Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders


Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

MIAMI — Two months into the season, it’s not like the Cubs are playing way over their heads or doing this with smoke and mirrors.

Besides the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals — and the West Coast arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants — are there any National League teams out there that really impress you?

Besides the Cubs, the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates were the only other NL teams that woke up above .500 on June 1, meaning this could be a wide-open race into October.

The Miami Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers have already fired their managers. The Philadelphia Phillies should be obvious sellers. The Cincinnati Reds keep dealing with trade rumors and hot-seat speculation, the kinds of distractions that had followed the Cubs for the last five years.

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Now the conversation is starting to revolve around the actual games again, who the Cubs could add before the July 31 deadline and which big-time prospects might come to the North Side and influence a pennant race.

“I’ve said it all along: I really believe we can play with anybody,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s 5-1 victory at Marlins Park. “I’m not just trying to stretch that. I’m not trying to sell anybody a bill of goods. I really believe that we can.”

There’s not enough time to list all the ways this year feels different around this team. But Jason Hammel is a good place to start after last season’s sign-and-flip guy limited the Marlins (20-32) to one run across 6 2/3 innings, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts and throwing 117 pitches in Little Havana.

Hammel never wanted to leave, but he didn’t have a choice when the Cubs included him in last summer’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s, the forward-looking deal that brought Addison Russell into the organization.

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Hammel (4-2, 2.82 ERA) made Chicago his No. 1 priority in free agency and has responded by putting up 69 strikeouts against seven walks in 67 innings, strengthening a rotation that has looked top-heavy with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

“I felt good here last year,” Hammel said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?”

That’s not how Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will look at it, knowing this 27-22 team could use another starter, some bullpen help and a veteran hitter.

“We’re always looking to add,” Epstein said. “We recognize that part of the benefit of having a deep farm system is to make moves to improve your big-league team during any relevant season.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to get better. We know that some answers will come from within through good player development, through young talent acquisition and doing it the way that we’ve done it.

“Some answers — both this year and in the future — will come from outside the organization, converting some of the prospects we have to more mature, more advanced solutions.”

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This is still a flawed team. On June 1, the Cubs led the majors in strikeouts (476), hitting .223 with runners in scoring position. They now have 43 errors through 49 games. Their bullpen has eight blown saves.

The Cubs will keep watching rookies like Russell and Jorge Soler go through their ups and downs, expecting improvements as they learn the league while also wondering if/when they will hit the wall.

The Cubs have stayed relatively healthy, outside of injuries to key relievers (Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm) and bench players (Chris Denorfia, Tommy La Stella). Their luck could begin to change in the medical department or one-run games (14-10).

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“We’ve played a lot of close ballgames,” Hammel said. “This season could (have seen) a big difference in both directions. We could have lost a lot (of those games), and we could have won a lot, too. (But) we’re in the middle of it.

“We’re going to have to start winning those games. But we’re in it. I’m very excited about where we’re at.”

The Cubs also have Anthony Rizzo forcing his way into the MVP conversation, Kris Bryant making a Rookie of the Year case and a front office that’s not afraid to think big and take risks.

“Once Theo and Jed came in, they had their plan,” reliever James Russell said. “Everybody talked about their plan and how it would kind of transpire. It’s nice to see the wheels in motion and the plan is taking its course. Right now, we got one thing on our mind: That’s winning ballgames and bringing the playoffs to Chicago.”

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.