Were We Wrong About the Cubs?

The Chicago Cubs are currently sitting in the second Wild Card spot of the National League, a seemingly comfortable 5.5 games up on the San Francisco Giants.  While many pundits at the beginning of the season were predicting a breakout year for the team, including Sporting News declaring a World Series victory, we at Off Base foresaw a final record of 76-86.  With a little more than a month to play, the Cubs are just two wins away from 76 after Jake Arrieta’s no-no against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday.

The hiring of Joe Maddon has more than worked out, as we admitted in our team preview that it was indeed a great step in the right direction.  Yet we had many questions that needed to be answered before any Billy Goat curses were going to be lifted for the adorable, media-darling, Maddon-led Cubs.  First, would the infusion of youth in the lineup work out for the offense?  Second, was there enough starting rotation depth?  And third, would there be any consistent arms in the bullpen?  Although our final record prediction will turn out to be quite wrong in the next week or so, our concerns were and are still very much relevant as the Cubs try to make it to the postseason for the first time in seven years.

Over the course of the season, Maddon has mixed and matched his talent in the lineup, a lineup usually carrying at least five position players age 25 or younger.  After the call-up of 22-year-old catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwaber, playing time for veterans Miguel Montero and Chris Coghlan, the only players 30 or older consistently in the lineup, has additionally been cut.  Why all the fuss over age?  Well, the flop of Javier Baez in 2014 was a concerning red flag among these young position players in the Cubs system going into the season, especially as his strikeouts soared and phenom Kris Bryant had alarming K rates himself down in the minors.

Regardless of the worry Baez caused, the initial impression of 2015 is that the young lineup has been a relative success, especially as the media has focused on Rookie of the Year candidate Bryant.  On closer inspection, however, the offense has some glaring opportunities that are causes for concern, the foremost being strikeouts – exactly what Baez foreshadowed.  The Cubs, if you didn’t notice, lead all of baseball in whiffing, striking out over 9 times per game.  Yes, the Cubs are even worse than the feast or famine offense of the Astros.  Bryant himself has struck out a whopping 157 times and his batting average has sunk to .263 on the year.  This lack of plate discipline can really hurt, especially against better pitching down the stretch (for a good example, see what Clayton Kershaw did to the Cubs on Friday).  One other thing to consider regarding the team’s youth is that the grind of a full season, something many of these young players have never experienced, will start to take its toll the final month.

Another concern for the offense is revealed by our own Off Base stats, NBv and TBv, with the Cubs 19th and 16th respectively.  This tells us that the Cubs are a pretty stationary team that’s not creating a lot of runs outside of the long ball.  And although the Cubs are a solid, power hitting team, tied for 9th in baseball with 132 home runs, they’re by no means ripping the cover off the ball, as they are 20th overall in slugging percentage.  This lack of speed and base running skills is alarming, considering that as the season drags on, players begin to fatigue and power numbers begin to slide.  Overall, warning signs expose an offense that may fail to come through to support the pitching as we head into September.

And about that pitching.  At the beginning of the season, we mentioned watching out for the talented Arrietta, and he is indeed putting up Cy Young worthy numbers.  After Sunday’s no hitter, Arrieta leads the National League with 17 wins, is second in ERA with 2.11, and is fourth in strikeouts with 190.  Yet the overall starting rotation has been rather mediocre.  Jon Lester, the big free agent pickup from the off season, still doesn’t have double digit wins, nor can he throw to first base.  Two starters from last year, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, were relegated to the bullpen, with Jackson recently being released and picked up by the Atlanta Braves.  Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammels have been decent, each eating up just over 140 innings.  However newly acquired Dan Haren has been downright awful.  The rotation depth, suffice to say, is underwhelming.

As for the bullpen, closer Hector Rondon has proven that last season was no fluke, recording 24 saves in 28 chances with a sparkling 1.55 ERA.  Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm have been excellent, even when Strop has had control issues.  Free agent Jason Motte has been serviceable, scavenging up 8 wins on the season and closing a few games himself.  Between all the starters turned relievers and collection of lefties and righties that have been used over the course of the season, the Cubs are for the most part getting it done late in the game, with a bullpen ERA of 3.52, good for 14th overall.  That being said, as the innings pile up, especially with Cubs starters not going deep into ball games, fatigue and injury catch up (Motte is currently on the 15 day DL).

So, were we wrong about the Cubs?  This young, talented team, after reviewing both the offense and pitching, still seems a little fragile heading down the stretch and 5.5 games doesn’t seem so comfortable against the defending champion Giants.  Although we at Off Base were wrong about the Cubs final overall record, we still may see fans waiting until next year for postseason play.

Featured Image: Via MSN.com

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