Chicago Cubs: contender or mirage?


The Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on Monday to push their record to 11-7. While everyone expected the Cubs to take a huge leap forward this year, none expected the Cubs to seriously contend in 2015. Yet as the first month of the season draws to a close, the Cubs look to be better than we all thought.

Is it all smoke and mirrors or is there truly something brewing on the North Side of Chicago?  To get a taste of what the Chicago fans are thinking, I asked our own co-editor Jacob Misener to share his thoughts on his Cubs.  Yes, I said his Cubs.  In addition to covering the Pirates, Jacob is a Cub fan from birth.  For now, we will not hold that against him.  Here is our exchange:

Jon Lester anchors the top spot in the rotation, with jake Arrieta quickly showing that he can be a reliable number two starter.  How much does the back of the Cubs’ pitching rotation concern you.  Simply put, do the Cubs have enough starting pitching to TRULY contend?

"First, the only reason Jon Lester is labeled as the ‘ace’ is because Chicago is paying him $155 million. So far this season, Arrieta has far outperformed Lester and by all measures is the ace of the staff. As for the rest of the rotation, I think there’s a lot of potential there.Jason Hammel showed you what he’s capable of on Monday night, when he tossed eight shutout frames against the Pirates and both Travis Wood and Kyle Hendricks have shown they can be among the league’s best when they’re on. Last season as a rookie, Hendricks was Greg Maddux-like  in his execution and just two years ago, Wood was an NL All-Star. They should have enough pitching to contend down the stretch – at least in terms of the starting staff – especially once Lester gets rolling."

Now that Kris Bryant is in the majors, Do you see the everyday Cubs’ lineup as one that can hang with the Pirates and Cardinals?  Why/Why not?

"The Cubs’ lineup can hang with any club in the National League Central. Under Joe Maddon, these guys are really buying into the winning attitude and have put together some impressive wins early on. Any 2-3-4 that features Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo and Bryant is a lineup worth fearing."

Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop form a formidable 1-2 punch at the end of the Chicago bullpen, but what are your thoughts on the rest of the unit? 

"Early on, the bullpen was a strength for Chicago. With Brian Schlitter back in Triple-A Iowa, that eliminates one of the biggest question marks, but it’s going to be a wait-and-see approach with the rest of the group.That being said, the Strop-Rondon combo is probably the most underrated 8-9 duo in all of baseball. No one talks about these two, yet they do their job – and do it well – night in and night out. I wouldn’t be shocked to see bullpen pieces be a target of Epstein and Hoyer at some point during the season, though."

Very interesting stuff from a noted Cub fan.  However, to present both sides of the coin, I did my own research over at the FanGraphs National League leader boards.  Looking at the data, the Chicago Cubs are decidedly average offensively in all areas except for two:  BB% and K%.  Somehow, the Cubs strikeout the most of any team in the National League at 23.3%, yet are also second in walk rate drawing free passes in 9.1% of their plate appearances.

This amazing dichotomy is illustrated by two players in Rizzo and Soler.  Rizzo is perhaps the most feared batter in the NL central right now, walking 13 times against only nine strikeouts for a godly .494 OBP.  Soler, on the other hand, has morphed into a free-swinger, striking out 29 times in only 74 at-bats for a 39.2% rate.  Yet he too has drawn six walks on the year, leaving him with a respectable .329 on-base percentage.

More from Rum Bunter

Not pictured here are the Cubs’ batted ball peripherals.  A short summary:  The Cubs don’t hit many line drives, ranking 10 out of 15 in the NL in Line Drive % at 19.7%.  Yet, their .BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is right in the middle of the pack at .308, 18 points above the major league average of .290.

Despite what Jacob says about their pitching, I firmly believe that the Cubs success this year will only be limited by their offensive output.  Based on some of their peripherals and the fact that Bryant may hit a Gregory Polanco esque wall, I’ll have to say that their current success is more mirage, with the chance to be legitimate.

As usual, one of our readers probably said it best.

Perhaps that feeling among fans of their division rivals is enough for Cubs fans this year.

Next: The Weekly Rum Bunter hot or not report