Jose Quintana

What we learned about the Cubs in May

What we learned about the Cubs in May

There's not really much point in making any definitive statements about a team or individual players until Memorial Day comes around.

The first month of the MLB season is too dependent on variables like hot/cold streaks or weather (as was the case this year more than ever).

Typically it takes two months (about 1/3 of the season) to be able to draw any conclusions.

The Cubs went 14-13 in May, which was actually buoyed by winning 4 of the last 5 games of the month. (They were 16-10 in March/April.)

But they actually had a +46 run differential over the 27 games in May, better than the +36 run differential in March/April.

The point: One month is still a short enough time to be impacted by luck. A team with a +46 run differential should not be just one game above .500.

Some other numbers from May compared to March/April:

The offense woke up, hitting .273/.356/.457 (.814 OPS) in May compared to a .252/.334/.412 (.746 OPS) in March/April. They averaged 5.3 runs/game in May compared to 5.1 runs/game pre-May.

The pitching staff posted a 3.26 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in May, tiny increases over a 3.33 ERA/1.31 WHIP in March/April. They also still walked the same amount of batters per 9 innings (4.2) in each month.

Which leads us to the first thing we learned this month:

1. Maybe this is just who this Cubs team is.

The pitching staff still struggles with walking far too many hitters. The offense is still good — but not great — and prone to slumps. There's still an issue hitting with runners in scoring position and getting guys home from third base with less than 2 outs. They are still prone to mental mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Maybe this is just an inconsistent team. They are still very young, after all.

That's one thing that we could've concluded about the Cubs in March/April that actually holds up now. 

But then again, entering the game on May 1, the Cubs were coming off a 5-game winning streak and looking like they were about to break out.

The Cubs started May with 5 straight losses, then won 5 games in a row (against the Marlins and White Sox) and proceeded to continue along the roller coaster for the remainder of the month.

Though, one thing is for certain...

2. Anthony Rizzo is just fine.

The back issue that caused him to miss more than a week of action in April isn't lingering. He didn't suddenly forget how to hit. 

Rizzo's splits per month:

March/April

.149/.259/.189 (.448 OPS), 1 HR, 9 RBI, 4 BB, 15 K

May

.303/.408/.576 (.984 OPS), 5 HR, 28 RBI, 18 BB, 10 K

The BB/K is particularly impressive.

And as Rizzo got hot, so, too, did the Cubs offense (see above).

Another factor in the offensive upturn was the second half of Bryzzo...

3. You were really worried about Kris Bryant's power?

After Bryant hit just 2 homers in 26 games in March/April, some seemed to be concerned about the power output of the Cubs' best player.

Bryant responded in kind with 6 homers in May and a .536 slugging percentage.

He's fine and he's now a full month removed from a scary brush with a 97 mph fastball to the head. 

As the weather continues to get warm on a consistent basis, watch as Bryant's power continues to flourish.

That being said, there is one thing to be concerned about with the Cubs offense...

4. Javy has gone full Javy.

Baez is still in the midst of a breakout season and woke up on the morning of June 1 still tied for the National League league in RBI (43). 

He's on pace for 40 homers, 131 RBI and 101 runs this year.

But he didn't draw a walk until the final day of May and struck out 25 times over the month.

He went all the way from April 11 to May 31 without drawing a free pass of any kind (intentional or otherwise). 

That lack of plate discipline led to a startling .274 OBP in May and thus a .769 OPS, which was better than only Addison Russell and Jason Heyward among Cubs regulars in May.

Baez needs to improve on his plate discipline or else teams will continue to throw balls out of the zone, thus decreasing the chances of Baez hitting the ball with authority (though not completely eliminating that percentage given his insane ability to hit balls a foot out of the plate into the bleachers).

Still, if Baez is going to have a true breakout season, he can't continue to have months with a 1:25 BB:K ratios.

Though the Cubs are boosted by the fact that...

5. Albert Almora Jr. is truly in the midst of a breakout campaign.

Almora continued to flash awe-inspiring, Gold Glove defense in May while taking another step forward at the plate. He hit .338 over the course of the month (tops among Cubs regulars) with an .850 OPS. 

He struck out just 10 times, helping to lend a different dimension to a Cubs offense that is trying to limit the whiffs and "move the baseball" more, to borrow one of Joe Maddon's favorite phrases.

Almora has emerged as the team's clear top choice in center field, though...

6. Ian Happ isn't destined for Triple-A, after all.

Fans and media alike were clamoring for Happ to be sent to the minors to figure out his swing, but he instead responded with a .981 OPS in May, posting a .400 OBP and .581 SLG despite a .226 AVG.

He still struck out 28 times, but that's just part of the roller coaster the Cubs are content to ride, in part because...

7. Ben Zobrist is still in 2016 form.

Maddon's favorite choice for the Cubs leadoff spot (against right-handed pitchers, at least) walked 13 times in May and struck out just 12. He hit a big homer Thursday night in New York and posted an .803 OPS and .367 OBP throughout the entire month.

However, that still pales in comparison to the numbers he put up in May 2016 (.406/.483/.653, .1.137 OPS, 6 HR, 25 RBI).

Zobrist is looking healthy and as important to the Cubs' offense as he was in 2016, though in a bit of a diminished capacity. He is 37, after all.

Then again, there's one part of this team that's certainly not in 2016 form:

8. The starting rotation is still a major issue, but there are reasons for optimism.

The Cubs are still doling out far, far too many walks as a pitching staff, though a lot of that can be attributed to Tyler Chatwood (23 BBs in just 19.2 IP in May). 

Chatwood, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana have caused a lot of concern in Cubdom, and rightfully so. 

In 2016, the Cubs rotation was performing at a record-setting level as they got out to a ridiculous start and coasted into the postseason.

That won't happen in 2018 — that much is clear — but here is the reason for optimism:

ERAs in May

Jon Lester - 2.70
Jose Quintana - 3.09
Kyle Hendricks - 3.26

That's right, everybody: Quintana was second among Cubs starters in ERA in May.

The ERA doesn't tell the whole story (he still had a 1.40 WHIP in the month), but Quintana is showing much-needed signs of life in the rotation.

He tossed 6 shutout innings in New York Thursday night, which was actually his 5th start in the last 7 in which he's allowed 1 or fewer earned runs. 

Which brings us to the final thing we learned about the Cubs in May:

9. This team is still waiting for something to flip the switch, but we know what that "something" is now.

It's the rotation getting into a groove on a consistent basis. We saw that in the 5-game win streak to end April as the offense failed to score more than 3 runs in any of those games.

But that was just one turn through the rotation. 

In order to fully go on a run and avoid the roller coaster season the Cubs have been on to date, they'll need consistent performances from the Cubs rotation.

Which means Chatwood needs to figure his stuff out and Darvish needs to get healthy and get right — both mentally and physically. 

Until Darvish returns, Mike Montgomery looks to step in and take advantage of his opportunity in the rotation, which he responded to very well in Pittsburgh on Memorial Day.

This rotation is the key and a Quintana turnaround could mean good things moving forward into June.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.