Kyle Schwarber

Seven Cubs in line to advance to next round of MLB All-Star Game voting

Seven Cubs in line to advance to next round of MLB All-Star Game voting

In the second and final update before the first round of voting closes, the Cubs are still all over All-Star Game voting.

It’s basically status quo in the update. Willson Contreras and Javy Baez are still blowing away the field at their positions, with more than twice as many votes as the closest player.

Kris Bryant remains solidly in second at third base. Anthony Rizzo fell to third behind Freddie Freeman of the Braves, but he is still comfortably ahead of Max Muncy of the Dodgers for the top three spot that will advance him to MLB’s new Starters Election.

All three Cubs outfielders are set to advance as well. Albert Almora Jr. moved up from fifth to fourth and Jason Heyward moved up from seventh to fifth. Interestingly, Bryce Harper is the odd man out, for now, sitting 10th among NL outfielders.

That gives the Cubs seven players set to advance to the Starters Election. Voting for this round closes Friday at 3 p.m. CT. The Starters Election features the top three at each individual position and top nine among outfielders.

 

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A locked-in Kyle Schwarber has locked down the leadoff spot for the Cubs

A locked-in Kyle Schwarber has locked down the leadoff spot for the Cubs

It's safe to say the Cubs have found their long-term leadoff hitter. 

The revolving door atop the order has stopped over the last month, with Kyle Schwarber stepping into the role and running with it.  

As his team completed the sweep of the rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field Sunday night with a 5-1 victory, he jumpstarted the Cubs' offense once again with a walk in the first inning and motored around to third base on Kris Bryant's single into the left-centerfield gap. Schwarber then later scored on Anthony Rizzo's ground out to stake the Cubs to an early 1-0 lead.

Four innings later, he hit another rocket to right-center for an RBI double to plate David Bote.

"Love his stance right now, man. I love what he's doing in the box. I think it looks great," Joe Maddon said. "That's it — that's why he's punishing the baseball. He's made some beautiful adjustments and it's as good as I've seen him. Ever. I've seen him good when he first came up [in 2015] and even in the World Series — he was outstanding. But this, if we could put this little bit in a time capsule, heads up."

The Cubs entered the year figuring Ben Zobrist would see most of the time at leadoff against right-handed pitchers and Albert Almora Jr. would slot in there against lefties, with Daniel Descalso or Jason Heyward maybe working in there a bit, too. 

But Zobrist left the team to deal with personal matters during the first week of May while Almora has actually struggled against lefties to start the season and Descalso has struggled in general the last month-plus. Heyward has been a valuable piece to the middle/bottom of the Cubs' order all year, so Maddon needed somebody else to plug in ahead of Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez.

Enter Round 2 of the Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Experiment.

Back in 2017, Schwarber was dubbed as the Cubs' next leadoff hitter as Dexter Fowler went south to join the Cardinals. But the young outfielder didn't take to the spot that season, batting .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the Cubs order before getting sent down to the minors to work on his swing. By the time he returned to Chicago, he had lost the hold on the leadoff spot. 

This time around, things are going much, much better for the slugger and his team.

Since May 16, Schwarber has started every game he's played in the leadoff spot (even against lefties). The only time he wasn't atop the Cubs' order was Friday's series opener with the Cardinals when he got a general day off and The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time (Rizzo) took over for an afternoon.

In that span, the Cubs are averaging 5.2 runs per game — which is right in line with their season tally (5.3 runs per game), so the lineup's overall production hasn't missed a beat.

But Schwarber himself is starting to take off after a hot homestand in which he's reached base 12 times and scored 6 runs in 6 games. He's also homered twice, including a 114 mph rocket into the right field bleachers on the 11th pitch of an at-bat Saturday night.

"Schwarbs, to me, that's what it's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "And not because of the home run [Saturday]. What he's doing at the plate right now, we need to keep that in a jar, because that looks really good."

Schwarber said he's been feeling pretty good the last week or so and believes he's simply not missing his pitch right now. He wasn't willing to admit this is the best he's ever been at the big-league level, but he knows the skills are in there and right now, it's just all clicking for him.

The big night Sunday boosted Schwarber's OPS out of the leadoff spot to .911 on a .258/.349/.562 slash line. He's also scored 20 runs in 23 games at leadoff while smashing 12 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and driving in 16 runs.

Schwarber believes he's better equipped to handle the leadoff role right now because the circumstances are different than they were in 2017.

"A little bit more experience there and kinda taking away the leadoff hitter name or role or whatever it is and just go out there and take my at-bats," he said.

With that stability atop the order now, it's changed the complexion of the Cubs' lineup. In their exit interviews with Theo Epstein and the Cubs brass, some players mentioned that they wanted more consistent lineups in 2019.

Right now, it's about as stable as it gets. On any given day, it's easy enough to predict what the lineup will be: Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo-Baez and then either Carlos Gonzalez or Willson Contreras hitting fifth and Heyward not too far behind.

It also presents as a nice left-right-left-right balance for the Cubs.

"We've all seen what he's able to do as far as working the count," Jon Lester said Saturday night. "It seems like now he's just not missing the pitch he's supposed to hit. He gets frustrated when that pitch comes and he misses it or fouls it off. Now, it seems like — knock on wood — that he's locked in and doing well. 

"We all know he knows the strike zone and he can work walks, but when he's hitting the ball out of the ballpark, that just adds another dynamic to the lineup. Especially with him in the 1-hole now, our lineup getting turned over. He's not only getting on base, but hitting for power and that makes our lineup deeper. It just extends those innings that these guys have to pitch and pitchers have to throw. 

"When we're able to throw him in there with the way our lineup's been going, it's always an added bonus."

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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