Even after wrapping best April in years, things looking up for Cubs
“I can’t remember ever having this much fun playing baseball,” Kris Bryant said earlier this week at Wrigley Field. The Cubs' rookie third baseman was standing at his locker, where, a few feet away from him, a disco ball conspicuously dangled in the middle of the room. Up here in the Show, Bryant is finding out that the flights are nicer (“You get your own rows—which for me, huge,” says the 6'5" masher), the food is better (“You can eat anything you want!”) and the postgame celebrations involve more than cold cuts and a bus ride to Omaha. After his second major league game, on April 18—a game in which he walked three times, delivered a game-tying RBI single and helped fuel a game-winning rally in the 11th inning by legging out an infield chopper—Bryant walked into a darkened clubhouse, with smoke filling the room. Perhaps for the first time in his young professional life, the 23-year-old was flustered. “I was like, What’s going on in here?” he says. Then he heard the music, saw the flashing disco ball and the players breaking out like it was Studio 54.
The postgame celebrations were the idea of DJ Riz, aka first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and they’ve taken on a life of their own: The clubhouse was recently outfitted with a smoke machine and strobe lights. The party on the North Side started last November when new manager Joe Maddon ordered everyone a shot and a beer at his introductory press conference, and it’s been raging since. The Cubs began the season as the most compelling team in baseball, one with a $25 million manager, a $155 million ace and the best collection of young talent in the game, and it's apparent after the season’s first month that they are also a very dangerous team. Now 12-8 entering May, the Cubs just completed their first winning April since 2008, which was the last year they made the postseason.
This week Chicago fielded a starting infield in which each member—Rizzo, second baseman Addison Russell, shortstop Starlin Castro and Bryant—was 25 years old or younger, only the third time that's happened since 1976, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Despite the team's youth, the Cubs' lineup is displaying good plate discipline (they average 3.91 pitches per plate appearance, best in the National League) and getting on base at the third-best rate in the NL. They have four players ranked in the top 40 in pitches per plate appearance—Rizzo (4.26), Dexter Fowler (3.92), Jorge Soler (3.91), Castro (3.78)—and the two rookies, Russell (4.24) and Bryant (4.20), would be among the league leaders if they had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Their age is not an issue on the field, either. The 21-year-old Russell is the youngest player in the NL and just three years removed from his senior year prom, yet when he was asked to play second base in the majors despite having played just five of his 228 professional games there, he shrugged. “Something to add to the resume,” he says. Russell has looked overmatched at times at the plate—he’s already struck out 14 times through seven games—but not so at second base.
Likewise, Bryant, who played exclusively third base in the minors, started in centerfield six days into his major league career with Dexter Fowler sidelined. Asked how it went, Bryant sounded disappointed when h said, “I didn’t really get to do anything out there." Says one NL scout, “[Bryant] surprised me with his athleticism. We knew about the bat, but he moves well, better than I thought. People say he’s going to move from third base, and the height is an issue, but look at guys like Cal Ripken and Troy Glaus. I think he can stay there a while.”
Perhaps even better for the Cubs, they're winning even though not everything has gone as well as might have been expected. Consider:
• Jon Lester hasn’t won a game. The lefty ace, who signed a six-year, $155 million contract in the off-season, is 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA, and he has yet to pitch past the sixth inning. Lester, who starts on Friday afternoon against the Brewers at Wrigley, logged his first quality start of the season in his last outing, against the Reds on April 24. The best sign from that game, in which he struck out 10 over six innings, was that his cutter—the biggest reason for his early struggles—looked better: he got four of his Ks on the pitch. Lester may be about to turn into the Cubs ace we all thought he’d be.
• The bullpen has been shaky. The relief corps was expected to be a strength of the team when the season opened, but Justin Grimm (right forearm inflammation) and Neil Ramirez (right shoulder inflammation), two key relievers for Chicago a year ago, have been sidelined with injuries and the 'pen has registered four blown saves thus far. Relief pitching is not difficult to find, and Chicago's front office, which is reportedly interested in the Rays' Grant Balfour, will add arms if the bullpen continues to struggle.
• Jorge Soler hasn’t gotten going. Bryant and Russell are the big storylines for the Cubs, but Soler, 23, is just as important to the franchise, and he’s had a rough start to the season. Soler, hitting to a .247/.319/.395 line so far this year, has struck out 33 times in 20 games and has two hits in his last 26 at bats. It’s too early to panic about a player who had a .903 OPS in 24 big league games last year. There’s a reason why Maddon said in spring training that the 6'4", 215-pound rightfielder was Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline.
• The power has yet to come. The team’s co-leaders in home runs are Chris Coghlan and Miguel Montero, who have three each. Bryant, Rizzo and Soler have combined for four home runs in 193 at bats. The Cubs as a team have hit just 16 home runs, tied for 20th in the majors. As it starts to warm up in Chicago, the baseballs will start jumping out of Wrigley.
The NL Central was always going to be a tough division, and right now it looks like the best division in baseball: the Cardinals, even with ace Adam Wainwright lost for the year with an Achilles injury, and Pirates, who are starting to play well, aren’t going anywhere. But the 2015 Cubs are good, too, and if they can reach the postseason this year and play into October, anything can happen—as the Giants and Royals proved again last year. But remember: This was always going to be the worst Cubs team of the foreseeable future. And that, for the rest of the baseball world, is a very scary thought.