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.
Throughout my life as a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I’ve seen all manner of prospects make their big league debuts. Whether it’s a player like Corey Patterson, touted for his five-tool ability, or a player like Mark Prior, who came out of college touted as the best pitcher to ever toe a slab, the team has had plenty of guys for me and my fellow fans to be excited about.
Kris Bryant is different. Kris Bryant is a different animal altogether.
Ever since the Cubs grabbed him with the second pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, I’ve kept an eye on his stats on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I watched a few of his college games before that, but it was when the Cubs selected him in the draft that I fully grasped the enormity of what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had pulled off. This guy is a special player, and he was going to be playing for my favorite team.
Seeing him in person for the first time in spring training in 2014 was a bit of a letdown. He bobbled an easy play at third base (before he ultimately made the throw across), and he was stranded in the on-deck circle before I even got a chance to see him hit. This spring was a heck of a lot different, as I got to witness his home run against the Cleveland Indians (you know the one, as it was part of the trio of consecutive home runs by Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler) and I got to witness two more when I saw the Cubs play against the Seattle Mariners. All I could do for that second set of bombs was whistle, because I was in the press box and aggressive fist-pumping and hooting is generally frowned upon.
Today will be the first time Bryant will be in the lineup for the Cubs, and he will be batting fourth for Joe Maddon. That sentence doesn’t have any particular meaning other than this: it feels like a dream to me. Ever since Maddon led the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008, I’d harbored fantasies about him managing on the North Side. Adding a guy like Bryant to the mix only heightens the sense for me that this team is becoming something special.
At the same time that I’m salivating over the possibility of Bryant hitting in the heart of the order for the next seven years (thanks arcane MLB free agency rules!), I’m also well aware of the fact that the Cubs are a team that historically hasn’t had much to cheer about when it comes to homegrown talent. Guys like Ryne Sandberg (acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade) are about as close as we can get to that, but Bryant could be this team’s Ken Griffey Jr. He could be this team’s Mike Trout. He could become the prize that the Cubs didn’t steal. He could become the shiniest crown jewel.
Feeling the sense of giddiness that I do about Bryant becoming a member of the Chicago Cubs is an emotion that I hope I never lose. Writing about the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bears full time for NBC, I feel like my enthusiasm for both teams has dulled over the years. That isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact beneficial as I try to dispassionately analyze both teams. I do miss that rush of adrenaline that I used to get, and baseball has become one of the only outlets I have when I’m looking to get my “fan on,” so to speak.
Bryant reminds me that sports are supposed to be fun. Bryant reminds me that it’s okay to get really excited about something in the sports world. Today is going to be a day that a lot of us are going to remember for a long time, and I hope it’s another step up the ladder toward a championship that would mean more to me than I probably realize as I type these words.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Monday, you know that Tuesday afternoon the Cubs became the talk of Spring Training, as prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in a preseason game they didn’t even win. Not that wins mean all that much in Spring Training anyway. In the hierarchy of what’s important, they rate far below player conditioning and far above whether an individual is allowed to bring their own food into the ballpark.
The Chicago Cubs are not only starting to make some real progress on the field, but apparently the emergence of players like Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, and Jorge Soler this season has caused more fans to tune into games. Here is what Ed Sherman had to say on the subject:
“With the three young players leading the way, the Cubs’ 6-3 victory over Milwaukee did a 3.20 rating on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday. That means an estimated 115,000 homes tuned into an otherwise meaningless September game for the Cubs.”
The Cubs ended up being the third-highest viewed program in the Chicago area on Wednesday night, and those ratings spikes are coming at a good time. With renegotiation with WGN ongoing for their TV rights, as well as the possibility of a massive new TV deal in 2019, the Cubs are going to be looking to increase their footprint, and this is a good start.
Theo Epstein has also brought up how getting more money from television and other sources will impact the team’s ability to compete when he discussed their plans for the year ahead:
“As we get closer to a new television deal, and as we realize some of the revenues associated with a renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility.”
With work set to begin on those renovations in the next few weeks, and with players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell still primed to be called up next season, things are about to start accelerating quickly for the Cubs on multiple fronts, and clearly fans are tuning in to see the progress that the team has made over three lackluster seasons.
Unlike the past few Septembers, the atmosphere around Wrigley Field has been electric in recent weeks, and Tuesday night was no exception as the Chicago Cubs trounced the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1.
While plenty of the headlines will focus on the injury that Starlin Castro suffered in the first inning of the game, the contest was yet another showcase of the myriad of young players that the Cubs have working their way up through the system. Headlining that list was pitcher Jake Arrieta, who bounced back from a rough start against the Cincinnati Reds last week with a strong outing in this one. Outdueling Yovani Gallardo, Arrieta scattered five hits over six innings, allowing just one run and striking out four batters.
He varied up his speeds well, topping out at 95 MPH on his fastball and ratcheting down by 15-20 MPH on his offspeed stuff. His command was solid through most of the game, and even in tough situations like the one he faced in his final inning of work, he never strayed from his plan. With runners on second and third with two outs in the sixth inning, Arrieta struck out Gerardo Parra and got out of the jam with his team’s lead still intact.
Arrieta wasn’t the only youngster that shone in the game either. Arismendy Alcantara also had a nice night, slugging his eighth home run of the season to put a finishing touch on the rout. With Castro’s injury, we could end up seeing more of Alcantara at second base, but with the way he’s taken to playing center field in the big leagues, that might end up being a longer-term answer than some folks previously thought.
Javier Baez was also impressive in the game, despite only reaching base once. He looked much more patient at the plate, and he made some really good contact with the ball, including a shot to center field in the second inning that would have been a long home run on most nights at the ballpark. He also transitioned seamlessly from second base to shortstop when Castro left the game, and he fielded the ball perfectly in those eight innings of work.
Jorge Soler also continued his torrid start with the Cubs, picking up an RBI single in the first inning and nearly hitting a home run in the fifth inning. Unfortunately for him, the wind held the ball in the yard as Khris Davis made a warning track snag, but his bat speed and sharp eye at the plate were both on full display. He also made a couple of spectacular grabs of his own in the outfield, including a diving catch that ended a potential Brewers rally in the seventh inning.
With so many young and exciting players in the lineup, Cubs fans are a much more optimistic bunch these days, and even though the paid attendance was below 30,000 on Tuesday, the crowd was still engrossed in the game. The Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs this season, but if they continue to show the kind of improvement they have over these past few months, next season could be a lot more exciting on the North Side.
For fans of the Chicago Cubs, there is this weird feeling that is currently settling into the collective psyche. An emotion that many haven’t felt since the 2008 season, when the team won 97 games and looked poised to make mincemeat out of their World Series drought (spoiler alert: it didn’t happen).
That emotion: optimism.
Sure, the old refrain from Cubs fans is “there’s always next year,” but after many years of that being a hollow premise, it seems as though there might finally be some validity to the maxim. After all, the Cubs have called up several of their biggest prospects this season, including Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara (whose two-run homer on Tuesday helped lift the Cubs to victory), gotten a 30 home run season out of Anthony Rizzo, and have several prospects still in the minors, including Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, that are going to make a massive impact on the team in coming seasons.
The team’s decision to call up Jorge Soler to be their starting right fielder for the stretch run is yet one more example of that forward progress. Soler is a really good hitter with plenty of power, and after years of experimenting with a multitude of players, team management has to be hoping that Soler will finally lock down a position of weakness on the roster.
With eight home runs and 29 RBI in just 32 games for the Iowa Cubs this season, Soler has shown that he is ready to make the next leap forward in his development. Much like they have with their other top prospects, the Cubs have taken it slowly with the Cuban outfielder, and the 22-year old has certainly paid his dues as he made his way up the ladder. His bat is definitely a tantalizing addition to the lineup, and the thought of him hitting behind Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the Cubs’ lineup could make for a very interesting September.
Sure, Soler’s debut in the majors is likely to be fraught with growing pains, but Cubs fans that have already waited so patiently for these guys to make their way up to the majors aren’t going to panic over a September slump. There is still palpable excitement in the air when Baez strides to the plate, and he’s had four four-strikeouts games already in just 21 big league contests. If those kinds of struggles can’t dampen the enthusiasm of a fan base, then frankly nothing will.
No, Soler isn’t going to single-handedly bring the Cubs back into the wild card hunt. No, he probably isn’t going to sock 10 home runs in a month and make everyone in Chicago forget about Jose Abreu. No, he isn’t Kris Bryant. None of those things matter. All that matters is that the Cubs are clearly gearing up to make a serious leap forward in the 2015 season, and getting Soler his first MLB at-bats is yet another reminder that brighter days are ahead on the north side.
Surprise – The Chicago Cubs have a ton of potential options in terms of outfielders, and even though he hasn’t really shown much flash up until this point in the spring, Brett Jackson loudly reminded team brass that he is still around.
While the attention of most Cubs fans was on the team’s game in Las Vegas against the New York Mets on Saturday afternoon, Jackson exploded against the Royals with a home run and five RBI as the Cubs knocked off KC by a score of 6-5.
Going into the game, Jackson has been having a tough go of it in limited time this spring. He only had one hit in 11 at-bats so far, with four strikeouts and five walks to go along with his .111 batting average. His OBP was .385 before his outburst against the Royals, but he still has a lot more work to do if he is going to get any real shot at making the 25-man roster out of camp.
Jackson has largely been a disappointment during his tenure as a Cub. In 142 plate appearances with the North Siders during the 2012 season, Jackson had just four home runs and nine RBI, and struck out 59 times. In 2013, Jackson never did appear in an MLB game, but played contests at three different levels of the Cubs’ organization. In all, he had 367 plate appearances, with six home runs, 27 RBI, and an OBP of just .296. He also struck out 121 times, a number that is simply too high.
All of that being said, the Cubs’ front office still has to be rooting for Jackson to at least do something constructive, if for no other reason than to ship him to another team. With youngsters like Jorge Soler and Albert Almora slowly making their way through the system, and the real possibility that a guy like Starlin Castro or Kris Bryant could end up having to make a switch to the outfield when prospects begin making their big league debuts, Jackson is definitely a redundant asset, and could be dealt if the Cubs can get decent value for him.
Even with all of those caveats, there will still be fans pressing for Jackson to make his way onto the roster this season. Having players like Nate Schierholtz, Justin Ruggiano, and Junior Lake will likely block the pipeline for Jackson at season’s beginning, but if any of those guys start to struggle (especially Lake), then Jackson could end up gaining more support.