CHICAGO -- So how do you like the roller coaster so far?
The Chicago Cubs have had an up-and-down -- and sometimes dramatic -- start to 2017 as they head out on the road for the final nine games of April while sporting an 8-7 record. Don’t be surprised if they return from their trip right about where they are now. Recent history tells us that reigning champions don’t always get off to dominant starts.
By now you’ve probably memorized the list of reasons, beginning with the short offseason, for why a defending champ could start slowly. For the Cubs, there’s a combination of factors: They didn’t just win a championship, they ended the longest drought in pro sports history. Then, manager Joe Maddon conducted an even more laid-back spring training than usual, knowing his team’s emotional 2016 ride went into November.
The past two seasons, the Cubs were ready to roll right away, but this year has been a different story. So let’s examine which groups have -- and haven’t -- hit their stride.
High point: The past two games against the Brewers were a reminder of how devastating and deep the Cubs' offense can be. Hitters got back to grinding out at-bats. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell commented on how well the Cubs worked the count leading to high pitch totals for the Brewers' back-end relievers. Chicago's ninth inning Wednesday was a throwback to the 2016 Cubs, who grinded out those ABs, then hammered the opposition with the deep ball.
Low point: It came last Friday when the Cubs left the bases loaded in the eighth and ninth innings en route to a 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh, the first of three defeats that weekend to the Pirates. The Cubs are near the top of the league in strikeouts with men in scoring position. That's an area where Maddon wants to see improvement.
What to watch: Can veteran Jason Heyward, who's hitting .294, keep it up? Same question for Albert Almora Jr., who's hitting .391 in 23 at-bats. Both have been pleasant surprises, and while their numbers are bound to come down, their confidence is going up. Maddon has vowed to get Almora in the lineup more. Even if his offense flattens out, Almora still is valuable because his defense has been stellar.
The starting staff
High point: Simply put, Jon Lester is the high point of the rotation right now. He pitched a ton last year and now is being asked to carry the load as several other pitchers have had slow starts. His 1.00 ERA and 17 K's in 18 innings show how valuable he has been.
Low point: Coming out of spring training, no arm looked more ready than the right one of Kyle Hendricks, but it hasn’t carried over to the regular season. His 6.19 ERA is the worst among Cubs starters by more than two runs, while John Lackey also has been hit hard. Both already have given up four home runs, and not all of them have come in hitter-friendly conditions.
What to watch: Hendricks has had slow starts the past three Aprils, so maybe he’s just one of those guys who needs a month of starts. He tweaked some mechanics, which forced him to throw more between starts, but that led to a velocity drop Wednesday. His fastball and changeup looked too alike, and the Brewers took advantage. Look for Hendricks to work out the kinks by the time the team returns from its road trip.
High point: There’s little doubt wins No. 7 and 8 for the Cubs wouldn't have happened without a great couple of days from the bullpen. They aren’t called upon to bail out the starting staff often, but Brett Anderson needed help Tuesday, as did Hendricks on Wednesday -- and they got it. The relief staff threw the equivalent of a complete game, giving up a total of just one run -- on a wind-aided ball to left field. It was a great performance just as they were getting maligned for some struggles.
Low point: Twice last weekend, the Cubs had the lead in the late innings only to see it slip away. A 1-0, eighth-inning advantage turned into an easy win for the Pirates on Sunday as four Cubs relievers struggled in two losses over the weekend. Maddon isn’t sure who to turn to just yet, as relievers have alternated between looking great and struggling. Justin Grimm might be at the top of that list.
What to watch: Hector Rondon might be the best surprise of the early season after looking awful in spring training, but there’s bite to his slider, and he's locating his fastball better than he did a month ago. Look for Maddon to define some roles as the calendar turns to May, though he’ll always have the ability to mix and match if enough arms come around. The bottom line is the bullpen isn’t organized yet, so patience over panic might be needed.