The Cubs were 16-14 as of Sunday morning. The record and date (May 6) might look and feel familiar to some of you. The Cubs were 16-14 on May 6, 2017, after losing to the Yankees that day.
What does it mean?
Your guess is as good as mine. And we’re all guessing here.
But two things can be said with assurance:
A) The Cubs made it to the National League Championship Series last season despite that mediocre start.
B) The Cubs vowed to have a much better start this season and didn’t.
Anybody have a bead on this team?
Would you describe it as a cool, veteran group biding its time until it breaks out in a big way? Or would you describe it as one lacking discipline, a huge disappointment for such an experienced group?
Answering yes to both questions would sum things up perfectly.
The problems are glaring. Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ best overall player, had a slash line of .187/.275/.319 heading into the team’s game Sunday in St. Louis. The Cubs aren’t going to win a division title, let alone a World Series, if he doesn’t produce power numbers similar to the ones he racked up the previous three seasons — a combined 95 home runs and 319 RBI.
Can anyone predict which way Yu Darvish will go after a difficult start? If you can, let us know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried. Most players find their career statistical level by the end of the season, which is why most of us expect Rizzo to get hot soon. But Darvish is new here, and there is already open talk about his ‘‘soft’’ mental makeup. I’m not hearing many people say with certainty that he’ll find the recipe that sent him to four All-Star Games.
Tyler Chatwood, another big free-agent signing in the offseason, has been very generous with opponents, handing out walks as though they were ‘‘I Voted’’ stickers. Not good.
There was some early excitement about Jason Heyward this season, but his numbers now look like they’ve looked every season he has been with the Cubs. He entered play Sunday without an RBI in six games. The fans who were openly excited about him in mid-April are easily recognizable now. They’re the ones avoiding eye contact with their fellow human beings.
The good? Maybe Kyle Schwarber’s renaissance at the plate will make up for teammates’ deficiencies. He has bounced back from his 2017 struggles and had a .270 batting average, seven homers and 17 RBI entering the game. He looks dangerous every time he digs in. You just hope that somebody doesn’t get the bright idea to put him in the leadoff spot.
Javy Baez entered the game tied for the NL lead in RBI with 28. He also had eight errors, and I’m starting to think there’s a correlation between his fine hitting and his inconsistent fielding. He is, as we know, an excitable guy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his concentration in one area comes at the expense of another. Just a theory. What ails him is easily cleared up with a little more focus.
At 34, Jon Lester shouldn’t be the Cubs’ best pitcher, but he is. Heading into his start Sunday, he had three games in which he hadn’t given up an earned run. This is all very good stuff, but it can’t be emphasized enough: If Lester is this much better than Darvish, whose ERA is 6.00, the Cubs are in big trouble.
So what is the 2018 model? And does it matter where the Cubs are right now? They’re a talented team that will win a lot more games than it loses. But if they learned anything last season, it should be that other teams aren’t going to bow down in their presence. They’re not going to win on reputation alone. Or with a flip of a switch. Sometimes you’d like to see less cool and more ferocity from them.
The Cubs started winning in earnest after the All-Star break last season, and you can expect them to have a similar hot stretch at some point this season. But are they a great team? Not now. Not yet. Not even close.
It’s always fun to go back and look at how teams approached success and disappointment. The Cubs were thrilled with their 25-6 start in 2016 and were sure at the time that it held great meaning. When they went 16-14 to begin last season, they insisted that it was a long season and that they would be fine. And then, when they did start winning, they eventually admitted there indeed had been some World Series hangover, even though they had dismissed that theory earlier in the season.
You have to be extremely limber to pull off that kind of mental contortion.
A team can’t be great all the time. It’s baseball, a quirky, uneven sport that will bring you to your knees out of apparent spite. So who are the Cubs and where are they going? I can say this with all certainty: I have no idea.
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play or via RSS feed.