The Cubs haven’t played a baseball game in four days and it’s getting tough to scrape up new and interesting material to satiate the madding hordes of readers clamoring for more of our trademark #content. Desperate for a way to feed the beast, we thought about making like at least one Chicago paper and just trolling the hell out of you. But that actually takes effort.
Then it hit us: a roundtable! Not only does it allow several of us to weigh in on various topics, but it’ll inevitably produce something that someone will disagree with, thus propelling us to viral Twitter fame. Good plan, right? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
In all seriousness, it’s not as easy as it sounds to distill the whole first half into something small enough for the average reader to consume in between watching videos on Fox Sports’ redesigned site. Besides, we hadn’t done one of these in a while and we thought it might be fun. As such, we put together a few questions and had four members of our esteemed crew (Evan Altman, Jon Strong, Brendan Miller, and Corey Freedman) address them in turn.
Please note that Brendan’s initials are only unintentionally indicative of his thoughts and it was only due to the aesthetics of the format that we presented the responses as we did.
EA: It’s got to be Kyle Schwarber. Some of that is the result of the hype train that we were all complicit in shoveling coal into following his hero turn in the World Series. But then you had the team pumping him up more and the leadoff thing and the weight of all of that served to crush him. Or so I believe. I fully expect him to bounce back and be productive in the second half, but it just sucked to watch him get into those deep counts and then appear to have lost all confidence as a hitter.
JS: This is a tough one for me because, well, there’s been so many disappointments so far this season. My answer may have been different if not for the thumping the Cubs took from the Pirates in their final game before the All-Star break. In that game, Jon Lester got annihilated for 10 runs in 2/3 of a inning. It was ugly. Add that to the six runs he surrendered in his previous outing against Tampa Bay, and suddenly the pitcher we all thought was the most consistent, reliable guy in the order has become quite pedestrian. His BB/9 (3.08) is higher than it’s been since 2011 and his HR/9 (1.25) is nearing a career high. The positive is that Jon has been stronger in the second half of the season in his first two years with the Cubs and I fully expect that trend to continue. The question is, “How much better will he be and will it be enough to turn around a dreadful season for the starting staff?”
BM: Addison Russell has been my biggest disappointment among several justifiable candidates. Prior to the season, I wrote about Russell’s potential to burst out because he was steadily improving his contact rate without sacrificing power. The 23-year-old, who rests during the break with a .290 wOBA and 0.8 WAR, hasn’t even met any baseline projection (e.g., ZiPS, Steamer, etc.), unfortunately. Underwhelming performance aside, Russell’s continuous shoulder problems could be problematic all season, prohibiting him from matching last year’s 3.9 WAR value. We’ve clearly seen that his shoulder has messed with his throwing and contributed to many funky, uncomfortable looking swings. Addison still has an enormous amount of talent, and, if healthy, is a strong candidate to go off in the second half.
CF: My first instinct would be to join Brendan in saying Addison Russell, but in the interest of diversity, I’ll go with Albert Almora’s defense. Perhaps expecting him to rival his outfield counterpart, Jason Heyward, in terms of defensive production was a bit much, but did anyone expect Almora to rate so poorly? He currently sports a negative rating in both DRS and UZR, and ranks near the bottom of the league in both those categories. Defensive metrics aren’t the be-all-end-all, but they’d have to be essentially backwards to support any claims that Almora is an elite defensive outfielder.
EA: I was going to say Ian Happ, but Brendan appears to have beaten me to the punch. So that means I have to go with my fallback of the abysmal starting pitching. Only an idiot would have believed that they could be just as healthy and productive as they were last year, but only an unrepentant masochist would have predicted the implosion we’ve had to sit through so far. Whereas you expected a win from nearly every starter last season, I flinch every time a big pitch is delivered this year.
JS: Again, a tough choice because there’s so few candidates. I’d love to jump on the Happ train but I think the only reason he’s in the position he’s in with the Cubs is because so many things have gone wrong this season. My biggest surprise is that Albert Almora hasn’t played a bigger role this year. I really expected, or at least hoped, that Almora would take control of the centerfield position with ease. Sure, there have been a lot of moving pieces and injuries to deal with that have made the outfield situation more complex — hence, Happ getting his shot with the club — but when I look at Almora I see a legit starter with All-Star potential. His numbers have been solid, slashing .276/.342/.388, but his power numbers are a little lower than I’d like to see from him. Hopefully he starts to get more playing time so we get to see what kind of potential this kid has….while he’s still a Cub.
BM: Ian Happ without a doubt has surprised me. Not only did I did not expect Happ to be called up in early May, but I also didn’t expect him to essentially take over the majority of time in center over Theo and Co.’s first draft pick, Albert Almora. What has been most impressive about Happ is the astonishing display of power that he didn’t show as a minor leaguer. The switch-hitter finished 2016 with a .153 ISO in AA, and FanGraphs rated his power as a 50/80, which means he was projected to have average pop. Happ blew up those scouting ratings and doubled his AA ISO of .153 by putting up a .317 mark in AAA before recording a .290 ISO at Wrigley.
CF: Sorry to be redundant, but I think Ian Happ is the only answer here. Much like Brendan, I wasn’t sure we’d ever see Happ in a Cubs uniform before he got traded, let alone see him be one of the Cubs’ most productive hitters while playing multiple positions on defense.
Not a Shocker
EA: I’m not all that surprised by Ben Zobrist’s drop-off or Jon Jay’s strong play, which leaves Anthony Rizzo’s sameness. Since Brendan has once again bogarted my idea, though, I’m going to take a different tack and say that the back end of the bullpen has pretty much lived up to my expectations. I’ve been pegging Carl Edwards Jr. as the closer of the future and I was very confident in Wade Davis. It was somewhat gauche to express doubts about Jorge Soler there for a while, but I was not at all sold on his potential and was happy when the Cubs moved him for the closer.
JS: If there’s one player on this team that defines consistency, it’s Kris Bryant. His batting average has dipped a notch but all his other stats are on pace to equal his MVP campaign in 2016. Not to mention, he’s drawing more walks (16.3% vs. 10.7%) and striking out less (20.4% vs. 22.0%) than he did last year. In my mind, Kris will need to turn it up even more if the Cubs are going to make another World Series run. If he does that, we’re likely to see him win his second straight MVP award. The kid’s special, don’t underestimate him.
BM: Anthony Rizzo keeps being Anthony Rizzo. Very few hitters in MLB are able to exhibit a combination of high contact, power, and walks, but Rizzo falls in that elite group. The budding Cubs legend continues to hit and has accumulated a .376 wOBA and 2.5 WAR, putting him on pace to touch 5 WAR for the fourth straight season.
CF: While I wouldn’t have predicted it a year ago, given what we saw last season and in the playoffs, I’m not shocked to see Willson Contreras really settle in to his role as the Cubs’ catcher of the future. There are still areas to adjust/improve, of course, but Willson now boasts a career .271/.343/.454 MLB slash line (561 PAs) to go along with his rocket arm. Again, still a work in progress, but in a year mired in inconstancy, it’s been fun to watch him continue his development while in full control of the pitching staff.
Personal favorite game moment
EA: There aren’t as many of these to choose from as I’d like, but I have to say my favorite moment was seeing Kris Bryant hit a homer over the Green Monster in his first at-bat in Boston with his dad, a Massachusetts native and former Red Sox farmhand, in the crowd. Jon and I had talked with Mike Bryant about the idea of his son hitting just such a home run, so seeing that actually play out was really cool. The father-son dynamic really got me, as did the idea of this being something of a called shot.
JS: Finally, an easy one! For me, it wasn’t the banner raising or the ring ceremony, both games I attended and will, of course, forever cherish. No, it was the Kyle Schwarber grand slam on June 3, another game I was lucky enough to be at and a moment I happened to record on video. Schwarber was mired in a 5-for-60 slump but, like he’s done so many times before, with one mighty swing he changed everything. Oh, and it was against the Cardinals so that was great too. The Cubs won that game 5-3. Here’s the video:
BM: Addison Russell’s walk-off was one of the most beautiful swings I’ve seen in his career. It came during a time before he started experiencing shoulder pain and in which he was displaying confidence in the strike zone by cutting down his O-swing rate nearly 25 percent from last year. I’d be remiss, however, to not mention my attendance at the banner-raising ceremony with my father. Experiencing euphoria of that magnitude in Wrigley Field gives me goosebumps as I type this.
CF: Like Brendan, I think the banner raising night was something I will cherish forever, and an evening that will be remembered in Cubs’ history for years to come. On a less obvious note, I would probably go with the Cubs’ victory on the Saturday of the Boston series. I was able to attend that entire series, my first games at Fenway Park, and to witness a Cubs win in Fenway Park definitely knocked something off my bucket list.
Well there you have it, folks. Reticent as some of you are — and given the content of some comments sections out there, we get it — to share your own thoughts, we’d love to hear what your answers would be to this questions/topics. Has anyone disappointed or surprised you? What was your favorite moment?