The Chicago Cubs are 12-7 after the first two games in what could prove to be a pretty important homestand here in the early going. Friday's 13-0 win in which Drew Smyly nearly threw a perfect game will grab national attention, too.
Though it hasn't been too long since that was the case, what's notable is the facelift and total revamp of the roster from what was the Golden Era of Cubs baseball.
The fizzling of the Golden Era
Joe Maddon was the Cubs manager from 2015-19. He was the first Cubs manager ever to appear in three straight NLCS and the first to win the World Series since, well, you know. Earlier this week on Chicago radio, Maddon said he wished the World Series core had been kept together longer.
"We should've stayed together longer, there's no question," Maddon said (670 The Score). "We had a lot more chicken left on the bone. We weren't given the opportunity. I'll say that because it's true."
I guess I'll agree to strongly disagree with Maddon's assertion. It was absolutely over.
On the surface level, the 2021 Cubs were coming off a stretch of six straight winning seasons that included five trips to the playoffs and three division titles along with, obviously, the 2016 World Series title. Maddon apparently forgot to look deeper, though. The 2020 team started 13-3 and was under .500 the rest of the way, barely holding onto the division in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. The 2019 Cubs lost 10 of their last 12 games to fall out of the playoffs and while there were absolutely injury issues, something just felt broken. Going back to the previous year -- a 95-win team that lost the one-game playoff for the NL Central title and then lost the Wild Card game -- the offensive numbers would end up in a fine place, but it was so inconsistent ("boom or bust") that on the bad days it just felt hopeless.
Basically, by the time that Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez were traded just before the 2021 deadline, the team was stale and needed a change, even if it felt radical at the time. Willson Contreras followed them out the door after the 2022 season and that was what was left of the offensive core Cubs fans will never forget.
Reshaping the roster
Once Kyle Hendricks returns from injury, he and manager David Ross -- who was a catcher with the team in 2015-16 -- are the last remnants of the '16 title. Well, and club president Jed Hoyer, the then-general manager and Theo Epstein's number two in command then.
What Hoyer has done since taking over is attempt to move the club into relevance without reliance on the World Series title. It was, after all, seven seasons ago.
The core now starts with newly signed shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Nico Hoerner and corner outfielders Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki. Thanks to some recent contract extensions, those four players are all on board through at least 2026 and they are all currently ranging in age from 26-29.
In letting Contreras walk and moving to a Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart combination behind the plate, it appeared that Hoyer and company were renewing focus toward defense, notably with Swanson and Hoerner as the double-play combo and the rangy Bellinger in center. The juggernaut Cubs in 2016 were one of the best defensive teams ever by some measure, but come 2019 and 2021, the Cubs were below average in many metrics, including defensive efficiency (the percentage of times a defense converts balls in play into outs).
Especially with limits on shifting, getting more range up the middle was a clear emphasis.
To this point in the 2023 season, the plan is working incredibly well. The pitching staff has posted a 3.22 ERA, good for fifth in the majors. Stroman and Steele have thrown like All-Stars while the other three members of the rotation have shown good flashes (note Smyly's Friday afternoon outing, which lowered his ERA to 3.13). Hendricks is coming back soon.
The bullpen is a collection of no-names and also-rans to outsiders, but it's a group of power arms that ranks first in the majors in reliever strikeout rate with a healthy 30.0 strikeout percentage entering Friday. Pay particular attention to the season Mark Leiter Jr. is putting together.
Defensively, the additions of Swanson and Bellinger have made the group as a whole significantly better to the eye test. The Cubs are back in the top-third in defensive efficiency. and Gomes has shepherded the pitching staff to a 10-1 record with a 2.76 ERA.
The running game
By 2019, the Cubs weren't doing much on the bases, ranking 29th in the majors with just 45 stolen bases. They are nearly halfway there already, having swiped 22 bases. That ranks third in the majors. Hoerner is the driving force, leading the league with nine, but seven different Cubs have already stolen at least one base while Swanson, Happ and Bellinger have three apiece.
I spoke with a few Cubs in spring training who said there wascompared to years' past -- and it wasn't just because of the new rules, including bigger bases -- and we're already seeing it come to fruition.
The offensive potential
Heading into the season, we could easily squint our way to seeing the Cubs' pitching staff and defense being productive in tandem. It just looked like scoring runs on a consistent basis was going to be a problem. It still might prove to be, but so far so good.
Hoerner is hitting .365 with a .407 on-base percentage and might finally be the fixture in the leadoff spot the Cubs have sorely lacked since Dexter Fowler. Swanson is hitting .333 with a .446 OBP and making people think about bringing back the "Daily Double" moniker to Wrigleyville. Happ is slashing .301/.402/.507. Wisdom has nine homers and 18 RBI in 19 games with an absurd .743 slugging percentage. Coming off injury, Suzuki has only played in seven games so far, but he's hitting .370 with a 1.003 OPS.
And then there's Cody Bellinger, who took a one-year "show me" deal in free agency. He's fresh off the first five-hit game of his career and has slashed .301/.381/.562 to this point. Most importantly, his strikeout percentage is the lowest it has ever been in his career and is in the same ballpark as it was in 2019, when he won NL MVP. His walk rate is the highest it's been since 2020.
As a team, the Cubs are averaging exactly six runs per game (third in MLB), which would be their highest figure since 1930. That'll come down through the grind of 162, but around five runs a game is where the 2016-17 teams sat.
As a whole, the team is hitting .289/.357/.461, which makes it one of the most productive lineups in baseball so far, ranking second in team OPS heading into Friday night.
There are always small-sample caveats there and playing the pathetic A's for three games helped matters. Still, they've scored at least six runs eight times in 19 games and have hit double digits six times.
With Hoerner and Swanson getting on base in front of the upside of Happ, Suzuki and Bellinger -- not to mention the damage Wisdom is capable of doing in spurts from the six-hole -- this team could be a productive offense all season. There's a good mix of average, on-base chops, power and speed.
Plus, there's always the trade deadline, now with a much better-stocked farm system than a few years ago, and the possibility that youngsters like Nelson Velázquez, Christopher Morel and, yes, Matt Mervis can force themselves into regular playing time and hit their respective upsides as well.
More than anything, there's reason to excitement and that's a nice change.
Back to the playoffs in 2023?
Though the figures are a lot higher than when the season started three weeks ago, the projection models all still show the Cubs at just about 1/3 chance to make the playoffs (32.1% at SportsLine). Hey, it's early. Plus, the NL Central being considered a weak division in tandem with the Brewers jumping out to a 14-5 start doesn't help matters.
I'm sure there will be naysayers out there for myriad reasons, including the schedule, though I'd say taking two of three each from the Mariners and Rangers at home while getting two of three from the Dodgers in Los Angeles are pretty solid accomplishments.
I do think the playoff projections are probably right in that the chances of the Cubs missing the playoffs this season are greater than the chances of them making it, much less making a deep playoff run.
Regardless, it seems that the team is returning to relevance and it's certainly fun to watch again. Compared to what the team provided in the second half of 2021 and then for basically all of 2022, it's at least provided reason for Cubs fans to enjoy themselves again.