Over the last 12 months, the most hated word in Detroit -- aside from "bullpen," maybe -- has been "window." National pundits have been predicting the Tigers' demise for a couple years now, proclaiming this the end of their title window. They may or may not be correct, but the team's recent eight-game losing streak has taken some wind out of the sails of even the most optimistic Tigers fan.
Then you have the Chicago Cubs. Lovable losers for 100-plus years, the team brought aboard Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in 2011 to turn things around. A major overhaul was necessary, as the Cubs have not won a playoff game since the 2003 season, the year of the infamous Steve Bartman play. The roster overhaul resulted in three consecutive 90-loss seasons from 2011 to 2013, and an 89-loss season in 2014.
However, the Cubs' new direction has also provided a star-studded farm system, one that is just starting to break into the majors. Highly-ranked prospects Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant have all debuted within the last year, joining established youngsters Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro to form the youngest lineup in baseball, but one with loads of potential.
While Rizzo and Bryant have produced, the group as a whole has struggled to score runs. They rank 10th in the National League in runs scored per game, and their team wRC+ of 90 ranks 12th. They get on base at a league average clip, but strike out more than any team in baseball.
The starting rotation has picked up the slack thus far, holding opponents to a 3.67 ERA, fourth-best in the NL. The veteran unit ranks second in the league with over six innings pitched per start, and their strikeout rate is just behind the Padres for best in the NL. Four of their starters have ERAs under 4.00, led by Jason Hammell at 2.76 in 11 starts.
All of this has led the Cubs to a 30-25 record, half a game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for a wild card spot. Many did not expect the Cubs to compete this quickly, and with room to grow offensively, they may get even better as the year goes on. They are already a handful, however, especially considering the Tigers go up against their two best starters in this series. The future is now in Chicago.
Game 1: Tuesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Jon Lester (4-4, 3.86 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-7, 5.69 ERA)
Jon Lester got off to a sluggish start on the North Side, allowing nine runs in his first 10 1/3 innings in a Cubs uniform. He has settled into a groove since then, holding opponents to a 2.41 ERA with a 3.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in eight starts before allowing six runs in his last start, a loss to the Miami Marlins. He has maintained the improvements in walk rate he demonstrated last year, issuing just 18 free passes in 67 2/3 innings this season. Like Anibal Sanchez, Lester has struggled with the home run ball, allowing eight in his last six starts.
While Lester is only allowing a .320 on-base percentage this season, teams are taking full advantage of his inability to hold runners at bay. Lester has already allowed 15 stolen bases this season, the second-highest total in baseball. Lester, whose struggles with his pickoff move were on full display during last season's AL Wild Card Game, has allowed three stolen bases in a game on three separate occasions already this season. Speedsters like Rajai Davis and Jose Iglesias could be off to the races if they reach base against Lester.
Game 2: Wednesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jake Arrieta (5-4, 3.04 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Greene (4-5, 5.40 ERA)
The Cubs originally acquired Jake Arrieta in a low-profile trade in July of 2013. They sent starter Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles, who sent struggling setup man Pedro Strop and the enigmatic Arrieta the other way. Largely viewed as a bust by that point, Arrieta allowed a 3.66 ERA but a 4.94 FIP in nine starts with the Cubs down the stretch. His success in 2013 was largely fueled by a .190 BABIP, as his strikeout and walk rates did not improve much after the trade.
Then, somehow, things clicked. Arrieta held opponents to a 2.53 ERA and a 2.26 FIP in 15 2/3 innings last season, finishing ninth in the National League Cy Young voting. Increased reliance on a slider/cutter was one reason for the breakout, but it took improvements in all areas for such a massive and unexpected jump in performance. Arrieta cut his walk rate in half, improved his strikeout rate from 18.5 percent to 27.2 percent, and gave up just five home runs in 25 starts. The 2015 season has been more of the same for Arrieta, who actually improved his walk rate as his home run rate regressed to more normal levels.
Hitter to fear: Anthony Rizzo (.328/.446/.605 in 240 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Starlin Castro (.262/.300/.350 in 227 plate appearances)
The two "veterans" of the Cubs roster are trending in opposite directions. Rizzo, who turns 26 in August, has built upon his All-Star campaign from 2014. He has 11 home runs and 35 RBI in 54 games played, and would be in the early National League MVP conversation if not for Bryce Harper. Castro, who turned 25 in March, has fallen off of last season's pace. A .292 hitter in 2014, Castro has slid backward from the modest improvements in both plate discipline and power from a year ago. Never one to take a ton of walks, Castro's ground ball and pop-up rates have skyrocketed, resulting in a .283 BABIP reminiscent of his 2013 season, when he was worth -0.1 WAR in 161 games played.
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