Part of the fun of the regular season winding down is reviewing what happened to several over-hyped early storylines. That many went the way of the dodo is no surprise. To be provocative and follow the crowd are two parts of the game for sportswriters competing for your attention.
The fact I just used the passé term “storyline” and not the preferred “narrative” tells you all you need to know about my following au courant sportswriting trends. That said, I admit getting suckered in by the hype more than once. So as we start looking ahead to great success in the playoffs, let’s pause to laugh at a few of these foibles.
1. Best Cubs Rotation Ever
Oh, those naïve days of spring training. Remember when many opined how Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood could wind up comprising the franchise’s best rotation ever? But even as some spun dreams of each getting Cy Young votes, I thought this woefully sanguine.
Apparently no one could look up 1969 when the Cubs’ starting four produced a 22.8 pitching WAR. Compare that to the 18.8 WAR by the five-man rotation in 2016. Fergie Jenkins won 21 games and threw 311 innings in ’69, and still wasn’t the team’s best pitcher that year. That was Bill Hands with a 2.49 ERA in 300 innings for an 8.4 WAR.
Then there was the Chatwood signing, which I personally thought a reach. Intriguing road splits aside, I couldn’t overlook how the pitching-starved Rockies had dropped Chatwood from their 2017 rotation for a month after his ERA ballooned over 5.00. Sound familiar? I instead wished Chatwood’s money had gone toward boosting the offense with a veteran gamer like Lorenzo Cain (which would mean trading a surplus young outfielder).
2. NL Superteams
The Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals were all touted as NL superteams every bit the equal of Houston, New York, and Boston in the AL. I bought two-thirds of this line, picking the Dodgers to slump and miss the playoffs, and for the Cubs and Nats to duke it out for the pennant. The Nats got swatted like gnats and the surging Dodgers look poised to surpass the now Trevor Story-less Rockies in the NL West. So I eat crow on this one. Even in my mild naysaying, I whiffed.
3. Schwarber’s Slimmed Down Monster Season
Always credit athletes who work hard to improve their body and game, but I never saw anything like the hype surrounding videos of Kyle Schwarber shagging fly balls with a slimmer body. People said it surely would augur a huge leap forward in his homer rate and defense. It might even turn him into a .300 hitter.
How weight loss could improve anything other than defensive range was always a headscratcher for me. So I haven’t been surprised that his 2018 others numbers have remained near his career norms when you subtract his disastrous first half last year.
Now, I don’t think Schwarber’s talent has plateaued. But his goal this offseason shouldn’t be to land a Men’s Health cover. Instead, he must improve against pitchers in the stretch (.209 average), against lefties (.211 average), and add gap power to produce more doubles when not swatting homers.
4. Brewers Will Fade
Even with Cain and Christian Yelich, I was certainly in the “f-f-f-fade away” camp for this generation of Brewers. After they lost out on Darvish to the Cubs and didn’t seriously go after Jake Arrieta, I just didn’t think they had enough starting pitching for a whole season.
When they lost the division lead right before the All-Star break, they seemed to be following the script. But in the second half, they have actually improved as a team and have become steelier. In the process, they have deprived the Cubs of being able to use September to rest their core and could be the sleeper pick in the NL playoff bracket.
5. Machado, Machado, Machado
How baseball beat writers loved this storyline. But Manny Machado seemed barely more than a marginal improvement over Addison Russell when you incorporated the defensive drop-off at short. Even though I loved Machado’s numbers against power arms (a Cubs deficiency), I couldn’t see how his rental cost in trade would make sense even with a mid-season trade discount,
The Dodgers ultimately traded for Machado, who had just completed the best first half of his career, to cover for the injured Corey Seager. Since the trade, however, he hasn’t proven an offensive upgrade. Though his defense improved a tad, he still looks like a very athletic third baseman freelancing at shortstop. This all confirmed that the Cubs were right to stay pat, even in light of Russell’s many injuries.
7. $400 Million Men
Speaking of Machado, he and fellow 25-year-old Bryce Harper entered the season as the two most ballyhooed free-agents-to-be since Alex Rodriguez left Seattle after 2000. Talk swirled as to who would have the better 2018 and sign the first $400 million free agent contract.
Fast-forward to now. Each has posted one very good half of baseball: Machado in the first (.963 OPS) and Harper, almost secretly, in the second (.992 OPS). But over a full season, neither matched the sky-high hype. So much so, I doubt either attracts $300 million. However, maybe Machado does if he ends his vanity stint at shortstop and signs a 12-year deal with many opt-outs.
8. Baez’s Flawed Bat
I’m guilty of this one. Like most observers, I thought Javy Baez’s free-swinging ways posed the biggest barrier to him ever reaching his offensive ceiling. But Baez surprised everyone by not correcting a single high-strikeout hole in his swing. Instead, he just mashed better than ever on balls pitchers foolishly left in the strike zone.
Hats off to him, and crow be mine. Few predicted him to be the team MVP. But without his breakout season at the plate and on the basepaths, the Cubs would certainly be battling St. Louis for a Wild Card spot.
9. Contreras as MVP contender
For a magical month-long stretch in 2017, Willson Contreras carried the Cubs. Over 28 games from early July to early August, he put up an impressive 12 homers, 32 RBI, and a 1.161 OPS. Then he injured his hamstring.
Based on that magnificent stretch, many saw a league MVP in the making. This despite Contreras not having another month above an .800 OPS last year. So the lesson here: Never project too much off a hot streak, especially at the catching position.