Cubs living up to the hype

2015-11-07 13.59.52For the first time in a long time, we were expecting big things from the Cubs coming out of Spring Training this year. Talks of a division title and even, dare I say it, a World Series became common throughout the baseball world. Finally, us Cubs fans were seeing everything seem to perfectly align with their roster.

Here’s the thing: saying that the Cubs have the best lineup in baseball, (arguably) the best pitcher in baseball, and that they are likely the best overall team in baseball is easy. For the Cubs to then go out and perform well and live up to those expectations, however, is a completely different animal.

Not only do this year’s Cubs have the weight of a 108-year World Series title drought resting on their shoulders, but now they have the biggest expectations in franchise history joining that drought on their shoulders. Dealing with that kind of pressure directly out of Spring Training is no easy task, yet this Cubs team has embraced it.

Expectations for this year’s Cubs were/are incredibly high, and somehow they have met those expectations through the first full month of the season.

We knew the offense would be good, and possibly historically good with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, as well as the re-signing of Dexter Fowler. So far, we’re seeing pretty much what we had expected.

Through 25 games the Cubs have scored 153 runs, which is good for a tie atop the entire league with St. Louis, and they lead the league with a 6.12 runs per game average. They rank second in the Majors with a .362 on-base percentage. Their 134 walks are 18 more than any other team in baseball. And how about their run differential of +89. The next closest team in that category is +40. In fact, the Cubs current run differential is the best baseball has seen through 25 games since 1905. Let that sink in.

Let’s not only focus on the offense though. The Cubs’ pitching is more than deserving of recognition.

The 2.29 team ERA of the Cubs is the best in baseball, as is their grand total of 57 earned runs allowed (64 runs including unearned). Also the best in the Major Leagues is their .195 batting average against. The next closest in that department is Washington at .215. And just for kicks, they have allowed the fewest hits in baseball (153), and the fewest total bases against (239). They are tied with Cleveland for the fourth fewest walks allowed.

So not only has the offense performed well, but the Cubs’ pitching has been just as good, if not better.

As for individual performances thus far, Dexter Fowler leads all of baseball in on-base percentage at a .473 clip and is tied for fourth with a 1.8 WAR. On the mound, Jake Arrieta is second in the MLB among starters with a 0.84 earned run average, and is tied for the league lead with 6 victories. His .142 batting average against is second best in baseball, and he was the first pitcher this year to throw a no-hitter; his second since last August. In the big picture, Arrieta is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of starting pitching in Major League history.

The scary thing about this Cubs team is the fact that offensively, they haven’t hit their peak yet. Only two “everyday” players, Fowler and Bryant, have a batting average over .300, and only one other everyday player, Zobrist, has an average over .250. Jason Heyward, the prized free agent signing, has yet to hit a home run and has just a .211 average. When the weather in Chicago turns to summer and the temperature warms up, this offense has the potential to explode.

Expectations are one thing. Going out and meeting those expectations is another, and that is exactly what the Cubs, as a team, are doing. With a 5-game lead in the Central Division (7-game lead over St. Louis), the Cubs are in the best spot of any division-leading team in the game heading into the warmer months.

Sure there is still lots of time left in the season and virtually anything can still happen. However, there is no denying that the Cubs are scary-good this year with still lots of room to improve on the offensive side. This is shaping up to be an unforgettable summer and, hopefully, fall as well.

Rumors heating up around the Cubs

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago CubsReports have surfaced today that the Cubs are zeroing in on the top free agent outfielder, Jason Heyward. After not signing David Price or Jordan Zimmerman, it appears that the Cubs are using the money they saved to try and lure Heyward into joining the North Side. We have already talked about why Heyward would be a great addition for the Cubs, but now it appears as though the Cubs are actively pursuing him.

Along with the reports of the Cubs chasing Heyward came the numbers 8 and 200 million, and yes, those are in reference to the type of contract he is reportedly seeking. Whether or not the Cubs are actually willing to pay him $200 million over eight years remains to be seen, but it gives us an indicator as to what Heyward is looking for. However, should the Cubs spend that kind of money on Heyward?

The answer is no. And honestly, no team should. Heyward has been a solid MLB player in his six seasons in the league, winning three Gold Gloves during that timeframe, but his offensive numbers are not worthy of $25 million per year. A more realistic contract would look something like six years and $108-$120 million, which if he would agree to, the Cubs should definitely sign him. In Heyward’s defense though, he is entering his prime years as he is just 26 years old, but $25 million per year is an awful lot of money for a guy who puts up just “decent” offensive numbers. The most logical reason for him supposedly asking for a contract worth $200 million is because there are lots of teams who would like to have him in their lineup. Look at it as a low supply, high demand situation.

In other Cubs news, Ken Rosenthal has reported that at least for the time being, the Cubs don’t appear to be in the Shelby Miller discussion. They are definitely interested in him, but it sounds more like the Braves are saying no to whatever the Cubs and multiple other teams are offering. At the same time, however, other reports indicate that Miller could be dealt soon, but no specific team has been definitively mentioned. This is without question a situation to keep an eye on.

Other than kicking the tires on Shelby Miller, rumors have the Cubs inquiring on a handful of other young pitchers. Carlos Carrasco (CLE), Danny Salazar (CLE), Alex Cobb (TB), and Matt Moore (TB) have all been mentioned as possible trade targets of the Cubs. All of the above are young and have loads of potential, but both Moore and Cobb have already had Tommy John surgery, which may or may not lower their appeal.

Simply put, things are heating up with the Cubs right now. With the Winter Meetings now well underway, it seems like only a matter of time before the Cubs strike a deal with another team and/or a big free agent, like Heyward.

Stay tuned.

Cubs Ink Lackey; Not Done Yet

130107_gq_trout_aFriday evening it was announced that the Cubs and John Lackey had agreed to a two-year contract worth $32 million. This was a move that had been rumored to be gaining steam in the twelve hours leading up to the official announcement, and it’s one that instantly makes the Cubs a better team.

The Cubs’ starting rotation is now Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hendricks, and Hammel. Signing Lackey gives them that third starter that the team so badly missed during this year’s playoff run, and it gives them more postseason experience. Lackey is 8-5 in 20 career postseason starts with a 3.11 era. He started three games for the Red Sox during the 2013 postseason, and posted a 2.57 era while helping Boston win the World Series. Three players from that 2013 Red Sox team are now on the Cubs.

David Ross, Jon Lester, and John Lackey are all fairly good friends going back to their days in Boston, which apparently played a significant role in Lackey deciding to join the Cubs. He’s one of the more intense, hard-nosed pitchers in the league and will inevitably bring even more of an “edge” to this Cubs team.

While we shouldn’t expect Lackey to put up equivalent numbers this year to the ones he posted this past regular season, it’s not out of the question to expect an earned run average under 3.40 with at least 10 victories. If he can deliver with numbers somewhere along those lines, that would be very ideal given his age.

Despite the Lackey signing, I would be surprised if the Cubs are totally satisfied with their rotation. That is why I am still anticipating some serious discussions to take place between the Cubs and Braves revolving around Shelby Miller. As I stated in a previous article, Miller would be a great fit for the Cubs given his age and potential, however acquiring him would mean Jorge Soler likely going the other way.

If that deal were to take place, it would not be out of the question for the Cubs to sign Jason Heyward and Denard Span. Trading Soler would open up right field for the Cubs, which is Heyward’s natural position, and Span could then play center with Dexter Fowler all but for sure gone.

While all of that is possible, the odds of it happening just like that are not great.

In other news around Major League Baseball, the Arizona Diamondbacks came out of nowhere Friday night and snagged Zack Greinke away from the grips of both the Dodgers and Giants. Greinke’s deal with the D-Backs is for six years worth $206 million, or a little over $34 million per year, which is a new record. Arizona definitely needed to upgrade their starting rotation, and while adding Greinke surely helps them accomplish that, they are still another starter or two away from becoming real contenders in the NL West.

Speaking of the West, the Giants came to an agreement with Jeff Samardzija today on a five-year, $90 million deal. Rumor had it that Samardzija was looking to sign a contract worth over $100 million, but I don’t think there was any team in baseball who was going to give him that.

So there you have it with the latest big news regarding the Cubs and the rest of the league. Continue to keep an eye on the Cubs in the coming days as the Winter Meetings are set to kick off on December 6th.

With Price and Zimmermann Gone, Cubs can Zero in on Other Targets

130107_gq_trout_aThe Cubs entered this offseason with the main goals of adding depth to their starting rotation and bullpen, as well as signing a center fielder. Many believed that David Price was the Cubs’ number one target, but he signed a record-breaking deal with Boston yesterday that the Cubs simply could not (nor should they have) matched. Another supposed target of the Cubs, Jordan Zimmermann, signed with the Tigers over the weekend. So now two starting pitchers that the Cubs were believed to have had serious interest in are gone. Where do they go from here with regards to adding pitching, and what free agent outfielders may they heavily pursue?

Let’s start with the pitching.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are not going to hand out a $150 million contract to a starting pitcher. Not with Lester already making more than that and Jake Arrieta set to earn a major pay raise in the next year. What the Cubs are likely looking for is a pitcher who will accept a two to three year deal worth anywhere from twenty to fifty or sixty million. John Lackey’s name has come up quite frequently in Cubs rumors, and honestly it makes some sense.

Lackey is 37 years old, but he is coming off of a great season in St. Louis where he went 13-10 with a 2.77 earned run average. While age is a bit of a concern with him, he doesn’t seem to be showing many signs of slowing down. At least not yet, which is why signing him to a two-year contract worth somewhere around twenty million makes sense for both sides.

In addition to John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija’s name has begun popping up as a potential target of the Cubs. When the Cubs dealt him to Oakland two years ago at the trade deadline, Epstein and Hoyer did not rule out the possibility of re-signing the big righty when he became a free agent. Well, that time has come, and it appears the Cubs’ brass may be sticking true to their word. Samardzija had a pretty rough season in 2015 with the White Sox, going 11-13 with a career worst 4.96 ERA. Despite having some of the best “stuff” in the game, he lacks control of his fastball with regularity. When this happens, he becomes extremely hittable.

One other possible starting pitcher that could potentially end up on the north side is Shelby Miller. This could only happen via a trade. Rumors have been swirling of a possible Jorge Soler/Javier Baez for Shelby Miller trade. I would assume there would be more pieces to that puzzle if it actually happened. And if it did happen, it would be a great pickup by the Cubs.

The Cubs have an overload of middle infielders with elite talent, and if they could trade one of Baez or Castro and get Shelby Miller in return, it would be a huge move. Miller, who is just 25 years of age, was brought up by the Cardinals and pitched with them from 2012-2014 before ending up in Atlanta. His career numbers are pretty good, and also a bit misleading. Have a look:

2013: 15-9, 3.06 ERA

2014: 10-9, 3.74 ERA

2015: 6-17, 3.02 ERA

Notice that he had a career best earned run average this year, but also had the fewest wins and most losses of his short career. Despite pitching extremely well in 2015, he had no run support in Atlanta. Miller averages about 94mph on his fastball, with a good two seamer. He also throws a curve, changeup, and cutter. He threw more cutters in 2015 than in any other year of his career, and it worked out pretty well for him.

Alright, so that’s the breakdown of the Cubs’ top pitching targets that I think they could realistically end up with. And if they do land any of those three, it will be two of them at most.

Now to the outfielders.

Let’s not mess around here, and get straight to the point. With Zimmermann and Price off the market, the two guys that the Cubs were most likely to spend big on, they now have some extra cash to throw at a center fielder. Enter Jason Heyward, the most sought-after outfielder on the market.

130107_gq_trout_aAfter playing his first five seasons in Atlanta, Heyward was traded to St. Louis in a deal that included none other than Shelby Miller going the other way. In his six seasons in the league, Heyward has averaged about a .270 batting average, 19 home runs, and roughly 70 runs batted in. Not eye-popping stats, but still good ones. This past season was one of his best, as he hit .293 with 13 dingers, 60 RBI, and a career best 6.54 WAR (wins above replacement), which was good for fifteenth in all of baseball. He also won his third career Gold Glove in just his sixth season.

Heyward will get a lot of money from whichever team signs him. The specific amount remains to be seen. The biggest question that the Cubs have regarding signing Heyward is his ability to be a full-time center fielder. Odds are that Dexter Fowler will not return to Chicago, meaning Heyward, who played a handful of games in center while in St. Louis, would take over that position. If the Cubs believe Heyward can handle that permanent role, they will aggressively pursue him, and rightfully so.

Another option that the Cubs have is Denard Span, who has New York Mets v Washington Nationalspatrolled center field for the Nationals over the last three seasons. Span, who is 31 years old, has a career batting average of .287 and a .352 on-base percentage. Both of those numbers are very ideal for a leadoff hitter, which is where he’d bat if in the Cubs’ lineup. He is also an above average defensive player, with a career .991 fielding percentage.

So after all of that, here’s how I would like to see things unfold over the next month:

  • First, I think a Castro/Baez for Shelby Miller trade would be huge for the Cubs. What the Braves will likely want, however, is Jorge Soler, which I would still be in favor of. Miller is young and has a very good arm. Put him to work with Chris Bosio (a pitcher guru), and he could become a star.
  • Second, the Cubs would be smart to sign John Lackey to a two-year deal worth roughly twenty million, as I previously discussed. Given Lackey’s age, this is a good deal for both the club and the player. Imagine a starting rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Miller, Lackey, and Hendricks… Not bad.
  • Jason Heyward. The Cubs need to sign him ASAP, meaning whenever they can. He would be a great addition to the lineup without question.
  • If the Cubs fail in getting Miller or Lackey, then I’d be okay with them turning their focus to Samardzija.
  • Like with Samardzija, Denard Span should be the Cubs top outfield target if they miss on Heyward.

This is likely going to be a fun December for Cubs fans as the front office has made it clear that they’ll be looking to upgrade their starting rotation and add a replacement for Dexter Fowler. In terms of the bullpen, there are a lot of candidates out there and speculating as to who the Cubs may pursue is a crapshoot at this point.

Stay tuned.