There’s an old adage in baseball about Memorial Day being the first mile-market of significance of the baseball season. We’re here, and the Cubs aren’t great. In fact, they’ve played mediocre baseball for most of the first two months.
They are 25-24, but luckily only 1.5 games out of first place. The NL Central is kind of a middling mess right now, evidenced by the Pirates being in last place with a 23-28 record – and still just 4.5 games back of first-place Milwaukee. Hey! The Brewers are a thing. I made a comp to Harvey’s Wallbangers that went over a lot of people’s heads earlier in the year. Hit a wiki page or something, guys. I’m not sure if their starting pitching can hang, but they’ve got a handful of flamethrowers in the bullpen and could put up a puncher’s chance as long as Neftali Feliz isn’t handling the high leverage situations.
So, what’s the Cubs deal? Where do I start?
**They miss 2015-2016 Dexter Fowler, who slashed .261/.367/.427 with a .348 wOBA out of the top spot in the order. Fowler (.228/.319/.430) isn’t off to a great start with the Cardinals, but is riding a low .265 BABIP, so progression to the mean is probably on the horizon.
**Meanwhile, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment has been a disappointment. His .177/.297/.348 slash line is ugly, as is his .218 BABIP and .287 wOBA. The 13.5% walk rate is good, but the 29.2% strikeout rate isn’t. He’s already been dropped in the order AND made a platoon player. He’ll always be an October legend (.364/.451/.727 in 51 PA over 14 G) but until he goes on one of those tears again, he should be dropped in the order.
**I’ve been asked a dozen times if I’ve ever seen anything like Jake Arrieta’s rise and crater. And actually, I have. Kind of. I keep going back to three names when I think of the Jake Arrieta Cubs experience.
**The first is Clay Buchholz, a pitcher who had a superb four-year run with the Red Sox from 2010-13, before falling off. From 2010-13, Buchholz was 46-19 with a 3.15 ERA (3.92 FIP), 1.22 WHIP, and 135 ERA+ pitching in the AL East. Injuries have taken their toll on Buchholz, but when he was good, he was really good.
**I see some Rich Harden in Jake Arrieta. Yes, another case where injuries hindered a guy. But when Harden was good, he was stellar. Unfortunately, that stellar arm could only get you five (max: six) innings at a time. Harnessing great stuff is difficult.
**The third name is a little obtuse, but follow me for a moment. R.A. Dickey re-invented himself with the Mets with a dominant pitch (hey, that sounds familiar) during his age 35-37 seasons. He was 39-28 with a 2.95 ERA (3.55 FIP) and a 129 ERA+. At age 37, he went 20-6, struck out a league-leading 230 in 233 innings and stole the NL Cy Young from Clayton Kershaw. And then the Mets traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for, among other pieces, Noah Syndergaard. Whoops.
**So where do they go from here? The Cubs will need to get their offense up. It’ll start with improving on a .326 team OBP, which ranks 13th in baseball. That number needs to be in the top-10 to be a factor and in the top-5 to be a game-changer. The rotation needs a boost. Despite Sunday’s blowup, Jon Lester has been fine. And Kyle Hendricks – after allowing 11 ER in his first three starts – has allowed eight earned runs in the six starts that followed, pitching to a 1.96 ERA (3.43 FIP) … or basically what Mike Leake (1.91 ERA, 2.99 FIP) has pitched to all season. The bullpen needs to get settled. Hector Rondon has been streaky. Carl Edwards Jr. has been great despite a walk rate north of 10%. And Wade Davis has been as good as advertised. I’d be super curious to see what kind of deal would keep him around. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey represent $28 million that could come off the books at season’s end. I hate the idea of paying closers, save for the elites. Who says no to 3/$50M?
We’ll check back in on the date I always tell people to ask me hwo I feel about the Cubs/baseball – July 1, which will be my 31st birthday. WOOOOOOF.