A Rough Road Ahead for the Defending Champions
The finale of Spring Training brought the Cubbies to my stomping grounds here in Houston, Texas. Two games helped showcase any fine tuning that the Cubs would undergo before Opening Day in St. Louis.
Optimism abounded for Cubs fans of all ages as the north side of Chicago descended upon Minute Maid Park, located deep in the heart of Texas.
Being surrounded by Cubs jerseys, the familiar complaining about the lack of bratwurst selection and the inability of Houston concessions to not put jalapenos on everything made for a great couple days of baseball. Optimism, gloating, and unending championship apparel filled the stands with north side propaganda. Armed with my camera and trusty backpack, I grabbed my peanuts and sat back to take a first-hand look at what the defending champions had to offer.
It was, to say the least, a little disappointing.
Brett Anderson, the number 4 starter for my Cubbies, was pitching the first game on Thursday. I knew a little of his injury history with the Dodgers, but I figured a stint with the best pitchers in baseball for an entire spring would make him marginally better heading into the 2017 season. You’d think I would have learned to temper my expectations as a Cubs fan for the last 30 years. To Anderson’s advantage, he was pitching against Lance McCullers Jr for the Astros, another reclamation project coming off injury.
The Cubs Offense got out to a good start with a Russell, Baez, and Schwarber tandem of hits that put the Cubs on top 3–0 in the top of the second inning. Anderson gave them 2 runs back in the bottom of the very same inning, a 2 run shot by Josh Reddick.
What bothered me about Anderson is the fact that he had zero strikeouts for the entirety of the 5 innings he pitched. He gave up another home run to Altuve in the 3rd inning and a Correa single that scored Bregman in the bottom of the 5th. The Cubs were still up 6–4 when Hector Rondon was brought in to pitch the bottom of the 6th inning. Everyone saw the meltdown that Rondon had in the World Baseball Classic, and watching him come in for relief gave me a bad feeling.
Schwarber stepped in to catch Rondon which begs the question, as their third string catcher, is Kyle Schwarber equipped to call pitch location for pitchers who don’t have an extensive relationship with him? One only needs to look at David Ross’ relationship with Jon Lester last season to see how pitcher success can only be amplified through a catcher that they are not only familiar with, but one that demands unconditional trust.
Hector Rondon gave up a single to Gurriel, followed by a double to Reddick, another double to Gattis, and a single to Springer. After 4 batters Rondon was pulled in favor of Jhondaniel Medina without recording an out, and letting the Astros tie the score at 6 runs apiece. Rondon was missing his spots on the corners, only to over-correct and leave the ball up and over the plate. I’m not saying that Schwarber was picking good locations; I’m only saying that Rondon wasn’t hitting them accurately.
When a pitcher misses, pitching coaches tell them to miss low in the zone. Missing and leaving the ball up over the plate is a quick way to give up runs and get pulled from a game. Anthony Rondon accomplished this feat rather quickly.
Medina, the 24 year old pitcher from Venezuela, is a prospect with limited major league exposure. Bregman singled in another run on the next pitch, and then a pitch skipped past Schwarber to plate the 8th run for the Astros. Schwarber redeemed himself by nailing Gonzalez as he tried to steal second base to get the first out of the inning.
Strop got a strikeout in a clean 8th inning before Wade Davis came on in the 9th. Wade had location problems as well, missing his spots on the corners. Not sure if Schwarber was the problem with calling pitches, but he will need to spend more time behind the plate to gain the pitchers trust. Davis got Gattis to fly out to deep right field for the first out, only to walk Fisher on 4 pitches. But the Cubs defense bailed him out, as the next Astros’ batter J.D. Davis grounded into a Young to Happ to Davis 6–4–3 double play to end the inning.
The final score of Thursday’s game was 8–6 and the Cubs left much to be desired offensively.
Friday was the day game, and the roof was closed at Minute Maid Park, sealing us off from the 90 degree heat outside in favor of the 72 degree air conditioning.
Kyle Hendricks was on the mound for the Cubs, and he looked much better than Anderson had 18 hours earlier. Hendricks put up 5 scoreless innings with Miguel Montero behind the plate, giving up 2 hits with 1 walk and 2 strikeouts.
The Cubs replaced their starters early in this last contest before the beginning of the season. Joe Musgrove held the Cubs starters to only 3 hits in 4 innings, limiting the Cubs offense until the bench players made their appearance in the 5th. Schwarber and Zobrist would be the only every day starters to get hits in this game, a disappointing fact that points to a possible regression to the league average for offense for at least the beginning of the baseball season.
Combined over the 2 game series the Cubs every day starters were held to 11 hits in 42 at bats, a .262 team average, which included 13 strikeouts and only 2 walks. Against Musgrove and McCullers, I would expect much more from the touted offense of the defending champion Chicago Cubs. Schwarber was the bright spot with 3 hits, 2 strikeouts and an RBI in his 7 plate appearances.
Cub’s fans must temper their expectations for the offense in the upcoming season. The bench players came in and, through many defensive flubs, managed to scrape out a victory in the second game against the Astros with a 6–3 final. Szczur walked in a run on his first at bat, and then singled in another in the 7th inning for the fifth Cub run of the game. Happ drove in a run on a fielder’s choice before swiping a bag in the same inning. LaStella had a hit and a walk while scoring twice.
When the bench players for the Astros and Cubs made their appearance in the later innings, defensive prowess really took a nose dive for both teams. 5 errors were committed by both clubs replacement players in the field. This works as a reminder of how elite the Cubs starting defense is. Also that the fantastic outs we have come to expect from our boys in the blue pinstripes may be one injury away from regressing to an average defensive team.
Walking out of Minute Maid, after watching the mental mistakes and missed opportunities in the vastness of overflowing Cubs fan optimism; I checked my expectations for the season.
Is another 100 win season really an expectation for a team with so many moving parts? Are we forgoing the unspoken possibility of another Schwarber-like season-ending injury to an elite Cubs starter?
Opening night against the Cardinals showed us there was still much to be desired from the Cubs offense for the first 8 innings of the game. Cubs fans might be more realistic looking at a win total in the mid to low 90’s. That being said, I do not think that, barring catastrophic injury, the Cubs will be held out of another playoff run. And while our path back to the World Series is only well in doubt, we can rest assured in the knowledge that we are a good team, and we should remain optimistic.
162 games is a long season, and for Cubs fans coming off a Championship, we must remember that nothing is assured in the game of Baseball. So let’s take off the rose colored glasses, and see our Cubbies for what they do on the field. This is a long ride we’re in for, and it would be a shame to not enjoy it because our expectations were over inflated from the get-go.
Big Ben Martin has a big deep love for his Chicago Cubs. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and based on Big Ben’s love for the Cubs we would have to agree. When not playing the role of Big Ben he might be found as his alter ego Big Cynical Ben on Twitter.