By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I’m still not panicking.
It feels like I may have to preface anything Cubs-related with that statement until there’s definitive evidence that the team’s struggles are of the fallen-off-the-rails variety. Rather than a bad stretch of baseball that I’m confident the North Siders are amid at the moment.
Yet despite all logic that says this team is too talented to keep up .500-ish ball for the duration, the bother about the Cubs right now doesn’t annoy me like the cliff-diving during a five-game losing streak last July did. I’m surprised at how, though I’d prefer the Cubs winning, most of Cubs Nation hasn’t mailed in their emotions following finally winning the World Series in 2016.
I speak not of the Cubbie fatalists who are so emotionally scarred that no amount of rings will ever fill their glasses halfway. But the majority vibe with Cubs talk right now is one of healthy skepticism and concern. To me, this suggests the team being held to a higher standard, regardless of the Holy Grail already having been achieved.
There are myriad reasons to assume the Cubs break out of this early season funk. Starting pitching has been an issue, but Jake Arrieta isn’t this bad. He may never be 2015 Jake, but 2017 Jake is just a bad dream that should awake sooner rather than later.
“I thought Jake was outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said after Arrieta and the Cubs were shut out by the Cardinals on Sunday to drop two of three in St. Louis. “I thought he had his best stuff all year. The swings and misses, the pitches in the zone, the takes on their part — I thought he was outstanding actually.”
And maybe had the Cubs scored off of Carlos Martinez, less focus is put on Arrieta’s (stupid pitching stat) loss.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” Arrieta said afterward. “The talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around.”
Kyle Hendricks is probably pouring over spreadsheets at this very moment figuring out how to be a soft-tossing crafty veteran the rest of his career. The cerebralism of last year’s ERA champion has almost become to poke fun at, but we know he’s bright enough to adapt to a drop in his velocity. He has a 1.52 ERA in his last four starts, by the way.
The Brett Anderson experience has likely packed up its instruments and pulled out of the parking lot, but Eddie Butler looked great in his Cubs debut. And we’ve been through the “HE’S A BUST HE MAKES HOW MUCH FIRE THEO PLAN SUCKS” narrative already with Jon Lester.
But being a bit twitchy about a staff that was the bedrock of a championship team is understandable. I might even call it refreshing, as complacency in all the World Series kitsch that fans have gobbled up since last November would be as bad as the eternal pessimism.
As the starting pitching figures itself out, so then will the defense that has lagged after being unreal last year. The Cubs rank 14th in defense entering Tuesday, per Fangraphs.
“Starting pitching drives the engine,” Maddon said last week. “When you’re doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance. Your defense gets bigger. Contact is not as hard. Hitters don’t have to battle from behind all the time. There’s more pressure on the other side. All those things are interchangeable. They’re interconnected. So as we pitch better, we’ll play better.”
Speaking of hitting, the Cubs are 22nd in OPS and 13th in runs scored. But they’re also 19th in BABIP, suggesting they’re due for more luck going forward. You look at a struggling Kyle Schwarber and can’t help consider dropping him in the order, but that would ignore him being the current poster child for bad luck — a criminal .224 BABIP — with a strikeout rate that’s a tick lower than and walk rate a tick above his combined rate of 2015-’16. As the temperatures rise (hello to 80 degrees this week), so will the fly balls over the walls off of Cub bats, including Schwarber’s.
But I get the angst over such stuff, and I appreciate it. My heart is strangely warmed by a hunger for more instead of an attitude of anything in year AC 1 (After Championship) is gravy.
Factor in the Cubs currently not being at ideal health and the bevy of trade chips the team has to swing deals nearer to the trade deadline, and the first half of May feels like another one of those stretches we later on smack ourselves upside the head for our worries.
So, like me, don’t panic. Still, good on you for not feeling satisfied.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.