Cubs

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Cubs

ARLINGTON, Texas — If you woke up this morning, grabbed a cup of coffee, looked at the Cubs' 1-2 record and thought it was an April Fool's joke, well...you're in for some disappointment.

Theo Epstein dubbed 2019 the "Year of Reckoning" after a disappointing end to the 2018 campaign and an offseason focus on leadership, urgency and production over potential.

The production part is simple: The Cubs went into Texas, played three games against a rebuilding Rangers team that may very well finish in last place in the AL West in 2019 and played well enough to sweep the series, but instead find themselves below .500. It was the first losing series in a season-opener under Joe Maddon's tenure.

As the Cubs head to Atlanta to begin a stretch of six games on the road against contenders (Braves, Brewers) before the home opener, let's take a look back at the entirety of March and what we learned about this team. (Note: I placed more of an emphasis on the first three real games of the season, but didn't ignore the final few weeks of spring training.)

1. This offense may well be "fixed."

I've been high on the Cubs offense all winter and spring. Yes, it "broke" in the second half last year and while it was largely unexplainable, it's easy to see it as the outlier from this group. Kris Bryant's injury obviously played a huge role in all that, too.

 

The season is only 3 games old and all of those contests came with the wind blowing out in a hitter's ballpark against a lackluster pitching staff, but there are so, so many reasons for optimism surrounding this offense. 

The Cubs scored 28 runs in those 3 games while slashing .342/.430/.570 — good for a 1.000 OPS as a TEAM. They also walked (18) as much as they struck out (21) and wore down opposing pitchers, forcing the Rangers to throw an average of 170+ pitches per game over the weekend. 

Go up and down the lineup and look at each player individually and it will be hard to find anybody struggling. Bryant and Javy Baez look like their MVP-candidate selves, Willson Contreras is driving the ball again, Anthony Rizzo's two-strike hitting and batting eye are as sharp as ever and Kyle Schwarber looks absolutely locked in.

The Cubs are wearing out the middle of the field, going the other way with authority, hitting for power, drawing walks, limiting swings-and-misses, etc. The list goes on and on. Everything you'd want to see from the Cubs offense in the first weekend was there and easy to find. 

This all comes after a spring in which the Cubs scored early and often and left Arizona feeling very good about their overall approaches at the plate.

Now a bit of pessimism: This same lineup was the most valuable offense in baseball before the All-Star Break last year, so getting off to a hot start isn't anything new.

We don't know whether this group will fade in the second half again this year or not, but right now, it looks like this offense is going to score A TON of runs this season.

2. This bullpen is going to be a problem. 

We knew the first month of the bullpen was going to have some issues without Brandon Morrow. The only new addition to the group was Brad Brach plus the inclusion of Mike Montgomery and Tyler Chatwood, who both spent most of 2018 in the rotation.

The Cubs relief corps certainly struggled in the opening series, allowing 13 earned runs and 24 baserunners in 11.2 innings. Walks (8) and homers (4) are both huge problems, but maybe the park factor and hitting conditions had something to do with that in such a small sample size.

This bullpen might force fans to regularly hit up the antacid section at CVS, but it won't be this awful all season.

Plus, there are plenty of concerns for the entire pitching staff, as the starters (Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels) combined for a 6.58 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in the first three games. So run prevention wasn't just a bullpen issue this weekend.

3. The Cubs mean it when they say production over potential.

As Epstein's front office and Maddon's coaching staff finalized the Opening Day roster, they sent a pair of statements to lend credence to the "production over potential" edict. 

First, it was sending Ian Happ down to the minor leagues. It seemed to be a given the young switch-hitter would be on the Opening Day roster, but he struggled in spring training. This came after a second half that saw Happ hit .196 with a .653 OPS after the All-Star Break.

 

Then, it was designating Brian Duensing for assignment, as the front office showed they were willing to eat $3.5 million in salary in a year in which the budget was very tight. Duensing also struggled in the latter part of 2018 and did not look any better this spring. He cleared waivers (nobody was going to pick up that contract), so he's in Triple-A Iowa, but there's no guarantee he will come back up to Chicago this year.

Both moves were proof that production really is valued over potential talent or salary or any other factor.

Now...what does that mean for Chatwood's future?

4. Yu Darvish is back?

To say Darvish had a rough first season in a Cubs uniform would be an understatement. Yet, somehow, he achieved a different level of disappointment Saturday.

Darvish walked 7 batters and managed to get just 8 outs, struggling badly with his command after striking out the first two hitters. This comes following a spring in which the only talk surrounding the right-handed pitcher was positive, from his health to his on-field performance to his mood and personality off the field. Even the scare with a blister issue turned out to be of no consequence.

But there's also reason to avoid a freakout after his 2019 debut.

It was Darvish's first start in nearly 10 months, so there was already a lot of emotion and adrenaline. Couple that with the fact he was returning to the Rangers' ballpark in Arlington, where he spent the first five years of his playing career (six years total, with a season lost to Tommy John surgery) in front of fans and in a city where he said he "grew up" after coming over to America from Japan. 

On top of all that, Darvish didn't stand there and make any excuses after the game, which was a positive sign. Last year, there always seemed to be some reason why he struggled in the 8 starts he made and then we found out he had a forearm bone bruise that led to a need for elbow surgery. 

Through one start at least, Darvish is healthy and he and the Cubs are expecting better results the next time out.

"I can't tell why [I lost my command] right now," he said. "I have to look at the video tomorrow. Ball was fine, mound was fine, just all about me."

5. Javy won the first battle against the Regression Monster.

Baez was the runner-up in NL MVP voting last year (and would be again if the season ended today, as Christian Yelich is absolutely on fire yet again), but many expected him to regress in 2019. A lot of very smart baseball analysts and pundits believed El Mago's free-swinging ways would catch up to him.

 

Insert small sample size qualifer here once more, but that doesn't look to be the case as the calendar turns to April.

Baez clubbed a pair of homers and drove in 4 runs on Opening Day and has had some very good at-bats in the two games since. There's the plate discipline, where Baez has let some borderline pitches go for balls. He had one at-bat Sunday where he fell behind 0-2 and then worked a walk watching four straight pitches out of the zone.

He's using the entire field, he's playing great defense and he's throwing the opposition off with his El Mago routine on the basepaths. 

The Regression Monster may be coming for Baez yet, but he certainly won Round 1.

6. The role players will have a big part in the season.

Baez, Bryant and Rizzo are great and Contreras and Schwarber look to be on the cusp of stardom, but they can't do it all alone. Role players like David Bote, Daniel Descalso and Mark Zagunis are going to need to come up big and so far, they have.

Descalso was slowed in spring training with a shoulder injury and didn't draw a start until the third game, but he collected 3 hits on the afternoon, including a clutch game-tying single. 

Bote started the first two games with some quality at-bats and hard-hit balls and then came in as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Descalso late in Sunday's game.

Zagunis started Thursday and we haven't seen him since, but he hit a double in his second at-bat and helped boost the offense to their only win thus far. 

All contending teams need lesser-known guys stepping up from time to time and to serve as depth in case injuries strike. The Cubs look to be set in both areas.

7. The NL Central is going to be WILD.

From Lorenzo Cain's walk-off homer rob Thursday to Christian Yelich's walk-off double Sunday, the Brewers-Cardinals series in Milwaukee was intense. 

Nobody thought the Cubs would have an easy road to October in 2019 and the last few weeks proved that. 

Paul Goldschmidt looks to be a legit addition to the Cardinals, and they rewarded him by locking the slugger up for the next 5 years. All he did over the weekend was hit 4 homers in 4 games, but even that wasn't enough to split the series as the Brewers won 3 of 4. 

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