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On a day that’s only occurred six other times in my 31 ½ years on this earth, the Cubs are hours away from getting their 2015 playoff season under way in Pittsburgh. As you’ve probably heard by now the game is set for first pitch at 19:08 hrs. Military time on 10-7 or 107 years since the last title. Let’s try to get past superstitions and try to plant a seed of why this year is different than the past. Here’s five reasons I’m picking the Cubs to move the Pirates to face their arch nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Joe Maddon
Maddon has been the talk of baseball all season. The best move of the offseason, Maddon has made the right moves all season. Whether it be drawing the media’s attention away from the club when they’d have issues, playing players in different positions so he has as many options as possible, sitting players in a slump to get a spark out of them, or keeping things light around the club house with late arrival days and costume days. They say managers are responsible for a few wins or loses a season. Baseball Reference used their Pythagorean W-L formula to calculate the Cubs at 90 wins, so the argument could be made Maddon is responsible for at least seven of the Cubs wins. Win or lose, Maddon should be manager of the year with how he’s managed this team.
1A. Jake Arrieta
To say Arrieta has been dominate in the last half of the season would be a true understatement. In the first half of the season he went 10-5 in 18 starts, giving up 35 earned runs in the process. In the second half of the season, Arrieta went 12-1 in 15 starts while only surrendering 9 earned runs in those games. On normal days rest (4 days), Arrieta is 11-2 with a 1.02 ERA in 16 starts. In night games, Arrieta is 14-2 with a 1.51 ERA in 20 starts including two complete game shutouts. In PNC Park this season, he has a 0.82 ERA in three starts this season with 0 home runs and 17 strikeouts. Lastly, the Cubs ace is 13-1 on the road this season with a 1.60 ERA this season.
Tired of stats? How about this last goodie: Against the Pirates, Arrieta is 3-1 in five starts this season with a 0.75 ERA. It’s the second best ERA he has against a team that he’s faced two or more times.
Feeling better going into this game? The man has been dominate this season and is well deserved to be in the Cy Young Award conversation. After listening and seeing interviews with Arrieta leading up to this game, the guy is definitely confident. Some have even called it cocky, but,on this team, it’s exactly what they need. This is the biggest reason I’m picking the Cubs.
- Starlin Castro
This season Castro has definitely been a hot topic among Cubs fans, whether it be his hitting slumps or his lack of attention in the field. However, ever since Maddon benched Castro after a pitiful defensive display against the Cincinnati where he had three errors. Castro has had 17 at-bats against Cole in the last five seasons and has a .353 average with four RBI’s against him. This could be Castro’s chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Cubs fans and the best news is he’s been hot. In the last 27 games Castro has hit .369 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in. The other bright spot about his performance lately, Castro has had only one error since his 3 error game Aug. 31st. I believe his bat will be alive tonight versus Pittsburgh and he’ll leave the game with no errors.
The defense has been solid across the board (especially lately with Castro’s head back in the game). For the 2015 season the eight position players have combined for 85 errors (including Castro’s 24 errors). The one question a lot of media has brought up yesterday and today is whether having Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in not at their respective usual positions of third and left field going to cause an issue. The outfield in Pittsburgh is larger than normal in left and right fields. The foul line in left is 325 ft. from home plate and left center jumps out to 410 ft. deep which is actually longer than center field (399 ft. deep). That’ll be the challenge for Bryant and Dexter Fowler to deal with in tonight’s game defensively.
In right, the jump isn’t quite as deep but it goes out to 375 ft. in right center. Schwarber will have to navigate that on his side of the field along with making sure to not run all the way to the wall if a ball is going to ricochet off the wall. I believe both guys have the speed and baseball smarts to be able to play well in the outfield. By the end of the game both may not be in the outfield anyway due to double switches and defensive subs.
The other issue on defense people have been talking about is Tommy La Stella playing third base. According to Jesse Rogers of ESPN 1000AM, he watched La Stella take several grounders at third base yesterday prepping for tonight’s game. La Stella only has played 52 innings at third base this season. Eleven of those games have come since August 26th, and he only had one error in those appearances.
The feeling is that Maddon is trying to load his lineup with lefties to face the right-handed Garrit Cole tonight. This season La Stella has hit .286 with one home run and 11 RBI against right-handed pitchers. There probably come a time in the game where for defensive reasons or even just straight up pitching hitting substituting, La Stella will probably exit the game in the 7th inning or later.
- Anthony Rizzo
If you’re looking for a side bet heading into these playoffs, bet on who will be hit more in the playoffs: Anthony Rizzo or every other team’s players? Rizzo has been hit by a pitch a whopping 30 times this season. Since he covers the plate so much, I wouldn’t be shock if while trying to jam Rizzo, Cole hits him at least one time.
Rizzo stands the best chance at seeing a pitch over the plate. He’ll have to do as much damage as he can with those pitches. He carries a .353 batting average against Cole with one RBI. If the Pirates decide to shift on Rizzo, don’t be shocked if the bases are empty, and Rizzo actually attempts to lay down a bunt or a chop swing to the left side to try to beat the shift.
This game will come down to cleverness. Something like Rizzo bunting to the left side could lead to a big inning or even the one run Arrieta needs to carry the Cubs. The Cubs have a clever manager and young, fun, clever players who would do anything Maddon asks them to do.
Prediction for the game
5-1 Cubs win. Arrieta goes eight innings with one earned run on 4 hits, 7 strikeouts, and one walk. Rodon comes into the game in the 9th and will give up one hit, a double-play and a strike out to close out the game.
The Chicago Cubs started out their season with a shutout loss to the St. Louis Cardinals with Jon Lester on the hill, and they finished off the first half of the campaign in identical fashion as they dropped a 6-0 decision on Monday night at rain-soaked Wrigley Field.
Aside from the crazy similarities between games 1 and 81, the fact remains that the Cubs are in a pretty good spot. They are nine and a half games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but they do hold a two and a half game lead over the New York Mets for the second wild card spot in the National League, they have gotten some tremendous pitching as of late, and young stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have been playing very well for a team that is looking to be a serious contender for the first time in nearly a decade.
Even with those positives, there are still plenty of reasons for concern. The team has one of the worst offenses in the National League, ranking near the bottom of the heap in the senior circuit in terms of runs scored (11th), batting average (13th), and strikeouts (most in the NL). They haven’t gotten the type of production they’ve needed from guys like Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, and players like Starlin Castro still aren’t quite living up to expectations.
Add to that the fact that Jon Lester has had difficulty performing consistently (although measures like Fielding Independent Pitching and others indicate that he is better than he’s been given credit for) and the fact that the Cubs are just 2-8 against the Cardinals this season, and there are some reasons for concern and pessimism after the halfway mark of the season.
Despite those negatives, the positives far outpace them. Joe Maddon’s team has developed a never say die attitude, going 19-15 in one-run games so far this season. They may be striking out a lot, but they’re walking a lot too, with the fifth-most free passes of any team in baseball. They are stealing bases at an excellent rate, converting on over 73% of their attempted steals. They have found ways to win even as their offense has sputtered, winning thanks to creative tactics and tremendous pitching over the last month or so of play.
Most importantly of all, the Cubs have persevered through injuries and the second-toughest schedule in baseball this season and still are in prime position to secure a playoff spot. Maddon has this group believing in themselves, and with all of his techniques and little tweaks to the lineup and the strategy of the team, he really has effected a serious culture and attitude change within the 25 men on the roster.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, represents why Cubs fans should be optimistic after the first half of the season. This team has fully bought into what Maddon has been preaching, and although their offense has struggled and the final order of the bullpen hasn’t been established (although adding Rafael Soriano to the mix will make an already strong bullpen even better), this team has found ways to win, and that’s the key ingredient if a team wants to make an October run.
As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We keep things going with the first base position.
There are only a couple of positions on the Cubs’ roster that are absolutely guaranteed, and their starting first baseman is one of them. Anthony Rizzo went from being a really solid player last season to being a potentially elite one, slugging 32 home runs, racking up an impressing 5.6 WARP and even garnering MVP votes for a last place team.
Perhaps more impressively than his play overall was the fact that he embraced his role as a leader on the team. With precious few veterans on the squad, Rizzo took it upon himself to be the voice of the team, and even though guys like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero will be helping out in that department this season, they aren’t likely to tell Rizzo to quiet down since he’s the guy who’s been around the longest on this particular team.
As for what we can expect from Rizzo in the upcoming year, it’s tough to say. Some advanced metrics suggest he’ll suffer a dip in his home run total but an increase in his RBI total (having guys like Dexter Fowler ahead of you in the lineup will help with that), but it wouldn’t be shocking to still see him hit around 30 home runs and drive in close to 90 runs. That would be a big boost to the Cubs’ offense, and with a guy like Kris Bryant potentially coming up midseason to help provide more protection, Rizzo could really take another step forward in the coming year.
First base is really the only position that the Cubs don’t have a certain back-up for at the moment, but guys like Mike Olt will likely be looked at to give Rizzo an occasional break. Calling up a guy like Dan Vogelbach is off the table (at least we’d assume it is), but other options like Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara (who is likely shifting into a utility infielder role with Fowler taking over as the full-time center fielder), aren’t exactly palatable.
Even though they aren’t blessed with a tremendous back-up, the Cubs’ first base situation is their second-best position in our eyes. Rizzo is one of the top first basemen in the National League, and with Joe Maddon at the helm and with the confidence of his breakout season still fueling him, the Cubs won’t have to worry about addressing this spot for a while.
With tremendous depth at other positions, the Cubs have a really shallow group of true first basemen in their system. Vogelbach is just about the only guy that immediately comes to mind, and while he’s a solid prospect, he’s likely not a game changer at the position from a defensive standpoint. That’s not a deal-breaker, especially considering how good he is at the plate (he had an impressive .357 OBP and 45 extra base hits in 560 plate appearances in High-A Daytona last season), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step or two up the ladder this season.
The Chicago Cubs unveiled their 2015 schedule on Monday afternoon, and while things are pretty standard for the most part, there were a couple of things that stood out on the slate.
First and foremost on that list was the fact that the Cubs will open the season against the St. Louis Cardinals on the Monday after Easter. Welcoming a big rival to Wrigley Field for Opening Day has the potential to really get the season off to a rollicking start at the Friendly Confines, and it will be interesting to see what kind of crowds the team draws.
Another interesting decision made by MLB was to once again have the Cubs play six games against the Chicago White Sox in 2015. Those series, which will take place in July (at Wrigley) and August (at US Cellular Field) are both weekend series, and should draw good crowds to both parks.
Outside of those interesting developments on the slate, there are five home series that are worth checking out if you’re going to be buying tickets to see the team at Wrigley next year.
May 25-27: Washington Nationals
The thought of the Cubs going up against players like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg is one thing, but to see those kind of power players go up against the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo will be even cooler. Expect some fireworks in this series.
May 29-31: Kansas City Royals
It is going to be an awesome homestand at the Friendly Confines as the Royals follow the Nationals into town. The Royals are in serious contention to win the AL Central this season, and with a young lineup and rotation, they should be in the conversation as one of the top teams in the junior circuit for years to come.
July 3-5: Miami Marlins
The Marlins are a team that has already alienated a lot of fans in South Florida because of their spendthrift ways, but with an opportunity to see Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez roll through the Windy City, Cubs fans shouldn’t miss this holiday weekend series.
August 18-19: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are only in town for two days, but with pitchers like David Price (who knows if he could be wearing a Cubs uniform in 2016) and Justin Verlander, odds are strong that the Cubs could see some of the best pitchers in the game in those contests.
September 25-27: Pittsburgh Pirates
The last home series of the season will be played against the Buccos, and even though the two teams are on opposite ends of the divisional race this year, it’s entirely possible that the Cubs could still be angling for a playoff spot when the rivals meet again.
The Chicago Cubs knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1 on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, and even though the performance was arguably one of the team’s best of the season, there was still bad news that put a damper on the festivities.
That’s because Starlin Castro, who has had a resurgent season after chafing last season under Dale Sveum, was injured in the first inning of the game on an awkward slide into home plate. The shortstop was able to limp to the dugout under his own power, but he was understandably removed from the game. X-rays were negative after the game, but he will undergo an MRI on Wednesday to see if there’s any structural damage to the leg.
Add to that the frustrating back injury that continues to hamper first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is sidelined for at least the next 10 days after an MRI revealed a muscle strain, and the Cubs are looking as though they could be without their two best players for a good chunk of the remainder of the season. The team has declined to rule either player out for the remainder of the campaign, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team is going to play each injury cautiously.
The real question for the Cubs is this: even if Rizzo and/or Castro can come back and play this season, would the team be smart to just sit them both for the duration? After all, Rizzo already has 568 plate appearances this season, and he’s set career highs in home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. He clearly is more dialed in at the plate than he ever has been in his career, and as such he doesn’t really have much left to prove for the team down the stretch.
Chris Valaika on the other hand could earn himself a reserve spot on the team next season if he can have a strong finish to the season. He only has 71 plate appearances with the Cubs so far this season, with two home runs, seven RBI, and a .185 batting average. Those numbers aren’t all that great, but he has shown signs that he could be better than his numbers would indicate, and more plate appearances would be a nice audition for him.
Castro is also a player without much left to prove, as he has shown increased power and plate coverage in his fifth MLB season. He has a very respectable .290 average, 153 hits, and a career high .774 OPS. His defense still needs some work, but with so little time left in the season, it’s unlikely that he would get much more time at the position anyway, so cutting him off now would be a savvy move.
In addition to those factors, getting Javier Baez some more reps at shortstop could only be a good thing for the rookie. He looked perfectly comfortable at the spot on Tuesday after being forced to switch from second to short following the Castro injury, and he could really thrive if given some more reps at the spot.
Whatever the Cubs decide to do, they have the benefit of not only being out of the playoff hunt, but of having players capable of filling in if Castro and Rizzo have to sit out. That is a luxury that most teams would love to have at this point in the year, and the Cubs should take full advantage of the chance.
Ever since the Chicago Cubs were eliminated from the 2008 playoffs by the Los Angeles Dodgers, every new season has come complete with a ton of disappointment for fans of the team. Whether it was the acquisition of Milton Bradley, the complete meltdown of Carlos Marmol, or the wasted last few seasons of Alfonso Soriano, there has been plenty for Cubs fans to be sad about in recent years.
Beginning in 2012 however, Cubs fans began to see signs of life. Whether it was the decision to trade for Anthony Rizzo in 2012, draft Kris Bryant in the 2013 MLB Draft, or the trade that netted the Cubs Addison Russell in 2014, or the signing of Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ front office has made a ton of moves that have strengthened the team for the long-term.
Obviously, those moves have come at a cost, but the benefits are finally beginning to show themselves with the emergence of Javier Baez on the scene for Chicago. Fans who have tuned out because of the lean years that have followed Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s arrival in the city find themselves glued to the TV once again as Baez has gotten off to his torrid start, and in equal measure the fans who have ridden out this rough road are being rewarded for their patience with the way Baez has arrived on the scene.
Perhaps more importantly than just the call-up itself or the way he’s started his career with the team, Baez has already shown he is capable of changing the way fans perceive the team. Against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night, nobody would have blamed fans for tuning out from the game after Hector Rondon blew his fourth save opportunity of the season by surrendering a run in the bottom of the 11th inning. If they decided to stick with the game though, they were instantly rewarded when Baez ripped an opposite field home run to give the Cubs back a lead that they would never relinquish.
On Thursday afternoon, a similar thing happened for the team as they won yet another game. Leading 4-2 in the top of the 8th inning, Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer were discussing how important it was for the Cubs to get an insurance run or two in the frame (perhaps remembering the Rondon and Wesley Wright struggles in Tuesday’s game). Sure enough, Baez strode to the plate, and somehow muscled a ball that was below his knees over the right field fence to make it a 6-2 game.
With just those two games, Baez has shown that his potential isn’t just as a power hitter; his potential could also be to be the opening salvo in a barrage of new weapons that are making their way to the North Side. A player who can do the things Baez has already shown himself capable of doing has the power to turn around a team’s entire mentality, and Baez’s no-quit attitude and prodigious power are already yielding positive results for the Cubs.
If he can keep this up, and if the Cubs continue to stick to their plan in terms of stockpiling bats, then the fans at Wrigley are going to have a lot to cheer about in coming seasons. Needless to say, the opening act has been a sight to behold.
The Chicago Cubs are in the process of celebrating the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field, and as part of the festivities, they are adding a couple of wrinkles to the Friendly Confines.
One of those wrinkles was unveiled on Wednesday, as the team painted the iconic red marquee green, in honor of its original color when it was erected in 1934. There’s no word yet on whether they’ll also paint it blue at some point (another color from its history as the face of the ballpark), but apparently the gesture didn’t sit well with some of the Chicago media’s elite.
Take what Chicago Sun-Times scribe and long-time Cubs critic Rick Telander had to say about the sign on Thursday. In a scathing column that hit a grand slam in terms of bombast, intellectual dishonesty, confusing logical leaps, and good old fashioned hatred, Telander tried his best to not only tear down the sign, but also to make sure that the Ricketts family and the Cubs’ front office was standing beneath it as he went to work with his verbal crowbar.
Here are some of the samplings of the wisdom Telander gave to us:
“Of course, there’s money afoot. Sparkling down at me from the electronic message board on the legendary baseball marquee were the words all Cubs fans have been dying to see: “BENJAMIN MOORE: Official Paint of the Chicago Cubs.”
Considering what he ends up going on to say later in the column, it’s hilarious that Telander is criticizing the team for trying to monetize something. I guess there are some money trees hidden under the left field bleachers that we don’t know about, because Telander apparently wants the Cubs to pull a magic trick of being able to spend money without having ways to generate it.
“The Cubs, as I type this, reek.
“Their record is 13-25. They are in last place in the NL Central, 11 games behind the Brewers. They are the worst team in the National League and trail only the AL’s Houston Astros for the most losses in the majors.
“It’s not a stretch to say – and I will say it, for those of you who won’t or gag trying to get it out – that they are the worst team in baseball.”
Naturally, Telander ignores a couple of key factors as he throws the Cubs under the bus as the “worst team in baseball.” The first is that Houston’s run differential is already at negative-55, while the Cubs is a much more pleasing negative-5. Four other teams in the National League have a worse run-differential than the Cubs, and one of those team is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who currently sit at 17-22.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs have been the victim of some bad luck, and they, not the Pirates, should actually be in fourth place in the NL Central, with their expected winning percentage sitting at .485. They would only be a game behind the Cardinals for third place in the BP projections, but never mind all of that. Telander has some more drum beating to do!
“Oh, there are promises and bear-with-us-pleases and crooked smiles. Just wait. Hold on. Give us time. It’s coming soon. Next year. OK, two years from now. Three? Someday?
“The Cubs trounced the Cardinals 17-5 on Monday night. Awesome. And then Tuesday night they took a 2-0 lead, let the Cardinals come back, and lost in the 12th inning 4-3. Reliever Justin Grimm hit Greg Garcia with the bases loaded, forcing in the winning run.”
Oh noes! A team scored a ton of runs one night and then didn’t score quite as many runs the next night and ended up barely losing a game in 12 innings! Any statistician worth their salt will tell you that winning and losing baseball games is no more than a coin flip proposition, and it just so happened that the Cubs called heads on a night that the quarter landed on tails. Oh well, stuff happens. This is a very weak attempt at pushing the narrative.
“They outscored the Cardinals 20-9 in two games and split. Cub-like? Cub-like.
“Could they have given maybe 11 of those unneeded runs on Monday to luckless pitcher Jeff Samardzija in earlier games? No, of course not. Could they have taken those 17 runs and combined them with the 12 they scored against the White Sox in a 12-5 victory last Thursday and just spread them around?”
No Rick, they can’t. I’m not really sure how these paragraphs bolster your argument, but it’s pretty obvious that you’re ignoring the way that offense works in baseball. You see, some nights pitchers are having a bad night. Some nights, batters are seeing pitches better than others. Asking players to “spread the wealth” when it comes to runs is a really weird request, and not one that even baseball’s best teams are at all capable of doing.
On another note, are you seriously complaining that the Cubs would have the audacity to score a bunch of runs? I thought they were terrible? Do you not want them to score gobs of runs Rick?
“Epstein’s brain is not quite officially fried. But it must be close. Meanwhile, he’s practicing his guitar for a big charity music fest with studs such as Spring-steen guitarist Tom Morello coming up at Metro.”
This is the end of a lengthy screed in which he criticizes Cubs owners and front office personnel for daring to have lives outside of the ballpark while the team is struggling. I’m sure Rick sits in his office all the time pondering ways to boost revenues at the Sun-Times, turning down invitations to hang out with friends or to perform charitable acts in what little spare time he is forced to allow himself.
Get serious, Mr. Telander. Of course the Ricketts family and Theo Epstein are going to have lives outside of the Friendly Confines. They’re human beings, and their lives don’t begin and end with baseball. In fact, just about your entire readership is the same way, in that they have interests other than continuing to beat a dead horse as they crow about how the Cubs aren’t spending money or taking their losing ways seriously enough.
This entire column basically reads as a compendium of every criticism that Telander has levied against the Cubs all season long, and most of it is complete bunk. He criticizes prospects like Javier Baez and Jorge Soler for their slow starts, but completely ignores how great Kris Bryant is playing. The fact that he also ignores this notion that maybe we’re talking about too small of a sample size before throwing guys under the bus, but of course, it wouldn’t make for good copy for him to do that.
Instead, he’s going to continue trotting out these nonsensical arguments and preying upon those Cubs fans who are already impatient for a winner. I’m not one of those fans. I don’t want this team to spend a bunch of money on free agents and win 80 games. I want them to slowly build the foundation for a winner, and frankly, they are doing that. Telander and other members of the media who are harping on the Cubs are nothing better than the guy who shows up at the scene of an accident and snaps pictures of it on his cell phone, chomping on gum and criticizing the EMT’s for taking too long to clean up the debris.
Coming into the season, we were looking forward to providing some high-quality analysis of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox, but as it so often does, life gets in the way.
I’ll let David explain the real world stuff that’s been going on in his life lately (hint: it’s awesome news), but as for me, it’s simple: my paying journalism gigs have been ratcheting up in recent weeks. The Chicago Blackhawks are in the Western Conference Final for the second consecutive year. I’m covering the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings for NBC Los Angeles for the second straight season. I also had to cover the Chicago Bears and the run-up to the NFL Draft. Finally, there’s my job where I cover high school sports for a local newspaper.
All of those gigs can take a huge toll on my enthusiasm and my time, but for now, I’m going to try to bounce back more and write up as much about the Cubs as I can. It won’t be an everyday kind of thing, and there may be other times during the year where I miss some time in writing, but I’ll do my best to get back in the swing of things and actually keep this page somewhat updated.
For now, I hope you’ll settle for a few assorted thoughts that I have about the Cubs through their first 38 games of the season (and I’ll expound more on these thoughts when I release my First Quarter Report Card this weekend).
-Before the season started, I said that I didn’t think that Jeff Samardzija was worth the ace-money that he was going to be seeking, and so far, I’ve been proven completely wrong. In seven starts, Samardzija has a WAR of 2.3, a WHIP of 1.05, and an ERA of 1.45. Despite that success, he has an 0-3 record so far this season, and I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to punch out a couple of Gatorade coolers in a fit of Zambrano-esque rage.
Granted, a great stretch of starts doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m wrong about how much money to pay him, but I still remain convinced that his best chance at success remains elsewhere. The Cubs are doing a good job of getting the most out of him now, and they are making progress in terms of their rebuilding project, but they won’t be good enough soon enough to warrant Samardzija sticking around. His value is shooting ever higher, and the return the team could get in a trade for him could be the final piece to the puzzle for the club.
-Speaking of pitchers I made predictions about before the season, Jason Hammel has been proving me right when I called him this year’s version of Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm. In seven starts, he has a 4-1 record, a WAR of 1.7, and a WHIP of 0.86. He is still mixing his pitches as well as he was during spring training, and if he can keep doing that, then the team should get an even better return than they did in the Feldman deal, when they got Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
-Last season, both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo struggled in a big way, leading some to question whether or not the two hotshot youngsters were going to flame out before the Cubs’ rebuild could be completed. They’re definitely answering those questions well, with Castro batting .279 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 154 at-bats. Rizzo has slugged seven home runs and driven in 21 runs, and he’s already got 27 walks, which puts his OBP at nearly .400 (and his OPS at a very impressive .860).
The teammates are only a quarter of the way through the season, but their adjustments at the plate have already produced some serious results. Castro is making much better contact than he was for most of last season, and Rizzo seems to have a more consistent approach too. If they can keep that up, then Rick Renteria has to be given a good deal of credit for resurrecting them.
It may come as a bit of a surprise since the weather outside has been so abysmal lately, but Opening Day is indeed upon us, as the Chicago Cubs will kick off their season on Monday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
The Cubs will be looking to build upon a 2013 season that can only be viewed as a disappointment, even by the measure of where they are in their current rebuilding phase. Several players took big steps back, and the firing of Dale Sveum and the hiring of Rick Renteria to manage the club are an indicator that the front office feels the same way.
Last season, there weren’t very many bright spots in the Chicago Cubs’ batting order, and even though he cooled off considerably after a red-hot start, Anthony Rizzo was still just about the only bright spot for the team.
Even with a .233 batting average, Rizzo still paced the offense with 23 home runs and 80 RBI on the campaign, and he also racked up 76 walks to boost his OBP to .323. When you add in the 40 doubles and 71 runs he pitched in, it’s not a stretch to say that he was the straw that stirred the drink for the North Siders in 2013.
This spring, Rizzo has shown some signs that he could be rounding back into the form that allowed him to get off to such a hot start last year. He has two home runs and nine RBI in 38 spring at-bats, and he is hitting a healthy .368 for the Cubs. His OPS of 1.073 is obviously inflated by the limited number of at-bats he’s had, but it’s still a great sign for a guy who is going to need to bounce back if the Cubs are going to improve offensively.
That quality play continued on Saturday as Rizzo and the Cubs fell to the Cincinnati Reds at Cubs Park. Rizzo had a great day despite the outcome, racking up three hits and two RBI in the game as the Cubs fell 8-3 to Cincy. He slugged an RBI double, his third of the spring, and also added an RBI single in the sixth inning to cap off a nice day at the dish.
Whether or not you believe in the concept of “lineup protection,” you have to wonder whether or not Rizzo will be able to improve much upon his numbers from last season unless he has someone else batting behind him to take some of the pressure off. Pitchers aren’t going to challenge Rizzo much without a guy like Mike Olt stepping up behind him, because there’s no incentive to keep him off of base if a guy like Nate Schierholtz is batting .250 in that spot.
That negativity aside, it’s good news for the Cubs to see Rizzo hitting that well during spring training. He had a rough go of it last season once the calendar moved into the summer months, so he’s no doubt been preparing like crazy for this season. Hitting 4th in an order that isn’t exactly chock full of talent can’t be much fun, but it appears that Rizzo is eager to rise to the challenge anyway, and if he’s lucky enough, he’ll be able to drive in players like Starlin Castro more often this season.