On May 11, just 31 games into the 2016 season, the Chicago Cubs, with a record of 25 wins and just six losses, sat atop the Central Division of the National League, 8 1/2 games ahead of the second place Pittsburgh Pirates and nine games ahead of the third place St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs had scored 192 runs, the most in baseball, while giving up just 89, the least in baseball, and were 12-3 at home and a remarkable 13-3 on the road. They had won their last eight games in a row.
With 31 games out of the way and 131 left to play, it’s too early to tell if the Cubs are the real thing or not but so far Joe Maddon’s team is looking as good as advertised. Theo Epstein has built a powerhouse since arriving in Chicago in 2012.
He was very candid when he took over the team as President of Baseball Operations and was quoted in that year’s Spring Training Program as saying ‘ There are no shortcuts in baseball but we’re going to be working on both fronts. Opportunities to win are sacred and building a long-term success is fundamental.’ He made no short term promises but has steadily worked to build a solid foundation. He was also quoted as saying ‘…maybe we can get where we want to go, which is a foundation of sustained success….’.
The year before he took over the baseball operation, the Cubs were 71-91 and finished in fifth place. In his first year with the team he had inherited, the team slipped to 61-101 and finished fifth again. In 2013, they improved to 66-96 and in 2014 to 73-89. In 2015, he brought in Joe Maddon from Tampa Bay to manage and the record improved to 97-65 and the team made the Playoffs as a Wild Card. Maddon won his third Manager of the Year Award in that first year with the Cubs. Of course, if you remember, the 97-65 record, which was only good enough for third place in the National League Central, was better than the record of the winner in every other Division in baseball.
They then beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Game to advance to the NLDS against the Cardinals where they beat the St. Louis Cardinals, three games to one, to advance to the NLCS against the Mets. They were swept by the Mets in four games, scoring just eight runs while giving up 21.
In the off season this year, the Cubs acquired slugging outfielder Jason Heyward, and veteran right handed starting pitcher John Lackey, from the Cardinals and, perhaps most importantly, Ben Zobrist, from Kansas City. Zobrist had previously played nine years for Maddon on Tampa Bay and is one of the. best all around players in the game. With the Rays, Zobrist had played every position except pitcher and catcher for Maddon who puts a high value on versatility.
They are a relatively young team. The average age of their position players is 27.9, but they also have a veteran base in catchers Miguel Montero, 32, and David Ross, 39, Zobrist, 34 and center fielder Dexter Fowler, 30. While they have scored more runs than any other team, for the most part, they have not been hitting up to their potential.
Catcher Montero, a .261 career hitter, is only hitting .208 and is on the disabled list for 15 days and first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, who hit .278 with 31 homers last year, has ten homers so far and is hitting .281. Jorge Soler, who has been filling in in left field with the loss of Kyle Schwarber for the season due to surgery on his left knee, is only hitting .181 after hitting .262 last year. Heyward, a
.293 hitter last year is hitting just .211.
On the other hand, the starting pitching has been excellent. Jake Arietta, last year’s Cy Young winner with a 22-6 record and a 1.77 ERA, is 6-0 with an 1.13 ERA and 33 year old Jason Hammel is 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA. John Lester, 32, is 4-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 37 year old John Lackey, despite a 4.02 ERA is 4-1. The fifth starter, Kyle Hendricks, 26, is 2-2 with a 3.10 ERA.
The bullpen is led by Closer Hector Rondon, who saved 30 of 34 tries last year. He had appeared in 13 games, had seven of seven saves and a 0.73 ERA. Pedro Strop, who appeared in 76 games last year, had been in 16 and has an ERA of 1.98. Lefty Travis Wood had also been in 15 games with a 5.00 ERA and is capable of starting, if needed. He started nine games last year. Adam Warren, picked up from the Yankees in a trade for Starlin Castro, had been in 12 games with an earned run average of 1.93 and is also capable of spot starts. Trevor Cahill, 12 appearances so far this year, with a 2.77 ERA and Justin Grimm, 11 appearances with a 5.40 ERA, are getting the bulk of the rest of the relief work.
The pitching staff’s 2.62 ERA was the lowest of any staff in baseball as of May 4.
Theo Epstein has done his job well and it looks like those loyal Cubs fans, perhaps the most loyal in all of baseball, may be coming to the end of their long championship drought. It is 108 years since the Cubs last won the World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers in the 1908 Series for their second Championship in a row against the same opponent. The last time the Cubs got to the World Series was 1945 when they lost. They had been in the series and lost six other times from 1910 until 1938.
In all that time, the Chicago faithful have continued to fill Wrigley Field. They have averaged 37,285 fans per game this year. If you don’t think their fans are loyal, consider this figure; in 2011 with a team that finished fifth, with a record of 71-91, their attendance averaged 37,258, just 27 fans per game less than the first 25 games of this year. Their fans deserve a winner, and Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon and company seem poised to give it to them.