This season has been a lot of things for the Chicago Cubs, with new and exciting at the top of the list of descriptors. If it’s not Kyle Schwarber being called up, it’s Jake Arrieta throwing the Cubs first no-hitter since Carlos Zambrano’s in 2008.
It’s easy for even the casual fan to see that this team has changed over the course of the season, often in quite dramatic ways. The 2015 Cubs are most definitely not the same team they were on April 5th of this year. Remember when Tommy La Stella was the Opening Day second baseman? The service time arguments Kris Bryant dealt with? How about the good old Tsuyoshi Wada/Dallas Beeler/(insert random name here) days for the rotation? Yes, there have been a lot of milestones reached this season, and no one has been starving for things to say about the Cubs. So let’s take a look back, and see what some of the more subtle improvements have been over the course of this 2015 season.
1. The lineup was different in the early going of 2015, but it wasn’t entirely ineffective.
When you look at the lineup card that was filled out on Opening Day of 2015, one thing you’ll notice is that not a whole lot is different. Sure, the Cubs have added the likes of Bryant, Schwarber, and Addison Russell to help things along—but the rest of the pieces were already in place. Chris Coghlan, who has had an unexpectedly successful run all year, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, even Starlin Castro and Dexter Fowler were all a part of this Opening Day roster and lineup. When you think about just those pieces, you realize just how essential they are to this recipe. Coghlan is having an impressive season at the plate, and has dazzled with a few amazing defensive plays throughout the season—despite a few questionable ones—and, to top it all off, has been healthy all season. Fowler was a cause for concern early in the season, and at one point before the break was toeing the line of a sub-.300 OBP, but has since surged to .350 in just six short weeks. There really isn’t anyone who’s been a true-blue disappointment this season (save for Castro and perhaps Neil Ramirez, but the latter was due to injury-related issues), and coming off such a busy offseason for the Cubs, that’s quite a success in and of itself.
2. The addition of the kids didn’t revive this lineup, it helped it surge ahead.
So what happens when you have a lineup that has some strong performers already and you add three top prospects, two of whom are expected to become dominant power hitters? Well, you could say that 2015 happens. Bryant has had an absolutely electric first season in the majors. Though it’s been sprinkled with a few blemishes, these flaws haven’t done much to tarnish the outcome of what we already knew to be true: Kris Bryant is good at baseball, and will be for a long time. Bryant is posting a TAv of .322 so far in 2015—given that TAv runs on the same scale as traditional batting average, it’s easy to get a sense of how incredible Bryant has been in his rookie campaign. Schwarber, meanwhile, arrived to the majors bat in hand, and though it was somewhat unexpected, has also created in interesting situation when it comes to the Cubs depth at catcher—and it’s most definitely not a bad situation to be in. (We’ll get to that later.) When you think about it, Addison Russell has posted the poorest slash line this season of the new kids, and that’s still one that looks like this; .243/.301/.382 with a TAv of .258. Although those numbers are hardly exceptional, Russell is still keeping his head above water in his rookie season, and is playing some great defense in the middle infield no matter which position he’s manning. To be fair, he’s gone through a rough stretch in the last seven days, striking out in seven of his last 17 plate appearances, but had posted a .266/.304/.469 line in the three weeks prior. If he’s the runt of the litter, then I’d say the litter is doing okay.
3. The bench has improved in an unconventional way.
Remember how when Schwarber came up, it was because Miguel Montero was on the DL, and everyone was wondering what would happen with the “extra player” the Cubs had once Montero returned? Surely, you couldn’t send Schwarber down after the stretch he had while filling in for Montero. So they kept him. As most predicted, he wasn’t quite a glass slipper fit behind home plate, and was more suited for the outfield … but whose spot would he take up? This was a good problem to have, and the Cubs took advantage of it in the best way possible. Starlin Castro has always been the “Phoebe” of the Cubs lineup: the organization and most fans love him, but recognize that if he wasn’t around quite as often they would do a bit better. So he went to the bench, and with the time off, he’s become a valuable pinch-hitting bench option. Who wouldn’t want to an All-Star shortshop who’s barely 25 years of age as a part of their bench? The other side of this coin is that you have great lefty depth on your bench when Schwarber is sitting out in favor of Castro. It’s the best of both worlds. This, along with the likes of Jonathan Herrera, Chris Denorfia and the rest of the Cubs’ bench leaves some solid, viable options for late inning situations. The Cubs bench in the second half has a bit more foundation to it than it had in say, April and May, when it was peppered with guys who could have been useful options but just weren’t getting the at bats they needed to consistently succeed. Some of these guys? Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Baxter, Junior Lake, and Welington Castillo. (Castillo was always a “maybe he will, maybe he won’t” type of guy, but even given his recent success at the dish, I still wouldn’t take Castillo over any of the three catchers who are currently on the Cubs roster.) So yes, this bench may not be exactly the best (or most conventional) in baseball—and it was noted going into the trade deadline that the Cubs were looking for an upgrade this area, but the fact is that it’s still much improved from what it was in the early goings.
4. There is now consistency in the rotation.
This season has been entertaining, and not just because of Arrieta no-hitters or because the Cubs have had 12 walk-off wins (Yes, that’s a lot, considering that a walkoff win is only a possibility 81 games of the year), but also because there was one point in the season when every fifth day we would wake up and wonder if our uncle was going to be the starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs that evening. Remember that huge rotation hole that seemed to be plagueing the Cubs for so long? Well, now it’s fixed. Sure, the Dan Haren deal still may not sit well with some, but the key thing is that there’s a fifth guy right now. We know now who is going to be going out there, and what his game is. This rotation has become consistent and even if it’s not the greatest back end situation, it’s secure. The ability to understand what’s coming each start will help center Joe Maddon’s bullpen management, and Dan Haren is no worse than a few Donn Roach outings or a bad Dallas Beeler start. To further stabilize things, everyone else has settled into their groove. Besides the time Jason Hammel had a minor injury back in early July, we pretty much know what to expect out of everyone each time out. I’ll take that any day over the Red Sox wondering if Rick Porcello is going to throw seven shutout innings or give up seven runs before recording an out.
5. There has been a new life breathed into this club.
You know that “magic” everyone has been blathering about? That’s the product of positivity. It’s just positivity, breeding more positivity, and that turning into results. Not only has Joe Maddon been able to create chemistry that actualizes young rookie talent, curbs the potential outburst of egos, and entwines veteran leadership along with guys who are familiar with October baseball, but he’s created a positive atmosphere around the clubhouse. There has never been a situation that Joe Maddon has allowed to be seen as unsolvable or even detrimental. Nothing is so terrible that a small change in approach or a wake-up-and-start over attitude can’t fix it. Joe Maddon has not stuck to conventionality. He’s batted Rizzo in the two spot, used Jason Motte as an unofficial closer while needed, and even told guys not to arrive at the ballpark until four hours before first pitch. He’s creating an atmosphere that’s helped nurture the talents on this club, all while aiding them as they try to achieve the most that they can together as a team, and having fun while doing it. That’s something that Maddon has brought to the table this season that is vastly underrated, and we have watched slowly unfold over the past few months.
So there you have it: there’s been a lot of positive yet subtle changes made for this ball club over the course of the season, and they’ve clearly been quite beneficial. Need evidence? The Cubs are in the middle of a playoff race and their emerging (or fully emerged) ace just tossed a no-hitter on Sunday evening. Life is pretty good, North Siders.
Lead photo courtesy Gary Vaszquez—USA Today Sports.