Cubs ride unlikely first-half MVPs to best record in NL at the break
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SAN DIEGO — In the first 93 games, the Cubs didn’t get a fraction of the production they envisioned from the two free-agent starting pitchers they signed for a combined $164 million.
The All-Star starter they acquired last summer and their former ERA champ were up-and-down throughout the first half, going a combined 14-14 with ERAs each near 4.00.
And the two hitters the lineup is built around spent time on the disabled list and struggled for stretches when healthy.
And yet they head to the All-Star break riding a three-game sweep of the Padres — completed with a 7-4 victory Sunday at Petco Park — victories in 12 of their last 15 games, a 2½-game lead in the National League Central and the best record in the NL.
“Pretty phenomenal,” manager Joe Maddon said.
“The biggest thing is just keeping your head down and keep plodding ahead,” said Jon Lester (12-2), the All-Star ace who played a disproportionate role in the first-half success, winning for the eighth time in nine starts Sunday.
“We’ve got a month and a half of baseball to battle our way through, and then obviously September is kind of a game-changer. I know we’ve got some tough stretches to go through. But if we get through that and get to September and put ourselves in good position, I feel pretty confident about it.”
With that in mind, these are the Cubs’ first-half MVPs, and below that, the Cubs best positioned for MVP roles in the final 69 games:
1. Javy Baez didn’t only break through as the team’s clear MVP, but if he keeps up his first-half pace in the next month, the first-time All-Star will be a prominent figure in the league MVP race into September. One of the most exciting fielders and baserunners in the game, Baez has helped fill the Anthony Rizzo-Kris Bryant dip with a team-leading 19 homers, NL-leading 72 RBI and a chance at the Cubs’ first 30-30 season in more than two decades.
2. Lester’s monster first half (including a 2.58 ERA) has been the savior for a rotation that got only eight starts from $126 million Yu Darvish and an absurd walk rate from $38 million Tyler Chatwood. “Jon has been the rock for us, thank God,” Kyle Hendricks said.
3. Jason Heyward found an All-Star hitting form since working in the cage during a stint on the concussion DL in May. Since then: .320 with 19 extra-base hits, 13 walks and an .854 OPS.
4. Kyle Schwarber — remember him? The young slugger compared to Babe Ruth before he played a full season in the big leagues has quietly become one of the most consistent, productive hitters in the lineup — and, more impressively, a good defender in left field.
5. Albert Almora Jr. is hitting .319, a bona fide All-Star snub whose platoon expectations were so modest when the season began that he wasn’t included on the fans’ or players’ ballots.
The best bet for second-half MVP?
Consider Bryzzo a strong 1-2, in either order, with a healthy, well-rested Bryant poised to open the second half strong and Rizzo already jump-starting his second half with a big series as Maddon’s leadoff man in San Diego.
3. Catcher Willson Contreras is starting to heat up right about the time he did last year — so hot into August that he was drawing MVP talk until a hamstring injury Aug. 9 ended that bid. He rides a wave of confidence into the second half after his first All-Star selection.
4. Look for Almora to get even more playing time as the games get more important late in the season and his Gold Glove-caliber fielding becomes especially important.
5. Hendricks finished the first half feeling strong in his last two starts and looking the best he had all season. He gets the second-half opener Thursday against the Cardinals.