After an uninspired start to the new season, it’s time for us all to admit that the party is over. But that doesn’t mean these 2017 Cubs can’t win it all again.
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs looked unstoppable. On May 12th, they held a 25-8 record, seven games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates atop of the NL Central, and were 12-5 at Wrigley Field.
Aside from playing one more game a year later, the 2017 Cubs have not dominated the league in the same way. So far, the defending champs are 17-17, hold fourth place in the NL Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, and first-place St. Louis Cardinals, and are a lowly 7-9 at the Friendly Confines.
So, what’s changed so much in 365 days?
Well for starters, the starting pitching is lacking. After holding the league’s best ERA a year ago, the 2017 Cubs starters carry a 4.56 ERA. That’s the ninth-highest in all of baseball, a ranking made more clear by the Cubs rotation’s dubious stat of leading the majors with the most runs surrendered in the first inning.
Brett Anderson has been the weakest link in the rotation so far. Signed in the offseason to a one-year deal, Anderson is 2-2 with a team-worst 8.18 ERA and a whopping 13.9 hits per nine innings. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey haven’t fared much better. While both Arrieta and Lackey sport solid strikeout numbers (10.2 and 9.9 per nine respectively), they are giving up too many runs. Both with seven starts each, Arrieta is 4-2 with a 5.35 ERA, and Lackey is 3-3 with a 4.29 ERA. Those numbers must change if the Cubs expect to make a serious run for at least the division title.
Surprisingly, this is somewhat unfamiliar territory for this group of Cubs. Since the arrival of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber in 2015, Chicago has rarely fallen below .500. They were at .500 in one instance during 2015 after Bryant become a Major Leaguer on April 17th, 2015. But until 2017, they were never below .500. The last time the Cubs were a .500 team in 2015 was May 10th. Since then, they are a combined 202-125-1 (not including the postseason). Since Bryant’s debut, in particular, the Cubs have been at .500 merely six times (five of those instances in 2017) and below .500 twice (April 3rd and 17th of this season). We are living in the Golden Age of Cubs Baseball. The Cubs have never been this dominant during the regular season after the introduction of divisions in 1969. You have to go all the way back early in the pre-division era of Major League Baseball to find such a dominant group of Cubs.
If you’re like me and you find yourself surprised by the Cubs’ recent struggles, now you know why. It’s been more than two years since the Cubs have been a pedestrian club. But right now, that’s exactly what the Cubs are: pedestrian. As a team, they aren’t hitting nearly as well as they did a year ago. The bullpen outside of newcomer Wade Davis has been questionable. And as previously noted, the starters have not lived up to their very high expectations. Jason Heyward and Brett Anderson went on the DL after the conclusion of the previous homestand, paving the way for highly touted third base prospect Jeimer Candelario’s recent call-up. He impressed Joe Maddon in his first two games of 2017, so much so that he may have earned himself a starting job. This may well be a temporary arrangement, but then again Kyle Schwarber’s call to the show wasn’t expected to last more than a week in 2015.
Speaking of Schwarber, his .195 batting average hasn’t helped out a team with a combined .241 average, the 11th-lowest among all offenses in Major League Baseball. The lead-off experiment has failed, and hopefully, that means Schwarbs will return to a more natural place lower in the lineup. The loss of Dexter Fowler has certainly impacted the top of the order, but the offense still draws plenty of walks. Kris Bryant is the only everyday Cub hitting close to .300 (he currently has a .299 batting average entering Friday night).
Long story short, the Cubs are no longer the Murderer’s Row from 2016. They’re a .500 team hitting below .250 as a club and hemorrhaging runs in the first inning more than any other team in the league. These aren’t the World Champions. But it’s okay, folks. We’re only in May.
While they haven’t been the same club from last year’s World Series run, the Cubs have made more comeback wins than anyone else in the young season. That’s one positive to take away from this disappointing start to 2017. At the very least, the Cubs have shown that they can steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Such a skill helps win championships. You know, like what they did in Game 7 last November.
After a frustrating series against the New York Yankees and a lackluster showing against the Colorado Rockies, the North Siders find themselves back in the lion’s den when they return to St. Louis for a three-game series against the Cardinals beginning on Friday night. They fared well against St. Louis following a dramatic Opening Night loss in extra innings, winning the next two games by a combined score of 8-5. Starting pitcher Eddie Butler will make his Cubs debut and his first start since June 28th of last season as a member of the Rockies when he suffered a 14-9 loss to the Blue Jays at Coors Field. If Butler’s career 6-16 record and 6.50 ERA are any indications of his skill as a starter, he likely won’t be a long-term solution for that fifth spot in the rotation. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Cubs make a move for a starting pitcher at this year’s trade deadline. Will Thed likely make the leap for a top-line ace? One must think that they’ll make some phone calls, but they ideally wouldn’t unload a Baez or a Schwarber for such talent.
With prospects like Candelario and Ian Happ in the fold, it’s not crazy to think that the Cubs are pretty content with their situation. All that’s left is addressing the back-end of the rotation, figuring out who should lead off, and adding more reliable options in the bullpen to compliment Wade Davis. Unfortunately, we may never see another season like 2016.
But maybe we’ll be saying the same thing about 2017 next year.