Weekly Cubs recap: Offense continues to click as the pitching depth is challenged

Seiya Suzuki

This is not a perfect offensive team. The Cubs hit far too many groundballs. They do not hit enough home runs. Those two elements alone will keep them out of the upper echelon of run scoring this season.

But that isn’t to say that this offense is or will become ineffective.

Seiya Suzuki appears to be the real deal. And not just in a he’s-going-to-be-worth-every-penny sort of way. Adjustment period be damned, the Cubs new rightfielder has already earned NL Player of the Week honors (.412 average, 1.604 OPS, and 314 wRC+). I see no reason to doubt his abilities to remain among the top hitters in the game at this point either. His eye is phenomenal. His swing decisions, barrel control, and plate coverage are not far behind.

The Cubs lost a ton of star power last year, but part of what made the former core so valuable was their defensive prowess, versatility, base running, etc. Javier Báez’s MVP runs in 2018-19 were driven in large part because of his defense. From a purely offensive standpoint the team hadn’t received high level production (Top 5 in NL or Top 10 in MLB) from anyone since Kris Bryant in 2017.

In Suzuki, the Cubs may well have found that star level player to anchor their lineup now, and for the foreseeable future..

His emergence is not the only positive development. Ian Happ has flashed high level offensive ability in the past, but has had difficulty sustaining it for more than a month or two at a time. At least for now, he showing greater balance between his patient approach and willingness to attack pitches in hitter’s counts. He’s also showing a greater willingness to settle for solid contact when batting from the right side which should help cut down on some of the wild swings in productivity. And though Willson Contreras is not going to rank among the top hitters in the league, he can do so at his position, and so far the decision to pair him with a starting caliber backup (Yan Gomes) in order to rotate Contreras through the DH spot and not wear him out behind the plate is paying dividends.

Both Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom got off to slow starts, but stuck with their approach and they began seeing returns over the past several days. The Cubs are counting on those two to provide much needed power to this lineup. It still remains an awkward situation in that the Cubs are rebuilding on the fly and those two are still unproven at 30 years old, but if they can continue to show they are viable MLB players in the first half and that their 2021 breakouts were no fluke, they provide the Cubs with the flexibility to trade them for a decent return or hold on to them as cheap place holders until the next wave of prospects arrive.

The middle infield combo of Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal have held their own defensively, and though the hits haven’t fallen for either as often as they likely will as the season progresses they have brought the expected contact ability (7 K in 60 combined PA). The two of them are big culprits in the too many grounders issue, but they are still inexperienced and also coming off injury plagued seasons. These two will be a big focus for the Cubs new hitting coaches to get them to concentrate on making contact further out in front of the plate in order to lift the ball into the air more often. Neither is going to hit many home runs, but getting more balls over the infielders heads, and into the gaps is important. Nico is already flashing more ability in that regard than in previous seasons.

It has all made for a more well-rounded group. No longer can opposing pitchers attack the Cubs lineup with a single method and stick with it throughout an inning, let alone an entire outing. These hitters have differing strengths and weaknesses, different approaches, and it should put more stress on pitchers and make them less likely to get locked in during a game.

As for the pitching…

Surprise, surprise, but it appears the Cubs have patched together another effective bullpen group.

Despite long term injuries to key personnel (Codi Heuer and Brad Wieck) the Cubs bullpen has only lost one of the first nine games of the season. The veteran additions of David Robertson, Mychal Givens and Chris Martin have helped stabilize the final three innings along with holdover Rowan Wick. What is different this year is that home grown arms Scott Effross, Ethan Roberts, and Keegan Thompson have emerged as reliable weapons as well.

It isn’t a perfect pen, as the Cubs are still looking for left-handed options to replace Wieck. Daniel Norris has been okay thus far, and looks like a solid signing as a depth option, but he’s unproven in a late inning role.

The team recently added veteran Locke St. John to the roster, but that is a stopgap move, at best. Right handed batters will likely give him all kinds of trouble. He had an April 15th opt out of his MiLB contract, and I’m a little shocked the Cubs were scared of losing him, but at the same time maybe they see him as an extra arm they spot in certain situations throughout this month while rosters are expanded, and then send him down and even DFA him in order to free that 40-man spot for another starting option or just to try out one of the other veteran LHP options in Iowa.

Frankly, among the four main guys who began the year in Iowa (Stephen Gonsalves, Connor Menez, and Eric Stout the others), I though St. John looked the weakest. My guess is we see a lot of fluidity with that roster spot. It is also worth noting that Steven Brault was originally offered a MLB deal this spring before it became clear he wouldn’t be available to begin the year. He may be available in May, and likely was given an opt out of his MiLB as well.

I’m starting to believe that this Cubs team may have been an ace away from a legit chance at winning the NL Central.

That doesn’t mean they’d be a true World Series contender, as the strength in the NL appears to be on both coasts once again, but as they say if you can get into the playoffs anything can happen.

The starting rotation is most likely to be the Achilles Heel of this team. Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks are veteran anchors who know how to get outs in this league, but neither is likely to give the Cubs a dominant run throughout the portion of a season which can help fuel and sustain winning streaks (or halt losing streaks in their tracks). That’s where the missing ace would have made an impact. Without one, it will be difficult for this team to get on a roll and I suspect they will hover around .500 most of the season.

Wade Miley is another guy in the same vein, but we’ll still have to wait and see how he looks once he is ready to begin his season. The issue with building your staff around these types of pitchers is they have very little room for error. Even minor injuries or simply beginning the year behind schedule can really muck up their results. The same concerns fall on Alec Mills as well.

The Cubs have gotten strong early outings from lefties Justin Steele and Drew Smyly, but both are likely to remain twice through the order kind of arms (although Steele may emerge beyond those constraints). Given his age and ability to miss bats Steele should be given the opportunity to stick in the rotation and ride through any ups and downs over the course of the season.

The Cubs may be best off with Smyly eventually working into a swing role, which would simultaneously strengthen the left side of the bullpen as well. In the meantime, he’s been a life saver the first couple of times through the rotation. Without his 9.2 shutout innings the bullpen may have gotten stretched to a breaking point in that just completed four game series in Colorado.

Caleb Kilian will work his way into the mix eventually, but I doubt it happens until the weather warms and he gets on a nice run in Iowa for a while. It may not even be until after the trade deadline, when the Cubs will potentially be looking to trade Miley, Smyly, and even a couple more of their sign-and-flip additions from this offseason.

In the meantime the Cubs will continue to try and mix and match between Smyly and Mark Leiter, Jr. until Miley, Mills, and Brault are ready to give it a go.

Perhaps the Cubs will give Keegan Thompson a shot as well. He offers the same type of swing and miss as Steele, but injuries and durability have been great challenge for Thompson dating all the way back to his college career. There may not be anyone throwing as well as him on the staff right now though. He is in great shape, is getting more carry on his fastball up in the zone than ever before, and his secondaries have been sharp.

Thompson (and Adbert Alzolay) put the Cubs in a tough position. It may be best for their careers for them to be coming out of the pen, but the team has more options for right handed and mult-inning relief roles than they do starters. The Cubs figure to have enough veterans getting healthy in May for them to patch together a functioning rotation, but if setbacks and/or ineffectiveness from any of those arms crops up, the Cubs may have little choice but to turn to Thompson and then Alzolay later in the year.

Regardless of who they utilize throughout the year, the odds are this team comes up a bit short of starting pitchers as they try to keep pace with the Brewers and Cardinals. The Cubs have arms coming up through the system, but Kilian is the only one with a 2022 ETA. The rest will have a chance to work their way into the rotation beginning next season. Until then, it will likely remain the limiting factor for this team.

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  • Great summary! This year almost has a "2015" feel to it as the roster gels and the youngsters find their place. The possibility of mid-summer promotions is exciting as well. I'm not convinced Mark Leiter Jr. is an answer, but maybe he can eat some innings while the youngsters mature on the farm. Who knows, we could see a trade at the deadline that frees up a spot for a prospect and brings back more talent.

  • I thought Matz and Gray got reasonable deals. Was disappointed the Cubs didn't make a bigger effort on those guys. Not even necessarily an ace but one more reliable SP.

  • In reply to TheMightyGin:

    Another reliable arm would have helped, but I doubt it would have moved the needle much. The Cubs need an impact guy, and someone who can reliably go 6+ innings on a regular basis. I don't see Matz/Gray as that type of arm.
    Taking a chance on Robbie Ray to replicate his 2021 or Carlos Rodon to stay healthy would have been better moves imo. The Cubs had the financial flexibility to risk a move for one of them.

    One thing which puts the Cubs in a difficult position for this year, and might have limited the number of deals beyond one year they wanted to offer this offseason is they do have a ton of their pitching prospects (and OF prospects) who become Rule 5 eligible this fall and they will need roster spots to protect them. Tying up spots on 3rd/4th starters beyond this year was probably not the best long term method. They got a 2/3 in Stroman. A potential TOR type would be worth the roster spot, but getting whatever Miley/Smyly types they could to agree to 1 year deals made sense.

    Pitchers who need roster spots this offseason:
    Kilian, K. Franklin, Jensen, R. Thompson, Sanders, Ueckert, Hughes, Hudson. Others who could work their way in: Correa, B. Little, Uelmen, Clarke, etc. Leeper may earn a spot too, even though he won't be R5 eligible.

    Position players: B. Davis, Alcantara, Pinango, Strumpf, plus other guys who could be deemed necessary to protect: Windham, Aliendo, Weber, Vazquez, Maldonado, Ball, Roederer

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    As far a rotation goes, as for right now if everyone is healthy, their rotation is set (stroman-hendricks-steele-miley-smyly).

    After the trade deadline (I think smyly and miley will be traded) i believe Killian and another young pitcher or two will fill out the rotation. Of course if they are in first place those guys likely wont be dealt.

    I think what will determine their season will be having enough quality relievers (keeping leads and staying in games). But if they are going to compete in 23 they will have to sign a TOR (manaea?) starter along with two quality relievers.

    Micheal, you had mentioned the Cubs lack of power this year. But I believe they are 10th in home runs and first in doubles. Also first in average, obp & ops. So the power is there. Can they sustain it? That is the argument.

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    I think they will deal Miley and Smyly even if the team is doing well. Same goes for the veteran relievers on 1 year deals. It's the reason they were brought in. This roster is simply too old to alter course and try and compete this year. Any of those arms that stick around will be because they don't end up healthy or productive enough to warrant trade interest.
    Even if one or both sticks around, the Cubs rotation is still among the worst in the league in terms of ability to give them innings. If the bullpen fails, it is more likely because the rotation fails and the pen gets burned out because of it.

    As for the power department, I don't expect the Cubs to remain top 10 as they progress through the season. Maybe the doubles, OPS and OBP though. Suzuki and Wisdom are really the only two RHB with plus power, and Happ is their only LHB with any vestige of power. Contreras, Schwindel have above avg pop, and Frazier probably does in a limited role. It will be tough to sustain current levels as one or more of those guys are likely to get hurt and/or traded, and the Cubs don't have power hitters to replace them. The only guy is Davis, and it's difficult to count on a rookie to produce right away.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It's exciting to think about what Hoyer might get in return for pitching at the deadline. GMs tend to spend big for that one or two arms that might get them to the playoffs. I'm sure Jed will take full advantage. If Davis gets promoted, maybe we'll see Ortega or Hermasillo, or possibly Frazier or (gasp!) Heyward go to a contending team. Speaking of Frazier, how cool would it be for that guy to live up to the excitement he generated as a prospect?

  • Good and fair summary Michael. I'm not too concerned about Hendricks yet and his inflated ERA. It almost always seems to have been the case with him that he doesn't perform as well in April with the cold weather. He's a guy who's consistency always seems iffier if when he can't get has good a grip on the ball like when the weather is still cold.

    Leiter is defiantly a stop-gap in my mind until Alzolay gets healthy, or Kilian gets consistent, or both. The BP and the defense have been generally good so far - so not much to critique about those aspects.

    I wonder if the Cubs could or should consider piggy-backing Thompson and Steele?

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    If the Cubs lock Thompson into a every five day role they may as well do it as a starter. If he stays in the pen they'll want the versatility to use him as both a long and short reliever.

  • Very nice summary, Michael. For some reason I was thinking Jensen might be ready for a callup to the Cubs during the summer. But you think he is still over a year away?

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Michael, for fun you should put together a former cub farmhands in the majors article. I would have to bet that would be an impressive group of players. Might be a little sad for us Cub fans to see the talent that has been traded or lost to free agency.

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    The Cubs list of hitters they developed is very impressive. I think they are top 3 in the Majors in WAR among drafted/signed position players over the past 10 years. And if you include a guy like Donaldson even further back they probably remain near the top. The pitching side is where they fail. Outside of Samardzija, who is no longer active, it is a paltry list. Overall, they still have developed a good overall WAR count, it just isn't well balanced.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Since Jensen had close to a full season last year he is the most likely of the prospects beyond Kilian to get a shot imo. It may even be necessary, but I don't suspect he will actually be ready.
    The two other starters who need to get added (Franklin, R. Thompson) didn't pitch in 2021 (or 2020) so I doubt the Cubs push them to the Majors this year.
    The other guy under consideration is Cam Sanders. Unfortunately, I think Sanders and Jensen fall more into the future reliever than future starter category. But it wouldn't shock me if injuries occur that one or both get a handful of starts in Chicago down the stretch.

  • Excellent, Michael. Greatly appreciate the detailed summary.

    Thus far the Cubs have been a pleasant surprise, and let's not forget that a 6-4 record projects to 97 wins (;-)!! (Not holding my breath.)

  • In reply to wthomson:

    Michael, our voice of reason.

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