Fourth place in the National League Central with a record of 17-17 is not at all where anyone expected the Cubs to be on May 12, and, yet, here we are.
Having lost five of their last six, the Cubs are, unbelievably, still in a decent spot. Nobody in their division has gotten off to a great start, and, despite their fourth place residency, they are only 2.5 games behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.
Thus, the Cubs have a huge opportunity in front of them this weekend as they travel to Missouri to take on their arch-rivals; despite their horrific start, they can be leading the division on Monday.
Previewing the Cubs
As I pointed out a few times this offseason, if anything was going to hold the defending World Champs from a repeat, it would be their starting pitching. Almost every starter last year over-performed to some degree, and, as we’ve seen this past month and a half, regression was inevitable. Certainly the rotation should improve, but those five (or six, soon?) pitchers are the keys to the Cubs’ success, and the sooner they get better, the sooner the team’s record will as well.
As a possible remedy for the pitching pains, the Cubs have called up a new face to start in place of the injured Brett Anderson on Friday.
Eddie Butler was drafted in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Rockies, and, at one point, was their top pitching prospect. Three straight years of getting rocked (no pun intended) at the professional level eradicated any semblance of hope that Colorado had for Butler, and they gave him to the Cubs for a low-level minor leaguer in return.
The move drew comparisons between Butler and Jake Arrieta (who we’ll also see pitch this weekend in an attempt to reverse his recent downward trend) because of their similar nasty stuff and lack of previous success. As you all know, the Cubs’ fantastic staff was able to transform Arrieta into the 2015 National League Cy Young winner, so Butler’s potential could be bigger than most assume.
And if Triple-A performance is any indication, Butler may be already on his way to a full-time MLB role. He’s allowed only four runs in nearly 31 innings this season and his adversaries have hit only .228 off of him. His most recent appearance was a start in Iowa last Saturday in which he shut out the Memphis Redbirds (the Triple-A affiliate of the same team he’ll be sent out to duel on Friday) for six innings.
The 26-year-old is intriguing, to say the least. Nobody quite knows what to expect from Butler, but a fresh face is a welcome sight to a rotation that hasn’t quite found itself yet.
On the flip-side of the ball, while concerns about the lineup are overblown (ranking ninth in the majors in runs is not at all bad), being shut out in Coors Field is concerning, and the entire offense seems to be in the midst of a cold streak. Miguel Montero is now the only Cub batting above .300, and he went 1-7 against the Rockies’ pitching. Kris Bryant homered on Tuesday, adding to his team-leading total of seven, but also has allowed his average to dip, signaling an end to his recent hot stretch.
But easily the biggest victim of this offensive ineptitude is Anthony Rizzo, who has suffered miserably since the calendar has turned. In May, Rizzo has four hits (none of which are homers) and is slashing .108/.250/.135.
Yes, the National League Central still runs through the North side of Chicago, and no, you shouldn’t be freaking out as much as you are. However, the Cubs’ fortunes are going to need to turn around quickly for them to have a low-stress September, and a series like this, in which they are given an opportunity to catch the division leaders, is one which they need to capitalize on.
Previewing the Cardinals
The Cardinals are on fire, arriving back in St. Louis after a 6-0 road trip through Atlanta and Miami. This week of nothing but winning in conjunction with the Cubs’ recent fall has propelled the Red Birds into first place in the division at a record of 19-14, a position they hope to defend on their home turf this weekend.
This success has predominantly been spurred by an offensive explosion. St. Louis has averaged over seven runs per game during their winning streak, and only one of their eight position players that started in Miami this past week has an average below .250. Unfortunately, that lone player is Randall Grichuk, who has performed significantly better against the Cubs his whole career.
The entire Cardinals lineup has been performing, but Jedd Gyorko has led the way. He’s slashing .351/.406/.639 with six home runs through a very surprising 2017 campaign.
In terms of starting pitching, you’ll most likely already be familiar with the names Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, and that the pair will almost always produce solid outings for the Cardinals. What you probably don’t know is that their best pitcher this year is the one guy pitching this weekend not named Martinez or Wacha.
Mike Leake has dominated 2017. His 1.79 ERA tells enough of the story, but the fact that he’s contributed a quality start in every single appearance this year tells almost all of it. He surrendered the most runs of any of his starts this year in his last outing, but that total was three, and he allowed only those three on three hits over the course of seven innings.
This team is on fire right now, and it’s going to take quite a bit from the Cubs to cool them off.
How to Pay Attention
Friday, May 12 7:15 p.m. / CSN-Chicago / AM 670 The Score
Saturday, May 13 3:05 p.m. / ABC 7 & FS1 / AM 670 The Score
Sunday, May 14 1:15 p.m. / WGN / AM 670 The Score
Leake barely out-duels Butler on Friday, giving the Cards their seventh straight victory, but Butler’s eight innings of two-run ball give the Cubbies a ray of hope for the future of the rotation.
The Cubs’ offense breaks out in game two, the Cubs chase Wacha off of the mound by the fifth inning, and Jon Lester throws a perfect game to clinch a much-needed win.
Arrieta looks unbeatable for four innings on Sunday, but blows up in the fifth, giving the Cardinals a lead. The Cubs come back though, and ultimately win the game on a Kris Bryant ninth-inning homer, and the North Siders take the series.