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.
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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