The Cubs have 100 games left in the season, so now seems as good a time as any to tour the roster and take stock of what’s going on. At 43-19, they have nearly as many wins as the Barves have losses. Yeah, that’s how good they’ve been.
But don’t tell that to some Cubs fans. According to the lunatic fringe 1 the excellent game pitched last night by Max Scherzer (he struck out nine of the first 10 Cubs and didn’t allow a hit until Addison Russell homered off of him in the sixth) is proof that the Cubs are frauds who will get swept out of the playoffs again by the Mets, or maybe the Nats, but certainly by somebody, because…
You know what? These people are right. They have it all figured out. Their (presumably) favorite team is on pace to win 114 games, but they secretly suck. I guess it’s good that we all come to grips with it on June 14.
You don’t get to be baseball’s best team by accident. Let’s see what’s up:
Anthony Rizzo (OPS+ 145) – A recent hot streak, that was briefly interrupted by a sore back that he attributed to a very Kerry Wood-like cause (hotel bed mattress) has Anthony’s batting average at a much more respectable .265. Not that anyone should give a shit about batting average. It’s always been a flawed stat created by newspaper agate clerks out of things they could readily find in early 20th century box scores. The fact that we give the “batting title” to players irrespective of their true ability to get on base or drive the ball is just dumb. Anyway, when Rizzo was leading the NL in All-Star voting at first base after the first results were released, people were apoplectic that a guy hitting in the .230s could start an All-Star Game at first base. Even if that guy were getting on base in the .380s and slugging well over .500.
Fact is, Rizzo’s been great, again, this season. The only thing he needs to figure out is how to get hits off of lefties again. After struggling against them early in his career, particularly in 2013 (.625 ops v. LHP/.796 ops v. RHP) he was excellent against them in 2015 (.928 v. LHP/.907 v. RHP) and 2016 (.881 v. LHP/.905 v. RHP). But this year while he’s crushing righties (1.028) he’s struggling against southpaws (.693).
Ben Zobrist (149) – A torrid May has given Zobrist some of the best numbers of his career. He’s playing mostly second base, with an occasional cameo in the outfield given the injuries out there, and has made only one error all season. Does it strike anybody else odd the way he throws the ball to first on routine grounders? He exaggerates an over-the-top motion. It works, so who cares? But it makes it look like he’s perpetually filming a Tom Emanski video.
I guess that’s better than a Ron Stilanovich video.
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Addison Russell (85) – We know he can be streaky, and until very recently he wasn’t on a good one. HIs OPS+ is down in Miguel Montero range right now, which is not good. But he’s due for another good run, and his defense never slumps. As good a player as Zobrist is, occasionally Joe Maddon will have Javy spell him at second and when he does, watching Addison and Javy defend the middle of the field is a treat. Addison is incredibly quick, and any concerns dopes like me had about his arm when he first moved back to short last July have proven to be unfounded. He’s still striking out too much (61 times in 57 games) but he’s still taking walks (23) and at this point in his career (he’s only 22) that’s a more important sign.
Kris Bryant (136) – Because of the scarcity of top notch pitchers, you’d have to say that Jake Arrieta is the most valuable Cubs player, and he’s awfully good. But I would argue that their best player is Bryant. At 24 he’s already a bona fide number three hitter, he plays good defense at third, is a natural in the outfield, and Joe managed to get him an inning at shortstop just for the hell of it. He’s been a big leaguer for 14 months, but it feels like he’s been there forever. The next step in the Bryant evolution to galactic superstar will be carrying a team through a playoff series (or two—you know, three would be nice.) The thing about how good this team is, is that it’s only going to get better over the next few years. Good god.
Javier Baez (98) – I think the hardest thing for a young player to do is to make adjustments to his game, without getting regular playing time. Nobody gets more irregular playing time than Javy. He’s liable to get four starts in a week at different positions, or to get no starts at all. And yet, the growth in his game has been striking. He still swings from his ass, but his strikeouts are at a very manageable level. If he’s not striking out 40 or 50 percent of the time (and right now it’s at under 21 percent) he’s a very valuable player. How many other “utility” players can play elite defense at multiple positions and bring legit power to the lineup? Joe’s confidence in him is apparent. He’s taken to playing Javy at third during Jon Lester starts because Jon gives up so many grounders to the left side that he wants his best defender there. Javy is also incredible at charging bunts, and the bunt is always in play with Jon on the mound. He’s 23, he’s still working his way through his first full season in the big leagues, but wow, there’s a lot of great stuff in that kid.
Tommy LaStella (134) – I’m never going to forgive him. Ever. If I live to be 100, I’ll still curse the name Thomas F. LaStella. When the Cubs pinch ran for him in the ninth inning of a loss in Philly (with Travis Wood, no less) my Twitter feed filled up with people telling me it was a good move because he’s so slow. But come on, was he that slow? Then, we find out, he had pulled his hamstring. And when he went on the DL, who did they acquire to take his roster spot?
Chris Fucking Coghlan. Ugh. Tommy, I hate you and your lack of proper pre-game stretching. May the fleas of a thousand camels invade your armpits. I don’t care that you’ve been a great bench player this year (even if you play third base like you are using a frying pan), or that you’re a good pinch hitter. You got hurt and Chris Coghlan came back. You suck.
Jason Heyward (83) – It’s happening. Right? It’s June now, and Heyward is hitting and it’s for real, right? .295/.380/.545/.925 with three homers. This is the “real” Heyward. Right? I’m just going to assume it is. For whatever reason, every time the Cubs spend a crapload of money on a player, even the rare times they actually spend it on good ones, they struggle in the first part of their first season. Even Ben Zobrist struggled at the beginning, but then May came and he went crazy. But Ben’s not a notoriously slow starter like Heyward, so I guess the double whammy of his normal slow starts and the Cubbie Free Agent Hex is what caused the terrible start. But now it’s over, and it’s all line drives and awe-inspiring baserunning from here on out. Right? The defense has always been there, and he nearly added another amazing highlight last night when he scaled the wall in Washington to pull back a Wilson Ramos homer. He got way up, and got his glove on it, but couldn’t hang on. He was so pissed that he missed what would have been an outrageous catch that he threw his glove back to the infield. Minutes later, Chris Coghlan played a flyball into a double and he didn’t throw the “ball” back as far into the infield as Heyward had thrown his glove.
Dexter Fowler (138) – Dexter got off to an impossibly hot start, but even now that he’s cooled off, he’s still playing very well. Given the injuries to Kyle and Jorge and the slow start of Heyward, the Cubs outfield would have been superfucked if Dexter hadn’t turned down the Orioles and come back. As of last Wednesday, he was leading NL outfielders in All-Star votes, which is ridiculous, though he deserves to be on the team, and the Cubs voting dominance is pissing people off, which is fun. It’s also funny to hear people go on about Dexter’s improved defense, and the only real reason for it seems to be that he’s playing deeper. It took
nine years for anyone to figure that out?
Jorge Soler (89) – History tells us that it’s just a matter of time every year before Jorge screws up one of his legs. He made it to June this year. And, in typical Cub fashion, he had started to play really well when he pulled his hamstring. It’s not believed to be serious, but it was serious enough to put him on the DL and it might be closer to three weeks than two, but he has to carry some of the weight, with LaStella, of Coghlan’s return. If Jorge was healthy, that trade wouldn’t have happened. The Cubs are believed to be actively shopping for a lefthanded impact bat for left field, to either split time with Jorge when he’s finally healthy, or to take over full-time. I still think it’s going to be be fat Jay Bruce. He’s in the last year of his contract (with a buyout for next year), he’s not really a rightfielder anymore (his defense there this year has been terrible) but he’d be passable in left, and he’s an ace in the postseason. Actually, he really was good in the Reds’ five game Dusty choke job NLDS against the Giants. Jay had a .931 OPS for the series. Anyway, this idea that Jorge isn’t always “engaged” on the field is going to cost him, because if it’s something that Theo and Joe don’t think is going to go away with experience, Jorge’s going to find himself going the wrong way at the deadline. Probably not in a trade for an outfielder, but very possibly in a deal for a pitcher.
Matt Szczur (126) – Szczur was a product of the Jim Hendry “let’s draft gritty wide receivers” era, and for a long time it looked like he was just going to be a scrappy guy who never really amounted to much. But about mid-season last year he changed his swing pretty dramatically, and he’s been a very useful player ever since. He’s not an everyday starting caliber player, but he’s an excellent bench option, who can play good defense in all three spots. His slash line is still pretty impressive, but it’s fueled mainly by a really hot start.
Chris Coghlan (37) – Goddamnit.
Albert Almora (71) – One of the coolest moments of the year so far was Albert fielding a ball in the first inning of his first start and throwing out a Philly at home plate. How perfect that a guy renowned for his defense did THAT the first time he touched a ball in a big league game? When he was called up to take Jorge’s sport on the roster it wasn’t with the idea that he’d play every day. Even though he was hitting over .300 at Iowa, it’s still clear htat his offense needs some refining. And that’s fine, because he’s 22 years old. The plan was, likely, to let Joe pick his spots with Albert and look for favorable matchups, use Albert as a late inning defensive whiz and play Bryant more in left with LaStella at third. But Tommy got hurt and in came Coghlan. And now, I’d just as soon see Albert play every day, so at least somebody is catching the ball in left. Coghlan’s offense, this year, has been terrible, and even if it returns to last year’s form because of the gifted touch of John Mallee or whatever, Coghlan’s a clownshow in the outfield. With a deep lineup and excellent pitching, just punt the slight offensive advantage that playing Coghlan might give you and embrace the huge defensive advantage you get from Albert.
Kyle Schwarber (-39) – He’s off crutches now. He’s working out every day to strengthen the muscles around his knee. Soon he’ll be taking BP. It’s happening!
Miguel Montero (84) – I just don’t think Miggy is healthy. And maybe, because he’s been a big league catcher for a decade and has been an everyday catcher for most of that, he’ll never be healthy again. The Cubs are content for him to call games and frame pitches. But where he used to be a real threat as a thrower, now he mostly is threatening to the Cubs. Offensively he’s been a non-factor most of the year. You could see it in the way he Kirk Gibson fist-pumped his three-run homer on Sunday in Atlanta. He was relieved to have finally done “something.” I’m fascinated by how and when they start working Willson Contreras into the mix. Joe indicated it’s happening later this year. And next year, the plan is for Willson to be the regular catcher and for Miggy to be the backup.
David Ross (101) – It’s informative that Ross is having a “great offensive year” and he’s hitting .233 and is barely league average as a hitter. But, he does lead the league in catcher’s ERA and he and Jon Lester are in some kind of groove this year. It’s nice to see him being useful, though the idea he should be talked out of retirement after the season is dumb, and the write-in candidacy for him for the All-Star Game is annoying.
Tim Federowicz (33) – He’s a safety net in case of an injury to Miggy or Ross, and when they finally deem Willson to be ready he’ll be launched back to Iowa, though the reason he’s on the active roster right now is the Cubs expect when they try to send him back he’ll get claimed on waivers. So for now, he’s basically dead weight. Nice work if you can get it.
Jake Arrieta (215 ERA+) – All the smart guy fans of the Cardinals or Mets or whoever who just couldn’t wait for Jake to come back to earth are still waiting. While he hasn’t been as dominant as he was at the end of last season, he’s been awfully dominant. He’s a true ace. And a guy you want at the top of your rotation in the regular and playoff rotations. And think about this. He’s only allowed 55 hits in 87 innings and nine of those came on the only ten balls the D’bags put into play against him a couple weeks ago. The fact that the Cubs will be able to back off of him and Lester down the stretch so they crank them back up for the playoffs should be terrifying for the rest of the NL.
Jon Lester (213) – Maybe it’s because of his problems fielding his position or throwing to the bases, but it never feels like Lester is as dominant as Jake. But this year, he’s been every bit as good. Jake’s ERA is 1.86, and Jon’s is 1.89. Jake has struck out 90 guys and only walked 28 in 87 innings, and Jon has struck out 85 and walked only 17 in 86 innings. This was the guy the Cubs signed two offseasons ago. Last year he was pretty up and down. When he was good, he was really good, but early and late he struggled. He was solid in the postseason, but not dominant. So far this year, he got off to a decent start, but has been lights out ever since. You can go on and on about the Mets starting pitchers all you want, and they are really good, and they strike out lots of guys, but none of them are pitching as well as Jake and Jon are this year.
John Lackey (152) – Listen to him the next time he’s interviewed after a game. Tell me he doesn’t sound just like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. I dare you.
Jason Hammel (170) – I keep waiting for the wheels to come off, and when he had to lay down in front of the mound while warming up between innings against the Dodgers, I figured the collapse was on. But it turned out just be a cramp and he was very good in his next start. He somehow gave up back-to-back homers to Tyler Flowers and Adonis Garcia of the Barves, but even in that start he only gave up three runs. I reserve judgement until we get deep into the second half. And I’d trade for another starter if I was Theo. Just because.
Kyle Hendricks (131) – He’s a more than acceptable fifth starter, and on most teams he’d be a more than acceptable three or four. Last night’s start against the Nats was a good example. With Max Scherzer going nuts and perfect gaming the Cubs through five, Kyle had matched him pitch for pitch allowing just an unearned run (on a bad luck play where Dexter’s throw to third got to the bag at the same time the runner did and it bounced off Jayson Werth and allowed him to score). If it was a playoff game, Joe would have had the bullpen cranked up after five and once Ramos homered that would have been the end of Kyle. He’s capable of giving you two good trips around the order even in a playoff game. That’s valuable.
Hector Rondon (307) – He’s just been awesome. How about 29 strikeouts and two walks in 20 innings? While it has to be frustrating for him to not be getting more save chances, he’s going to have fewer miles on him come playoff time than you could have dreamed. That will be a very useful thing.
Pedro Strop (146) – Twenty-two innings pitched. Thirty-three strikeouts. Eight walks. Plus his hat pisses weird fans off, his fist pumps irritate other teams. Pedro’s awesome.
Travis Wood (180) – His lack of velocity has been a concern, but it hasn’t hindered him in getting outs. And over the weekend in Atlanta he was hitting 92 with regularity. That’s enough for him to be really good with. He’s been really good most of the year, but his incredible four perfect inning relief appearance when Hammel cramped up has carried over, and he’s pitching with a lot of confidence. As you should after you shut down the Dodgers for four innings on only 46 pitches.
Adam Warren (96) – His ERA’s not good (4.24), but with a few exceptions, he’s pitched well. Joe has tried to extend him more than inning a few times with mixed results. He’s allowed as many homers already this year (4) as he did in 69 games in 2014. Some of that might be luck (both good and bad), but last year he allowed 10, though it was in a lot of innings (131) because in addition to 26 relief appearances he made 17 starts. In other words, he has a history of keeping the ball in the park, so let’s hope he just got them out of the way early this year.
Justin Grimm (79) – On May 2 his ERA was 2.00 after 10 appearances and nine innings. In 18 games and 13 innings since his ERA has ballooned to 5.16. A lot of that is owed to two appearances last week. He gave up a three run homer without recording an out against the Phillies and gave up two runs without recording an out against the Barves. So what does it mean? That he’s a middle reliever and they’ll have good and bad stretches. Let’s hope he gets back to a good one pretty soon.
Trevor Cahill (178) – He’s one of the most relied up and and dependable relievers on the team. Big Trev has followed up a great stint with the Cubs last year with another good one so far this year. By design he throws a lot of balls. He’s trying to lead hitters down and out of the strike zone, so he’s walked 18 guys (against 31 K’s) in 27 innings. But one thing that Joe finds especially useful about Big Trev is that lefties are hitting only .181 against him. It’s nice to have a righty in your middle relief corps who gets righties out, but is also especially tough on lefties.
Clayton Richard (69) – You didn’t think his ERA+ would be that good, did you? I mean it’s bad, but it’s not minus a million like we all assumed it was. It’s nice, actually. Anyway, Big Clay has his ERA down to a tidy six, after a couple of non-disastrous outings, but he hasn’t been good. It was unlikely that every guy they scraped off the scrapheap last year would work out long term. They retired Rafael Soriano, they let Fernando Rodney go close in San Diego, Big Trev has been good, and Clayton has been not so good. They signed Brian Matusz today after he was traded from the Orioles to the Barves with a compensation pick and for two low level prospects, then DFA’d by Atlanta. Matusz was excellent for Baltimore last year, but has been batting a sore back this year. He’ll go to Iowa and start, but if/when he comes up to the Cubs, it’ll be as a LOOGY. If he gets healthy, it’s probably the end of Clayton.
Joe Maddon – The best thing about Joe is that he’s perfect for a lot of different situations. Last year he kept the Cubs heads above water until they hit their stride and then he rode them to a ridiculously good finish, 97 wins and into the NLCS. This year, he’ll have to keep them engaged and interested even with a big division lead, while the fans panic anytime the Cardinals or Pissburgh get within seven or eight games. He’ll also have to juggle playing time to keep Javy sharp, figure out how to work Willson into things, keep Coghlan from impaling himself on something in the outfield (I hope Joe fails at that), and find enough innings for his relievers and not overworking the starters. I have no fear that he’ll be up to the task.
Alderman Tom Tunney – He’s the last line of defense between his constituents and thousands of drunken Cubs fans peeing on their front yards 365 days a year. If not for his courageous fight to limit drinking hours in the Cubs “it’s not a” beer garden, you and I and everybody else would be down there watching Cubs games (road and home), Bears games, Bulls games (well, maybe not Bulls games), Blackhawks games, college football, movies, whatever and buying $12 Bud Lights and Goose Island 312s, all the time. It would basically be Caligula! But Tom is looking out for the families in Lakeview. It’s not the bar owners, who want us to go down to their establishments and watch Cubs games (road and home), Bears games, Bulls games (well, maybe not Bulls games), Blackhawks games, college football, movies, whatever and buying $12 Bud Lights and Goose Island 312s, all the time, and then pee in the neighborhood yards. No sir. Keep it up, Tom. You are a great American!
Dave Kaplan and Todd Hollandsworth (CSN Chicago) – I’m sure their postgame show is excellent. How could it not be? The Cubs win all the time, and they show highlights, and they show Joe’s postgame press conference and those are always fun. But I can’t watch it. I can’t watch the stupid fistbump because it’s so awkward and sad and weird. And I can’t stand listening to Hollandsworth talk and runallofhissentencestogether…but then also drag out some words by saying ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-and then fake laughing and thenrunninghissentencestogether. You know, if @hirejimessian and I were smart we’d do a Google Hangout On Air or Facebook Live after every game for 15-20 minutes and do our own postgame show. But nobody ever accused us of being smart.
Virgil Patrick Hughes – In my weekly Cubs column for The Athletic (you should subscribe, really, we have a lot of great writers, and me) two weeks ago, I wrote about The Coomer Inning, and how terrible it is. And how unnecessary letting Coomer babble for a full inning is. The reason it’s so annoying is that Pat is still so good. He’s “only” 61, which is young for his profession, and he’ll be good for many, many, more years. I don’t begrudge him needing an inning off every game. But I covered that. Here I want to talk about the one annoying thing Pat does. It’s not that bad, but still. Anytime the Cubs are behind by one or two runs, Pat starts openly wishing for a homer. Any player with any chance at all of hitting one gets the, “You know, Ron, for a little guy, Szczur has some pop. He could get one up in the wind here” treatment. These aren’t the 2001 Cubs, Pat. They can actually string some hits together. They do it, like all the time. I didn’t even notice he did it at first, but it’s sheer volume of it that made me notice it. It’s all the time. Anyway, that’s how good he is. That’s the one thing I can complain about, and it’s nothing.