By Todd Johnson
Kyle Hendricks was the man.
Last night, for five innings, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the man. He looked like the best pitcher on the planet with 8 Ks and he had not allowed a hit when the sixth inning rolled around. After Javy Baez reached on an error, the Cubs capitalized two batters later when Kris Bryant got the Cubs’ first hit of the night to drive in Baez from second. Strasburg hung a breaker on a two strike count and the Bryant made him pay. Otherwise, Strasburg was near perfect.
The Cubs tacked on a second run on a hit by Rizzo, who also added another RBI in the 8th.
The star of the night for the Cubs was Kyle Hendricks. He kept the Cubs in the game with 7 innings of two hit ball. Hendricks used 6 Ks and a double play to shut out the Nats. Every pitch had a lot of movement and he moved the ball around the zone. In the post-game press conference, Hendricks complimented catcher Willson Contreras about how the two were on the same page in executing the gameplan for each hitter.
Carl Edwards struck out two in the eighth in relief and Wade Davis was Wade Davis in the ninth to get the save.
What I liked most about last night’s victory was that it smashed some narratives.
1. Cubs can’t hit good pitching. They beat the second best right handed starter in the NL by waiting him out and capitalizing on his only mistake.
2. Joe won’t let Kyle Hendricks go deep in the playoffs. Hendricks went seven and looked like he could go nine as he looked so relaxed. He only threw 106 pitches and I liked that Joe let him go that long.
3. Kris Bryant is not clutch. Yeah, his hit was everything and his baserunning was even better than his hitting to get in scoring position for Rizzo to drive him in.
I can’t wait for game two at 4:30 Saturday afternoon. Jon Lester will be dueling Gio Gonzalez. Look for Albert Almora to play a key role in the game.
By Todd Johnson
92-70 was a good enough record to earn the label National League Central Division Champions in 2017. The Cubs finished six games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and nine ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was strange year numerically as Kyle Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot yet wound up with 30 HRs and people fixated on Kris Bryant’s RBI from the number two spot in the lineup. Still, in spite of all the pressure to repeat a division title, the Cubs did.
The strength of their record came at home as the Cubs went 48-33. While they were 44-37 on the road, they went 4-11 on the road against the National League West. Otherwise, the road record was 40-26 against everyone else. The Cubs also struggled against the Phillies going 2-4. Against the whole National League East, the Cubs were 21-13 including 3-4 against their upcoming opponent in the NLDS. That means that they were 16-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Marlins.
Another key to the Central Division championship was the Cubs record against the Central at 46–30. The Cubs feasted against St. Louis going 15–4. The Cubs were 12-6 against the Reds, 10-9 vs Milwaukee, and they bested the Pirates 10-9 on the season.
In interleague play, the Cubs went 12-8 this year. Against right-handers, the Cubs were 71-56, and against lefties, the Cubs put up a 21–14 mark.
The Cubs struggled in the first half of the year. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 43-45. After the break the Cubs caught fire going 49-27. That included a 13-3 record in July right after the break, 17-12 in August, and 19-9 in September.
As for individual statistics, most of the hitting stats we’re dominated by Kris Bryant. In addition to a 6.0 WAR, he also led the Cubs in weighted runs created plus at 172, weighted on base at .399, and on-base percentage with an outstanding .409 thanks in part to 95 walks. Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs with 32 and RBIs with 109. Even though Albert Almora probably won’t qualify with enough at-bats, he did lead the team with a .298 average. John Jay, who had over 400 at bats, was next at 295. Ian Happ lead the team in isolated power at .261 and Alex Avila pleased the BABIP Gods at .388.
The thing that I was most surprised about was not that the Cubs had six guys who could hit over 20 home runs, because they’ve always had potential. Rather, I was surprised that they actually went out and did it. To have Rizzo and Schwarber hit over 30 home runs is a nice capstone to their power, but when Happ, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras crank out 20+ homers, that was quite remarkable. Where do they go from there? They are all so young.
My two favorite player performances this year were Javy Baez hitting .273 with 23 HRs and 75 RBI. For a second baseman, that is phenomenal production. Then there was Ian Happ who just shocked everybody a year ahead of schedule. Happ hit 24 HRs with 62 RBIs and hit .253. He did strike out over 30% of the time, but he will be even better next year. The fact that Happ just turned 23 is amazing.
As next weekend’s playoffs loom, my only concern is how the starting pitching is going to hold up. Over the last month, Hendricks and Quintana pitched well along with Lackey while Jake Arrieta struggled with an injury and Jon Lester looked tired.
For the first half of the year, all the pitchers looked tired. I don’t think they began to look normal until after the All-Star break. Kyle Hendricks struggled with velocity early in the year and the Cubs relied on Eddie Butler for most of the first half in tandem with Mike Montgomery when free agent Brett Anderson did not work out. I liked the fact that management did not panic in their pursuit of starting pitching at that point in the year. When the deal came in for Quintana, I liked it as Jose is going to be a Cub for a while.
For the year, Lester lead the team in innings pitched with 180.2 in strikeouts with 180. Hendricks led the team in ERA at 3.03 while Quintana lead the team in FIP (3.15), xFIP (3.23), batting average against (.228), and WHIP (1.10). When it came to WAR, Lester had the best one on the staff at 2.7.
There were times this year when I didn’t think the bullpen was ever going to pull it together. However, they looked pretty good in the second half thanks in part to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wade Davis, and Brian Duensing. Edwards led the team in appearances with 73 and also had the most strikeouts out of the pen with 94 and a 1.01 WHIP. Wade Davis had the lowest bullpen ERA at 2.30 to go along with his 32 saves.
I’m interested to see how this relief corps shakes down in the playoffs and just exactly who makes the roster for the bullpen. Right now, I tend to think they are leaning towards bringing John Lackey out of the pen in the postseason while Justin Grimm could be left off the roster.
My favorite number of the year, though, is three. This will be the third season in a row that the Cubs are in the playoffs. I am starting to get used to it. Only 11 more wins to go for back-to-back titles. It’s not going to be easy – quite the contrary. It should be exciting to watch it unfold. For some reason, I don’t feel so stressed about it this year…then again, it’s not November.
By Todd Johnson
Right now I feel pretty good about 2/5 of the rotation. Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana are pitching very well at this point in the season. When it comes to Lester and Arrieta, I’m not quite as confident. Can they turn around? Yes, but the question should be, will they? I was hoping that Jen-Ho Tseng and Rob Zastryzny would each get a start this weekend against Cincinnati to rest Lester while also allowing Arrieta the time to make one more start, even if abbreviated. Tseng is out after pitching 3 innings last night but there is hope that Zastryzny could start or even piggyback a start the next three days.
It is pretty much a given that the Nationals are going to trot out Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the first two games of the NLDS. If the Cubs can steal one of those two in Washington, I like the Cubs chances to win the series. Having to face either one of those arms a second time would be extremely hard to defeat. To win, the Cubs are going to have to beat one of them.
When trying to find a weakness of the Nationals, it is not that hard. They currently rank seventh in batting. However, against left-handers, they rank 24th. Against right-handed pitchers, they rank third in all of major-league baseball. A strange part of me says that maybe Montgomery should get a start and that maybe Justin Wilson could make the roster just for this series. But I’m not too comfortable in having the latter happen although the former doesn’t bother me much.
As it stands right now, the Cubs will have four days off next week before the series begins. This should allow them to lineup the rotation anyway they see fit. If the Cubs want to counter Scherzer and Strasburg with Quintana and Lester, I would be OK with that. Heck, you could even put Hendricks in at the #2 slot and I would be OK again. That would allow Arrieta and Lester to pitch at home. If Jake is not 100% when the playoffs begin, then Lackey seems to do very well at home or you could even throw Montgomery. I am hoping that Lester and Arrieta don’t pitch until they are absolutely needed. This would give them the time to properly recoup.
With the way Quintana is pitching, I really hope that he is the difference in this series. Over his last 33.2 innings, he’s struck out 40 with a 2.14 ERA and only has walked 4 batters in that span.
Hendricks has been outstanding lately, too. In September, he’s tallied 31.1 IP with 29 Ks against a 2.01 ERA and 5 walks. Before his hamstring, Arrieta had ERAs of 2.25 in July and 1.21 in August.
The pitching could be there for the Cubs to get back to the NLCS for the third straight year. It should be very interesting to see how it all will line up.
By Todd Johnson
It is hard to believe, but April is over in less than ten days! Minor league clubs have two full weeks in and the big league club is finishing its third full week on Sunday. However, this April has not been without some surprises.
Chicago: I am bit surprised to see Kyle Hendricks struggle AND give up dingers. His 6.19 ERA is a bit puzzling. However, I am not surprised to see Albert Almora do so well in the field. It is all he has ever done.
Iowa: I am not surprised to see Jeimer Candelario and Victor Caratini do so well in hitting in AAA. Caratini is having his best year ever as a Cubs prospect while Candelario already has driven in 18 in just 14 games.
Tennessee: I am surprised to see Yasiel Balaguert struggle to start this year. He is starting to come around. Last year, he drove in 95 runs. Last night, a seeing eye-single brought in two. I am not surprised to see Trevor Clifton come out and out work the other team. It’s early in his AA career, but he is off to his best start as a prospect.
Myrtle Beach: I am surprised by the sluggish start of Carlos Sepulveda. I thought he would hit every where he went. Two weeks in and he is just not getting close to .200. I am not surprised the bat of Tyler Alamo. He just works hard wherever he lands. I am very happy to see him get off to a good start as he is one of the nicest kids in the system.
South Bend: No surprise on Dylan Cease and the bullpen – they are both outstanding. I am surprised by the great start of Yeiler Peguero, I knew he would be at least decent this year. I did not see him dominating at-bats and hitting a home run (almost two in one game) this early in the year.
Extended Spring Training: I was not surprised to see the 2015 IFA class playing with the Eugene team and thriving. I figured Ademan, Sierra, and Perez would hold their own. However, it is catcher Miguel Amaya who is dominating on both sides of the diamond. I am surprised how well Bryan Hudson is doing. He’s thrown 11 innings with 12 Ks and 15 GB outs.
The most surprising pitchers of the first two weeks are Justin Steele of Myrtle Beach and Eddie Butler of Iowa. I really like how Justin Steele is attacking the zone and hitters this year. There’s no more nibbling around the edge of the zone. With Butler, he just pitches well. He has quality stuff and gets people out. It seems as if he finally figured some things out.
When it comes to hitting, I am surprised to see Wladimir Galindo be a well rounded hitter. He goes the other way, often with two strikes and is hitting .327. Although he has one homer, we will see more as it warms up. Before a hamstring injury sidelined, Trey Martin was putting up some good numbers in Tennessee. Always a great fielder, Martin showed an offensive burst last summer for a bit. He was hitting .320 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs in 8 games.
By Clark Lorensen and Todd Johnson
Clark and I got together to take a look at the first month of the season to make a few predictions.
Most home runs in April
Todd – I really like how well Addison Russell has played since the middle of last year and that he picked up where he left off in spring training. I think he’s going to hit about seven home runs in April.
Clark – Kyle Schwarber- The legend continues to build. Schwarber will lead the team in April Homeruns from the leadoff spot.
Most pitching wins in April
Todd – What gets lost about Kyle Hendrix is that he is extremely competitive and that gets lost in his expressionless face. I think he comes in with five.
Clark – Arrieta.
I would go with Hendricks here, but it looks like Arrieta could get more opportunities with the way the rotation is set up.
Todd – Wade Davis is supposed to be the closer. Therefore, I am going to roll with him, but I don’t think he’s going to have that many because I don’t think he’s going to pitch on back to back days in the month.
Clark – Davis
Most blown saves
Todd – Before he went on the DL, Brian Duensing was my pick. Now, I am going to adjust that to Hector Rondon. I will go with four for the month.
Clark – Davis. I believe Davis will get most of April to work out the issues of spring training.
Most stolen bases
Todd – While the Cubs are excellent baserunners, they don’t steal a lot of bases. I am going to go with Javy and five swipes.
Clark – Javy Baez. He’s going to continue to take chances on the base path.
Team won-loss record for April
Todd – 16-7 sounds pretty good for the defending champs. That leaves one game for a rainout.
Clark – 16-8.
Todd – He is actually pretty decent out there and his flash a strong arm to new runners on the base paths.
Clark – Schwarber will hit a triple, scaring all of us as he rounds second.
First player on the DL
Todd – Lackey
Clark – Montero
First call up
Todd – I think it’s going to be a reliever and I also think it’s going to be either Zastryzny or Concepcion. Then again, it could be Rosscup or Leathersich. Either way, it’s going to be a lefty.
Clark – Jeimer Candelario
First to be Traded
Todd – I think with the emergence of Ian Happ, La Stella has drawn the short end of the stick.
Clark – Szczur. He’s out of options.
From small things, big things one day come
Final MiLB Rosters and Surprises
MiLB weekly awards
By Todd Johnson
This is my busy time of year at school between history fair and scholastic bowl. I don’t have a lot of free time in February and March. So, Saturday afternoon was the first time I got to see a live baseball game since November 2. It was fun to watch Kris Bryant go yard and Kyle Hendricks pitch very well along with Carl Edwards, Jr.
Over the last eight days, not much happened in terms of trying to figure out who was going to be on the 25 man roster. Pitchers are now just starting to get into the second inning and starting position players are now playing through the fifth or sixth inning. There is still a month left to sort everything out.
There are, however, some trends. Brian Anderson seems to be struggling a bit. As for Mike Montgomery, the other 5th/6th starter, he is doing much better having not allowed a run yet.
Pedro Strop just debuted.Most relievers seem to just be getting into a routine. I think the bullpen will be the most exciting competition this spring. It probably will come down to the last week before a decision is made.
When it comes to Jeimer Candelario. Last year, he destroyed Spring Training pitching. This year, he is finally starting to take off. I wonder if he has a shot at making the big league club? I think the odds would have to be very slim. He plays 1B and 3B and is a switch-hitter.
Ideally, I would like another SS. For me, though, Tommy LaStella is not that shortstop and neither is Munenori Kawasaki. In all honesty, I don’t think Jemile Weeks has a shot either. It is an interesting dilemma.
As for the week…
*Eloy is doing very well and he hit his first home run of Spring Training on Friday.
*Javy Baez continues to flash the glove.
*Matt Szczur appears to wake up and start hitting.
Ian Happ, Victor Caratini, and Chesny Young all look decent as they get a lot of reps this spring.
Kyle Hendricks started on Saturday and he’s the first regular starting pitcher to see some action.
Alec Mills and Eddie Butler both looked good in their short starts. I’m excited to see their next couple of starts this spring! Butler threw 21 pitches with 18 of them going for strikes.
Yesterday was also Joe Maddon’s “Respect Bald” event where several players shaved their hair including two of the “Flow Brothers,” Pierce Johnson and Taylor Davis.
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) March 4, 2017
Ryan Williams also looked good in his spring training debut after missing most of the 2016 regular season.
Minor league teams start playing games next week. Carrie Muskat took this good picture of Dylan Cease throwing live BP.
A Sneak Peek at the 25 Man Roster
Draft Profile – Kyle Serrano
By Todd Johnson
I didn’t physically make it this year’s convention, but I made it digitally with a lot of help. Between tweets from Evan Altman, John Ferlisle, Ryan Davis, Jared Wyllys, and many others, it kept me updated throughout the weekend. The opening ceremonies on Friday were broadcast live on CSN and several people Periscoped the Saturday morning sessions. In addition, 670 the Score was a nonstop of interviews all weekend long. Evan Altman from Cubs Insider interviewed Rob Zastryzny, Jeimer Candelario and Jason McLeod on the Pelicans’ Facebook page. It was like I was there the whole time without dropping $500 for a hotel room and parking.
Here are some key things I took away from the weekend so far.
1. Schwarber – In an interview with 670 the Score on Friday night, Schwarber talked at length about his rehab and how the Cubs kept him as part of the team. The most interesting aspect was the Schwarber sat in on the daily game plan with Catching Coach Mike Borzello, the pitcher, and whoever was catching that day. Schwarber praised Borzello for that and for the gameplans developed in those sessions.
2. Bryant – Kris told Barry Rozner of the Score that he did not think he was going to be able to get to the ball Ramirez hit for the final out. Bryant thought he had too far to go and the speed of the batter. It was very interesting to hear Bryant detail the play that looked routine on the screen, but not in real life.
3. Kyle Hendricks – Early Saturday morning, Hendricks also praised the role of Borzello in developing the plan for the pennant-clinching win against the Dodgers. Hendricks went on to say that after one pitch, he knew he had his good stuff. At one point, he said he even put it on Auto-Pilot. Kyle also talked about what it was like working with three catchers. He said after Willson’s fourth start that they were all “interchangeable.”
4. Jason McLeod – In an interview with my colleague, Evan Altman, McLeod emphasized the effect that the new CBA is going to have on International Free Agency. McLeod mentioned that it might become a “scouting contest” as all teams now have strict limits on the signing of International players.
5. Joe Maddon has already started with his sayings. Last year’s “Embrace the Target” has been replaced by “Authenticate” and “D-Peat” – a hint to their outstanding defense.
Maddon coined a new phrase: “D-Peat.” As in, he wants Cubs defense to repeat excellence following 103-win season. #CubsTalk
— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) January 14, 2017
6. Here was I thought might have been the sound-byte to remember from the convention.
— Jon Ferlise (@CubsKingdom) January 14, 2017
7. Between now and spring training, I think the Cubs are going to “TRY” and acquire another starting pitcher. However, I think a summer trade is more likely and easier to pull off.
8. Jason Heyward got a nice round of applause on Friday night. I liked that.
Today, I usually went to the “Down on the Farm” Session at around 10:30. I don’t know if I will be able to cull any information about that. I hope I can find someone who is going.
Two Prospect Lists Coming This Week
On Monday, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus are likely to release their top Cubs prospect lists. If not then, by Tuesday for sure. I will be back early in the week to look at both lists. I would love to do them individually. We’ll see what happens.
Position Breakdown Series: Left-Handed Starters
Next Up Series: Albert Almora
Draft profile: Draft Leftovers