For those of you who are regular readers, you know this is usually when and where I say that everything is going to be all right. And I suspect that it will be. This team is tired and injured and not only have the wheels fallen off the bus, I think they lost an engine last night. That said, even the 2016 championship team looked like a hot mess in June. It can happen to anyone.
That said, it’s hard right now to have any warm fuzzies. Once upon a time, the idea for this Cubs organization was waves and waves of talent. So what happened? Well, there was that championship team. The Cubs traded a talented, young shortstop that season. That man, now 22 years old, has already appeared in an All-Star game. Then in the quest for a second title in 2017, the Cubs traded two more top prospects to the White Sox. Basically, a whole wave of talent never arrived at Wrigley Field.
Now? The Cubs lack depth. Your mileage will vary, but certainly the Cubs are good through their top four. I’m plenty happy with Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber. I’m fine with David Bote and Addison Russell... with my only issue with them being that they don’t complement each other really well. They are both guys who, even when they aren’t hitting, can you give you above average defense at a couple of positions. They also both hit right handed, so the same starts generally appeal to both hitters if you are going to try to optimize matchups. Albert Almora Jr. is a fine fourth outfielder. I don’t love him as a starter. I’d probably optimally see him play about 10 percent less, because I think he performs the best when you carefully select match-ups for his playing time. Victor Caratini is a good backup catcher. You want them to either hit very well or catch very well. Vic actually hits pretty well for a catcher and receives the ball well behind the plate. It’s a bit of a revolving door on the bases at times when he’s catching. A backup catcher is there to give your starter the rest he needs to be healthy at the end of the long grind. Most teams won’t play their backup catcher at all in the postseason. The 2016 Cubs were obviously a huge exception to that, actually employing three catchers who all made contributions to their playoff run.
That’s 10 players who I’m fine with. There are some problems with diversity and makeup in that group. In Almora, Bote and Russell, all three are right handed, none of them are particularly ravaging left handed pitching, and all are probably most consistent on defense. So your depth is fairly homogeneous. The next two spots on the roster have been an abyss. At least Ben Zobrist when he was here was a veteran presence, who way more often than not works a good at bat. Without Ben and with the ineptitude that has been Daniel Descalso, this team just doesn’t have the depth to survive injuries and general wear and tear.
On the pitching side of things, the injuries to Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Hendricks and Cole Hamels have tested the Cubs pitching depth. There, things are a bit different. The Cubs do have a very deep group of options. But, those options are essentially back of the bullpen and sixth starter type options. At least right now.
All of this leads up to trading season. I have a couple of thoughts. Obviously, the team would benefit from adding another bat or two, either at second base or in center. I’d lean towards a center fielder to push Heyward to right field on a more permanent basis. But, sometimes you have to work with what is available. Every contending team benefits from adding relief arms. It could make sense to look at someone who could be another starting option in case Hamels isn’t able to come back.
The other thoughts are these. The other front offices all have TVs, cable packages and scouts. If your idea to upgrade the team is to trade our players who are under performing for other peoples players who are performing well, that’s not really worth a lot of time commenting on. If you are going to trade someone who is under performing, you should be looking for a scenery swap with someone else’s player who is under performing. That’s really about the only time a sell low makes sense, when you are also buying on a low. I always think of the Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva trade as a template. You got rid of a guy who was a clubhouse problem and for a few months you actually got a bounce out of a pitcher who wasn’t very good anymore either.
My last thought is that this team is not looking even remotely like the team that steamrolled late April and through May. Of course, that team is still this team, so it’s still in there somewhere. But it is getting to the point where there is a lot more mediocre and bad than there was good. This team is clearly in contention. It clearly has a core of talented, experienced players. It clearly has a puncher’s chance. I have no problem looking to add some nominal pieces to that. I would not look to trade top prospects for rental players on a team that has somehow drifted into “not a lock” playoff positioning. The organizational talent level is just starting to rise above sea level again. If the team was dueling with the Dodgers for best record in the league and had a cushion in the division, I’d be all in for sure. This team isn’t screaming for all-in.
With that, we turn our attention to yesterday’s game as we look at what WPA had to say about Heroes and Goats. As always the Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA (Win Probability Added — here’s a good explanation of how WPA works) and are not in any way subjective. Many days WPA will not tell the story of what happened, but often it can give at least a glimpse to who rose to the occasion in a high leverage moment or who didn’t get the job done in that moment. Also note, for the purposes of Heroes and Goats, we ignore the results of pitchers while they are batting and hitters while they are pitching. With that, we get to the results.
Game 85, July 1: Cubs 5 at Pirates 18 (45-40)
- Superhero: Javier Baez (.044). After moving out the hitting of Brad Brach (.060), that leaves Javy in the top spot. Javy had two hits in five at bats, including a solo homer when it was only 4-0.
- Hero: Kyle Schwarber (.019). Kyle had a hit and two walks in five plate appearances. June 3 to present, Kyle has 112 plate appearances and a .269/.313/.567 line (wRC+ 122). That’s not a bad line, despite Schwarber’s walk rate being way down (6.3% compared to 11.8% for the year and 13.3% for his career).
- Sidekick: Albert Almora Jr. (.010). Albert had one hit in three at bats before coming out of the game.
- Billy Goat: Adbert Alzolay (-.425). I always wonder if a guy is tipping pitches when he gets shelled like this. He allowed 10 hits, one walk and seven runs. He did strike out three. Of course, the entire Cubs pitching staff was teed off on, they can’t have all been tipping off pitches. Suffice is to say that the Cubs should burn whatever game plan they went into last night’s game with.
- Goat: Brad Brach (-.092). Brad did have one of the bright spots of the night, as a hitter. But while recording four outs, he allowed four hits, a walk and three runs. Brad has thrown 35 innings across 35 games. He averages 10.54 K/9. Those are the good things. He also walks 6.43/9. His BABIP is actually really high at .391, and his strand rate is below average (70%) at 64.9%. Based on the BABIP and strand rate, one would expect some positive regression. That said, his ERA is at 5.91. His FIP is at 3.46, again suggesting some positive regression is positive. But, in an era where balls are leaving the park in droves, he has a comically low HR/FB rate of 3.7%. I’m personally ready to move on from the Brach era. Bad luck or now, it seems increasingly unlikely that he’s going to right the ship this season.
- Kid: Kris Bryant (-.091). Many, many words were spilled on Twitter yesterday because Bryant popped up with the bases loaded and two outs in the one meaningful inning in the whole game. As the guy writing a piece that literally focuses on how guys do in key moments, I’m keenly aware of Bryant’s struggles in those situations. I’m just going to suggest not wanting to throw out the guy does the most to try to make sure the game isn’t close in the first place. Kris had two hits and an RBI in five at bats.
WPA Play of the Game: Starling Marte came to the plate with runners on first and second and no outs. Marte singled in the first run. (.122) It was increasingly downhill from there.
*Cubs Play of the Game: Javy Baez’ second inning homer cut the deficit to 4-1. (.064)
Cumulative Standings Top/Bottom 3:
- Anthony Rizzo 15
- Kris Bryant 13
- Willson Contreras 9
- *Carl Edwards Jr. -9
- Jason Heyward -10
- Yu Darvish -12
Up Next: The Cubs will hope to bounce back and avoid losing for the third straight game, fourth time in five games and sixth time in eight games. Kyle Hendricks returns from the disabled list to take the start. Kyle is 7-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 88⅓ innings on the year. Over his last seven starts, he is 5-1 with a 3.52 ERA in 46 innings. Those numbers were even better before the last start when he was injured. In that one, he worked 4⅓ innings in Los Angeles against the Dodgers before leaving with shoulder discomfort. Before he left, he allowed six hits, two walks and five runs. He only struck out one and allowed two homers.
Hendricks made three starts against the Pirates in 2018 and lost them all. He threw a total of 16 innings and allowed five runs. He hasn’t faced them though in over a year (June 10). Current Pirates have 163 plate appearances against Kyle, but the leader is the injured Gregory Polanco (30, 1.010). Kyle won’t miss him for sure. Starling Marte has struggled against Kyle (23, .408) and so has Josh Bell (20, .535). Even with Polanco’s gaudy line, the whole Pirates team only has a .637 OPS against Kyle.
Joe Musgrove gets the call for the Pirates. He is 6-7 with a 4.27 ERA in 90⅔ innings. Over his last seven starts, he is 3-3 with a 5.15 ERA in 36⅔ innings. Last time out, he had one of his best outings. In Houston, he threw six scoreless innings on the way to collecting a win. He did allow nine hits, but didn’t walk anyone. That’s quite a performance against that team. He pitched against the Cubs in April and was a tough luck loser. He allowed no earned runs in 6⅓ innings (two unearned runs). He allowed four hits, two walks and struck out six. He beat the Cubs in both starts against them last year.
Musgrove, a 26-year-old right hander, has been much better against right-handed-hitters this year (.653 OPS) than left-handed (.820). He’s done worse at home (.836) than on the road (.641). Current Cubs have only 94 PA against him and they’ve struggled (.516). Anthony Rizzo has the most PA (13) and has struggled mightily (.231). Javier Baez has just one hit in 12 PA (.167). Kris Bryant (10 PA, .971 OPS) and Daniel Descalso (8, 1.071) are two guys who have had some success. Willson Contreras has two hits and a walk in six plate appearances.
This looks like a very low scoring affair on paper. Hopefully, the Cubs can find a way to win behind Hendricks.