WARR baseball writer Kevin Luchansky writes about the Cubs and the White Sox weekly for WARR.com.
Check out Kevin’s daily baseball betting picks on NorthSideWire.
There have been some surprisingly good starts to come out of the first month-plus of this Major League season — the League-leading Brewers, the Rockies are playing winning ball and the Mets and Marlins are back to +.500 respectability.
Lamentably, this writer wishes he could say something along the lines of “look out, baseball world, here comes the Cubs,” but that’d be a bold lie, and I a terrible liar. Even more so than that, such a statement can’t be made because the Cubs are way back in the NL Central — 9.5 games — nearly as many games as they’ve won this year (10-17). To say the Cubs have even made strides is a stretch because the output just isn’t there.
Even with low expectations and the understanding that this year, yet again, is a rebuilding year, Cubs fans have to be frustrated with the product on the field. The Cubs are 4-6 in their previous 10 games and amazingly enough, that is one of their better stretches this season.
Plan Pieces Falling into Place
However, if I am going to dig up a few positives out of this current situation, it’s that the key contributors this season are all long term cogs in the Cubs’ overall grand plan. Guys like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo have been, for the most part, the most productive players this season. They all happen to factor into “Theo Epstein’s (insert # of years here) Plan.”
In the context of those long term plans, no other player is more central to that plan than the shortstop Castro, who in 2012 signed a contract that intends to keep him on the North Side likely through the 2020 season.
Castro is continuing his steady rise this season with some monster output over the last seven days that includes two home runs, five runs batted in and a .450 batting average. Add to that his .850 slugging percentage and a stolen base, and you’ve got yourself a pretty noteworthy week.
I haven’t referenced WAR at all just yet because I feel for that statistic to have merit we have to have seen a decent amount of games on the season, as that stat tries to measure overall value. But to put Castro’s week in perspective, he amassed half a win (0.5) in WAR. Generally, an All-Star is 4-5 WAR over the course of the whole season. Oh… and he did this without striking out once as well.
In the time since Castro was locked up, the Cubs also secured a long term offer to first baseman Rizzo, who referred to the extension as a “life-long dream.” Rizzo’s two home run blasts this week were also worthy of a dream, along with his five RBI and his scoring six times.
Rizzo’s batting average isn’t all too impressive over his last 21 plate appearances (.267), but when you consider he’s managed to collect a .467 on-base percentage while being the victim of a below average batting average with ball in play (.200), he’s had a great approach at the plate.
Part of the success this season is definitely the fact that Rizzo is making much better solid ball contact. Last season he seemed to be too often just catching a piece of the ball and popping up with his long, slow swingn. A shortened stroke, and therefore a quicker bat, has allowed Rizzo to bring up his line drive percentage roughly seven points and his home run-to-fly ball ratio (20%) is the best its ever been.
Hammel Staying Steady
Jason Hammel continues to be a bargain, as he put together another solid week with a shutout win over the NL Central-leading Brewers in Milwaukee. He struck out seven batters in seven innings and managed to strand all five base runners he allowed.
The 31-year-old Hammel certainly isn’t overpowering anyone, but his control has improved and his strike out rate and walk rates are both headed in the right direction. Furthermore, his improving ground ball rate could be something that really benefits him playing in the hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
Jackson Still Not Living Up
Opposing the seemingly-good bargain the Cubs are getting out of Hammel contract is the increasingly ugly Edwin Jackson deal. No, the contract isn’t backloaded, as he will earn roughly 11 million in each year, but the increasing ugliness can reference the fact that this season is making his terrible 2013 campaign seem like more than a fluke.
Jackson has continued with the same problems that ailed him last season — he’s walking a ton of batters and is proving again that when he does find the plate, he is very hittable, allowing a .340 BABIP.
Jackson collected a win this week against the struggling Reds, but he couldn’t have done so without great run support. He allowed four earned in just 5 and 2/3rds innings. Seeing as the Cubs have struggled to scored this season, that kind of performance won’t likely hold up many times.
Rondon Meets Cardinals’ Challenge
As I suggested recently, the combination of Cubs’ need and Hector Rondon’s swing-and-miss stuff and his ability to keep the ball in the yard could land him the team’s closer role eventually.
In one of his first test’s Friday night, Rondon faced a Cardinals team that has a relatively tough order from top to bottom, and sent the three batters he faced down in order, much needed in a 6-5 win.
Rondon has amassed 15 strikeouts to just four walks this season and still has allowed just one run. For a bullpen that is a mess otherwise, the Cubs may have just found themselves a really solid closer for the next few seasons. Time will tell.
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