Cubs improve playoff odds with Starlin Castro on outside looking in
The new-look Blue Jays may be getting more attention, but at the very least, the Cubs are the hottest team in the National League, with 10 wins in their last 11 games. Via this past weekend’s four-game sweep of the Giants at Wrigley Field, they not only snatched the second wild card spot away from the defending champions, but also built themselves a considerable cushion—and that came with a new-look lineup that found Starlin Castro on the outside looking in.
Last Friday, manager Joe Maddon benched Castro in favor of starting Addison Russell at shortstop, where he spent nearly all of his minor-league career but had made just five spot starts since being promoted. At second base in place of Russell was Chris Coghlan, who hadn't started at the keystone since May 8, 2009, the game in which he made his major league debut. Filling Coghlan's regular spot in leftfield was Kyle Schwarber, who had started eight of the team's previous 11 games at catcher, with just two previous games in left. David Ross started behind the plate for that game, but on Saturday, Miguel Montero returned from a three-week absence due to a sprained left thumb. The revamped lineup, which outscored the Giants 15–9 over the final three games of the series, could be here to stay.
This could be the beginning of the end of Castro's time in the Windy City, though it’s more likely he would be traded this winter than immediately, considering the complications of August waiver deals and the fact that his value may be at its nadir. The 25-year-old shortstop is amid his worst major league season, batting just .236/.271/.304 for a 60 OPS+—all career worsts—with just five homers and four stolen bases. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he's been six runs below average in the field as well en route to -1.3 WAR, tied with the Phillies' Cody Asche for the NL's third-lowest mark; only Angel Pagan (-1.9) and Jayson Werth (-1.7) have been worse. Russell's play at shortstop drew rave reviews from Coghlan and Saturday's starter, Jon Lester, both of whom praised his athleticism. It’s not hard to imagine this configuration sticking so long as the team is winning.
The 21-year-old Russell is still a work in progress at the plate, but his .282/.321/.410 showing in 84 plate appearances since the All-Star break (compared to .226/.296/.354 in 267 PA prior) suggests that he's making the necessary adjustments, and in fact, he has, thanks to work with hitting coach John Mallee. Via MLB.com's Carrie Muskat, Maddon said of Russell, "He's in an entirely different stance and setup and start to his swing… It's much more efficient. He's getting to fastballs much better. I think he's making better decisions at the plate."
Even hotter than Russell—and to a greater degree, driving this juggling act—is the 22-year-old Schwarber, who's hitting a sizzling .341/.429/.604 with six homers in 105 plate appearances. The fourth pick of last year's draft was called up from Double A Tennessee in June and made a six-game cameo appearance against AL opponents, going 8-for-22. After tearing up Triple A Iowa in his return to the minors, he was recalled to start the second half just as Montero went down. Now he's simply too hot to sit, going 10-for-26 with 21 total bases and nine RBIs in seven August games. His three-run homer off Chris Heston was the big blow in the Cubs' 5–4 win over the Giants on Thursday. He's not only made progress behind the plate, where his receiving skills lag behind his arm and his bat, but he's also impressed Maddon in the outfield, where he saw time at Indiana University as well as two levels of A-ball but not the high minors. Now that Montero's back, Madden intends to keep Schwarber in the catching mix as well.
Schwarber's emergence has helped to compensate for Kris Bryant's growing pains. The 23-year-old slugger has hit just .177/.302/.329 with three homers and a 32% strikeout rate in 96 PA since the start of the second half. That's cost him ground in the NL Rookie of the Year race, where the Dodgers' Joc Pederson has struggled as well, while the Giants' Matt Duffy has emerged as another contender. Bryant is still hitting a very respectable .249/.360/.441 with 15 homers and a 122 OPS+ en route to 3.0 WAR, and he's showing signs of emerging from the slump, with a seven-game hitting streak that has included a two-run homer off Matt Cain in Saturday's 8–6 win and then an RBI single off Jake Peavy in Sunday's 2–0 victory.
Meanwhile, the rotation has rounded into form despite the loss of Tsuyoshi Wada to the disabled list in late June. The unit posted a 3.73 ERA and allowed 1.0 homers per nine through June, but since then, they've locked things down via a 2.72 ERA and 0.6 homers per nine despite a revolving door in the fifth starter spot (Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler) that was alleviated by the July 31 acquisition of Dan Haren. Jake Arrieta ranks third in the league in both ERA and WAR (2.38 and 4.6, respectively) and fifth in FIP (2.65). Lester has hit his stride, going at least 6 1/3 innings in nine of his last 10 turns, allowing two runs or fewer in eight of them and shaving his ERA from 4.25 to 3.22. Jason Hammel has scuffled a bit lately, but has more or less matched last year's strong post-trade showing via a 3.17 ERA and 3.336 FIP, and Kyle Hendricks has been solid (3.73 ERA, 3.41 FIP).
At least when Castro is out of the lineup, the Cubs’ most glaring weakness remains the bullpen, which has put up ERAs in the mid-4's in three of the past four months, interrupted by a 1.63 mark in June. Jason Motte, James Russell and Rafael Soriano have all struggled lately, with Soriano, who was signed to a minor-league deal in June, hitting the disabled list with shoulder inflammation after making just six appearances. The good news is that Hector Rondon has allowed just two earned runs over his past 32 2/3 innings and has converted seven straight save opportunities since reclaiming the closer role. Pedro Strop has rebounded from a rocky stretch with 10 straight scoreless appearances, and Justin Grimm has emerged as a late-game option as well. The deadline day addition of Tommy Hunter, meanwhile, gives Maddon one more live arm to draw upon.
The Cubs' surge has lifted their record to 62–48, and while they're still 8 1/2 games back in the NL Central race and 3 1/2 behind the Pirates for the lead in the wild card, they now have a 3 1/2-game margin over the Giants for the second spot, with the Nationals five back. Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, their chances of making the playoffs are estimated at 82.4%, almost exactly double what they were before their 11-game jag. They can sit tight for the next two weeks, for not only are their next 13 games all against sub-.500 teams—the Brewers, White Sox, Tigers, Braves and Indians—but they also don't even have to leave town, since only the White Sox series is on the road. By the time they reach San Francisco to kick off a six-game West Coast trip in late August, the Cubs could be sitting pretty.