There were a lot of questions surrounding the Cubs entering 2020, but a quarter of the way through the season, all those questions have been answered with a 13-3 record, the best of any team in baseball. It’s the franchise’s best start to a season since 1907 and after winning nine of their last 10, they don’t look like a team poised to slow down.
“Good game or bad game,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Thursday, “this season is about one thing and one thing only. And that’s winning.”
In that same press conference, Rizzo acknowledged that this might be the last run for this version of the Cubs. Him, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant will all be free agents after 2022. There has already been talk of trading Bryant and a season gone sour could have resulted in any of them being moved in this offseason.
“I’m not gonna shy away from this, this could be our last year together,” he said. “And I think we all know that. Especially with the state of the game and who knows what’s gonna happen. This could be our last run with all our core guys. This could be my last year, who knows? So I’m enjoying every second of it.”
He’s not wrong to suggest that possibility. The Cubs spent the offseason reckoning with a tight baseball budget and trades can happen to teams that don’t see themselves as contenders. The Cubs, though, are playing like contenders, having yet to lose a series or even consecutive games. Outstanding starting pitching has rocket-fueled their fast start, with their rotation fielding the second-lowest ERA in baseball (2.39). They have baseball’s lowest HR/9 for any staff at 0.57 and their walk rate is the lowest in the majors at 1.79 BB/9.
Heading into the season, it was assumed Hendricks would be the least of the Cubs’ worries in the rotation, and he’s shown why with a 3.08 ERA. Save for a six-run outing against Cincinnati, he still hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a start.
But whether or Yu Darvish could sustain his hot close-out of last season would ultimately go the longest way in the success of the Cubs’ rotation. So far, well, he’s at the top of ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor, with a familiar name behind him. He has 27 strikeouts in four starts and, after taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning in Thursday’s 4-2 win over Milwaukee, a1.88 ERA. His walk rate, which has long been a concern about him, is at a career-low of 1.50.
Jon Lester, often forgotten about when assessing the Cubs’ 2020 chances, has continued his defiance of Father Time, posting a 1.08 ERA in three starts. Tyler Chatwood was humming along until a disastrous start against Kansas City, but he’ll get a chance to right the ship tonight and Alec Mills has been a rock of a fifth-starter with a 1.38 ERA making for a difficult decision on the rotation make-up when José Quintana gets back from injury.
The bullpen, which looked season-killing bad at the start of the year, is slowly coming together after manager David Ross figured out who he likes in what moments. It’s hard to overstate how crucial Jeremy Jeffress has been in stabilizing the group, but in seven innings, he’s struck out five and still hasn’t allowed a run or hit. Plus, his energy and intensity make him the most fun to watch out the bullpen. A former closer himself, he’s a possible option to close out games if the Craig Kimbrel experiment is totally scrapped, but Rowan Wick, who picked up his third save on Thursday, also provides a possibility in that spot. He’s only allowed one run in six innings and struck out five. Casey Sadler, despite a sky-high 5.65 FIP, has a 1.93 ERA in 4.2 innings, and Ryan Tepera hasn’t allowed a run in his last three appearances after a brutal start to his year. For now, the Cubs seem to have patched up their bullpen.
Ross’s managerial style has been to let the good players play, a straightforward concept that often gets overthought. Ian Happ is their best hitter right now, slashing .326/.456/.609, and Ross has rewarded him as the primary centerfielder over Albert Almora Jr. His BABIP of .400 suggests he’s due to come back to Earth at some point, but he’s been everything the Cubs hoped he’d become after his 2019 demotion to Iowa. Jason Kipnis currently has a 1.325 OPS, Willson Contreras is slugging .500 and even Jason Heyward’s put together a respectable slash-line of .250/.320/.409. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo haven’t settled into their grooves yet, but if they do (A pretty sure thing to bet on!), the Cubs’ lineup gets even more dangerous.
“It’s the joy of the game that we’re playing for right now,” Rizzo said Thursday. “And I think it’s really showing that we’re just playing basically high school summer baseball right now.”
It would take an epic run of bad luck for the Cubs to miss the playoffs at this point—if the season survives the pandemic—but the Cubs are winning under their new manager. Maybe the external enthusiasm isn’t quite what it was in 2016, but the Cubs have played like a team that can win the World Series, and that’s something that hasn’t been said since their last one.