Cubs

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer dissects what’s gone wrong and how the defending champs turn it around

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer dissects what’s gone wrong and how the defending champs turn it around

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs are without a simple explanation for their uneven start, not totally buying the World Series hangover theory, not having a devastating injury as an excuse and not noticing a new sense of entitlement in the clubhouse.

Being surprised that the Cubs are hovering around .500 might be the wrong way to look at it. This is a team that has allowed 41 runs in the first inning, put up a 4.56 rotation ERA, committed 27 errors through 34 games and watched underperforming hitters up and down the lineup. It could be so much worse.

“I don’t think it’s complacency at all,” Hoyer said Friday before the Cubs inched to 18-17 with a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “There’s no diagnostic test for why we’re a .500 team right now. It’s not like you can say we’re missing this or we’re lacking that. Ultimately, we’re a .500 team – and we’ve actually scrambled for some wins to get to that point. 

“In some ways, we probably haven’t played as well as that record, but I don’t think it’s complacency. These guys are really competitive. Probably the thing that I look at the most is that we’ve had so many deficits. I feel like the whole year we’ve played from behind. 

“When you’re behind a lot, it does a lot of things that are negatives. It forces hitters to press. You feel like you have to get a hit here, because we’ve got to cut into the lead. It puts players on edge. You’re constantly playing that way. 

“Also, it shortens up some starts where you wish you could allow a guy to work his way in. But when you’re in the sixth inning and you’re down 3-1 or 5-2, you have to pinch-hit there. You don’t have a choice. So I just think that the nature of our early games has made this whole season feel like we’re scrambling out of the woods every night.” 

Another weird aspect is that the Cubs pretty much nailed their offseason moves, except for late-winter signing Brett Anderson, who’s on the disabled list with a lower back strain and an 8.18 ERA.

The Cubs carefully selected the players they wanted to add to this mix, focusing on accomplished veterans who already owned World Series rings. Wade Davis – who has two wins, eight saves and a 0.00 ERA – might be the best closer on the planet. Koji Uehara – who has held the opponent scoreless in 14 of his 16 outings – is an elite setup guy. Jon Jay (.299 average) is an ideal extra outfielder and mentor to Albert Almora Jr. 

But this isn’t about one big move or a quick fix almost 25 percent into the schedule. It’s all the little things that have added up to a fourth-place team so far. These Cubs aren’t playing defense at a historic level, the way the 2016 team made spectacular throws and catches look routine and propped up the pitching staff almost every night. So much for defense being slump-proof. 

“Last year, I thought the hallmark of what we did really well was we had clean, efficient games where we led from start to finish,” Hoyer said. “We went up 4-1, got into the bad part of the bullpen and then spread it out and not even use our good bullpen to win. Those games were on a regular basis. This year, this feels like the opposite. It feels like we’re constantly fighting from behind.

“We’ve shown a lot of fight. But it feels like a lot of that fight is having to come back in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. And that’s a terrible recipe for success.”

The good news for the Cubs is that the Cardinals (19-15) aren’t running away from them and no team has separated itself yet in the National League Central. This isn’t the beginning of the Wrigleyville rebuild, trying to project prospects from the Baseball America rankings and waiting for the right free agent at the right time. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision the Cubs taking off again.  

“I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet,” Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would) take anything for granted. 

“The comforting thing is we just saw largely the same group win the World Series. We know it’s there. We know that a lot of these guys are underperforming where they will be at the end of the year. 

“We’re due for an offensive outbreak. We know we can play better defense. We know we can pitch better. So we know it’s all there. Now we have to put it together.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.