media and local talk shows up until he was sent to the Dodgers. There was even some chatter surrounding one of today’s marquee pitching talents, Jacob deGrom, who remains a Met. For now. In the end, that was all typical trade deadline huffing and puffing, but it spoke to the dissatisfaction with the current roster.
Because the offense hasn’t always been consistent, people might forget how potent it really is when you consider less than typical seasons from key stars. Rizzo endured a prolonged slump that saw him hitting .238 from his typical run-producing spots in the order, but has found a spark in the leadoff role (.353/.446/.659). Bryant (.276, 11 home runs) has spent several weeks on the DL and had his production blunted for another month by shoulder soreness.
But others have emerged to shoulder the load, namely Báez (.302, 25 home runs), who has emerged as an MVP candidate by leading the Cubs with 141 wRC+ and topping the NL with 88 RBI and a .594 slugging percentage. Ben Zobrist (.311/.395/.462) has turned back the clock and Heyward (.283/.348/.416) is finally showing the offensive prowess we all expected prior to the 2016 season when he signed his eight-year, $184 million contract.
If there’s a positive byproduct of Bryant’s absence, it’s that it has allowed for the emergence of Bote. Not that it’s apples to apples, but he has been much more than just a replacement player over the course of the season (.328/.419/.508 in 29 games). Not bad for a kid who toiled in the Cubs’ system for parts of six years before making his MLB debut on April 22.
Possibly one contributing factor for the offensive woes actually springs from the suspect starting pitching, which has put the Cubs in too many early holes. The overall unit is 40-34 with a 4.12 ERA and features the second most walks (272) behind the White Sox. Their 1.38 WHIP sits behind only the Padres (1.48) and Reds (1.45) in the NL.
All-Star Jon Lester (12-4, 3.44 ERA) looked to have reverted back to ace status for the first half of the season but it’s been dicey for the most part after that. Kyle Hendricks (8-9, 4.07) is serving up homers at a career-high 16.5 percent clip, just inside the bottom 10 in that category among qualified starters. He has shown progress in recent outings, including his performance against the Cardinals on July 29 in which he retired the final 17 hitters faced.
Yu Darvish (1-3, 4.95) has spent much of the year on the DL due to elbow impingement and the timetable for his return has caused much consternation in and out of the clubhouse. Not that things are as Alex Rodriguez depicted them recently, but it’s tough when you’re getting no production from someone who was expected to anchor the rotation. However, Darvish looks to be making significant progress as his 55-pitch bullpen session over the weekend would suggest.
José Quintana (10-7, 4.12) has been a bit better than the overall numbers might suggest, but no one’s going to forget his high trade cost. Then again, he might be the most consistent Cubs starter in recent weeks. Outside of a clunker in his July 28 outing against the Cardinals, Quintana has lasted at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs in four of his last five starts.
Mike Montgomery (3-3, 3.36) has filled in admirably for two months now, ultimately taking Tyler Chatwood’s (4-5, 4.98) place. Chatwood leads MLB in walks (86) and BB/9 (8.14) and has been relegated to mop-up bullpen duty at this point.
Then you’ve got Cole Hamels, who comes to Chicago on the back end of a decorated 13-year career that includes the 2008 World Series MVP when his Phillies beat Maddon’s Rays. And who could forget his 2015 no-hitter at Wrigley Field? Hamels’ numbers with Texas weren’t great, especially at home (1-7, 6.41 EA), but a new team and playoff race might turn things around. His previous success at Wrigley sure doesn’t hurt (3-1, 1.76 ERA across six starts).
Consider that his first start with the Cubs saw Hamels throwing harder than he has since that no-no three years ago. In two starts as a Cub, Hamels is 2-0 with 11 strikeouts to three walks and has allowed just two runs (one earned) over 11 innings.
Then there’s Drew Smyly, who could begin a rehab assignment if Thursday’s simulated game goes well. Smyly could be a potential addition to the bullpen later in the season and might even make a spot start or two. The hope is that Darvish should be back by then as well, strengthening both the rotation and the ‘pen as Montgomery slides back to his long-relief role.
The Cubs couldn’t afford to just sit back and wait with their fingers crossed, so they focused their trade efforts on building up pitching depth. Landing Jesse Chavez from the Rangers and swinging a deadline day acquisition of Brandon Kintzler from the Nationals gave them two seasoned high-leverage vets for the relief corps. Kintzler also brings closing experience from his 2017 All-Star campaign with the Twins.
With 112 games already down as of post time, we can say with a good deal of confidence who the Cubs are. Unlike the late Dennis Green, however, we can’t say that they are who we thought they were. And with 50 games left to play, we still can’t say exactly who they will be. But despite them falling short of expections, we’ve already seen them find success from unexpected players and places.
Will that continue? Will they eventually get late contributions from injured and/or ineffective key contributors? Your guess is as good as mine on those fronts, but it’d sure be nice with the Brewers breathing down the Cubs’ neck down the stretch.