Think back to March 29, 2018, Opening Day.
Let’s say I had told you on that day that as we hit the All-Star break:
- Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant would both spend time on the DL, Rizzo would be struggling with his worst year since 2013 and Bryant would have just two home runs after May 14.
- Yu Darvish would make only eight starts, just three of them could be characterized as anywhere near “good,” and he was on the DL with elbow trouble and no timetable for his return.
- Only one Cubs starter, Jon Lester, would be having an above-average season and the Cubs would have games started by Luke Farrell, Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood Jr.
- Brandon Morrow would spend time on the DL and Brian Duensing would have an ERA north of six.
Well, you’d probably think this season was going to be a disaster, right?
Instead, the Cubs sit in first place at the break with the best record in the National League.
How did this happen? Other guys stepped up. Javier Baez was elected an All-Star and is having a season where he might get MVP votes. Jason Heyward is finally the guy the Cubs thought they signed two and a half years ago. Mike Montgomery stepped up and made several excellent starts. The “Iowa Shuttle” relief guys got significant time and were generally very good.
Here, now, are my midseason grades for Cubs players for the 2018 season to date. Please remember that I’m making these grades somewhat subjectively, not only for their numbers but also for their performance relative to the expectations for that particular player.
Willson Contreras: A- Contreras got off to a slow start but turned things around in early May and is now hitting at about the level he was last year. His defense is still solid and he was elected a starting All-Star for the first time. Since June 24: .358/.444/.566 (19-for-53) with three doubles, a triple and two home runs.
Anthony Rizzo: B- Rizzo’s horrific start masks the fact that since May 1, he’s hitting .276/.366/.473 (67-for-243) with 11 home runs. Those numbers are very, very close to his career norms. He seems like he could use the break — I expect him to come out and have a big second half.
Javier Baez: A+ There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Javy’s first half. He’s hit, hit for power, stolen bases and performed his El Mago act on the basepaths and in the field. Sure, he still doesn’t walk much. Does that really matter? Here’s five minutes worth of Javy highlights from this year:
Addison Russell: B Since May 8: .290/.367/.430 with five home runs. He’s played his usual solid defense and overall, appears to be on the way to possibly his best offensive season. Manny who?
Kris Bryant: B- A shoulder injury sapped much of KB’s power, though that began to show again after his return from the disabled list during the last road trip, where he went 5-for-18 with a double and a home run. The break and time off should do him good and, like Rizzo, I expect a big second half.
Kyle Schwarber: A- Schwarber has made himself into a very good left fielder, as he has eight outfield assists. His .375 on-base percentage is fourth on the team, and his 18 home runs got him into the Home Run Derby. He’s never going to hit for a high batting average, it seems, but he makes up for that in many different ways.
Albert Almora Jr.: A The rap on him was that he couldn’t hit righthanders, so... he’s gone out and hit RHP at a .318/.356/.432 clip, virtually the same numbers he has vs. LHP (.321/.359/.452). He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs and likely never will, but is on pace to hit about 35 doubles this year, as well as play his usual outstanding defense.
Jason Heyward: A I couldn’t be happier for J-Hey, who has finally figured out how to hit again after more than two years of struggles. Since May 29: .331/.375/.490 (52-for-157) with 13 doubles, four home runs and only 18 strikeouts. His overall numbers of .285/.344/.431 are very close to what he did in 2015 in St. Louis. Combine that with his solid defense and, at last, the Cubs have the player they thought they were getting. Here’s his walkoff grand slam against the Phillies on June 6, one of the best moments of this year so far:
Ben Zobrist: A- Zobrist has slowed down a little over the last week or so, but overall he’s having a year similar to his fine 2016 season. It’s obvious that the wrist injury that bothered him much of last year was responsible for his down season in 2017. Even at age 37 he’s still a productive player.
Ian Happ: B Sometimes when I worry about Happ’s strikeouts (he’s struck out in 42.7 percent of his at-bats), I try to remember that he’s still only 23, his .379 OBP ranks third on the team, and he’s on pace for another 20-homer season. He’s also learned to play a passable third base, which makes him even more versatile.
Tommy La Stella: B TLS was on pace to break the major-league record for pinch hits in a season before slowing down recently. His 14 pinch hits still lead the majors this year and that’s still on pace to break the team record (20, set by Thad Bosley in 1985, tied by Dave Clark in 1997). He’s also made a remarkable return from his abrupt departure from the team in late 2016 to pranking management and becoming one of the most loved teammates in the Cubs clubhouse.
Victor Caratini: B+ Caratini didn’t get much playing time early, was sent back to Iowa to play regularly, and has hit .316/.435/.474 (6-for-19) with three doubles since his return July 4. Joe Maddon says he’ll get more opportunities going forward, and he’ll likely give both Contreras and Rizzo regular rest.
David Bote: A- He’s done everything he was asked to do in every callup from Iowa, including flying all night to play in Sunday’s game:
Bote got 1:30 a.m. call, took 6 a.m. flight, arrived in SD at 11. went 1-2 with 2 BB, three exceptional plays at 3B— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) July 16, 2018
Jon Lester: A Lester’s peripherals don’t match up with his fine ERA and (for those who care) W/L record, but he’s having a season close to his 2016 performance, and he puts the team in position to win almost every time out — the Cubs are 16-3 in Lester’s 19 starts. He’ll enjoy the All-Star Game, to which he was chosen, from the dugout as he won’t participate, and then hopefully be ready to go Friday against the Cardinals.
Kyle Hendricks: B- Hendricks had a pretty good April and May before a horrific June. He appears to have righted the ship in his last two starts (13x innings, two earned runs, one walk, 11 strikeouts) and he’ll begin the second half starting against the Cardinals Thursday at Wrigley Field.
Jose Quintana: C+ Every now and again Q will have a start that says, “Hey, glad the Cubs traded for this guy,” but too often he leaves the game with six innings and four runs allowed, which isn’t good enough. His last two starts (12 innings, two earned runs, 1.083 WHIP) suggest maybe a strong second half is coming.
Tyler Chatwood: D- Somehow, the Cubs have a 9-8 record in the 17 games Chatwood has started. The walks, you know about, it’s amazing he’s managed to stay in the rotation while walking 7.8 per nine innings. Joe Maddon used a word you don’t often hear from a baseball manager to describe Chatwood’s walks:
The Cubs already have spoken to Chatwood about his walks total — 73 — which was described as “exorbitant” by Maddon.
Mike Montgomery: B MiMo went into the rotation in late May and his first five starts were really good: 1.21 ERA, 0.843 WHIP. The four since then, not so much: 6.00 ERA, 1.667 WHIP. The article link above says about Montgomery:
Maddon also will keep a close eye on left-hander Mike Montgomery after he switched from the bullpen to the rotation in late May and felt fatigued toward the end of the first half.
Sounds like the break will do everyone some good.
Yu Darvish: Incomplete As I noted above, Darvish made just eight starts, only three of them anywhere close to good, before hitting the DL with elbow issues. Here’s hoping he’ll be back and at full strength by August 1.
Brandon Morrow: A The Cubs have had to keep an eye on Morrow given his previous injury history, and in fact he spent time on the DL, but not for any arm issues:
#Cubs Morrow says his back tightened up when he was taking his pants off early Monday morning. "It's frustrating any time you can't get out there especially when you can't go for something as stupid as taking your pants off."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 19, 2018
At least Morrow had a sense of humor about that:
Lots of great advice on here, can’t wait for these to arrive. Versatile/low-profile pockets, reinforced-knee stitching…metal zipper! Thanks Twitter! pic.twitter.com/prqsrqxX63— Brandon Morrow (@2Morrow23) June 21, 2018
Other than that, Morrow has produced as expected. His velocity was down a bit in Sunday’s game, and the All-Star break will no doubt do him some good.
Steve Cishek: A- He’s done everything that was asked or expected of him and been a good setup man.
Pedro Strop: A- Strop is now in his sixth year with the Cubs and his numbers have been remarkably consistent through 341 relief appearances with the team. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he’s been one of the best relievers in Cubs history.
Carl Edwards Jr.: A- A stint on the DL cost CJ a month’s worth of time, but he picked up where he left off on this last road trip. His 15.4 per nine innings K rate is second only to Josh Hader of the Brewers among all relievers this year.
Randy Rosario: A- What a revelation, and one of the better waiver claims made by Theo & Co. His walk rate is a bit too high (4.2 per nine innings) and he doesn’t strike out a lot of guys (5.2 per nine) but manages to get outs. At age 24 he could be a key part of the Cubs bullpen for several years to come.
Justin Wilson: B+ He still walks too many (6.2 per nine innings), but his K rate of 12.9 has allowed him to get out of many jams. Apart from the walks he’s been very close to the guy the Cubs thought they were getting from the Tigers last summer and Joe Maddon has begun to use him in more high-leverage situations.
Brian Duensing: C- This would have been higher except for an awful stretch in June that put Duensing on the DL. Prior to that he was just as effective as he was in 2017, and since his return from the DL he’s put together two scoreless outings. It will take a while for him to get that unsightly 6.59 ERA down, but I think he can still be a useful part of the pen in the second half.
Luke Farrell: C Farrell had one outstanding outing, June 2 in the 14-inning win over the Mets, where he threw five shutout innings in relief. Otherwise he’s been up-and-down, some of his appearances being good, others not so much. He has talent and could be a useful part of the bullpen going forward.
Anthony Bass: B+ Surprisingly, Bass was very, very good after a NRI to spring training. He walked just one in 14⅓ innings before hitting the DL. He’s likely headed back to Iowa once he’s healthy, but could also be back later in the year.
Justin Hancock: B+ His velocity of 97-98 miles per hour impressed Joe Maddon during spring training, and Hancock got some “Iowa Shuttle” chances, pitching effectively in most of them. He’ll have to get his walk rate (6.6 per nine innings) down to have any chance of a long big-league career.
Cory Mazzoni: B Also threw mostly effectively on the Iowa Shuttle. Will be back in September, if not before.
Duane Underwood Jr.: B Called up for an unexpected start against the Dodgers, Underwood showed big-league stuff. He could be in the mix for a rotation spot sometime in the future.
James Norwood: B Another surprise callup, Norwood throws hard and touches 97-98. He threw well in his debut against the Giants before running out of gas and was given a fairly high-leverage situation in Sunday’s win over the Padres. He’ll be in the mix for next year’s bullpen.
Jen-Ho Tseng: C- You know, I really want Tseng to succeed, but he hasn’t shown much at the big-league level, and he’s having a terrible season (6.98 ERA, 1.640 WHIP in 14 starts) at Iowa. He’ll have to do better to get more chances in the majors.
Dillon Maples: D+ Ditto Tseng. Maples throws hard, but just walks too many guys — in eight big-league innings he’s walked nine. He’s still got a chance to turn that around and I suspect we’ll see him back in September.
Eddie Butler: Incomplete Butler was supposed to be a big part of this year’s bullpen, and perhaps get occasional starts, but after a rough outing April 19 against the Cardinals, he went on the DL with a groin injury. He’s currently on the 60-day DL with no timetable for his return. He merits mention here because of the seven shutout innings he threw in relief March 30 against the Marlins, only to run out of gas and be charged with the run that lost the game (though he had departed when it scored).
Rob Zastryzny: C Rob Z. had been throwing pretty well this year in multiple callups until Sunday, when he got touched up for a couple of runs in less than an inning by the Padres. Rob is 26 and I’m honestly not sure what his future is with the Cubs; there’s no real current spot in the rotation or pen for him and he could wind up included in a future trade.
Chris Gimenez, Efren Navarro and Mark Zagunis also played for the Cubs in the first half.