What's going on with the Cubs?
Ah, the Cubbies. With a 52-68 record, Chicago's plucky little bears are far from the playoff hunt, but that hasn't stopped the team from putting together a 10-7 mark since late July. The Cubs aren't under the type of financial strain that Mets' ownership is, but team president Theo Epstein has nevertheless taken a patient approach to building up this franchise that is famous for losing.
Even in another rebuilding year, there are plenty of bright spots on the Cubs. Starlin Castro has posted a solid bounce-back season after a dreadful 2013, and Anthony Rizzo has blossomed into one of the National League's premier sluggers with 27 home runs and a .379 on-base percentage. The team also added to its deep farm system by grabbing hot shortstop prospect Addison Russell from the Athletics in exchange for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Seeing as how Samardzjia and Hammel were two of Chicago's best hurlers, the trade significantly weakened the team's rotation. However, surprisingly strong performances from Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Tsuyoshi Wada have kept the Cubs competitive after the trade deadline.
Despite a bunch of talented youngsters in both the major and minor leagues, the Cubs' strongest asset might still be considered Wrigley Field, whose allure to baseball fans allows the Cubs to post respectable attendance figures, even in times of famine like these.
Who are these guys?
Javier Baez is possibly the most exciting thing to happen to the Cubs this season. The middle infield prospect saw his name floated in trade rumors this summer after the team acquired Russell, but Baez has played like a keeper since being promoted to the big leagues on August 5. In 10 starts at second base since then, Baez has hit two doubles and four home runs. He hasn't walked yet, and his 17 strikeouts are a bit much, but the power that Baez has put on display as a 21-year-old is quite rare for the position he plays. Maybe the kid does end up being traded, but for now he's a sign that Epstein knows what he's doing.
Arismendy Alcantara may not have the same type of hype attached to him as Baez does, but he's still a player who is very young for the big leagues and could be important to Chicago's future. Like Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton, Alcantara is a speedster who can play both the infield and the outfield. He's not the same type of base-stealing demon that Hamilton is, but Alcantara did swipe 21 bases in 89 games at Triple-A this season while getting caught just three times. As a 22-year-old, Alcantara has struggled to adjust to big league pitching (.219/.289/.359 so far), but he has shown a lot of promise as a defender in center field.
Who's on the mound?
Friday: Travis Wood vs. Zack Wheeler
Last season, Wood posted a 3.11 ERA and looked like an important piece in the Cubs' future. This season, his walk rate and BABIP have dramatically increased, leading to a 4.86 ERA and 4.14 FIP. The true Wood is probably somewhere in between the 2013 and 2014 versions, but to find that guy, the lefty has got to stop walking close to four batters per nine innings. In his one start against the Mets this season, Wood walked five in five innings, but only allowed two runs in a 7-4 Cubs victory.
Wood, of course, is not the only pitcher whom I've tasked with lowering his walk rate in this space. Another one of those guys is Wheeler, and he's done a great job to improve his command this season. Lately, though, the right-hander is slipping with seven total walks in his last two starts. Those walks lead to high pitch counts, which is why Wheeler still hasn't completed the seventh inning since mid-June. In a start at Wrigely earlier this season, Wheeler pitched quite well, with sevens strikeouts, two walks, and zero runs allowed in 6.2 innings.
Saturday: Dan Straily vs. Jon Niese
The other guy acquired from the Athletics in the trade for Russell, Straily is expected to be called up and make his Cubs debut on Saturday in order to give the rest of the rotation a breather. The right-hander is a guy who has never found solid footing in the big leagues, but he's still only 25 years old and has the chance to be a back-of-the-rotation starter in the future. Between Iowa (Cubs) and Sacramento (Athletics), Straily has struck out over a batter per inning in the Pacific Coast League this season.
Those who expected Niese to come back from his mild shoulder injury as a stronger pitcher were disappointed when the lefty posted four consecutive uninspiring performances. During his last time out, though, Niese looked like his old self with two runs allowed in seven innings against the Phillies. Maybe all it took was a friendly opponent to help reboot Niese's season. We'll see if he can put the momentum to good use this weekend.
Sunday: Jake Arrieta vs. Rafael Montero
One of the surprise performers of the 2014 season, Arrieta has proven to be a late bloomer with a 2.77 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in this, his age-28 season. It doesn't look like a fluke, either. Arrieta's strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate are all career bests, and he's allowed more than three runs in only three starts this year. The Mets looked to score several runs off of Arietta back on June 3, but only managed one despite putting 10 runners on base in 4.2 innings.
Montero earned a promotion to Queens with 14.2 innings and zero runs allowed in his last two Las Vegas starts. Back in the bigs against Washington, though, Montero once again looked quite ordinary. Washington blitzed the right-hander with five runs and three home runs during his five innings pitched, and he's now allowed eight round-trippers in just five major league starts. That's pretty amazing considering that Montero has allowed only four home runs in 17 PCL starts this season. Hopefully he'll get on track once making some adjustments to big league hitting.
Monday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Bartolo Colon
Acquired from the Rangers two seasons ago in the Ryan Dempster trade, Hendricks has never been ranked alongside the top prospects in Chicago's system. Like many pitchers with modest strikeout rates before him, though, Hendricks has made himself effective with extraordinary command. After walking just 2.02 batters per nine in 17 PCL starts this season, Hendricks got even better upon promotion and is now walked fewer than two batters per nine. On the other hand, his strikeout rate has taken a big hit, but a little BABIP and strand rate magic have helped the 24-year-old right-hander post a 1.73 ERA (3.60 FIP) in 41.2 major league innings.
Hendricks would do well to study what Colon is doing in the majors this season. Even without a classic "out pitch," the big right-hander is striking out around seven batters per nine innings. That's a lot considering Colon's minuscule walk rate. The secret to this is Colon's two-seam fastball, which he uses to make left-handed hitters very uncomfortable. Bryce Harper appeared baffled by the pitch in Colon's most recent outing, and he ended up surrendering just two runs in seven innings against Washington.
Prediction: The struggling Mets earn a split with the Cubs.
What about some highlights?
Baez is a 21-year-old with seriously impressive power.
Nate Schierholtz has since been released, so he won't be able to break the Mets' hearts again.
With the Cubs out of contention, it's hard to blame this old-fashioned scoreboard operator for passing out on the job.
Don't forget to hit up FanDuel.com for some fun one-day fantasy action!