As I rubbed the sleepers out of my eyes, poured myself a big cup of caffeine and sheepishly changed my Facebook profile picture from a a big cubby bear bludgeoning a squalling cardinal with a baseball bat, a question hit me about this year’s floundering, frustrating, fourth-place Chicago Cubs:
Just what in the names of Buckner, Reuschel and DeJesus is going on with this team this season?
I know, I know, things inevitably are going to get better. They did Monday.
Still, it’s been nearly a month since I sent out a Tweet (and printed it in our award-winning Sports pages on B2 for good measure) asking if Cubs fans should maybe start becoming concerned with this feast-or-famine offense, that maybe this core group of up-and-coming superstars — while very good players — isn’t quite what we envisioned they might have been while we were tipsy on champagne a certain late night in November of 2016.
In that past almost month, things haven’t gotten better. They’ve gotten worse.
I hear people complain about Yu Darvish’s contract or Joe Maddon’s handling of the bullpen, but the truth of the matter is, this Cubs team is exceedingly mediocre — 16-15 as I write this Monday morning still drowsy from Sunday night’s marathon loss to the hated Cardinals — because the pillar this team is built around, the young bats of guys such as Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo, has been exceedingly mediocre.
For comparison, let’s look at some good teams’ offensive numbers heading into this work week:
The Yankees and Red Sox are, predictably, in a class all their own. The Yanks have scored 197 runs, are batting .250 as a team with a .780 on-base plus slugging and have slammed 48 home runs. The Red Sox come in at 192 runs, a .269 average with a .792 OPS and 46 homers.
“Well sure, the Cubs will look bad if you compare them to the Yankees and Red Sox,” I can hear some of you saying. “AL East arms race. Designated hitters. That’s not fair.”
All right, then. How about the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team supposed to be bad which is a tick ahead of the Cubs in the standings? The Pirates have plated 168 runs, are hitting .254 with a .736 OPS and have hit 39 home runs.
The Cubs? 147 runs scored, a .243 team batting average with a .720 OPS and 32 home runs hit. That’s two under the MLB average of 149 in runs scored, one point below the average .244 batting average, one point above the MLB OPS mean and a half dozen home runs behind the average team in baseball.
Like I said a few paragraphs ago, exceedingly mediocre.
Since I’m throwing numbers at you in bulk, allow me to chuck a few more which I think is much more telling of the deficiencies of this Cubs team than the overall team statistics.
Eighteen times this season, the Cubs have been held to three or fewer runs, including two or less a dozen times, exactly one run five times and shut out three times. Meanwhile, only 13 times have the Cubs scored more than three runs — nine of those scoring seven or more, making the overall team statistics look a lot better than they might without those running-up-the-score games which still are only worth one “W” at the end of the day.
Even during the ballclub’s best stretch of the season, a five-game winning streak against the Brewers and Rockies, the Cubs scored 1, 3, 3, 2 and 3 runs. Seeing as they also scored 1 the day before that winning streak began and in the days immediately afterward 1, 2, 2 and 3, the Cubs — a team built on its young, potent bats and 1-8 deadly lineup — during their best stretch of winning baseball this season stumbled through 10 straight games without scoring more than three runs in any of them.
Javy Baez (.286, 9 HR, .969 OPS) has been surprisingly awesome. Albert Almora (.279, 1 HR, .721 OPS) has been fine but needs more playing time. Kris Bryant (.272, 4 HR, .911 OPS) is still a cornerstone, though not the MVP-caliber cornerstone he was just a couple short years ago. Kyle Schwarber (.269, 7 HR, .925 OPS) is fine with the bat. Russell (.240, 0 HR, .626 OPS), Willson Contreras (.213, 1 HR, .681 OPS) and Ian Happ (.228, 3 HR, .670 OPS) look completely lost. Rizzo (.177, 4 HR, .561 OPS), holy cripes Rizzo, is hitting 50 points lower and has an OPS nearly 100 points lower than Jason Heyward (.227, 2 HR, .656 OPS).
As I said, things will get better. Yet seeing as we have this feast-or-famine conversation seemingly every year with this group and they are not, in fact, taking steps toward being more consistent or more productive as they enter the primes of their careers — quite the opposite, they're sliding or at best remaining stagnant — we, and more importantly the Cubs front office, might need to seriously start asking ourselves an uncomfortable question:
Are these young "hitters" really the core of another world champion?