Seven games into 2016, the Cubs are finally in Chicago for the home opener, a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds. After sweeping the Angels, the Cubs took three of four from the Diamondbacks, and roll into town with a healthy 5-1 record, their best start since 1988. The Reds, too, are off to a 5-1 start, perhaps a surprise given the consensus grim outlook for their season, but three of those wins came against the woeful Phillies and probably should only be worth partial credit. Many feel the time for the Reds to rebuild was last winter, but hosting the 2015 All-Star Game convinced them to wait, and they saw the stock of several key players plummet in the meantime. All three of the NL Central powerhouses—the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals—will face the Reds (and the also-rebuilding Brewers) 19 times this season. Which team comes out on top will depend substantially on who can beat up on the two less intimidating members of the NL Central over the course of the season and who gets bogged down.
Monday’s game will feature Jon Lester facing Brandon Finnegan, both making their second starts of the season. Lester’s debut was solid, with no walks, four strikeouts, and one run over seven innings. He’s incredibly consistent—he pitched at least five innings in 28 of 32 starts in 2015—and is always a good bet to give the Cubs’ powerful lineup a chance. The lefthanded Finnegan was drafted in 2014 by the Royals, and is probably best remembered from his playoff debut as a reliever in the 2014 postseason, becoming the first player to play in the College World Series and MLB World Series in the same year. He was traded to the Reds in the Johnny Cueto deal, and hasn’t faced any Cubs hitters, with the exception of one Jason Heyward plate appearance. Finnegan had a reasonable 2016 debut, going 6 innings with one walk, nine strikeouts, and one home run, though PECOTA generally sees him as a marginal starter (projected DRA of 4.65). Friday’s game against lefty Robbie Ray offers a hint of how the lineup may look, with Soler getting the start in left and Ross continuing to catch for Lester.
After an off-day, John Lackey will take the bump, and try to rebound from a rocky first outing as a Cub that saw him cough up six runs in six innings with only four strikeouts. His 2.77 ERA in 2015 was largely the result of stranding 82.6 percent of baserunners allowed, nearly 10 points higher than his career rate, and Cubs fans should probably not expect him to replicate that in 2016. Still, there’s no reason to think he’s as bad as he looked last week, so Wednesday offers a chance for a fresh start in front of the faithful. Opposing him will be Alfredo Simon, back with the Reds on a $2 million contract after a dismal year with the Tigers. Lefties slammed Simon in 2015, with a .300 TAv versus a .260 TAv for righties, so we might see Soler sit, and Tommy La Stella play third base, thus pushing Bryant to left field.
The series will conclude with Jason Hammel facing Raisel Iglesias. The original plan had been for Kyle Schwarber to be Hammel’s personal catcher, but that obviously goes out the window with the former’s season-ending injury. Hammel last pitched to Ross, but it’s unclear whether the team wants him (and his projected .221 TAv) making two starts per turn of the rotation, so Montero may start instead. Iglesias defected from Cuba in 2013 and signed with the Reds in 2014, and last year, in his rookie season, had a 3.77 DRA in 95 innings. He faced the Cubs twice, in July and September, and it should be fun to watch the young righty go up against this deep Cubs lineup. So far, Iglesias is off to a good start in 2016, with 12 strikeouts and only 2 walks through 11.2 innings.
What to Watch For
Javier Baez, recovering from a March 20 thumb injury in extended spring training, took a few days off after a pitch grazed his helmet, and only resumed play this week.
#Cubs Baez cleared to start playing in extended spring
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 8, 2016
While Baez was originally scheduled to be activated in time for the home opener, it now seems unlikely that he’ll even make it to the big league team before the end of the Reds series. His progress is definitely something to keep an eye on over the first part of this next week, and if Baez does recover quicker than expected, it’ll be interesting to see how Maddon chooses to deploy him and how he performs when he is on the field.
In the games themselves, the focus will be on discerning a pattern in Joe Maddon’s decisions. With the new Schwarber-sized hole in the roster, previously settled plans are back up in the air, and it’s still not clear where everything will come down. If Ross catches for Hammel again, for example, that would look a lot like the start of a routine; if Montero catches him instead, it may indicate a more free-flowing approach on Maddon’s part. Matt Szczur’s hot start has shown no signs of abating, either, and seeing how he’s used in the next few games will give a sense for the degree to which Maddon believes in that start and how he plans to accommodate it.
Questions are also being slowly resolved about the nature of this team, one game at a time. Through six games, the Cubs rotation has been good, if perhaps not as good as some had hoped. As mentioned earlier, John Lackey struggled in his debut, and Jake Arrieta looked downright mortal against the Diamondbacks on Sunday. The offense, however, has been relentless, averaging a whopping seven runs per game, and as long as they keep it up, the pitching staff has a ton of latitude to be less than great on any given night. At some point, however, the offense will get cold, maybe even in this upcoming series, and it’ll be interesting to see if the pitching can shoulder the load when that happens.
On the Reds, interesting players include the aforementioned Iglesias, catcher Devin Mesoraco, and first baseman Joey Votto. Mesoraco’s breakout 2014 was followed by a 2015 lost almost entirely to hip surgery, and while ten games is too short a period of time to conclusively determine whether he’s recovered or not, an early peek at him will be welcome. There’s not much to be learned about Votto—he possesses incredible control of the strike zone and the sort of power that changes that control from interesting to awe-inspiring—so this is more about watching him do his very enjoyable thing than gaining any new insight. It’s worth mentioning that the Reds are almost certainly going to be sellers at the deadline, so keep an eye on veterans like Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, as they might be part of a midseason trade. There will be plenty of further opportunities to become familiar with Cincinnati, however; this is only the first of six series between the two teams.
Monday, 7:05PM on WGN and 670AM; Wednesday, 7:05PM on CSN+ and 670AM; Thursday, 7:05PM on CSN and 670AM.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.