Through the first 14 games of the 2018 season, the Chicago Cubs stand at a mediocre 7-7 after displaying a host of inconsistencies and some concerning holdover traits from last year. Although the Cubs have shown some of the offensive explosiveness that makes them World Series contenders and have seen improvements from the likes of Kyle Schwarber, there are other elements of the team that are worth closer inspection as the season wanes on into mid-April. Here is a quick breakdown of the most noticeable positives and negatives for the North Siders so far:
While Joe Maddon‘s team flexed their muscles in scoring 12 unanswered runs (including nine with two outs in the eight inning) against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday, they have also looked downright porous at times, mustering just four hits in the previous game against Braves starter Anibal Sanchez.
Perhaps more concerning for Chicago has been the inability to move runners over and bring them to the plate. Heading into the series with Atlanta, the Cubs were driving runners in from third base and less than two outs just 23 percent of the time, easily the worst mark in the big leagues. Similarly, the Cubs have succeeded in just 38 percent of their chances at moving runners from second base over to third with no outs, a disturbing trend that doesn’t bode well for a lineup that should see production up and down the card.
That is not to say that there are no bright spots. Kris Bryant continues to establish himself as one of the best hitters in all of baseball after posting a .352 average through the first 14 games, and Ben Zobrist has shown early sings of rebounding from a down year in 2017. The aforementioned Schwarber has looked impressive after working throughout the offseason to change his approach, already notching three opposite field ground balls for base hits (just one shy of his total mark from 2017).
Joe Maddon is still trying to figure out the leadoff spot given Ian Happ‘s penchant for the strikeout and having to split time between Zobrist, Almora and Jason Heyward. Chicago has also been dealing with the absence of first baseman Anthony Rizzo as he remains on the disabled list with back soreness. Nonetheless, this is a lineup that should be producing on a more consistent basis.
The marquee offseason acquisition for the Cubs has had a very shaky start to his 2018 campaign. Darvish has logged just 15 innings in his first three starts, posting a 6.00 ERA and surrendering a trio of home runs. Darvish actually looked strong in his first four innings of Friday’s start against Atlanta before a timely balk call completely threw him off his game in the fifth.
Especially given his struggles in the World Series, it is easy to start wondering just how mentally strong Darvish really is when he is on the mound. It is pivotal for the 32-year-old right-hander to get some moxie and be able to pitch out of tight situations when the Cubs need him to most. Darvish handed out four free passes to Braves hitters on Friday. Considering the defensive prowess of the Cubs in the field, he will need to be better about attacking hitters and getting ahead in the count, which should not be much of an issue given his velocity and command of his breaking pitches.
… and the rest of the rotation
Unfortunately, the rest of the rotation has been underwhelming alongside Darvish. Although Kyle Hendricks has posted a pair of quality starts, he has surrendered a team-high four long balls, which is somewhat concerning given his knack for being a soft-baller. Jon Lester continues to be inefficient with his command of the fastball, an issue that seemed to haunt him in all of 2017 and one that he must sort out if he hopes to return to the ranks of the elite starting pitchers in the bigs. The same can be said for Cubs newcomer Tyler Chatwood, who has shown some nasty movement with his cutter and two-seam fastball but has struggled to get outs.
Perhaps the biggest question mark of all has been Jose Quintana. The left-hander had a no-hitter going in his first start against the Miami Marlins before giving up six runs in a loss. Quintana was brilliant in a bounce back start against the Brewers last Sunday, but was lit up for seven runs on Saturday against the Braves before the Cubs staged their miraculous comeback. Quintana was a potential dark horse ace for Chicago heading into the year, but his inconsistencies have dogged him thus far.
Whereas the rotation has been rocky, Chicago’s bullpen has been rock-solid. Occasional blowups from Tyler Wilson and Mike Montgomery notwithstanding, the bullpen unit has totally overpowered opposing hitters. Carl Edwards Jr. continues to mold himself into one of the elite strikeout relievers in baseball, and newcomers Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow have been excellent as well.
While left-handers Montgomery and Wilson have struggled out of the pen, Brian Duensing has remained extremely effective. Duensing was perhaps the most unsung offseason move the Cubs made after he chose to re-sign with the club, but he will be a vital arm in relief for Joe Maddon after having a breakout season last year.
The Javier Baez conundrum
Chicago’s fourth-year shortstop is one of the more frustrating players on the roster. Baez has always had a flair for the dramatic, something he has already shown after hitting a game-tying double on Saturday and drilling a pair of home runs in back to back games against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But despite leading the Cubs in homers and runs batted in, Baez is hitting just .191, and is third on the team with 13 strikeouts.
Given his ability to produce, it may be wise for Maddon to move Baez further up in the order so as to give him a spark. The Cubs desperately need guys who can deliver in big moments, and Baez seems to thrive on that pressure. It may inspire some confidence in him if he is consistently hitting in the middle of the order behind the likes of Bryant, Rizzo and Willson Contreras. Regardless, the Cubs will need more well-rounded production from the 25-year-old if they hope to re-establish themselves as an offensive juggernaut.
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