Series Preview: Cubs vs. Reds, June 27-29

By their nature, series previews are all about looking ahead, written in anticipation of the three or four games that are to come and an attempt at making sense of what they might bring. However, the past week of Cubs baseball has been the source of such great angst that it might be difficult to shake the past week and think about the Cincinnati Reds. This is the second stop on a long road trip that will send them to New York before it’s all over.

Thankfully, this series in the Queen City comes situated right when it might be needed the most. The Reds’ record is almost the inverse of the Cubs at this stage, and given that they’ve beaten the Cubs just once in their seven matchups this season, these games stand to be a good opportunity for some proverbial wound-licking on Chicago’s part. The Cubs, of course, were 1-6 in the last week, but still sit 9 games above St. Louis in the division and 22 games above .500. Cincinnati is coming off of a slightly better week, taking a game apiece from the Rangers and Padres in the last 7 days.

In this series, the Reds are facing the top of the Cubs rotation, so there’s hope, Cubs fans, for some redemption from last week. On that note, let’s take a look at the matchups:

Probable Pitchers

Monday: Jake Arrieta vs. Dan Straily

Deep in the haze of early July 2014, now a time that will live in Cubs lore as the day when Addison Russell came to the Cubs system for a couple of starting pitching rentals, Dan Straily was also good enough to be included in that trade. Or lumped in, depending on how you want to look at it. Since then, Straily has gone from Chicago to Houston to San Diego to the waiver wire, from which he was plucked by Cincinnati just days before the 2016 season kicked off. To his credit, Straily has put together a quietly respectable season. He’s seen the Cubs just once this season, when he came in relief for Alfredo Simon on April 13. As you might remember, Simon couldn’t battle through even the first inning, and Straily came in for 2 1/3 innings of mop up duty. It wasn’t particularly pretty, either. He gave up 2 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks, compounding the problem left by Simon.

Since a shift to the rotation just a few days after that outing, Straily has been rather successful. He’s going to give up runs—he’s only kept opposing batters from scoring once this season—but he’s also demonstrated an ability to muster up a few extra strikeouts when needed. He has three pitches he relies upon primarily, going to his four-seamer that usually just cracks 90 most of the time. Otherwise, he throws a change and a slider for the majority of his other pitches. His use of the four seam has jumped this month, at the expense of his sinker, which he’s barely thrown in June. This likely due in part to the very low whiff percentage that it generates, though his fastball is forcing swings and misses at a much lower rate than in June. Against the Cubs, his sample sizes are very small, but Jason Heyward is 2 for 5 and he has never gotten Addison Russell to record an out.

On the other side of things, the Reds can’t be eager to see Jake Arrieta again. Only Brandon Phillips can claim a career OPS against above .600, and Arrieta has struck out the mighty Jay Bruce 7 times in 14 plate appearances. Though Arrieta has not been the razor sharp version of himself from the second half of last season, there’s no doubting his ability to open this series with a win.

Tuesday: Jon Lester vs. John Lamb

Just by looking at these first two pitching matchups I think we’re all already forgetting about 1-6 last week. Jon Lester has thus far posted an ERA (2.10) which is notably lower than anything he’s finished with in his career, but his cFIP of 93, though not phenomenal, suggests that he’s not necessarily due for some massive regression. It’s safe to say that Cubs fans can expect continued top tier pitching from Lester, even if it’s not at exactly the level he’s shown so far. Of current Reds batters, only Billy Hamilton can claim dominance against Lester, as he’s hit 5 for 7 against him, though it should be noted that his comes entirely from two games, one in 2015 and one this year.

Otherwise, keep an eye on Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart, as both have seen real success against Lester (.333 batting average, in both cases). Phillips, particularly, as he has seen Lester the most of any other Reds hitter, along with Jay Bruce.

As for John Lamb, he spent 7 seasons traversing the Royals farm system before finally breaking through with the Reds after coming over in the trade that sent Johnny Cueto to Kansas City. Lamb is just not an intimidating pitcher. None of his pitches are even worrisome, let alone problematic, he gets very few strikeouts (14.7 percent), he puts a lot of people on base (1.50 WHIP), and he gives up plenty of runs. His best pitch seems to be his change, as it generates the most consistent whiff percentage, but as a whole, there’s not a lot of swinging and missing when he’s on the mound. He’s seen very, very little of current Cubs batters, but this offense, if firing on even most of its cylinders, should give him fits on Tuesday.

Wednesday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Cody Reed

The Professor will be coming off of a very strange start against the Marlins on Friday, but he’s done brilliant work this season. After going 8 and 9 innings in consecutive starts at the turn of May and June, Hendricks has gone back to the shorter outings. He pitched 6 full innings on June 19 against the Pirates, but has otherwise fallen short of getting past the 6th inning in his other starts this month. Looking at the big picture, however, he’s doing some things the same (his FIP is 3.36 now, and that’s precisely what he finished with last year), but he’s yielding better results. His strikeout rate is virtually unchanged, and his walk rate is actually up. In spite of this, he’s giving up way fewer runs and hits, and opposing batters have seen a 40-point drop in their averages against him. Given the sameness of some of the other numbers, this might be something that’s due for a change, but, for now, Hendricks is pitching more like an anchor for the staff.

His counterpart, Cody Reed, has seen very little major league action this year. He’s spent the bulk of his season at Triple-A Louisville, where he pitched to the tune of a .252 opponent TAv in just under 65 innings. Since his call up on June 18, Reed has given up 9 runs, 15 hits, and 3 homers in 12 innings spread across two starts. Before Cubs fans start salivating too heavily, though, he’s also very capable of mowing down a few batters. In those 12 major league innings, he’s struck out 15. Reed essentially has two pitches: a four-seam fastball that will come in at about 94 and an 88 mph slider. That slider is his out pitch, as he’s generated a whiff percentage of just a hair over 21 percent with it in the majors this year.

What to Watch For

The Cubs are admittedly limping in to Cincinnati to some degree, both because of the record over the last week and because of injuries to the offense that have left them depleted for the first time this season. Tommy La Stella and Jorge Soler are both due back soon, but neither will arrive in time for this series. This means more of Chris Coghlan, which is potentially a workable situation, and it also means more of Willson Contreras, which is a very nice situation. Contreras might not see a start behind the plate in this series, unless Joe Maddon entrusts him with either Arrieta or Hendricks, which doesn’t seem especially likely at this point. Hendricks, perhaps, but barring injury to Miguel Montero, Contreras probably has to get his at bats off the bench or in the outfield while the Cubs are in Cincinnati.

It’s a tough draw for Cincinnati, seeing the best of the Cubs rotation, and none of their three starters look quite up to the task of going toe-to-toe with them, even Hendricks. This should mean at least a mini-resurgence from the offense and a drop in the runs allowed by the Cubs.

The bullpen is due for a further shakeup. Right now it seems as though the organization is testing out some of the arms from within the system, like Spencer Patton and Gerardo Concepcion (or possibly Corey Black?), but the need on the team is becoming increasingly apparent: they need help bridging the gap from the starter to Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. We’ll see what happens on that front in the coming weeks.

Broadcast Info/Game Times

The opener tonight is on WGN at 6:1o pm CT, and tomorrow night’s middle game is also at 6:10, but on CSN. The “getaway day” game before they head to New York on Wednesday is at 11:35 am CT on WGN.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.

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