Cubs

5 things we learned about the Cubs in May

5 things we learned about the Cubs in May

Memorial Day weekend is typically a good checkpoint for teams trying to figure out what they have and what they will need.

Roughly one-third of the season is in the books now, and the Cubs have the best record in baseball, 20 games over .500, building sizable leads over the Pittsburgh Pirates (6.5 games) and St. Louis Cardinals (8.5 games) in the National League Central.
 
"We're right where we need to be," Kris Bryant. "Our division's tough. The Pirates are going to be there the whole year, the Cardinals are always going to be the Cardinals — they're tough to play.
 
"We just got to continue with what we're doing. But there's going to be plenty more three-game skids like we had there [earlier in May]. There's no reason to panic here.
 
"We're pretty confident in what we do. If we just take that attitude, we'll be fine."
 
With an NL All-Star voting update to be released Wednesday, the Cubs could be ridiculously well-represented at the Midsummer Classic with so many top performers at so many different positions. 
 
As the Cubs continue with their four-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field - a potential playoff preview - let's take a look at five things we learned about Joe Maddon's squad in May:
 
1. The Cubs are not invincible when Jake Arrieta is on the mound.

OK, it took a one-hitter on Tuesday night, and Arrieta wound up with a no-decision after throwing seven scoreless innings. But the Dodgers still ended the streak where the Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913 (Kris Medlen and the Atlanta Braves, 2010-12).
 
Arrieta is now 20-0 with a 1.01 ERA across his last 24 starts. (If you include playoffs, the streak had already ended, as the Cubs did not win his start against the New York Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS.) But confidence is still sky-high whenever he takes the mound, so just kick back and enjoy the ride. 
 
2. Kyle Hendricks may be the best No. 5 starter in the game.
 
Following Hendricks' complete-game gem against the Philadelphia Phillies over the holiday weekend, he now has a 2.93 ERA and 0.98 WHIP for the season. He found another gear in May, finishing with a 2.23 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in five starts.
 
Any one of the five starters could make a case to represent the Cubs in San Diego for the All-Star Game. Regardless of how great Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey have been, the Cubs boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball thanks to Hendricks and Jason Hammel being so reliable at the back end of the rotation.
 
3. Ben Zobrist has found the Fountain of Youth.
 
What more can be said about Zorilla? He just turned 35 and yet he's playing the best baseball of his career. He leads the majors with a .445 on-base percentage and put up a ridiculous slash line of .406/.483/.653 in May. 
 
Zobrist is not going to hit .345 all year, but he's proving to be an essential piece to the team's success. It's impossible to imagine where the Cubs would be without him this season.
 
4. Don't give up on Jorge Soler just yet.
 
Soler was oozing with potential when he posted a .903 OPS and drove in 20 runs during his first 24-game cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2014. 
 
He had an up-and-down 2015 season, playing in only 101 regular-season games with a pedestrian .723 OPS before setting a major-league record by reaching base safely nine times in a row to begin the postseason. 
 
Soler got off to a slow start this season, hitting .193 in April and he watched his batting average sink all the way to .174 on May 14.
 
But since that day, Soler has started to heat up with the weather, hitting .273 with a 1.006 OPS in 11 games, including three homers, six RBI and eight runs.
 
"It feels pretty good right now," Soler said through an interpreter after crushing a home run off the left-field scoreboard last week against the Phillies. "Everything has started to click in. I was struggling and now it's starting to come back."
 
If Soler continues to hit, it gives this Cubs lineup a whole different look.
 
5. This is still Chicago.
 

The Cubs showed they aren't bulletproof with a 12-game stretch in which they went 4-8 and lost series against the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers.
 
It coincided perfectly with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein reminding the Chicago media that baseball karma will get the Cubs at some point.
 
Of course, that little valley led to plenty of mini freak-outs on Twitter, proving that Cubs fans are probably always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop (at least until that elusive World Series championship).
 
The Cubs turned things around in St. Louis and put together a six-game winning streak. Maddon and his players never showed even small signs of panic.
 
"I don't mean to sound pretentious, but I'm not [concerned at all]," Maddon said. "Health, you're always concerned about health. Health and being proactive, giving guys days off, making sure people get their rest.
 
"That would be a really good line of communication among all of us. That'd be the biggest thing right now is just to get guys appropriate rest and somehow stay healthy."
 
No, Maddon doesn’t believe in a “June swoon,” either.
 
“I would never even think in those terms, until you would actually bring it up,” Maddon said before Arrieta’s start against the Dodgers. “What is today? The 31st? The whole season’s about May 31. And then the whole season will be about June 1. And then the whole season will be about June 2. To clump anything negatively in advance of a moment, anxiety lives in the future. 
 
“If you want to live that way, you’re going to be an anxious person your entire life. If you really want to be able to control the moment…you got to live for today only.
 
“So all these brilliant monikers that have been attached to particular parts of the year – I can’t go there. I never even think in those terms. You might read about it in a book once in a while, or if somebody wants to wax philosophically in some negative manner. But for me, it’s only about today.” 

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."