The Cubs were expected to improve this season, and they have. Through 34 games, are they exceeding expectations, or falling short? Yes. I’ll explain.
As we sneak up on a quarter of the Major League regular season having gone by, we’re coming up on a good measuring point for whether or not teams are performing up to expectations. The Cubs are an interesting study in this regard, having come into the season with many highly regarded prospects on the roster, signing Jon Lester, and bringing in Joe Maddon, all after coming off of five consecutive losing seasons. Have the Cubs exceeded our expectations, or are they merely as good as we expected?
After finishing off a four-game sweep of the New York Mets at Wrigley Field, the Cubs pushed their record to 19-15, which is good for second place in the NL Central. They still sit five games back of the St. Louis Cardinals, who currently have the best record in baseball, but would be hosting the Nationals in the Wild Card game if the season ended tonight.
Coming into the season, I think a lot of people expected progress out of the Cubs. They obviously are loaded with young players, many of which figure to struggle at times to adjust to the Major Leagues. If you had been asked back in March to envision a scenario where the Cubs would be on pace to win 90 games in mid-May, you’d likely have said that everything needed to break just right.
After all, the Cubs have had a pretty difficult early schedule. They’ve played seven different opponents so far, and five of those teams are either at or above .500 on the season. Nearly a third of their games have been played against teams sitting in first place, and even though their opponents’ combined record is only 118-118, that’s partially misleading. Even the worst teams, record-wise, on the Cubs schedule were performing at their best for the Cubbies.
The Brewers have been much more competitive since their 4-16 start to the season, having gone 8-7 since, a span of time that includes all six of the games the Cubs played against them. The Rockies, on the other hand, played the Cubs on the first weekend of the season. They started the year 10-7, but are just 1-12 since then. The Cubs haven’t really even hit the softer part of their schedule yet, and have performed well anyway.
You’d think that to be where they are right now, they’d need the young kids to all be performing above their expectations. But are they? This is a “long answer no, short answer yes” kind of question. I’ll try to explain that the best I can. Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell have been regulars on the Major League team for the majority of the year, with Bryant and Russell being called up later in April.
Bryant has shown fantastic patience at the plate, and has flashed some of his power lately as well. After a slow start, Russell has turned it on lately as well. He’s been hitting the ball extremely hard and watching his averages rise. Soler started of the season well, and although he’s struggled at times, his overall numbers have been pretty solid.
But these guys haven’t been perfect, as you might assume given the Cubs record. Strikeouts have been a major problem for all three. Here are their numbers at this point in the season, and what they project out like over a full year:
*Note that the MLB record for strikeouts in a season is 223.
We haven’t seen anything close to what the best of these players is going to be. As the young guys on the roster continue to grow and improve, along with the growth and improvement of guys that are still on the way such as Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber, we could be seeing the young Cubs hitters really come into their own later this season.
Anthony Rizzo is having an MVP-type season, hitting .333/.463/.598 on the season with seven home runs, seven stolen bases, and 19 runs driven in. Miguel Montero has been a pleasant surprise at the plate, posting a .924 OPS (and coming up with #WeAreGood, perhaps the best part of the Cubs season thus far). This is in large part because his at bats have largely been against right-handed pitchers, against whom he has excelled in his career. But the Cubs also have had some holes in their lineup.
Before the call-up of Russell, one of these holes was at second base. Even with Russell factored in, Cubs second-basemen have a combined OPS of .582 this season. Left field has been a dead spot as well, with Chris Coghlan, Matt Szczur, Junior Lake, and Chris Denorfia combining for a .217/.286/.383 line with four home runs.
Either through a trade, more prospects coming up later this year, or simply some positive regression from Coghlan (who has a ridiculously low .219 BABIP), the Cubs should figure out their problems in left field. It’s possible the return of Mike Olt could push Bryant out to left field too, although I believe the Cubs want Bryant to stick at third base long term.
The Cubs have had injuries in the bullpen, which has lead to some blown leads. It’s been written about ad nauseam, including by me over at Today’s Knuckleball. The sixth inning has been a mess for them, as Joe Maddon has been pretty candid about his reluctance to push his starters too hard early in the season. With Justin Grimm back in the ‘pen and looking strong, as well as Neil Ramirez on his way, the Cubs are getting stronger in this regard as well.
So are the Cubs exceeding expectations? I think it’s clear that they are. While they could experience regression in a few areas (I doubt Rizzo is going to finish the year with a .463 OBP, for example), I think there are more areas that they are going to continue to improve as the season progresses. It’s no longer a big question mark whether this team is going to contend for a playoff spot. They already are.