It’s just a slow start. It’s a slight World Series hangover. They will bounce back. These are all things that have been said about the Chicago Cubs this season.
When you consider how well the Cubs did last year, and the roster they’ve brought back, it’s not hard to understand why people have been so bullish on the team. They were the heavy favorites to win the World Series. Nevertheless, the North Siders currently sit a game under-.500 on June 2. And that record comes after a win over the Cardinals this weekend snapped a six-game skid.
Week after week, the Cubs remained atop most power rankings even though the record didn’t support it. The national writers can only defend a slow start for so long. Now, two months in, can we start to worry this is more than a rough start? Is this the new norm?
The Cubs’ bullpen is good, but the offense and starting rotation haven’t come close to living up to expectations.
Chicago is leaning heavily on young talent. Young players and old players are the least reliable commodities in baseball. Youngsters sometimes have a sharp learning curve, particularly when it comes time to adjust when what was working no longer gets the job done. Meanwhile, the older players have all the know-how to thrive at the Big-League level, but their stuff on the mound or bat speed at the plate diminishes. They know what to do and what adjustments to make, but lack the ability to execute.
With that in mind, six of the team’s starting position players are 25 years or younger. Kris Bryant is one of them, but he’s the only player living up to expectations.
Amongst the youngsters struggling are Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras. Schwarber and Contreras each had less than a year of Major League experience coming into the year. That second stint in The Show is a tough one for many players. And these two appear to be going through the same tribulations.
Contreras has been adjusting better than Schwarber. The young catcher is at least producing near average offensive production. Schwarber, on the other hand, is hitting .165. He was the team’s leadoff hitter and hasn’t gotten the lineup off to a good start in most games.
Overall, even with the reigning MVP performing well, this team ranks in the middle of all thirty teams in runs scored. They’re hitting just .235 as a unit without exhibiting the same power or on-base prowess that made them so dangerous last year.
Losing Dexter Fowler atop the order had a considerable impact. Joe Maddon constantly pointed out how crucial he was at setting the tone to start the game. He’s not hitting in St. Louis now, but he was a great fit for this team.
Breaking down the rotation, it was reasonable to expect a regression. Last year, the Cubbies only had six players with more than one start and just five with more than five starts. The starting five had at least 166.2 innings, and each pitcher had a sub-4 ERA; two of them were sub-3 and four where 3.35 or below.
That’s a lot of great pitching. Game in and game out, the starting staff went deep into the game, giving the bullpen a lead most of the time and taking pressure off an offense that knew a few runs would be enough.
Granted, the Cubs commonly blew out their opponents as the offense was dynamic, but the mental side of always knowing that the starting pitching was going to do its part cannot be ignored.
Jason Hammel is gone, and he struggled in the second half of last year. It was reasonable to expect the fifth spot in the order to be less productive. It was also reasonable to expect a regression from Kyle Hendricks; he was not going to replicate a 2.13 ERA.
Interestingly, Hendricks has been the least of the rotational worries. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey have all seen their ERAs jump, too.
After three consecutive seasons garnering Cy Young Award votes, Arrieta looks more like the good-stuff, bad-execution version of himself we saw in Baltimore. John Lackey, on the other hand, falls into the older player category discussed earlier. His ERA is north of 5.00 and his FIP shows that number is in line with his peripherals.
The latest losing streak for the Cubbies confirms that this is not just a slow-start situation where the team is struggling to recover. Instead, when we look at the numbers for the month of May, we see the team has gotten worse, not better. Chicago was ranked No. 23 in baseball in runs scored lasat month. Their pitching remains in the middle of the pack per team ERA, and is inflated by a strong bullpen.
A good bullpen helps you win games you are supposed to win. It prevents you from losing the lead late, but it cannot consistently create wins out of losses. Until the Cubs show they can get consistent production up and down the order, and a consistent start four times out of five, this team is one to avoid in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests. A three-game sweep at the hands of the Padres shows they cannot be trusted even in the most obviously lopsided matchups at this point.
There’s no doubt the personnel is here. We saw it last year, but we can no longer blindly assume this Cubs team will return to form and run away with this division. With the other teams failing to take command of the NL Central, the Cubs may very well still end up on top, but it will undoubtedly be a much longer, more stressful summer for Cubs fans and backers alike.