Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

CINCINNATI – If you had any lingering doubts about Jake Arrieta’s swagger – or how much the Cubs wanted to get these meaningless games over with – just listen to his answer to this question: Mets or Giants?

“Who gives a s---?” Arrieta said. “Who cares? Now the fun starts.”

Welcome to “TRY NOT TO SUCK-TOBER,” where this team will either live forever as the 2016 World Series champs or cause massive heartbreak for Cubs fans all over the world.

Suffocating pressure? Unfair expectations? Random crapshoot? The Cubs signed up for all this and put the bull’s-eye on their chests, beginning with last year’s joyride into the National League Championship Series – where they got swept by the Mets – and an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million and a spring-training circus that featured mimes, zoo animals and karaoke.

Ringmaster Joe Maddon will now lead the Cubs into what they believe will be a parade down Michigan Avenue. Assuming they can stay focused and healthy, get a little lucky and perform at the optimal level needed to win 11 postseason games. After Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park, the best team in baseball left Cincinnati understanding that they are now the hunted.

“The boxes have been checked for the regular season,” Maddon said. “All the stuff we’ve talked about in camp regarding embracing the target and utilizing the words ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’ in a positive way – I think we’ve done all those things.

“Give our guys credit, man, because going into camp, a lot of times when you have all those words attached to you, it can lead to a bad result during the season. But our guys have handled it well.”

The Cubs notched 103 victories and won the NL Central by 17.5 games, the Giants clinching the second wild-card spot with Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Dodgers and sending the Cardinals into a long winter. The Cubs will next face the winner of the wild-card showdown between Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night at Citi Field.

“We know that nothing’s handed to you,” said Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove outfielder who defected from the 100-win St. Louis team the Cubs shoved out of last year’s playoffs. “You got to earn whatever you have. You see teams built with certain rosters and they don’t perform. It’s not throwing shade at the Nationals, but they’ve been picked to win for a while. They won their division again, but (it’s been the same thing with) the Dodgers – you see teams that are slated to do things and it doesn’t pan out that way.

“We don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet. We’ve punched our ticket to get in – and that’s the bottom line. You want to be in the dance and play for that last game.

“Obviously, we’re not above the game, so we’ve got some work to do to get ready and try to go where we want to go.”

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The Cubs got off to a fast start, winning 25 of their first 31 games before taking over the All-Star Game this summer, flying seven players to San Diego. Anthony Rizzo could see Kris Bryant pulling away in the MVP race and believes his teammate deserves the award. Together, Bryzzo generated 71 homers and 211 RBI. Kyle Hendricks (2.13) beat Jon Lester (2.44) for the ERA title in a rotation that featured four 15-game winners, with the fifth guy being two-time World Series champion John Lackey.

But the Cubs also have a next-man-up philosophy. With two outs in the ninth inning, Matt Szczur knocked a go-ahead, two-run double that bounced past Reds first baseman Joey Votto and into right field. Pinch-hitter Miguel Montero followed it up by blasting a two-run homer into the right-field seats off Reds reliever Raisel Iglesias.

By Sunday night, splashes of water covered the door to the manager’s office in the visiting clubhouse, the walls and the black leather couch still drenched from the postgame celebration recognizing Maddon’s 200th win with the Cubs.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rizzo said. “In two years – 200 wins – for him, for us, for this organization.”

The Cubs will enjoy Monday’s off-day in Chicago before returning to Wrigley Field on Tuesday for a simulated game, the first of three straight workouts leading into Friday’s Game 1. Maddon’s message: Don’t change a thing. 

Maybe that’s why Arrieta – who trolled Pittsburgh fans on Twitter before shutting down the Pirates in last year’s wild-card game and silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park – doesn’t give a s--- who the Cubs play in October.

“Whether you’re an underdog or the favorite, you still have to win,” Arrieta said. “Regardless of who we face, they’re going to be good. The guy on the hill’s going to be good. And their lineup’s going to be good. If we execute more pitches than they do – and we get a couple timely hits – I like our chances.

“It’s a roll of the dice. But with the group we have, we’re set to make a really deep push. And hopefully get over that hump from last year and get this thing done for Chicago.”

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...


We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective


CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)


Cubs Talk Podcast


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