Cubs

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

MIAMI – The Cubs are the defending champs, but at the moment they really don’t have much of an identity beyond that, unsure what they can count on from one game to the next, waiting to get healthy and still searching for that sense of rhythm 45 percent into the season.

This is a 37-36 team dealing with injuries near the top of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks), the middle of the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and the heart of the defense (Jason Heyward) while a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) gets a few days to clear his head before reporting to Triple-A Iowa.

Just when it looks like the rotation is gathering strength, the offense went missing again during Friday’s 2-0 loss at Marlins Park, the night after the Cubs scored 11 runs in Miami and talked about it as the type of game that can create momentum.

“The difference 24 hours can make,” manager Joe Maddon said.

But this has been building for almost three full months. The Cubs have been shut out six times already and at the .500 mark at 15 different points this season.

The good news: John Lackey hit 94 mph and has put together back-to-back quality starts for a starting five with a 2.35 ERA the last two turns through the rotation. The 10 games before that, the Cubs rotation put up a 5.65 ERA, but neither trend has really changed the overall picture in a weak National League Central. 

“That’s where it all starts, for sure,” Lackey said. “If you’re going to be a consistent winning team, you got to have good starting pitching, because the offense can kind of come and go.

“You got to remember they’re pretty young. We got a lot of guys still learning, still making adjustments in the game. But the talent’s there, so you like our chances in the end for those guys to do good stuff.”  

The bad news: Lackey had no margin for error as the Marlins needed only three hits to score two runs (one earned). Lackey gave up his 21st home run – he allowed 23 in almost 190 innings last year – in the third inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched an 83-mph pitch 458 feet beyond the garish pink-flamingos-and-palm-trees sculpture.   

Defense was supposed to be the constant with this team, but the Marlins manufactured an insurance run in the sixth inning when Dee Gordon stole second base off Lackey and catcher Miguel Montero threw the ball away, setting up Christian Yelich’s sacrifice fly.   

“I certainly have all the confidence in the world in everybody here,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “Last year was a great year for us. Everybody just seemed to be hitting at the right time, pitching good at the right time. Everything clicked.

“This season hasn’t been that way. You look at many players – and many Hall of Fame players – they’ve had some down years here and there. It just kind of seems like as a group we’re a little down right now, but plenty of time to turn it around.”

Ian Happ and Javier Baez accounted for four of the six hits against right-hander Jose Urena and three different relievers as the Cubs hit into three double plays, struck out seven times and followed the same pattern.  

“Our offense is just like you saw – up and down, up and down,” Maddon said. “It is youthful. Listen, I don’t want to keep saying that, but it’s true. It just is. These guys need more at-bats to figure out what to not swing at and how to battle.”

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.