Cubs

What's left to watch in this Cubs season?

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What's left to watch in this Cubs season?

Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010
6:36 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Mike Quade planned to cook for his family, friends and staff on Thursday in Chicago. An option quarterback as a teenager at Prospect High School, he looked forward to watching college football. It didnt matter who was playing that night.

The Cubs manager could toast his new job, even if it doesnt become permanent, as well as his teams performance since he took over, no matter that his 6-3 record is skewed by two last-place teams.

And if I have a minute or two, Quade said, maybe I find a racetrack.

After the off day, there is exactly one month left in the season. If you have seen too much of the 57-77 Cubs, you probably are ready for some football. If you are a betting man, you probably didnt have a September with Lou Piniella in Tampa, Fla., Derrek Lee in Atlanta and Ted Lilly in Los Angeles.

Thats where an organization in transition finds itself. With 17 percent of the schedule remaining, heres what to watch for:

How the rotation turns. Tom Gorzelanny is expected to miss his next start after a line drive knocked him to the ground and sent him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Wednesday for X-rays. Thursdays CT scan revealed a small incomplete hairline fracture underneath the fingernail of his left pinky finger, which is stable. Gorzelanny will likely be skipped due to the swelling on the palm of his left hand.

The situation will be reassessed once the swelling subsides, but pitching coach Larry Rothschild was already facing several decisions on his staff. Carlos Silva threw 78 pitches and gave up five runs in 4 23 innings on Wednesday night at Kane County during his second rehabilitation start for Class-A Peoria. Whether or not Silva needs another, the front office would like to take a closer look at least one pitcher from Triple-A Iowa.

September call-ups. First-place Iowa began Thursday with a one-game lead and five to play, so the organization isnt in a rush to make more promotions. The Cubs have used 16 rookies this season, gutting Ryne Sandbergs roster, and theyre expected to bring up around six players once Iowas finished. The most anticipated move will involve Jeff Samardzija (11-3, 4.02 at Triple-A) and what sort of future returns the Cubs may see on their 10 million investment.

Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro. The Cubs are stressing scouting and development and when they explain the model they point to these two homegrown players. Colvins athleticism allows him to play all three outfield positions, but he will continue to work out at first base during batting practice. Quade is hesitant to push Colvin into game action at that position, but probably will against a non-contender later this month once the rookies comfortable enough.

Castro woke up Thursday tied for third in the National League with a .317 average. He is hitting .367 since July 10, but is trailing Colorados Carlos Gonzalez by 12 percentage points, and it remains to be seen how the shortstops body will hold up through Game No. 162. When asked if Castro could win a batting title, Colvin summed up his 20-year-old teammates vast potential: Why not?

Attendance figures. Wrigley Field has been filled to nearly 93 percent capacity this season, but has also seen some of its smallest crowds in almost four years. There are 12 home games remaining, including nine against decent box-office draws (New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals), plus a Labor Day gate with the Houston Astros.

During a rare interview with four beat writers on Wednesday, chairman Tom Ricketts acknowledged the relationship between tickets sales and payroll flexibility. Ultimately, that could influence whether or not the Cubs need Colvin to play first base, or can sign a free agent like Adam Dunn.

Champagne celebrations. After a brutal 20 games in 20 days stretch in August, the schedule gets noticeably easier, with four off days built in this month. The Cubs are playing 12 consecutive games against sub-.500 teams through Sept. 12.

Maybe they can eliminate the Cardinals from contention, or perhaps theyll watch the Padres clinch a division title in San Diego (Sept. 27-30).

We get paid to play, Aramis Ramirez said. The way I look at it is there are (30) teams and only eight go to the playoffs. The other ones go home at the same time we (will). We got (28) games to go. Well try to win as many of those as we can.

The search process. From the beginning, general manager Jim Hendry has said that he doesnt want to give daily updates, and will take his time working contacts throughout the industry. Sandberg and Fredi Gonzalez are in the mix, but it is Quade we will see before, during and after every game, so publicly he will be dissected the most.

If nothing else, it will raise the profile of a 53-year-old man who spent 17 years managing in the minors, in places like Rockford and Scranton, Pa.

Its a cool deal for him, said Randy Wells, who played for Quade at Iowa. Its probably not your most ideal situation, getting your first major-league job (like this). But sometimes its a little break like that. If he shows he can do it, you never know whats in store.

Hes going (to) give it everything hes got and try to get the best out of us. Who knows what platform that will lead to?

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.