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.” 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here: