Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

CLEVELAND — The Cubs offense has looked unstoppable the last week and the bullpen still ranks among the best in the National League.

Now it's time for the starting pitching to step up.

In a rotation packed with the resumes and reputations of Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, it was Tyler Chatwood who became the first Cubs starter to throw a pitch in the seventh inning this season when he did so in the Cubs' 10-3 win over the Indians Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

It took until the 20th game of the year, on Chatwood's fourth start in a Cubs uniform. It also was the team's 8th quality start of the campaign, tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst mark in the National League and only the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox have fewer in the AL.

However, Chatwood didn't even get an out in that seventh inning as Cleveland's Tyler Naquin reached on an infield single to lead off, prompting a pitching change to Steve Cishek.

The Cubs began the day ranked 17th in MLB in starter's ERA, a far cry from where they thought they might be after signing Darvish and leading a lot of people (myself included) to boldly claim this as the best rotation in baseball.

It obviously hasn't played that way, despite some terrible hitting conditions in frigid weather in the season's first month.

The weather has actually been working against the Cubs pitching staff thus far, which Chatwood used to explain the fact he has walked 19 hitters in 21.2 innings in 2018, with three separate starts of at least 5 free passes.

"There's really no excuses, but we haven't really had ideal weather yet. I think that was the best start I've had for weather-wise," Chatwood said after he pitched in a constant light drizzle throughout Tuesday's game.

"I think it's just a matter of clicking. We've had a lot of rest; it's tough to get into a routine, but I think once we get rolling, I'll clean that up. I need to."

Chatwood went a week in between starts the last two times out and before that, it was 8 days. All these rain/snowouts has really done a number on the routines and habits of the Cubs starting pitchers. Lester admitted the same thing last week.

The Cubs are currently in a stretch of 8 games in 8 days and — knock on wood — it appears the snow and wintry weather is gone from Chicago until far later this year. So every member of the Cubs rotation is on track to throw on regular rest for the first time all year.

That being said, the weather hasn't been the reason behind Darvish's fifth-inning meltdowns and the walks are troublesome with Chatwood, who has a history of control issues. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings with the Rockies last season and sits at 4.3 per nine for his career.

"I don't think it's a good recipe for success any time you let free baserunners on," Chatwood said. "Throughout my career, I don't really get hit around. It's whenever I walk guys and give up the basehit is when I get hurt.

"Obviously clean that up and I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that I will."

Cubs get good news on health scares for Kris Bryant, Addison Russell

Cubs get good news on health scares for Kris Bryant, Addison Russell

CLEVELAND — The last time the Cubs were playing a game in Cleveland, their starting lineup was made public a good 5 hours before World Series Game 7 began.

Eighteen months later, that wasn't the case, as the lineup didn't come out until about 2 hours and 45 mins prior to first pitch.

The hold up? Kris Bryant.

The Cubs have received positive reports on their superstar third baseman after he took a 96 mph fastball to the helmet in the first inning of Sunday's game in Colorado.

Bryant was immediately taken out of that game and eventually deemed unable to go Tuesday, though the Cubs admit they are just playing it safe. Doctors — including the Indians team doctor — gave Bryant the all-clear, but the Cubs aren't going to rush him back.

"I said, 'Hey, listen, you need to evaluate this yourself. You need to do what you think the right thing is to do,'" Joe Maddon said. "'I'm not here to tell you that. You know how you feel. Go talk to the doctor, we're not going to start you right now. If you feel better during the game, let me know, we might be able to utilize you during the game.'

"Let's see how this plays out for tomorrow. I think he's fine, he just has to work through some things."

When it comes to matters of the head, professional teams are letting players call the shots now, given how much we've learned about concussions just in the last half-decade.

San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt hit the disabled list late last season on a 79 mph curveball that hit him square on the head. Belt lost months of his life to the black hole of depression caused by the concussion.

Bryant has been cleared of a concussion and luckily for him and the Cubs, the ball caught him on more of a glancing blow than flush, like Belt took.

Still, it's not something that just goes away overnight.

"Getting hit in the head is kind of a traumatic experience, man," Maddon said. "Especially 96 [mph]. Probably the first time that's ever happened to him."

Bryant's partner in crime on the left side of the infield, Addison Russell, was also cleared for a return to duty after a scary allergic reaction Sunday night in Colorado.

Russell started Tuesday's game and doubled in the first inning, just 48 hours after being strapped to a gurney and rushed to the hospital.

The Cubs shortstop is allergic to shellfish and mistakenly ate the postgame spread in the Colorado vistitor's clubhouse labeled as chicken, not realizing it was actually shrimp.

"To my understanding, I thought it was just lemon chicken and it just turned out to be shrimp," Russell said. "Definitely something that I always take into consideration looking at the spread after the game and completely just didn't see it.

"Had an allergic reaction, went to the hospital, had an IV put in and in a couple hours, everything was fine."

Russell said the shrimp was kind of breaded and just looked like orange chicken or something.

He hasn't had an allergic reaction like that since he was a kid and normally is extremely careful so paramedics don't have to be called, as they were Sunday.

Russell rejoined the team in Cleveland the next day and doesn't anticipate any lingering effects.

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.