Cubs

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Cubs

It's been a really weird first few weeks of the 2018 season.

Five postponements due to weather led to several stretches of two days off in a row, which is something Major League Baseball players typically only experience during the All-Star Break. 

The Cubs initially traded off wins and losses, failing to gain momentum in either direction before the schedule and weather finally normalized and they were able to play for a week straight and get into a regular rhythm at the end of April.

The end result was a 4-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers followed by a quick win of the Colorado Rockies, all while the offense failed to score more than 3 runs.

Beyond the tempermental mood of Mother Nature, here's what else we learned about the Cubs in the first month-plus of the 2018 season:

1. The Yu Darvish Experience will be a roller coaster.

When he's on, Darvish is easily one of the best pitchers in the game. He often looks like he's throwing a Wiffle Ball up there and generates a ton of swings and misses.

But when Darvish is off, he's really off. Everything from fifth-inning meltdowns to issues pitching in cold weather to cramping concerns to leaving pitches up in the zone

That being said, there's still good reason to take a deep breath and be patient. As Ben Zobrist said, everybody can have a bad month.

 

Remember Jon Lester's first month in a Cubs uniform? I'm sure he'd like to forget it — 0-2, 6.23 ERA, 1.57 WHIP.

Darvish's first month-plus with Cubs: 0-3, 6.00 ERA, 1.57 WHIP.

However, that was only four starts for Lester compared to six for Darvish. Lester righted the ship in May 2015 and wound up with a 4.04 ERA and 1.32 WHIP through his first six starts.

Darvish will be fine eventually, but it seems almost everybody struggles initially after signing a big contract in free agency.

2. Ian Happ is not the leadoff hitter.

Yet, anyways. 

The Cubs might want to stop putting their young, inexperienced players atop the batting order in their first big-league seasons. It didn't work with Kyle Schwarber last year and it didn't work with Happ this year.

Happ sent the very first pitch of 2018 into the right-field bleachers in Miami and it's been all downhill since. His strikeout rate is astronomical and he's even carried his offensive struggles into the field.

Albert Almora Jr. doesn't walk much or see many pitches but the Cubs offense stablized when they inserted him atop the order and the young centerfielder should continue to see opportunities there in the short-term at least.

Watch for Ben Zobrist to start seeing more at-bats in the leadoff spot when everybody is healthy and clicking.

3. This rotation has record-setting potential.

You can't just throw the first three weeks of the season into Lake Michigan with cement shoes, but with the wacky weather, these Cubs starting pitchers were unable to get into any sort of routine.

Once they finally got back on regular rest, we saw an incredible stretch of starting pitching, where they went the whole Milwaukee series without giving up an earned run and rattled off six quality starts in a row.

The numbers don't show that the 2018 Cubs have the best rotation in baseball, but the potential is there. Now that they're settled in, it's time to see what they can really do over a long stretch of games.

4. Chili Davis is the Hitting Coach That Was Promised.

The Cubs will enter the weekend series with the St. Louis Cardinals having not scored more than 3 runs in a game in over a week, but they also went 5-2 in that stretch.

The Cubs aren't walking as much as they did under John Mallee, but they're also using the whole field a lot more and more willing to shorten up with two strikes and just try to put the ball in play. The power isn't quite there yet, but that will come as the weather gets consistently warm.

Under Davis, the Cubs offense doesn't look as anemic when going through rough patches as they're still able to "move the baseball," to borrow one of Joe Maddon's favorite phrases. 

Imagine how great this offense can truly be once Anthony Rizzo gets going and once the heart of the order (Kris Bryant, Rizzo, Willson Contreras) starts hitting more balls into the bleachers.

 

5. It's not always going to be an oil painting.

Borrowing another Maddonism here to illustrate that the Cubs won't have the same easy road to the postseason and a division title as they did in 2016. That year was such an aberration — they got off to such a ridiculously hot start and wound up coasting to a comfortable lead in the NL Central throughout the entire year, clinching with almost two weeks left in the regular season.

The Cubs have played a lot better baseball overall the last two weeks, but they also will be prone to ugly losses like Wednesday's series finale with the Rockies (though that was probably the sloppiest game they'll play in 2018).

There's a ton of talent on this team and they should still win the division and make a legit run at the NL pennant again, but the Cardinals and Brewers are much improved and even the Pirates look very good to begin the year. 

The Cubs will have their hands full all season holding all three teams off in the division. They'll also have a tough time finding consistency all year as their roster is still very young and the offense is still prone to peaks and valleys.

6. Water and ibuprofen always do the trick...

...for hangovers. The results may not be all that different for the 2018 Cubs in the first five weeks of the seaosn, but the "look" is quite a bit different.

The Cubs looked sluggish — and yes, hungover — at the beginning of 2017 coming off that exhausting offseason that came after the ending of the 108-year World Series drought. 

This year's squad looks much more energized and hungry and they entered the season with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. It's been more than 18 months now since they won it all and they're ready for another ring.

7. They could probably use another hitter.

That might seem crazy with how much Theo Epstein's front office has invested in position players over the last half-decade, but this team has exactly two hitters in the lineup that scare the opposition on a consistent basis: Bryant and Rizzo.

Contreras and Javy Baez can rattle off some incredible hot streaks and Schwarber also looks like Superman at the plate sometimes, but all three guys suffer from approach/discipline issues at other times and can be prone to a heavy helping of strikeouts in a short period of time.

Addison Russell still hasn't taken that next step forward and Jason Heyward still hasn't figured out how to get back to the hitter he was in his entire career before coming to Chicago. Almora and Happ are still so young and raw and Zobrist is now 36 and can't seem to keep back/wrist issues from hampering his swing. 

In a year or two, this might become easily the best lineup in baseball, but right now, they look to be one hitter away from serving as a legit title contender (ahem, Manny Machado). It also wouldn't hurt if they were able to acquire a bonafide leadoff hitter who can take his walks and set the table on a consistent basis for Bryzzo.

 

8. Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. are really good, but can this bullpen maintain their pace?

Morrow has reinvented himself several times throughout his career and has all the makings of one of the elite closers in the game. He's got the stuff (including a 98 mph fastball) and the mental fortitude to attack hitters and handle the role long-term. He's also helped unlock Edwards' massive potential and the young right-hander looks to be finally breaking out. The two have formed a dynamic back end of the bullpen, allowing only one run all year combined.

Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing continue to do their thing as underrated veterans, but they're also being used a lot. All three of those guys plus Edwards are on pace for 75-plus appearances and that's even coming off a stretch where the starting pitchers have consistently been getting into the 6th, 7th and even 8th innings the last 10 days. 

The Cubs bullpen ran into a wall late last season and it killed them in the postseason. Will that happen again this year? Maddon and Co. are doing everything they can to make sure history doesn't repeat itself, but with Mike Montgomery and Justin Wilson already out of the circle of trust and Luke Farrell still very much an unknown, the Cubs don't have as much bullpen depth as it would appear on the surface.

9. R-E-L-A-X.

It's a long season. As a whole, Cubs fans seem awfully stressed when the team has a poor performance or a rough couple of days. They're already in a way better position in the first week of May this year than they were at this time last year.

It may not seem like it, but the Cubs actually finished April on a 100-win pace — though going 7-1 against the Brewers certainly helped the bottom line.

The main concern at this point is health and the Cubs appear to be healthy across the board heading into a weekend series under the arch. That even puts them ahead of the 2016 pace when Schwarber was lost for the season (until the World Series, that is) in the first week of April.

The Cubs aren't stressed about a couple of losses to the Rockies or the individual struggles of some players like Darvish or Rizzo or Jose Quintana, who all have incredible track records of stellar performance.