Remember late March, when all the “expert” baseball analysts were talking about how almost every division had a clear winner? The Nationals were going to run away with the NL East; don’t even bother trying to catch the Dodgers; the Twins over the Indians? Forget about it — Cleveland would waltz to the AL Central pennant.
None of the proposed “favorites” are leading their divisions. Only the Red Sox, who were co-favorites for the AL East with the Yankees, are currently in the drivers’ seat. Most of the other favorites are hovering around .500, with the Dodgers the worst of the bunch at 7-9.
It’s still April, so there’s plenty of time for each of these teams to turn it on as the weather heats up. If there’s one team to be worried about, though, it’s the Chicago Cubs.
Let’s start with the positives; the combination of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo would be the best one-two punch in baseball if not for the Bronx Brothers of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Last season Bryant and Rizzo led the Cubs in home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. They combine elite power numbers (a combined 61 homers last season) with the ability to consistently get on base. The fact that they bat from opposite sides of the plate make it hard for pitchers to work around them.
Behind Bryzzo, the Cubs have one of the top catchers in Major League Baseball in Willson Contreras. Contreras should cement himself as one of the top-hitting catchers in the league if he can stay healthy. He launched 21 home runs last season while posting a .356 OBP. While Contreras is more renowned for his bat, his defense has been improving; he’s still not the best framer in baseball, but the Cubs’ backstop keeps the ball in front of him and he’s not afraid to use his arm.
For all our hand-wringing in the offseason, the bullpen thus far has looked solid as well. Brandon Morrow, who starred for the Dodgers last postseason, has yet to give up a run as a Cub. Sidearmer Steve Cishek has looked strong. Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing may have their warts on occasion, but they’ve pitched well excepting Strop’s rough inning against the Cardinals last night.
Still, the bullpen lacks a key ingredient to put them on the level of elite bullpens like New York, Arizona, and Cleveland: strikeouts. Their K% of 23.6% is only 20th in the major leagues. Without Carl Edwards, who’s struck out 15 in just eight innings, the team would be closer to teams like the Tigers, Reds, and Rays–not company a team like the Cubs should be keeping.
Cubs fans, you might want to stop reading. From here on in, it only gets worse.
Wunderkind Theo Epstein failed to keep star pitcher Jake Arrieta in the offseason; to fill the hole, he went out and signed Yu Darvish to a 6-year, $126-million contract. Darvish is still viewed through the prism of the Japanese superstar he was when he first joined the Rangers for the 2012 season. He struck out 221 batters that season; the next year, he struck out a league-high 277 batters with a sub-3.00 ERA. In his three seasons since (he missed the 2015 season with a torn UCL), his ERA has climbed each season. At this point Darvish is more of a number-two starter with great swing-and-miss potential rather than a top-of-the-line starter.
The staff’s nominal ace is Jon Lester, and its safe to wonder if–to use a favorite expression from our podcast–Lester’s teets are dry. Last season he took a big step back from his dominant performance in 2016, posting a 4.33 ERA while failing to reach 200 innings or 200 strikeouts. Through his three starts in 2018 Lester has given up seven runs across 14 innings. In his age-34 season, its far more likely that Lester gets worse, not better.
The starters at the back end have question marks as well. The Cubs picked up Tyler Chatwood after a solid season with Colorado where he only allowed 20 home runs. They figured his 4.69 ERA would come down after leaving the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, but the early returns–six earned runs across eleven innings–haven’t been promising. Jose Quintana has struggled since leaving the White Sox, including giving up seven runs to the Braves in his last start.
The Cubs’s 2018 rotation is nowhere near their staff in 2016, when they led MLB with a 2.96 ERA. They certainly don’t have the best staff in the National League (I’d put the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Mets, and Nationals all ahead of the Cubs), and they might not even have the best staff in their division. Carlos Martinez could be a legitimate ace in St. Louis, and Luke Weaver has been solid. The Pirates have a host of young pitchers led by Jameson Taillon, who recently threw a complete-game, one-hit shutout.
So the Cubs rotation is a bit above-average. They still have that dominant lineup, right?
The lead-off spot has been an adventure thus far. Ian Happ has shown flashes of brilliance, including a lead-off home run on the first pitch of the season (thanks, Miami). The number that flashes brightest though is 22–that’s how many strikeouts Happ has tallied in 2018. The strikeouts wouldn’t be terrible if his OBP made up for it; a .271 mark so far isn’t going to cut it for a lead-off hitter.
The back half of the Cubs’ lineup is full of one-dimensional players. Kyle Schwarber has enough power to launch baseballs into orbit. Early signs show he has improved his plate discipline, which could pay dividends in the long term. It will take a lot of home runs to make up for that defense, though. Javier Baez and Addison Russell aren’t shy of striking out either, though they both draw their fair share of walks. Jason Heyward is in the lineup for his glove, not his bat.
If all these players are clicking, the Cubs have a dominant lineup that can outhit and outslug every opponent. When they’re struggling, they can be the ones overpowered by opposing pitchers.
This season is critical for the Cubs. They broke the curse in 2016, and 2017 was the expected World Series hangover. 2018 will tell us whether their magical run to the World Series was a sign of things to come, or the ceiling of a young team that couldn’t fully realize it’s potential.