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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 have made some interesting lineup changes over the past few games, but the most notable change to the group has been the full-time replacement of Starlin Castro as the team’s everyday shortstop.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it clear that Castro was not just getting days off when this whole process started out, and he has consistently kept the shortstop out of the lineup as the team’s offense has picked up steam. On Tuesday, Maddon did toss Castro a bit of a life preserver, as he announced that the 25-year old would get reps at both second and third base during batting practice:
The move comes as Maddon looks to get Castro more playing time, but the question that immediately has to be asked is this: should the team be making that big a push to get Castro into the lineup? After all, putting Castro at a place like third base would likely mean that Kris Bryant would be sitting out, and putting him at second would either push Chris Coghlan or Kyle Schwarber out of the mix.
There are ways around benching those players to get Castro playing time, but time and again this season the infielder has shown that he is incapable of making the adjustments necessary to break out of his slump, and his regression was a big part of the reason why the team’s offense was so putrid at times during the campaign.
Even with all of that being said, it’s understandable to a degree that Maddon wants Castro to continue to be a part of the Cubs’ lineup. Adding more quality bats is always a good thing for an offense as it goes through ups and downs, so hopefully Maddon will be able to strike a balance between giving Castro playing time without throwing off the hot streak of players like Russell and Schwarber.
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.
On Friday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs were sitting at 13-8 on the season, Addison Russell had just hit his first career home run, and Jon Lester had pitched a gem of a game and gotten his first win in a Cubs’ uniform.
Everything, as they say, was coming up Milhouse.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything seemed to unravel. The Cubs’ bullpen began to falter. Their starting pitching vanished. Their offense even vanished over the weekend as they were badly outscored and dropped two straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers. On Monday night, it appeared that they were back on track as they took a 5-0 lead in the first inning, but it all came undone as Travis Wood surrendered four runs and the Cubs ultimately lost the game thanks to some poor work done by their bullpen.
A quick perusal of social media after the game revealed plenty of anger within the Cubs’ fan base, and rightfully so. This was a game that the Cubs by all accounts should have won, and a combination of bad pitching and bad luck conspired against them as they dropped their third straight game and fourth in the last five games overall.
Amid all of that anger though, an interesting fact becomes abundantly clear: it feels good to get this worked up about baseball again.
For years now, a Cubs loss would be met by some eye-rolling and maybe an occasional hand-wringing gesture, but fans got over it. To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker, it was “all part of the plan.” The Cubs needed to lose these games to give their young talent time to develop in the minor leagues, and they got some really high draft picks and made some serious trades as a result as they reshaped the entire roster from top to bottom.
Now, with a group of veterans brought in and the youngsters really starting to come into the big leagues, expectations are on the rise on the north side of Chicago. Every Kris Bryant at-bat is met with breathless anticipation as fans await his first home run. Every diving stop by Starlin Castro is fawned over at length. Every Anthony Rizzo stolen base elicits reminders that he has more steals than the entire Chicago White Sox roster.
These things are part of the allure of baseball, and it’s so nice to have them back.
So before you get too worked up about losing a game to the St. Louis Cardinals in early May, or before you rue the fact that the Cubs could easily be 17-7 or 16-8 at this point of the season, just remember this: how much more fun is it to care about baseball than it was to ignore it and wait for Bears season to start?
From one observer’s perspective, this is a heck of a lot better.
The Chicago Cubs welcomed new third baseman Kris Bryant to Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon for his first big league game, and after only getting three hours of sleep as he flew in from Des Moines, the star was ready to get things underway.
“Right now, it’s a little overwhelming, but I’m ready to have fun with it,” he said in a pregame media availability.
Joe Maddon and the Cubs aren’t hesitating to throw the youngster to the wolves right away, as he will bat in the clean-up spot and play third base in Friday’s game against the San Diego Padres. With Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both on the disabled list, Bryant has an opportunity to grab a roster spot for the long haul over the next few weeks, but he’s focused more on the day-to-day chances that his new spot gives him.
“When you start putting expectations that are way out there, you start losing sight of what’s important in this game,” he said.
High expectations can be the downfall of many players, but Bryant doesn’t seem to be one of them. He has excelled at every level of professional baseball he has played at so far, and even after he was sent down following a nine-home run stint in Cactus League play, he slugged three more home runs for the Iowa Cubs before his call-up.
Fans can count Maddon among the chorus of people who don’t believe that Bryant will be affected by the pressure surrounding him.
“I don’t think he’s going to be impacted by any of that,” he said. “Whether we batted him first or ninth, it doesn’t matter. He’s still going to play the game. I told him that my expectations are that (he) respect 90 feet and enjoy himself.”
As for what the plans are for Bryant after his initial time at third base, Cubs President Theo Epstein indicated that he believes the slugger will remain at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
“The need right now is at third base, and we’re very comfortable with his defensive abilities,” he said. “I think this guy can play third base for a while.”
Bryant is only 23 years old, so his career with the Cubs could end up lasting a very long time. Even with that bright future ahead of him, his debut is still a moment for celebration for him and his family, and they will be in the building at Wrigley Field on Friday.
“I’ve never seen my dad cry before. That’s what it’s all about,” Bryant said. “Now my family, friends, girlfriend get to watch me on this stage.”
The Chicago Cubs have started out their season with a series split against the St. Louis Cardinals, getting shutout on Opening Night and then shutting out the redbirds during their first day game of the season on Wednesday.
Before the team starts out their next series against the Colorado Rockies (which we will be previewing this afternoon), we had some thoughts we wanted to share on the opening series of the season.
Jake Arrieta Still Rolling As He Opens Year With a Bang
He looked wild in the first inning of the game, but he settled down in a big way on Wednesday afternoon as he pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out seven batters and walking three in a 2-0 victory for the Cubs.
Arrieta is a player that is going to be a big key for the Cubs’ pitching rotation this season. A lot of attention is being paid to Jon Lester, and rightfully so, but the fact remains that Arrieta has the potential to make this rotation into a much stronger one if he can maintain his 2014 form, and if his effective performance against St. Louis is any indication, he’s hellbent on making sure there’s no regression on his part.
Lester’s Inability to Keep Runners Honest a Concern
A lot was made in the run-up to Opening Night about the fact that Lester hasn’t made a pick-off throw to first base since April of 2013, and that narrative gained a bit of steam on Sunday night as the Cardinals swiped three bases off of the Cubs’ hurler in the 3-0 victory.
To his credit, Lester brushed off criticism of his approach to handling base runners.
“This really wasn’t a big issue until someone brought it up on TV,” he said. “So I’m standing here answering your questions about it. Like I said, I think I had eight or nine or 10 stolen bases allowed (in 2014).”
Lester is the type of pitcher that is going to emphasize changing speeds in his delivery in order to keep baserunners off balance, but it still does seem like he should at least consider throwing over every once in a while to help keep things under control. It’s definitely a story worth keeping an eye on.
Offense Will Heat Up As Weather Does
In two games, the Cubs are now 1-for-16 on the season with runners in scoring position, with their lone hit coming on Starlin Castro’s seventh inning single that knocked in Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs the lead. Miguel Montero also lifted a sacrifice fly to right field in the game, and Castro scored to give the Cubs their second run of the season.
Even though some fans are concerned about the team’s offensive woes so far, they have to remember two things: in the warm weather of Arizona, the ball carries farther, and the Cubs’ team power came to the forefront. The same thing should happen here. The other thing to remember is that Joe Maddon is still experimenting with lineups, and once he hits on the right combination, the team should score more runs.
Panic is premature at this point. Obviously.
Jorge Soler’s Triple a Sight to Behold
Soler stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game with no one on base, but that didn’t stop him from putting a huge charge into the ball and picking up a splendid triple:
Accordding to JJ Cooper of Baseball America, it only took Soler 11.7 seconds to get from home plate to third on the play. About the only way he could’ve gotten there faster would have been if he had run up the third base line instead.
The Chicago Cubs have made some big roster moves over the course of the offseason, but with the acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross to bolster their catcher position, the big question is what they plan to do with Welington Castillo.
Castillo, who hit 13 home runs and drove in 46 RBI for the Cubs last season, isn’t the best catcher defensively behind the plate, and that coupled with his youth led the Cubs to act this winter as they brought aboard a couple of veterans with leadership ability and defensive skill.
To his credit, Castillo has been playing well so far during the Cactus League season. In 19 at-bats, he has racked up seven hits, four runs scored, clubbed a home run, and driven in five RBI. With those numbers, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Cubs try to trade him to another team, but manager Joe Maddon isn’t shying away from the idea of carrying three catchers when the team breaks camp in early April:
#Cubs seem to be leaning toward 3 catchers. Maddon says having Welly will help them keep Montero, Ross healthy, also extra bat.
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) March 17, 2015
Muskat also brought up a good point about the versatility that players like Arismendy Alcantara (who has been seeing time at second base and in center field this spring, and could also potentially fill in at third base in a pinch) and Tommy La Stella (who has been squaring the ball up nicely at the plate and can play several infield positions) bring to the table, and how that could potentially allow the Cubs to carry three catchers out of Cactus League play.
Even with that being the case though, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs holding onto all three catchers. Ross is probably going to catch quite a bit when Jon Lester is toeing the slab (although all three catchers have caught him so far this spring), and Montero wasn’t brought aboard to be a platoon guy. That leaves Castillo as the odd man out, and no matter how much the Cubs say that they are looking into keeping three catchers on their roster, it just feels like they’re trying to maintain a higher trade value for a guy who could be a lucrative asset as catchers with other teams succumb to injuries this spring.
The Chicago Cubs are a team in transition this season, bringing aboard fresh-faced prospects and high-priced free agent veterans alike as they try to turn over a new leaf with manager Joe Maddon.
On Monday at Cubs camp in Mesa, Maddon discussed the team’s plans for one of the prospects who will be looking to make an impact this season, saying that Kris Bryant will play at both third base and in the outfield as the team plays its Cactus League schedule.
“He gets it,” Maddon told the media. “I think he understands the work involved that’s necessary to being great.”
Bryant had an incredible 2014 season, skyrocketing through both the double-A and triple-A levels. In 594 plate appearances, he slugged 43 home runs and drove in 110 RBI, and he stole 15 bases in 19 attempts for good measure as he established himself as the top prospect in not only the Cubs’ system, but in all of baseball.
While speculation that Bryant could end up as the team’s left fielder (depending on what happens with Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell in the infield) has been bandied about quite a bit, he hasn’t played any outfield since he was drafted by the Cubs in 2013. He has played all 177 of his career minor league games at third base, putting up a respectable fielding percentage of 94.6 percent while improving on his defense at each stop along the way.
It will be something worth keeping an eye on as Bryant works out the kinks in left field, and even though the odds are that he’ll begin the season in triple-A to avoid starting his big league service clock, it’s possible this move will give him even more versatility when he finally does make the jump.
The Chicago Cubs bolstered the top of their rotation this offseason with the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, but the back end of their rotation is still a big question mark, with several hurlers competing for the final spot in the five-man group.
One of those pitchers that will be competing for a job will apparently be Edwin Jackson, as manager Joe Maddon revealed on Friday that the pitcher will be stretched back out to compete as a starting pitcher. The last two years haven’t been kind to Jackson after he signed a four year deal with the club prior to the 2013 season. In those years, Jackson has a 14-33 record, a 5.58 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.54.
Last season was especially bad for Jackson, as he struggled through poor play, an inability to keep the ball in the yard (he gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings, his worst number since he made eight starts for the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers.
With those kinds of numbers, and with players like Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Eric Jokisch, and Tsuyoshi Wada all competing for a spot, it’s going to be a tough slog for Jackson to crack the rotation, but he’s feeling confident even in spite of the obstacles in front of him.
“I’ve been just looking forward. I haven’t really looked back in the past too much,” he told MLB.com. “Those two years, they were what they were. I’ve been ready, getting in shape and ready to go.”
Jackson was also asked about what it was like to play under Maddon, who managed Jackson during his brief stop in Tampa Bay earlier in his career.
“It’s definitely cool having a good manager,” he told Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
That last statement stirred up a bit of resentment on social media, as some fans took it as unwarranted criticism of the job that Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria have done in the past two years as Cubs manager. Most fans who criticized Jackson blasted him for being cruel about previous managers while seemingly glossing over his own failures on the mound for the Cubs.
That is one way to look at it, but it all feels a bit overhyped. Jackson has struggled with the Cubs, and there’s no way that he’s going to be guaranteed a roster spot even though the team is stretching him back out as a starter. He’s merely expressing confidence that he can win the job, knowing full well that there is an open competition for it.
As for the Maddon quote, Jackson is merely saying what everyone in the organization has said and inferred since Renteria was dumped and Joe was brought aboard. Maddon’s hire represents a shift in the focus of the Cubs away from competing to avoid the NL Central cellar to competing for a division title.
In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.
WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?
Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.
WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?
Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.
WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?
Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.
WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?
Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.
A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.
It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).
WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?
Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.
WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?
Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.
WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?
Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.
OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!
The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.