Pitchers hitting! For the select few of you that actually enjoy this atrocity, you're in luck. The Detroit Tigers will pay a visit to historic Wrigley Field for a quick two-game series this week, where they will take on the scalding hot Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have a 20-9 record since the All-Star break, second-best in the majors only to the Toronto Blue Jays. With a young, talented roster and a veteran manager on the bench in Joe Maddon, the Cubs are poised to be contenders for the long haul.
In order to get a bead on how excited the Cubs' championship-starved fanbase truly is, we spoke with Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue, SB Nation's excellent Cubs community.
1. As I pose this question, the Cubs are 65-48 and five games clear of the San Francisco Giants for the second NL wild card slot (sorry if I jinxed that). Instead of asking if you're happy with the team's performance this season, I'll put it like this: do the Cubs have the talent to win the World Series this season?
Yes, absolutely, because they have the talent to get into the postseason and as we saw last October, once you get in (past the wild-card game) anything can happen. The Royals, who came to within one inning of winning it all last year, went into the playoffs ranked last in the majors in home runs and walks, the first postseason team ever to do that. What happens as soon as the playoffs begin? They start hitting home runs. The Cubs are a more balanced team than that, but have three very good to excellent starting pitchers and a solid bullpen. This latest run has shown that the Cubs can compete with anyone.
2. The Cubs have gone through a long and tenuous rebuild, with five straight last place finishes under their belt. Now, with a bumper crop of top prospects hitting the majors, they appear set to contend for years to come. How sustainable is this new model for the Cubs? Do they have a few years to contend before needing to reload the farm system again, or are they looking to build a Cardinals-like model of constant reinforcement from within the organization?
The Cubs are absolutely trying to model themselves after the Cardinals and have a deep farm system where, if you lose a player to injury or free agency, someone just as good if not better comes out of the system to replace him. It's a bit surprising to me that the Cubs have had four rookies in the lineup for the last month and all of them have been productive big-league players. All of them still have some flaws to their game, but certainly have the talent and drive to get better. At the same time, Theo Epstein and his lieutenants haven't skimped on continuing to build a strong system even while having this somewhat-surprising 2015 (I don't think anyone in the organization really thought they would have a year like this until at least 2016).
3. Jon Lester may be the team's ace in name, but I don't think there's any question that Jake Arrieta is their best pitcher. However, he washed out of the American League before being traded to Chicago in 2013. What changed with him?
We at BCB have invented a word to describe what's happened to Arrieta, as well as Pedro Strop, who came over from the Orioles in the same deal, and several other pitchers on the staff: Bosmosis. This refers to Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has done an amazing job in reviving careers of pitchers who seemed stalled elsewhere. Jason Hammel has had his best years with the Cubs, and his return after being traded to the A's last year has been a real plus. Other pitchers helped by Bosio include closer Hector Rondon, probably the Cubs' best Rule 5 pick ever, and Justin Grimm, who was more or less a throw-in in the Matt Garza trade with the Rangers.
Bosio is an excellent pitching coach and I give him tremendous credit for working with this staff to make them into winners.
4. Kris Bryant has gotten the headlines as the "savior" of the Cubs franchise, but there are several other extremely talented young players coming through the pipeline right now. Which player would you say is most valuable to the Cubs' efforts going forward (think long-term here) and which player are you most excited to watch develop?
I'm a big Bryant fan. Of all the Cubs' young players I think he has the best chance to become a perennial All-Star. While his BA this year isn't what you might want, he's drawing walks and hitting for power and playing a much better third base than I could have imagined. He's essentially having the same year Troy Glaus (a comparable player in talent, size and position) had in his first full big-league season. The next year Glaus broke out and hit 47 home runs. We'd take that.
That said, a lot of Cubs fans think Addison Russell has a really high upside. His defense is impeccable and with the recent benching of Starlin Castro, Russell moved back to his natural position of shortstop, and is likely staying there for years to come. Russell is just 21 years old, and barely played at all at Triple-A before his promotion earlier this year. He's hit much better since the All-Star break and has cut way down on his strikeouts.
5. The last time the Tigers visited Wrigley Field, Detroit fans overran the place and were able to sustain several "Let's Go Tigers" chants throughout the series. Now that the Cubs are contending again, have their fans returned en masse? Or are they still hesitant to trust the team's success? How loud are the boos for former Tigers pitchers Edwin Jackson and Phil Coke (who has since been released)?
Crowds at Cubs games have been packed since the All-Star break, and it's starting to have a 2008 vibe. That year, which ended badly in October, was the best Cubs regular season in more than 70 years, and the current winning has the place rocking, with fans really into the games. I still expect tons of Tigers fans for the brief two-game weeknight set, which ought to make the ballpark fun -- always like seeing passionate fans of other teams coming to Wrigley.
Edwin Jackson has also been released. Oddly enough, he was decent out of the bullpen for most of this year, pitching mostly in garbage time (the Cubs were 4-19 in games in which he appeared this year). He was signed by the Braves this weekend and has already been in a game for them. Oddly, the Braves will be at Wrigley to face the Cubs starting Thursday, so we'll likely get to see Edwin then. Phil Coke? I'm not sure any Cubs fan even remembers his forgettable six weeks in blue pinstripes.
Once again, a big thank you goes out to Al for answering our questions. Be sure to check out Bleed Cubbie Blue all season long for the very best Cubs news coverage and analysis around!