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.
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.
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.
With teams preparing to head to their respective spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona this week, there is a palpable excitement in the air as fans prepare for baseball season to finally arrive.
With those preparations taking place, Las Vegas is ratcheting up its game as well, as website and sports books come out with their projections for how the baseball season will shake out. Bovada is one such place, and they released their over/under win projections for all 30 teams on Monday.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals top the list, with both teams seeing their win totals set at 92 ½. The Los Angeles Angels follow close behind at 89 ½, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and Seattle Mariners round out the top five (the Red Sox and Mariners are tied at 86 ½ wins).
Sitting just outside of the top 10 are the two Chicago teams, with the Cubs at 82 ½ wins and the White Sox just behind them at 81 ½. Both teams made some significant moves this offseason, with the Cubs bringing in guys like Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Joe Maddon and the Sox adding Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Jeff Samardzija. Both teams are optimistic that their farm systems will begin yielding talent this year. Hopes are, needless to say, high on both sides of town.
The question then is whether or not we would bet the over or the under on those win totals. For the Cubs, that number seems about dead on with what we’re expecting from them this season (we’ll delve more into that as spring training begins and we really start to hammer out our predictions), but the under seems like a safer bet. They could end up going way over that win total if the prospects they’re calling up have good seasons, but we still have questions about the pitching staff and whether or not guys like Javier Baez will perform as advertised, so we’ll put our money on the under.
As for the White Sox, the over seems like the better bet. Their pitching rotation is really solid at the top, and their offense should be pretty good as well with Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez leading the way. Questions do arise with their bullpen even after the acquisitions of Robertson and Zack Duke, but in a weak division, we’ll go with the over on their win total.
The Chicago Cubs were late to the part on the bidding for free agent pitcher James Shields, but in a radio interview in San Diego today as he discussed his decision to sign with the Padres, the hurler said that it was still a two-horse race despite the Cubs’ tardiness.
“In all reality, it came down to the Cubs and the Padres – two great managers,” he said. “I think I made the right decision here. I’m really happy about it. I’m really happy to be a Padre.”
Shields, who signed a four-year deal earlier this week with an option for a fifth year, was one of the big three free agent pitchers available on the market when this offseason began, but as time wore on and Jon Lester and Max Scherzer were snapped up, Shields remained on the market much longer than anticipated. With that factor, and a dwindling number of teams interested in him, the Cubs ramped up their efforts late last week to land him, but ultimately their bid fell short.
One other interesting note from Dennis Lin’s recap of the Shields interview was the tidbit about how much the Cubs ended up offering the pitcher. According to Lin, the Cubs offered Shields a three-year deal worth a total of $60 million. While that money number is pretty high for a pitcher who is 33 years old and likely going to start declining in the near future, the fact is that the term was exactly in line with the Cubs’ front office philosophy: pay for future results, not past ones.
Despite the Cubs missing out on Shields, they still made it a competitive race, and they did their due diligence. You can’t ask for much more in a situation like this, and from our perspective, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer handled the situation well.
It appeared that it would happen all weekend long, but early Monday morning the news became all but official as reports came out that James Shields had agreed to a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres.
The report, which comes from Chris Cotillo of SB Nation, puts to an end a potential run by the Chicago Cubs to nab the starter off the free agent market. Originally the Cubs were priced out on Shields’ contract demands, but when the asking price started dipping and the amount of term being offered followed suit, the Cubs did their due diligence and “kicked the tires,” as just about every reporter following the situation said.
With Shields now off the market (unless something drastic) changes, it leads to an interesting question: do the Cubs continue to pursue another starting pitcher, or should they stand pat? There are still options via the trade market, with the Washington Nationals potentially looking to unload a starter after signing Max Scherzer to a massive deal. A guy like Jordan Zimmermann or Stephen Strasburg would look great in the Cubs’ rotation, although the cost in prospects may be something that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would hesitate to pay.
Another possibility is a fresh push to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies. There are likely still teams out there interested in acquiring him, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but getting a guy with his track record and skill set for a somewhat discounted price (trading for him with fewer years and money than they would have to pay him on the open market) could be an intriguing possibility for the Cubs.
If neither of those options proves to be feasible, the Cubs could simply go into spring training with what they have and still have an improved rotation. Adding Jon Lester and Jason Hammel via free agency bolstered the rotation in a big way, and having guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood in the mix for starting spots means that the Cubs will have some healthy competition out in Mesa to determine how the rotation shakes out.
The Chicago Cubs have been picked by The Sporting News to win the World Series, and guys like Joe Maddon and Jon Lester are talking championships on the north side, so it’s not surprising that some fans are going to extra lengths to get fired up for the 2015 season.
With that preface in mind, here is one such video that should get you good and amped for the season to start:
The callbacks to Harry Caray, as well as video of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, definitely hammer home what it would mean to see the Cubs return to relevance this year, and with young players and new faces, it’s going to be a fun year to be a Cubs fan, and it all gets started this week when the team begins reporting to Mesa for spring training.