The Cubs aren’t as bad as their series loss to the Pirates. But are they any good?
During a four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field, the Cubs had 29 total points and edged their opponents by a total of 17. Yet they lost three of four games and fell to 7-9 this season.
“Maybe we scored too many yesterday, we should have saved some,” Frank Schwindel said, referring to Saturday’s 21-0 win. “That’s part of it, they threw a good game. We chained a few at-bats, we were obviously one hit. It didn’t happen today, but that’s why we’re playing 162. It’s going to happen, so hopefully we’ll be at the other end next time.
The Cubs had plenty of opportunities in Sunday’s final frames, twice having a third-row runner with fewer than two outs and failing to get that runner to the plate. It was the second 4-3 loss of the series for the Cubs and they have seen them drop to 1-5 in their last six games, helping the Doomsayers come out in droves after a 6-4 start some asked if this team could surprise.
It’s 16 games, so big conclusions still can’t be drawn. But there are takeouts that seem like they might stick around the year. The first is that this offense isn’t bad, but it’s clearly not where it needs to be. Seeing the pirate enclosure separating them was disconcerting at times.
All in all, the pirate paddock isn’t an overwhelming bunch. He has a 22.5 percent strikeout rate (25th in the game) and a 3.75 walking ERA, a number that will surely fluctuate as the season progresses. But the Cubs had particular problems in six games against southpaw Dillon Peters, inning eater Wil Crowe and flamethrower David Bednar.
The trio combined to pitch 16 1/3 innings against the Cubs and allowed no runs while striking out 24. The Cubs bats seemed to be doing a better job of battling the three on Sunday, but n still haven’t managed to tackle any points against them.
Crowe got out of a first-and-third no-out situation in the seventh and Bednar didn’t allow the Cubs to tie him in the ninth despite putting the runners to second-and-third with just one out and the heart. of the order to come. After trailing Willson Contreras 2-0, Bednar threw three straight fastballs into the area with the Cubs hitter swinging through all three. After an intentional walk from Ian Happ to load the bases, Schwindel followed and saw three straight radiators. He took the first at 97.2 mph for a strike, swung 97.5 to fall behind 0-2, then finished it with a puff on 97.8.
“Yes and no,” Schwindel said when asked if he should go there thinking he would face the heat. “Because the other night he threw a curveball and then went straight to the split. He has done a good job of blending this year. I don’t think he’s let go yet. A tough AB, but that’s the situation I want to be in and I can’t wait to have another one like that.
The right-handers have seen Bednar heating up more than 60% of the time this year, but on Thursday he put those thoughts in Schwindel’s head by stealing a strike with the breaker and crashing him into a splitter in the area. . But the offense is not the problem. The Cubs didn’t score enough runs or capitalize as often as they should have this weekend, but there’s a recipe for success with the group despite not having not a clear core of power.
The bullpen also looks solid overall. After six innings with only one unearned run allowed, they have the fourth-highest strikeout rate (28%) in baseball and the seventh-lowest ERA (2.54). The bullpen kept the Cubs in Sunday’s game despite a short start from Justin Steele, who could only cover three innings.
Steele walked four and gave up three, struggling mightily with his command while spraying many of his throws to the side of the arm and failing to finish his breaking balls.
“I just think I was starting to get tired and my front side was leaking a bit,” Steele said, “instead of hanging back on my back leg and keeping my ear on the rubber. That’s something that really helps me. When I do those two things I feel like I have better control of the ball. I felt like as the game went on I started to get tired and my forehead was leaking and my arm didn’t have time to catch up with me.
Steele threw 26 pitches in the second and 34 in the third. If he tires so early in a game and has leadership issues, that’s a problem. It didn’t seem that he was absent because of the long sleeves, but rather that the bad command had caused him to work harder. That’s going to be one to watch, especially as Keegan Thompson continues to dominate out of the bullpen for long stretches and given Steele’s brief history last summer as a powerful multi-inning reliever. Those might be the best roles for the two young pitchers, but that’s what the Cubs need to figure out.
If the Cubs continue to have short starts — they’re averaging less than 4 2/3 innings per outing since their starters — they’ll quickly tire out a bullpen that’s been a bright spot. The same problem sank them last summer. There are only seven teams that have averaged fewer innings since their starters. Tampa Bay is the lowest in the game, but also does so by design. Maybe the Cubs can strike a good balance with that, but it’ll take Kyle Hendricks (who’s been brilliant in two starts and struggled in two others) and Marcus Stroman (13 1/3 innings and an 8 ERA). .78 in three starts) to become the inning eaters they were meant to be, and for Wade Miley to come back healthy and do the same.
Perhaps the biggest horror on Sunday was Jonathan Villar’s defense at shortstop. The traveling infielder has seemed to be playing well this season, gaining regular playing time. But his defense has been lacking, to put it mildly. He made an error on Sunday, leading to an unearned run – which proved to be the deciding factor in the game – but also had a reversed error on a hard-hit hopper that ricocheted off his chest for a single.
He’s made four errors this season, although in addition to Sunday’s reverse play there was another fly ball Yan Gomes threw into left field that Villar probably could have done a better job of stopping and preventing a thief. base to score from third. But in two short starts he looked suspicious and made two mistakes.
David Ross was asked about his level of confidence in Villar playing shortstop after the loss.
“What’s he got, two games there?” said Ross. “How many games have we played? Yeah. So he’s our reserve shortstop right now. We have Andrelton Simmons, we only have a limited number of guys. (Patrick) Wisdom is a third baseman and outfielder, (Nick) Madrigal is quite comfortable at second. So our depth piece at shortstop is Jonathan Villar.
Ross can’t wear Nico Hoerner down and play him every day, especially at the start of a season after a shortened spring and with Hoerner’s injury history. But Simmons’ sore shoulder (he remains in Arizona working his way back, with little reported progress beyond that) and a 40-player slump forced Ross to play someone he clearly would rather not make short.
The 40-year-old has also become a bit of a problem. Ross would like to have Ildemaro Vargas as a backup shortstop to fill the void until Simmons is healthy, but the Cubs don’t want to sacrifice pitching or their outfielders to get him in. They want to see what Michael Hermosillo, Rafael Ortega and Clint Frazier can do in the outfield, so they need to be on the roster as well. This is where Jason Heyward, who to his credit has a 113 wRC+ – despite being backed by a .400 BABIP – and has looked good at center, taking a spot on a team that is clearly looking forward. future becomes a problem.
If it wasn’t, the Cubs could do a lot of things differently. They could go to a right-center squad with Hermosillo and Ortega, get Alfonso Rivas in the lineup more often by letting him play first (where he’s a solid defender) and even leave on occasion, and have Schwindel and Happ DH along with the switch hitting Villar, who could also give Wisdom and Madrigal breaks at third and second, respectively, when the game called for it.
It’s probably not the Cubs’ biggest problem — right now it seems to be the starters’ high ERA (5.60, fifth-worst in baseball) and their inability to eat innings — but Sunday’s loss did. highlighted the problem. When the Cubs formed this team on the fly in the spring, it didn’t quite seem to make sense, and now it’s becoming clearer. The list has the potential to be strong all around. Not great, but not terrible either. But the pieces must fit together properly.
“I think we’re going to be better,” Steele said. “We have a very good team in this dressing room. But it’s baseball, things are going to happen. You are not going to win every ball game. But I think we are much better than losing three out of four to the Pirates at home.
The Cubs are hoping Steele is right about that — otherwise, the summer could be trying. Ross showed he was ready to mix and match and use a deep bench. There seem to be ways that could work really well and allow the group to thrive. Health will help, but ensuring players are placed in the best position to succeed is also important. To maximize a flawed but talented squad, some tough decisions might need to be made.