So are they real? Or surreal? Or both?
Based on history, they should be a safe bet not to win the World Series, given that they haven’t won one since 1908 and haven’t even been in one since World War II. No team can match them in long-term persistent futility. The Red Sox 12 years ago shook off their Curse of the Bambino, but the Cubs are still grappling with the Billy Goat and Steve Bartman.
And yet, I can’t help thinking Vegas has it right. The Cubs are really, really good. They lead the majors in win percentage (on pace for 101 victories) and run differential. They’re getting better all the time: they’ve won 10 of their past 11 games, 17 of 23.
Their starting rotation is the healthiest and best in baseball. There was some shade thrown on the ace, Jake Arrieta, because he had gone 0-3 for five starts, had lost the edge of the strike zone. But he’s 13-5 for the season, with a 2.59 ERA.
And by the way, the best-hitting pitcher in baseball is not Madison Bumgarner. It’s Arrieta, with his .806 On-base-Plus-Slugging metric, the most definitive measure of offense.
You could argue that the Cubs’ best-pitching pitcher is not Arrieta but 26-year-old Kyle Hendricks, 11-7 and leading the National League in ERA at 2.17. The rest of their rotation – Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and John Lackey – is a combined 31-16, with 45 quality starts.
In his most recent appearance, Saturday in Wrigley Field against Oakland, Arrieta was vintage 2015, Cy Young winner. Or at least, as he put it, “pretty close.” He beat the A’s 4-0, allowing three hits and one walk in eight innings.
With the pitch count reaching 108, which nowadays is considered yeoman’s work, he didn’t get to try for the complete-game shutout. Just as well, as far as Wrigleyville was concerned. In came Aroldis Chapman to nail the save. He received a standing O for a stroll from the bullpen.
There’s not a baseball fan alive who doesn’t get excited about seeing someone throw 103-105 mph. Not since Nolan Ryan in his prime have we seen this degree of velocity.
Political correctness requires adding that Chapman’s control is spotty (he averages, for his career, a walk every 2.1 innings), and much shakier off the field. The Cuban refugee served a month’s suspension in the spring for alleged assault of his girlfriend, punctuated by firing eight bullets in her garage in Miami. In his limited contact with the media, via translator, he hasn’t shown much remorse.
In more ways than one, Chapman represents MLB’s greatest fear, a sometimes out-of-control, potentially lethal, fireballer, who if cloned could destroy the sport. If he proves to be a trend and not an anomaly, most MLB games of the future will end in a monotonous flurry of strikeouts and walks.
Baseball scientists, experimenting with high-powered pitching machines, theorize that even the quickest of batsmen cannot catch up to 120 mph. So theres’s still room for growth, but not a lot. One Aroldis Chapman is enough, or this most durable but delicate game could be thrown out of balance.
The Cubs’ mastermind, Theo Epstein, pulled Chapman from the New York Yankees shortly before the non-waiver trade deadline. This move transformed a bullpen that had been good, but not elite.
Hector Rondon, who was more than adequate as a closer (1.71 ERA), is better suited to his new role of set-up. Middle relievers Travis Wood, a lefty, and Pedro Strop both have ERA’s under 2.80 and have combined for a 5-2 record and 34 “holds.”
And make room for Carl Edwards Jr., 24 and rising. The rookie has allowed just six hits and five walks in 18 innings, while striking out 25. He’s a 6-foot-3, 170-pound stringbean, but he throws 96 mph, consistently.
If anyone can break the Cubbies’ Curse it’s Epstein, who brought the Red Sox their first world championship, in 2004, when he was 30. He built a first-rate minor-league system and had the patience to let it develop. He’s followed that blueprint in Chicago, introducing the latest technology to refine the scouting and developmental process. Video “games” are used to test a prospect’s reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
Epstein has drafted well: third baseman Kris Bryant, 24, shortstop Addison Russell, 22, are already All-Stars. Javier Baez, 23-year-old Puerto Rican, is the game’s finest utility infielder. He plays all the positions like a master, and he has an outfielder’s OPS, .760.
By focusing on the draft and the farm, Epstein has created a team at a price that’s comfortable for the frugal billionaires who own the franchise, the Ricketts family. The Cubs rank 12th in the majors in player payroll, at around $117 million, well behind smaller markets Detroit, Seattle and San Diego.
New York Mets manager Terry Collins observed, before Epstein took charge of the team, “The Cubs’ fans are the greatest in the world, and that’s probably why they lose.”
His theory was that since the fans are so faithful (average attendance of more than 32,000 per game for each of the past 18 years), ownership has no financial incentive to pay for a championship-caliber roster.
Jason Heyward has proved Epstein is fallible, as the 27-year-old outfielder continues to play nowhere near the level promised by a $140 million contract. But with a plentiful farm and a manager, Joe Maddon, who excels at matchups, the Cubs are able to fill in around capable center fielder Dexter Fowler, who leads the team in batting and on-base efficiency.
Heyward is giving way to talented rookies Wilson Contreras, 23, who has a .770 OPS, and Albert Almora, 22, No. 6 overall draft pick in 2012, whose .265 batting average and .712 OPS exceed Heyward’s numbers. Contreras also helps as a strong-armed catcher who challenges the gently fading David Ross and Miguel Montero.
The infield is one of the finest the sport has ever seen, cornered by Bryant and RBI machine Anthony Rizzo, the MVP favorite because of clubhouse leadership as well as brilliant performance. The middle is secured by Gold Glove candidate Russell at short and Ben Zobrist at second base delivering OPS of .830. And the slick Baez is backing up everybody.
This may be the most versatile team of all time. Seven of the Cubs have played in three or more positions this season. They’ve had 13 left fielders. Zobrist shuffles adroitly between second base and the outfield, to give Baez more playing time.
Corey Francis of Chicago’s Fansided asks, in all seriousness: “Are the Cubs too deep?” He’s worried that the players may not feel truly comfortable being in constant transition. Under playoff pressures, “can they find a rhythm in their performance when they are moving around?”
He points out that baseball, with its searing individual accountability, “is probably the most mentally challenging of team sports. One miscue in the field by one player, or even fan interference (are you thinking of Steve Bartman?), can affect the psyche of the entire team.”
So Maddon faces a dilemma. His team is healthier now; he doesn’t need to play everybody. But since he’s been so successful with share-the-load, Maddon risks causing disappointment and dissension if he keeps his reserves fastened to the bench.
I expect him to do what he’s done so well, keep shuffling the deck. As this grueling summer drags on, the Cubs’ depth will be a very good thing. A blend of solid veterans and dynamic youngsters, this club will be fresh when the playoffs begin. I look for the Cubs’ eternal nightmare to end before October does.
CLICK HERE for Corey Francis of Fansided arguing that too much depth is a problem.