What's going on with the Cubs?
Like the Mets, the Cubs are a large market team working with a small market budget. While the restrictions in New York are most likely due to ownership, Chicago could probably afford to expand its $92 million payroll once the right situation arises. For now, the Cubs are making due with what they have and plugging away with the National League's worst record at 20-34.
There are some bright spots for the Cubs, for sure. 24-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo is walking a ton (.398 on-base percentage) and hitting for power. Starlin Castro looks a lot more like the team's shortstop of the future than the player that struggled mightily at the plate in 2013. The bullpen has been a bit of a mess, but in the rotation former Notre Dame tight end Jeff Samardzija is looking like either an important part of Chicago's future or a trade chip who will be able to bring back sexy prospects in an exchange.
Speaking of sexy prospects, those are the real highlight of the Cubs organization, and two of the team's finest youngsters are nearing maturity. Last year's second overall draft pick, Kris Bryant, is crushing the ball at Double-A Tennessee with an incredible .348/.452/.692 line and 18 home runs in just 55 games played. He's getting closer and closer to a promotion and could be a lineup mainstay for years. Meanwhile, middle infielder Javier Baez is struggling at Triple-A Iowa, but he should start heating up soon considering his pedigree as well as the success his had at Double-A last year. The power that Baez can hit for as a shortstop or second baseman can make him a big impact player at either spot.
Boy it must be nice to have some position player prospects, huh? While the Cubs aren't as good as the Mets right now, they may have a brighter future in front of them. Only time will tell, but while we're waiting, would it hurt to have one day game at Wrigley Field? Geez.
Who are these guys?
Formerly a top prospect in the Rangers' system thanks to a pair of big power seasons in the minor leagues from 2011 to 2012, Mike Olt was dealt to the Cubs as part of the Matt Garza deal last summer. While Olt is currently holding down the third base fort until Bryant arrives, he has never truly figured out opposing pitching past the Double-A level. Before being traded last year, he was striking out 33 percent of the time at Triple-A Round Rock, and Olt has pushed that figure up to 35 percent in the big leagues this season. There is still hope for Olt -- he does have nine home runs and a .231 isolated power despite a .279 wOBA -- but he's looking more like Mark Reynolds now than Evan Longoria.
Junior Lake has always been a peculiar player because he has posted high strikeout rates throughout his minor league career, but he's been able to avoid low batting averages with consistently high BABIPs. As a rookie in 2013, Lake hit .377 on balls in play and struck out 27 percent of the time for a .284/.332/.428 line that was useful when you throw in his athleticism in the outfield. In 2014, however, Lake's strikeout rate is up all the way to 35 percent and his BABIP is "only" .354, resulting in a wRC+ of just 92. Still 24 years old, Lake has got very little margin for error as a major league player if he's going to continue to strike out the way that he has this year while walking only five percent of the time.
Who's on the mound?
Arrieta was formerly an up-and-coming pitcher for the Orioles, but he never reached his potential. That's what tends to happen to hurlers who spend their careers with strikeout-to-walk ratios below 2:1. Even though Arrieta finally posted acceptable strikeout and walk numbers in 2012, he also saw his ERA balloon to a career-worst 6.20 thanks to a low strand rate and a high home-run-to-fly-ball ratio. The next season, Arrieta was traded to the Cubs as part of a deal for Scott Feldman, and something appears to have clicked for him in Chicago. Career highs so far in strikeout rate and ground ball rate have made Arrieta a nice fill-in since Carlos Villanueva was bounced from the rotation.
A couple of weeks ago, it looked like Wheeler might need someone to fill in for him, but he's been brilliant in his last two starts. Wheeler struck out 16 batters and walked only one in those outings, and the Phillies looked positively baffled by his stuff last Thursday. With the Cubs having some strikeout-prone batters of their own, look for Wheeler to have some fun at Wrigley tonight as long as his command is on.
With Rafael Montero being sent down to the minors for seasoning, the man known as Dice-K is stepping into the rotation to make his second start of the season on Wednesday. He previously worked half of a doubleheader against the Diamondbacks on May 25 and looked pretty good with six strikeouts, one walk, and two runs allowed over six innings. Matsuzaka has been striking out more than a batter per inning this season, which is a great sign for the veteran, but he is also walking more than six batters per nine. Obviously, that's something that needs to improve if Matsuzaka is going to stick in the rotation for more than a turn or two.
Wednesday night's game could be a doozy, because both Dice-K and Jackson love to avoid contact and throw a ton of pitches. Since he became a full-time starter with Tampa Bay in 2007, Jackson has made at least 30 starts in every season, but that's been the only predictable thing about him. Blessed with great stuff that he's not always able to harness correctly, Jackson is a guy with high highs -- such as his recent 11-strikeout performance in seven shutout innings versus the Brewers -- as well as low lows -- like when he inexplicably got lit up by the Padres in San Diego two starts ago. Despite his durability, Jackon's history of high ERAs have seen him shipped around the country quite often, and he'll probably move again soon seeing as how he's an expendable veteran on a rebuilding Cubs team.
Thursday: Jacob deGrom vs. Travis Wood
Last season, Wood looked like a member of the future Cubs when he set career bests in innings pitched (200) and ERA (3.11), but he's having trouble living up to those totals in 2014. A 4.50 xFIP and .248 BABIP in 2013 weren't good omens for this year's campaign, but Wood has raised his strikeout rate rate nearly three percent in order to counterbalance regression. Unfortunately, that improvement hasn't shown up in Wood's ERA yet, and it jumped up to 5.15 after last week's rough outing in Milwaukee. The 27-year-old lefty should improve on that based on his peripherals, and he may just make his case for a long-term deal based on two remaining arbitration years and the lack of pitching prospects in Chicago's system.
The strikeout and walk rates in deGrom's first three MLB starts made it seem like he was lucky to be sticking around the majors, but he was flat-out wonderful in his game against Philadelphia on the last day of May. The 25-year-old out of Stetson struck out 11 Phillies and walked only two in six-and-one-third innings, and he would have kept going if not for a Ryan Howard three-run blast that ended the fun in the seventh. Regardless, the outing was a big step forward for deGrom, who until that day was relying on smoke and mirrors to keep opponents from crossing the plate.
What about some GIFs?
When the Mets played the Cubs at Citi Field last June, Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a walk-off home run on Father's Day. This pleased every father in the world except for Bob Costas.
After the game, Justin Turner upped his game by hitting Nieuwenhuis with an apple pie.
The day wouldn't be complete, though, without some classic Mets mayhem.