When will that wave of young pitching finally crash into Wrigley Field and match the position-player core that’s turned the Cubs into a World Series favorite?
The Cubs can’t stand in front of the cameras and microphones and say something like: “Who cares?” But it’s obvious how Theo Epstein’s front office separates organizations that are built to last from the ones that are an MRI away from crumbling.
That’s an oversimplification on June 2, 2016 for the team with the best record in baseball (37-15). Check back in October – or when Jake Arrieta is pitching somewhere else on Opening Day 2018 – or sometime during the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal.
But the Cubs flexed their muscles again during Thursday afternoon’s 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, knocking out pitching prodigy Julio Urias after five innings and winning this four-game series between 2015 playoff teams.
Javier Baez, Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo all crushed home runs for this American League-style lineup constructed with first-round picks, pitching-for-hitting trades and big free-agent contracts.
The Cubs don’t have any blue-chip pitching prospects like Urias – a 19-year-old lefty who signed with the Dodgers as an international free agent out of Mexico – and might be years away from developing one.
But that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from creating a rotation that began Thursday leading the majors in ERA (2.38) – the Washington Nationals ranked second at 3.06 – and WHIP (0.98) and now has 37 quality starts through 52 games.
After throwing a complete game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Memorial Day weekend, Kyle Hendricks (4-4, 2.84 ERA) limited the Dodgers to two runs across eight innings, showing he might be the best No. 5 starter in baseball.
During the rebuilding years, the Cubs flipped short-term assets Scott Feldman and Ryan Dempster, making opportunistic trades for Arrieta and Hendricks. The Cubs bought 200-inning reliability and World Series experience on the free-agent market with Lester and John Lackey. The coaching staff – Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode – helped turn Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner, revive Jason Hammel’s career and create a competitive culture.
“When we see one guy go out there and dominate, the next one in line wants to go do it,” Hendricks said. “It fuels all of us.”
Of course, the Cubs would love to have a Urias, who put together 27 consecutive scoreless innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City before facing the New York Mets last week at Citi Field, becoming the youngest starting pitcher to debut in The Show since Felix Hernandez with the Seattle Mariners in 2005, and the youngest in the National League since Dwight Gooden in 1984.
Maybe Urias (0-1, 9.39 ERA) someday reaches those heights and becomes the next great pitcher at Dodger Stadium. But the Cubs roughed up Urias for six runs – five earned – including back-to-back homers from Heyward and Bryant in the fifth inning.
And the Dodgers (28-27) couldn’t generate any momentum while Baez was making spectacular plays at second base, diving to catch a line drive and flipping a ball from his glove to first base. Remember, the Cubs are so deep that manager Joe Maddon thinks one of his utility guys is one of the best defenders in the NL.
“We got a great lineup,” Baez said, “and we all can play defense.”
So Cubs scouts and executives will gather for meetings on Friday in the state-of-the-art Wrigley Field clubhouse, preparing for next week’s draft and hoping to identity a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the future.
But if not, the Cubs will keep taking their chances on change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates and a relentless offense. It’s impossible to argue with those results now.