9 things we've learned about the Cubs in May

9 things we've learned about the Cubs in May

The Cubs still have one game left in May (weather-permitting), but an off-day is the perfect time to take stock of a team. 

That's especially true when the Cubs haven't had an off-day in two-and-a-half weeks, having played 16 straight games since their last breather on May 13.

May hasn't been fillied with the crazy roller coaster swings that April had in store for us, but it has had its share of ups and downs. The Cubs started the month winning their first four games and 10 of their first 12. They've struggled of late, but still sit at 16-11 overall in May and in first place by a game heading into the final day of the month.

The Cubs have also been surrounded with news that extends far beyond baseball — from Albert Almora's emotional reaction to his foul ball hitting a young fan in Houston Wednesday night to Ben Zobrist's ongoing leave of absence from the team to deal with a family issue to Addison Russell's return from a domestic abuse suspension.

It's been quite the action-packed month. Here are 9 things we learned about this Cubs team over the last 30 days:

1. The bullpen is still a problem area.

And it will be until it's addressed by Theo Epstein's front office. 

The Cubs have sorely missed Pedro Strop for most of this month, but he's on the verge of returning from his latest hamstring injury. That should help settle things in the bullpen, particularly at the back end.

However, we're still waiting on Brandon Morrow's return, which may never come and if it does, may not be until the second half of the 2019 campaign. Morrow's timeline all winter indicated he'd miss the first month of the season and possibly return as early as the first week of May. That did not materialize as he suffered a setback in his recovery from offseason elbow surgery and he just began a throwing progression again last week.

Only the New York Mets have blown more saves than the Cubs (11) and Joe Maddon's bullpen has posted a 4.41 ERA since May 15 — which ranks 12th in baseball. However, in that same time frame, Cubs relievers have also surrendered a .291/.360/.478 slash line to opposing hitters, ranking near the bottom of the league in every category.

Entering the season, the bullpen was the clear problem area for the Cubs and 1/3 of the way through 2019, it remains the biggest concern. The MLB Draft concludes next week and with it, the interest in free agent closer Craig Kimbrel figures to ramp up around the league with no draft pick compensation attached to the elite reliever any longer.

Epstein and Co. should absolutely be in the mix for Kimbrel or any other way to add to this bullpen because with an improved relief corps, this Cubs teams has all the makings of a championship contender. 

2. KB is an MVP again.

Kris Bryant is back, y'all. 

He maintained all winter and spring that his shoulder was 100 percent and no longer an issue, but did not have the production to match — .230/.355/.420 slash line (.775 OPS) with 3 HR, 13 RBI in March and April.

But that all changed when the calendar flipped to May, as the 2016 NL MVP had one of the best months of his entire career. 

He returned Wednesday night from a brief stint on the bench following an outfield collision and promptly hit his 13th homer of the season — the same number he had in all of last year. It was also his 10th dinger in May, as he's slashed a ridiculous .341/.455/.747 (1.202 OPS) with 22 RBI and more walks (18) than strikeouts (17). 

Yes, that's right — Bryant's slugging percentage is actually .747 over the last month. That's not some typo referring to the plane the Cubs are taking from Houston to St. Louis.

Throw in the fact that Bryant has been playing very well both defensively (while moving all around the field) and on the basepaths and it's no question he is once again in the conversation of baseball's best players. 

3. Anthony Rizzo is quietly having his best season yet.

Bryant and Javy Baez have gotten a lot of attention for their offensive output so far this season, but it's Rizzo who might be having the best season of all three.

The 29-year-old first baseman is on pace to hit 45 homers with 126 RBI and 108 runs scored and currently sports a .993 OPS. Those would all represent career highs — and by a wide margin. 

Rizzo has never hit more than 32 homers in a season and his previous bests in RBI (109), runs (99) and OPS (.928) all pale in comparison to what he's doing this season.

All-Star voting has just begun, but there's a very real possibility Rizzo, Bryant and Baez all earn spots on the NL team — maybe even as starters. 

4. The script on the role players has flipped.

While the Cubs waited for Bryzzo to get hot at the plate after a slow start, it was the secondary/role players that carried the team in a lot of ways. Jason Heyward, Daniel Descalso, Victor Caratini, David Bote and Zobrist all got out to good starts and the bottom of the Cubs order was generally more productive than the top through April.

That's done a complete 180 in May, however, as Bryant and Rizzo have heated up and many of the aforementioned role players have disappeared.

Entering the Cubs' final game of May, Heyward has a .597 OPS for the month while Descalso is at .302 with only a .094 batting average. Bote's been OK (.809 OPS), but much of that production has come in the last week after he started out the month 9-for-49 (.184 AVG) with only 1 homer and 18 strikeouts in 15 games.

Heyward flashed some very encouraging signs in April that he had finally unlocked his offensive potential in a Cubs uniform, but now a tough May has brought to light the same legitimate questions about his production at the plate.

Descalso has been a huge disappointment this month and the Cubs badly need him to turn things around, which Maddon is very confident will happen soon. The Cubs could use his veteran bat and approach in the lineup, especially against tough right-handed pitchers.

But with Zobrist's continued absence and Ian Happ still not ready to return to the big leagues, the Cubs will need some help from the secondary players. They can't rely on just Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Contreras each game. 

However...

5. The Kyle Schwarber leadoff experience appears to be working...

Schwarber struggled badly in the leadoff spot in 2017 and eventually had to go back down to the minor leagues to make some adjustments to his swing and offensive approach. With Zobrist gone and Descalso and Heyward scuffling, the Cubs needed somebody to step into that leadoff spot and Schwarber has taken the gig and run with it.

He homered to lead off Wednesday night's game — against a lefty, at that — and he now has 5 homers, 10 RBI and an .884 OPS in 14 games atop the Cubs' order. 

Schwarber has an elite batting eye and walk rate and could be a perfect fit in front of Bryant-Rizzo-Baez, but it's still a small sample size. Let's see how this all plays out in June.

6. With each day that passes, Albert Almora Jr. looks more and more like the regular centerfielder.

Almora had a tough night Wednesday in Houston after his foul ball struck a young fan, but the moment also showed how caring and genuine he is as a person and he deserves a ton of credit for being able to finish the game after such an emotional turn of events. 

After a slow start, he's been a big part of the Cubs offense in May. He's only hitting .247 with a .278 on-base percentage in the month, but he's also slugging .505 and smashed 6 homers (1 more than he hit in all of 2018). That .784 OPS is a huge boon when you consider his Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.

The 25-year-old has also exhibited some serious strides against right-handers this season, slashing .277/.325/.464 (.789 OPS) against same-handed pitchers in 2019. Imagine what his numbers would look like when he starts mashing lefties the way he's capable of (he's currently hitting just .200 with a .571 OPS against southpaws this season).

7. Today, we spell redemption Y-U?

No, that question in the teleprompter isn't on accident.

Darvish still has one more start left in May (he's slated for Friday in St. Louis), but it's possible he could be in the midst of one of the best redemption stories since Ron Burgandy.

The 32-year-old right-hander hasn't had the results he's wanted in May (5.81 ERA), but he pitched beyond the sixth inning for the first time ever in a Cubs uniform during his last outing and he's strung together three pretty good starts in a row, with only 5 walks against 23 strikeouts in that span. 

Friday's start in St. Louis is a big one for Darvish, but he has plenty of reason to feel confident in his abilities and the results may soon follow.

But Darvish isn't alone in his bid for a redemption arc. 

Tyler Chatwood is having a heck of a resurgence, moving from a guy who was booted from the rotation last August to valuable long man in the bullpen to closer (for one game, at least). Then there's Brandon Kintzler, who spent his first two months in a Cubs uniform firmly outside the circle of trust, but is now one of the team's most reliable relievers.

8. PECOTA wasn't all wrong.

The Cubs and their fans took major issue with the projection system that pegged the club for only 79 wins in 2019 and predicted a serious downturn for the pitching staff.

Even amid a recent tough stretch, the Cubs are still on pace for 93 wins and the aging pitching staff has done quite a bit to prove PECOTA wrong all year. But things have started to normalize quite a bit, particularly with the oldest members of the rotation.

Jon Lester and Cole Hamels were absolutely fantastic to begin the year, combining to post a 2.24 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 88.1 innings (15 starts) through May 12. But since then, the two veteran southpaws have a 9.00 ERA and 2.30 WHIP in 27 innings, allowing 48 hits and 14 walks in that span.

It's a small sample size and nobody expected Lester to post a 1.16 ERA all season, but it's been a concerning stretch, for sure.

However, Kyle Hendricks has helped pick up the slack, going 4-0 with a 1.81 ERA in May while becoming the first MLB pitcher since Clayton Kershaw in May 2016 to notch four starts of 8+ innings and 1 or fewer earned runs in a single month:

9. 2016 was such an anomaly.

With each passing month, it becomes more and more clear that the 2016 season was the outlier for the Cubs. They're still an elite team and should remain in contention all season, but nothing will ever be quite like that 2016 campaign.

The Cubs got out to a ridiculous start that year and coasted all the way until the end of the regular season, never really facing a challenge within the NL Central. Their road to the World Series championship was certainly fraught with conflict and difficulty that fall, but the spring and summer had little drama.

2016 is still very fresh in everybody's minds, but it's also an unfair comparison to make. Apart from Schwarber's devastating knee injury in the first week of the season, everything went right for the Cubs that year.

Even when the Cubs were playing amazing baseball to begin this May, they still weren't able to pick up much breathing room on the Brewers and Cardinals in the division and it's apparent nothing will ever match that magical year. But 2019 could get close, as the Cubs have flashed all the makings of a potential World Series contender.

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New bullpen addition George Kontos is happy the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016...but he didn't want them to

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AP

New bullpen addition George Kontos is happy the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016...but he didn't want them to

George Kontos is just like you.

He was born in the Chicagoland area (Lincolnwood), grew up a diehard Cubs fan and went to school close to home at Northwestern. He even lived and died with that uber-emotional 2003 National League Championship Series, hanging out on Waveland Avenue with college buddies during the infamous Bartman Game.

But that's where the comparisons stop.

When the Cubs finally won it all in November 2016, the veteran reliever had a unique perspective...and he wasn't quite sure what to feel.

Kontos rooted for the Cubs his whole life and now finally gets to put on a uniform with the iconic logo, signing a minor-league deal with the organization over the winter. But he was originally selected out of Northwestern by the New York Yankees in the 5th round of the 2006 MLB Draft and later traded to the San Francisco Giants in April 2012. He spent the next five years in San Francisco, winning a pair of World Series but also losing to those 2016 Cubs in the NLDS after a collapse by Kontos' bullpen mates in Game 4.

"Being in baseball, I'm obviously rooting for the team I'm playing for. I've come in and played against the Cubs lots of times and the 8-year-old inside of me has always rooted for them," Kontos said. "But 2016 was a little bit difficult because they went through us in the first round and we had that bit of a collapse in Game 4 with our bullpen.

"So that one was tough. I can't say I was rooting the Cubs on then, just because it was so fresh and left such a bad taste in my mouth after how we finished our season. But now that it's moved on, I'm happy that they were able to do that. It was something I always hoped for growing up and the fact they were able to do it and I was able to watch it is awesome."

Kontos still lives in Chicago, so even after the Giants were knocked out in 2016, he couldn't escape the Cubs' run. Not that he necessarily wanted to, either.

As that postseason developed, Kontos was recruited by 120 Sports (now Stadium) to do a live broadcast of Games 1 and 2 of the World Series in the West Loop studios.

He still had to fight through those mixed emotions for the broadcasts, especially because he — like Cubs manager Joe Maddon — felt great about the Giants' chances if they were able to get back to Wrigley Field for Game 5 of the NLDS with Johnny Cueto on the mound. Maddon has often pointed to how important that Game 4 comeback was because San Francisco had Cueto looming for a winner-take-all matchup at what guaranteed to be a tense atmosphere at the corner of Clark and Addison.

But now, looking back, Kontos can revel in the joy the same way other Cubs fans can. Plus, the dude has two World Series rings already from the 2012 and 2014 Giants.

He hasn't spent a lot of time around these Cubs, but he can see some similarities between those Giants "dyansty" teams and this current Cubs roster. 

"The thing we had with the Giants the years we won is we had unbelievable team chemistry," Kontos said. "Everyone checked their ego at the door and it was playing as a unit to accomplish one common goal to win that day. And as the season progresses and as the postseason kicks in, that motto is definitely amplified where we have to come in and win today. It's all about picking each other up."

Kontos may get caught up in the numbers game in the Cubs bullpen, as there are plenty of arms vying for the last couple spots in spring training.

Who knows how this will all shake out with Kontos, but for now, he's getting to play for the team he grew up watching and rooting for.

"It's a dream come true," Kontos said. "I've been a Cubs fan since I was 5 years old. In those dreams as a little kid, it was always a Cubs uniform I was wearing as I was envisioning myself in a major-league game. 

"Being able to step into this clubhouse and put this jersey on and hopefully getting the opportunity to toe it up at Wrigley on Opening Day or whenever throughout the season, it's definitely going to be a dream come true for me, my family and everybody who's ever rooted me on along the way — teachers, friends, people from Northwestern. There are a lot of ties that go back there and I'm very proud to pitch in front of whenever I pitch at Wrigley."

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How Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

How Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

In the hours after the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies in the National League Wild-Card game, as the attention turned toward the offseason, the way the year ended sure seemed like it was going to be the impetus behind a winter of change around the franchise.

Back then, listening to Theo Epstein talk on that sunny Oct. 3 afternoon, if you had predicted the biggest addition the Cubs would make in the offseason would be Daniel Descalso, you would have been laughed out of the room. 

That's not taking anything away from Descalso, but the Cubs offense faded badly down the stretch last year and he's a 32-year-old utility player who has never notched even 375 at-bats in a season. 

However, Descalso may be just what the Cubs need, especially in an offseason with very little wiggle room in the budget.

His value to this team could go far beyond the stat sheet. He might even be — dare I say — the next David Ross?

That's a lot of pressure to put on a newcomer on this team. Ross has been retired for two years now, but still casts a large shadow in that clubhouse as a respected leader and presence — not to mention the popularity he has with fans and media.

Descalso isn't trying to be the next Ross. He'll settle for the next Jon Jay — especially because Descalso and Jay are great friends who came up together in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Jay only spent one season with the Cubs (2017), but players still bring up his impact and leadership unprompted. He's now across town playing for the White Sox, so he and Descalso are reunited in Chicago (even if their schedules won't match up much).

This winter, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer talked a lot about the need to add some leadership into the clubhouse to help convey a sense of urgency on a daily basis — something they felt was lacking in 2018. 

They landed on Descalso to help fill that void.

"He brings leadership and a lot of intangibles that can't be measured," Jay said of Descalso. "He's a guy that can have that tough conversation with a player and he's not afraid to do it. He can lead by example, he knows exactly when to say the right things at the right times. He's really good for any clubhouse. 

"... Any team can benefit from a Daniel Descalso. He makes everybody better. Just knowing those guys — they're gonna love him. He's a great example for a veteran player, a young player, for coaches. He really knows the game well. He's gonna help bring out the best in anybody."

How Descalso goes about accomplishing that will be tricky. The roster has not had a ton of turnover lately and the core players — particularly the position players — have been together for quite a while. And they've clearly been very successful, with four straight trips to the playoffs and a World Series championship.

That's not an easy environment for a new player to come in and assume a leadership role in.

Descalso understands he was brought in to help emerge as a vocal leader, but he isn't putting pressure on himself or trying to do too much too quickly. 

He also isn't entering a team completely devoid of leadership, especially with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist all making a concerted effort to step up more as leaders in 2019.

"I've been the new guy in the clubhouse a couple times," Descalso said. "If you come in and you're the loud guy and you start ruffling feathers right away, you could put some guys off. I think you just come in, kinda feel your way out in the early parts of spring training and into the season and then you really get a feel for a team and clubhouse and how things work and go from there.

"I'm not gonna come in right away and stand up on the couch and give a rah-rah Knute Rockne speech."

Descalso may not be an everyday player, but he's entering his 10th year in the big leagues and has an idea of how to go about his business while still carrying the self-awareness to know he doesn't have all the answers. He also knows plenty about winning, having gone to the playoffs five times in his career with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks — racking up 48 games in October and notching a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2011.

So what does "leadership" mean to a guy with a resume like that?

"You can lead in a variety of different ways," Descalso said. "You don't have to be a veteran to lead. You can be a young guy and lead by example the way you show up and compete every day. But I think as you get older, you stick around. Maybe you develop a reputation, then you can start to be a little bit more vocal.

"You pick your spots. You have to know the individual you're approaching — is it a guy you can pat on the back? Is it a guy you can get after a little bit? For me, I'm not gonna come in here and be a rah-rah guy. I'm gonna sit back and learn my teammates and get to know them individually and go from there."

Descalso's focus early on in his Cubs tenure is building that trust and rapport. He doesn't have much of a history with the guys on the roster apart from playing against each other over the years.

When Jay was with the Cubs, he didn't really find his voice as a leader until a couple months into the season, especially since the rest of the roster was still riding high off that emotional World Series.

Descalso also has an advantage Jay didn't — the security of a multi-year deal. That allows him to feel more established and comfortable in building rapport with players and assuming a leadership role, knowing he'll make his home here for the next 2-3 years (the Cubs hold a team option on Descalso for 2021).

"Yeah, it's nice to know I'm going to be around here for a couple years, so you can really invest in those relationships," Descalso said. "Not that you wouldn't on a 1-year deal, but it's just not as easy. You have time to build up that trust and build up that camaraderie. I'm looking forward to being around this group for a couple years."

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