“If we haven’t reached rock bottom with this, we’re pretty damn close.” – Mike Quade, May 17, 2011.
If only all Cubs managers could have experienced Joe Maddon problems. Hit the panic button if Jon Lester wrecks his left shoulder while racing a dirt bike on his day off, or Jake Arrieta blows off an MRI and gets shut down with a torn lat muscle, or Kyle Hendricks parties to the point of a suspension for violation of team rules.
The San Francisco Giants might already be nearing a point of no return with Madison Bumgarner in 2017 and forced to think about selling at the trade deadline. The New York Mets are a three-ring circus, desperately trying to restore order with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey and now closer Jeurys Familia diagnosed with an arterial clog in his right shoulder.
So while the Cubs never expected to be 17-17 and in fourth place in the National League Central by the middle of May, FanGraphs still gives them a 91.5-percent chance to make the playoffs. If you’re hoping for Maddon to publicly rip his players and storm out of a press conference, well, you haven’t been paying attention.
“Starting pitching drives the engine,” Maddon said. “When you’re doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance. Your defense gets bigger. Contact is not as hard. Hitters don’t have to battle from behind all the time. There’s more pressure on the other side. All those things are interchangeable. They’re interconnected. So as we pitch better, we’ll play better.”
The next great hope for the pitching infrastructure is Eddie Butler, the change-of-scenery guy who will face the first-place St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Butler is a promising right-hander with top-prospect pedigree who pitched well at Triple-A Iowa – and put up a 6.50 ERA across parts of three seasons with the Colorado Rockies.
Whether or not Butler clicks, the turnaround will have to happen with Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and John Lackey – the top four starters from the rotation that led the majors with a 2.96 ERA last season (while no other starting group dropped below 3.60).
The 2017 Cubs have a 4.56 rotation ERA with 13 quality starts through 34 games, putting an enormous strain on a much stronger bullpen and exposing some of the learning-on-the-job issues with the lineup.
The defending World Series champs deserve the benefit of the doubt. But if the stress from back-to-back playoff runs finally catches up to 30-something pitchers and a rotation that has stayed remarkably healthy, then the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds that are less bullish (77 percent) will plummet and Cubs fans will really have something to worry about.
“I have so much confidence in these hitters,” Maddon said. “If we were hitting like on all cylinders – literally hitting on all cylinders – and these starting pitchers were pitching to their optimal situations and you’re playing sort of like this, I would be upset or concerned.
“But I’m not. All these guys are going to play to their normal levels. We’ll pitch better. We’re definitely going to hit better. Overall, the defense, I think, is holding its own.”
Eh, “D-Peat” is an area where the Cubs aren’t playing with the same focus or sharpness. By Thursday morning, only two teams in the big leagues had committed more errors than the Cubs (27). The team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year now ranks 20th in that category. The Cubs have already allowed 23 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.
Within the NL, the Cubs are still a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. Even with leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber striking out almost 30 percent of the time. Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras are also at a sub-.700 OPS level (or anywhere from 32 to 100 points lower than the big-league average).
“You need to fail on the major-league level in order to understand how to dig yourself out of that hole,” Maddon said. “I really expect fully and anticipate struggles, and even with guys that had shown a lot of success last year. We have a really young and inexperienced team still.
“Even in spite of having two good seasons – and in spite of winning a World Series – we are young and inexperienced on a lot of different levels. So I really know we’re going to have problems. I know we’re going to mess up. I know we’re going to chase pitches. I know the process isn’t going to be right all the time. We might not think it all the way through.
“It’s part of the process, man. We’re still in good shape, record-wise. We’re still in good position. And we haven’t even played near our best baseball.”
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The talking points about being young and tired will get old and tired if the Cubs don’t start playing up to their own expectations. But the Cubs didn’t make Maddon one of the highest-paid managers in the game because of his Xs and Os. This isn’t about breaking down arm slots and launch angles or making more T-shirts or calling up Simon the Magician again. The sense of calm will radiate out from the manager’s office.
“I read the newspapers,” Maddon said. “I read the front pages. I have kids. I have grandkids. I have a foundation where we deal with a lot of people in very difficult situations.
“At the end of the day, it’s a game. Listen, I want to win as badly as anybody. And I hate when we lose. I do carry it home sometimes. But I like to meditate in the morning. I like to get my thoughts together. Evaluate exactly what’s going on here.
“Let’s not get carried away. Hyperbole has no place in all this stuff. But it has a tendency to creep in. Understand exactly what’s going on. Don’t exaggerate your plight.
“If you really want to get wrapped up and be a finger-pointer constantly, it’s a tough way to live your life.”