The 2015 Chicago Cubs finished May on a high note. Thanks to a David Ross base-hit that fell between Kansas City positional players Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar, the Cubs were able to notch a 2-1, 11 inning victory over the AL Central leading Royals at Wrigley Field on the final day of May. It would be their sixth walk-off victory of the season, which is the most in Major League Baseball. The Cubs followed up a strong 12-8 April with an even 14-14 month of May, putting them at 26-22 at the start of June.
The Cubs ended May by winning their 14th one-run victory of the season, a category in which they also lead the majors. 10 of the Cubs’ 14 wins in May came by one run. It seems as though the Cubs always find themselves in tight games and the feeling is that they are never out of it. The Cubs started the season believing they would turn out to be a competitive team and thus far they are proving it.
After two months of the season, Chicago trails the first place Cardinals by six games, and a half game behind the Mets for the second NL wild card spot. The Cubs would like to stay in this conversation not just after the start of this marathon of a baseball season, but near the finish as well. Theo Epstein is apparently in the same boat, as there are reports that the Cubs want to add a piece who would greatly improve the team.
According to a report by Chicago Sun-Times Cubs beat reporter Gordon Wittenmyer, Epstein is interested in making another deal with Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in the form of Ben Zobrist. Zobrist played for Joe Maddon and the Rays last season and is a player that is versatile, as well as productive. Zobrist could potentially kick Chris Coghlan out of left-field if the deal comes to pass.
Adding Zobrist would certainly label the Cubs as legitimate contenders, if they weren’t already. The Cubs would not be in the position of actually being able to add players of value if it had not been for the production of Anthony Rizzo, as well as consistent contributions from rookies Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell.
Anthony Rizzo is fourth in all of baseball in OPS, and leads the Cubs in batting average, On-base percentage, hits, doubles, and home runs. Rizzo is hitting .318/.439/.572 with two triples, nine home runs, 29 RBI, and a very impressive 26 walks to 25 strikeouts entering June. Overall, Rizzo is among elite company with Paul Goldschmidt and Adrian Gonzalez as one of the top three productive first-baseman in the National League.
On top of the success of Anthony Rizzo is the production from key Cubs prospects playing in every day roles. Jorge Soler was called up near the end of August last season and hit .292/.330/.573 with eight doubles, five home runs, and 20 RBI in 24 games. For Soler this season, the focus is how he will adjust to playing every day and maintaining consistent productivity over a 162 game span. After he plays in his 75th game of the year, game number 76 will be the most Soler has ever played in a single season. Injuries have always been a concern for the big-framed power-hitting outfielder, so it will be something to keep an eye on once the season gets into the dog days of August.
Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are also key contributors to the Cubs’ successes this season. Let’s start with Bryant, who has impressively broken into the Major League scene. Through his first 4o big league games, Kris Bryant is hitting .281/.395/.479 with seven home runs and a team leading 32 RBI. Many expected Bryant to emerge in the majors as a home run hitting machine, but a more compact RBI machine is what is rearing its head.
As the team leader in RBIs, Bryant has had his fair share of opportunities with runners on. More often than not, Bryant has come through with a big hit to drive runners in. What is even more impressive is the 23-year-old’s polished approach at the plate. Bryant’s exceptional eye at the plate makes him that much more of a tough out. The general rule for hitters is to go to bat with an idea of how the pitcher is going to work you. Bryant always knows what he is looking for during every count and he made reference to his approach after scoring the game winning run against the Royals on the final day of May.
Bryant went on to explain that he recognized the pattern Royals’ pitcher Ryan Madson had before he went to the plate. Bryant said in a post game interview that he figured Madson would go to his changeup on a 2-1, or 3-2 count. Eventually the count went full and Bryant took a changeup that was just low enough to be called for ball four, and he would eventually come around to score the game winning run. Good things seem to happen when Bryant is in the Cubs’ lineup.
As for 21-year-old Addison Russell, there is still learning to be done. There was a general concern around Cubs Nation that his call up may have been a bit premature. However, Russell is doing his part in proving that he deserves to be at baseball’s highest level, even at the ripe young age of 21.
Russell is already good enough to play everyday in the MLB. He is also good enough to play a defensive position that he only played at five times in his career before to being called up. Russell was a gift from Oakland after the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Now, he is boasting a .252 average with a .737 OPS in 34 games. Eventually I assume Russell will kick Starlin Castro out of short because the 21-year-old is too good at that position to be not playing it.
All of this success would not be possible without the stellar work from the Cubs’ starting rotation. Jon Lester had a very successful month of May after struggling in his first few starts in a Cubs uniform. Jake Arrieta has struggled recently, but even when he struggles the Cubs find themselves in the middle of a ball game. Jason Hammel continues to pitch extremely well in a Cubs uniform and Kyle Hendricks is putting together a string of starts that is making Cub fans everywhere excitied. A complete game shut out against the Padres was exactly what the young right-handed pitcher needed after a rough start to the season.
Travis Wood was kicked out of the rotation and joined another former rotation piece caught in limbo, Edwin Jackson, in the bullpen. The bullpen, which looked to be the Cubs’ number one strength going into the season, has struggled mightily on many occasions. The Neil Ramirez injury really hurts as it took away a dominant late inning reliever. Justin Grimm was also hurt for a period of time but has come back strong and has been on of the better relievers on their staff.
The Cubs recognized a need in bullpen help so they finally came to the conclusion that Wellington Castillo is really only worth a reliever at this point. Yoervis Medina is a 26-year-old hard throwing right-hander who is currently at Triple A Iowa. He looks to add help to a bullpen that has seen its fair share of struggles in Jason Motte, Zac Rosscup, Pedro Strop and even Hector Rondon.
Despite the struggles of their bullpen, the Cubs have the makeup to put together a nice playoff run into September. The Cubs will surely be a fun team to watch throughout an entire season in which they will be competitive.