Baseball

We wrap up our singular player reviews (I’ll have a group one tomorrow about the pen and bench) with the pitcher who might have saved it all, who probably could still help, and yet is probably not coming back. It was a confusing year for Cole Hamels, who looked 27 again for much of it, and then definitely 35 for the important portion. Wait, that’s not confusing at all. Pretty simple, even. Well I’m an idiot. Anyway, let’s do it up.

2019 Stats

27 starts, 141 innings

3.81 ERA  4.09 FIP

9.08 K/9  3.56 BB/9  1.39 WHIP

47.3 GB%  36.4% Hard-Contact Rate  12.9% HR/FB

87 ERA-  2.5 WAR

Tell Me A Story: It’s probably best to look at Hamels’s season before his late-June oblique injury and then his attempted comeback as two separate entities. Because before the injury, Hamels was pretty brilliant. In the first 98.2 innings of 2019, Hamels had a 2.92 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP and a 3.58 FIP. Hitters only managed a .231 average off of him, and he was getting over half his contact on the ground. That’s all very good, and no one seemed to care that he was 35. Or even notice, really.

And then he got hurt. And it was the same injury he had in Texas, the one that knocked him off-stride for basically a full season. The one that made him pretty damn affordable via trade for the Cubs. And it was clear that Hamels wasn’t healthy, but still trying to pitch through it, which should have raised more question than it did about the Cubs medical and training staff as he was far from the only one laboring through lingering physical problems. Hamels only threw 42 innings after the injury, though he made 10 starts. His ERA was 5.79. Hitters went for a .315 average off of him, his walk-rate went up a third, and his ground-ball rate dropped by almost a quarter.

When Hamels came back, he had lost a mile per hour or so from all of his pitches, and he didn’t throw that hard to begin with. Worse yet, he’d lost a ton of horizontal movement to his cutter, which wasn’t even breaking in on right-handed hitters anymore. To go with that, his change had lost some fade as well:

It was almost as if Hamels couldn’t “finish” his pitches due to some physical ailment.

Hamels wasn’t around for the series at home to the Cardinals, and didn’t complete more than four innings in any of his last four starts. He was able to gut through some starts post-injury or dance through raindrops, but also got mutilated by the Brewers, Phillies, and Reds in the back half of his season. A healthy Hamels most certainly doesn’t lose all those games, and can probably go longer in others and show up to the post against the Cardinals. Would it have made a difference? It would have made a difference, perhaps not the difference.

Contract: Free agent.

Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: This isn’t as cut and dried as some Cubs fans might think. While it’s clear the Cubs need an upgrade in the rotation, and now thanks to the hole left by Hamels they have a clear spot to do it in, the options aren’t plentiful. Gerrit Cole is a pipe dream, and even if Stephen Strasburg were to opt out he might be an even bigger pipe dream (as well as something of a scare after his postseason load. Yes yes, “phrasing”). The rest of the free agent pool absolutely blows. Trade targets aren’t plentiful, as Syndergaard might not be gettable for what the Cubs have to peddle. An aging Corey Kluber? That might yield the same results as Hamels, given his injury problems this year, and he’s only two years younger.

So what the Cubs, or any other team, needs to decide is if Hamels is the pre-injury dude, the post-injury dude, or something in between. And with that, at age-36 is he more or less likely to get hurt again, or more or less likely to recover as well from this one. That’s a lot to figure out, and pretty much none of it has a clear answer.

The pre-injury Hamels is probably enough for the Cubs, especially with a boosted bullpen and at a cheaper rate than the $20M he got last year. Given his age, injury, and the miserly free agent market run by all the scrooges, he’s never going to get that $20M again. But even a guy who’s in between Hamels’s pre- and post-injury performance isn’t enough for the Cubs. Not without another move, at least.

The Cubs might be best slow-playing this one unless something else falls into their lap. If Hamels can’t find the money he wants or team he wants for a while, and you can get him on reasonable money for one year, he very well might be worth the risk. Again, until his injury, Hamels had the 12th-best ERA in all of baseball top-20 in FIP.

Still, you’d have deep reservations about him making it unscathed through a full season, and if you plan on playing in October again, how you’d manage him through that as well. I’d still say if he comes in at somewhere between $10M-$12M for the season, you could absolutely justify the risk.

It shouldn’t be the Cubs first option. Maybe not even second. But as a third or fourth? You can definitely see it.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Cubs 82-74   65-91

GAMETIMES: Tuesday-Thursday 6:05pm

TV: Tuesday/Thursday NBCSN, WGN Wednesday

THE DAMNED: Bucs Dugout

SERIES PREVIEW

Depth Charts & Pitching Staffs

Pirates Spotlight

Oh right, the Cubs have to finish out the schedule.

It’s hard to think of a more funeral dirge atmosphere than the next three nights at PNC Park, where the zombified Cubs will stand around and stare at the long dead and white flag waving Pirates. It’s hard to believe it was only 10 days ago that the Cubs throttled the Pirates so hard at Wrigley that you genuinely believed they were ready to close the season with a flourish. It seems like it was last season or even longer. But that’s all it was. Baseball can be so cruel.

Oh sure, the Cubs could run the table here and the Brewers could get Sonny Gray‘d and Luis Castillo‘d in Cincy and suddenly the last weekend might matter somewhat. But does it? What would a miracle run get the Cubs? One more game with no Kris Byrant, a one-legged Anthony Rizzo, and a one-handed Javy Baez? There’s only so much one team can carry. It’s probably for the best if everyone just goes home.

On the surface, the Cubs have a question if Cole Hamels will make his start on Thursday. It probably hinges on whether the game is for anything, which it likely won’t be. But considering how bad Hamels has been while hurt, considering it’s the Pirates either way, and considering if it’s even a question, you can probably look for Alec Mills to take that start and Hamels to start looking up real estate listings in Orange County.

Anthony Rizzo probably isn’t far from being sat for the rest of the season either, though he will insist on playing until there is absolutely no point. Other than that, I’m not sure what to tell you. More experience for Nico Hoerner? A last chance to see Ben Zobrist? Likely Nicholas Castellanos too?

As for the “always could be worse” department, the Pirates are currently the whole thing. You saw them simply get bludgeoned at Wrigley. They followed that up by getting swept at home by the equally moribund Mariners where they scored six runs. They then got swept without every really breathing in Milwaukee, losing the first two games of that one by an aggregate 20-2.

This team clearly gave up somewhere in July, and yet they’ve let Clint Hurdle continue to mummy his way thorough this season. One relief pitcher went on the DL for good after punching another reliever. Then it turned out the reliever he was punching was a rapist. That’s just one story from the second half of the season, one in which the Pirates will end up losing more than 50 games.

Josh Bell has flattened out. So has Bryan Reynolds to a point. Joe Musgrove has been ok, but other than that it’s been a cavalcade of janitors and train-hoppers that have filled out the lineup and pitching staff. Where this team is going is anyone’s guess. Bell has yet to prove he’s someone you build around. Reynolds seems much more like a complimentary piece. There’s no one in the rotation with Taillon out until most likely 2021. There aren’t really any prospects to get excited about. It could be real ugly on The Confluence for a while.

The schedule says they have to do this. Expect the games to match. Almost there, though.

Baseball

It’s strange, because there’s not much more that’s new to say. I’ve written series recaps before that pointed out how that given series was a perfect demonstration of the systematic failure at every level of the Cubs this year. Ownership, front office, managing, training staff, players. Every single thing has simply not been up to par this season, and in some ways the Cubs are getting exactly what they deserve in the most humiliating fashion. And yet, I bet you and I are a lot more upset about it than the Ricketts family right now.

The thing I kept coming back to is arrogance. Arrogance of the whole organization that things would simply work out because it was the Cubs doing it. The arrogance of Theo Epstein that he would be able to buy his way out of all the mistakes he’s made, and then having no plan when he couldn’t. The arrogance that any player coming through the system would come good, simply because it was the Cubs system. The arrogance that not producing one pitcher until Rowan Wick would be fine. The arrogance of the manager who simply refused to learn how to adapt to a game that has rapidly changed on his watch. The arrogance of players who have burned through three hitting coaches now because they refused to change anything they did in the biggest situations. The arrogance of a medical staff that waited a week to get Javier Baez an MRI, or had Cole Hamels clearly pitching hurt for a month, which had its knock-on effects, or Kris Bryant on one leg for longer than that, or the more I can keep mentioning.

And that has led to a season of Hail Marys to try and save it. Calling up Ian Happ before he had really dominated at Iowa was a Hail Mary. Robel Garcia was a Hail Mary. Ben Zobrist after four months out was a Hail Mary. Craig Kimbrel with no spring training was a Hail Mary. Anthony Rizzo on one leg was a Hail Mary, though one that ended up pretty much working. The Cubs didn’t have a foundation, so they just had to throw everything they could at the wall.

And it’s come to a head over the last six games. And funny enough, it starts with the starting rotation, which was supposed to be the one thing they could count on. For weeks, Jon Lester has been a fifth starter, and given his age and odometer, that’s not really surprising. Jose Quintana decided that looked like fun and didn’t want to stick around for more than three innings. Hamels as previously mentioned.

Which meant that even a September bullpen was charred, to the point where the Cubs had no choice but to let Yu Darvish try and finish this one out today. There was no one else. It led to rushing Kimbrel back when he clearly was not ready on Thursday or yesterday. It led to Joe Maddon having to make a lot of in-game decisions, which isn’t what you want. Which is why you have a Make-A-Wish like Danny Hultzen trying to pull Q’s ass out of a jam yesterday to give up a lead.

Yesterday’s game is a stinger in another way, as when the Cards did take that 5-3 lead they did it by simply lining a single up the middle or the opposite way with men on base. If the Cubs had taken that approach more often this season and only trying for the world-ending bomb when it was on offer, where might they be? Nah, we’ll just whiff on another high fastball. It’s going great for us.

But hey, the offense put up eight runs yesterday. They just can’t string any innings from the pen together. Here’s a question, how does Tyler Chatwood throw a third of an inning this series? Is he hurt too? The Cubs had a chance to have a multi-inning piece all season with him in the pen, to shield all the things they didn’t have. Maddon refused because he doesn’t see the game that way. Let’s try James Norwood some more.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how upset at the offense I can get when Baez is out, Bryant is clearly hurt and not on cortisone shots anymore, and Rizzo is also on one leg. Might have helped if Willson Contreras took a pitch this week, which he didn’t. But it’s the rotation, rotation, rotation. It left Yu without a net. Final nail.

When you lose four one-run games, and as many as the Cubs have this year, it’s easy to point to luck, and that’s part of it. The bigger part for this team is the pen and they simply don’t make all the plays like they used to. They find a way to give up another run, or keep an inning going, or walk a guy to keep turning the lineup over. They haven’t been as locked in this year as they have been, and they’re now a middling defensive team. This is a big deal. It’s mostly the outfield, as the infield still ranks among the top in groundball efficiency. You’ve got to make the plays. The Cubs didn’t today, they haven’t a lot, and they lose.

They’re going to win less than 85 games, likely. That should never, ever happen with this roster.

Heads will roll now, unlike the only-promised bloodletting of last offseason. Maddon’s toast, to be replaced by whatever automaton that will run the team exactly how Theo sees it. I guess that’s fine, though I wonder how Theo sees the game now. It’s felt like he’s been caught and passed by other front offices, and without an unending checkbook, he can’t find a way back. We’ll see. For the first time here the daggers will be out this winter and a heavy focus on what they do.

There will be talk of trading a major piece. I don’t see how you get equal value for any of them and not create a hole in your lineup you can’t fill properly. If I had to wager, Contreras’s name will be the one you hear most, and I guess if you get a genuine centerfielder out of it, and maybe a pitcher, you’d have to listen. I don’t know that Victor Caratini wouldn’t be exposed with a full slate of ABs, and just how many .900+ OPS catchers do you think there are out there?

Still, these questions would have easier answers if the Cubs had produced anything out of their own system the past few seasons. The Dodgers can’t fit all of them in. Neither can the Astros. The Yankees had a whole team injured and might end up with the best record in the game. You have to keep reloading. The Cubs gave you Robel Garcia.

And I don’t know the future is any brighter in that sense. It would be the same mistake the Cubs made on Almora, on Happ, even on Russell back in 2015, to just hand the 2nd base job to Nico Hoerner in Mesa. He has too little experience. But the Cubs might have to given financial restraints. Which are in place because they’ve blown so many big contracts.

There’s a way out of this. But it’s an awfully dark tunnel to get there, with a lot of pits and wrong turns that have to be avoided. I can’t tell you I’m 100% confident the Cubs can negotiate it, given what we’ve seen over the last eight months.

But as always…

Onwards…

Baseball

When you score 55 runs over four games, your other foibles tend to be overlooked. That’s an old baseball cliche, y’know. So this morning, everyone’s a little less concerned about the Cubs being without half of their “core four” for the rest of the regular season because of all the runs pouring like an avalanche comin’ down the mountain. On the other side, the Cubs will soon stop seeing the confused and despondent cooking-school rejects that have taken the mound for the Pirates and Reds the last four games. It actually starts tonight with Sonny Gray, and the Cardinals will sport real live pitchers for those seven games to decide the fate of us all.

So the worry is that when the Cubs need to fight fire with fire, pitching-wise (which is probably ice with ice given that offense is always considered the hot weapon and defense the cool one so “fight Sub-Zero with Sub-Zero?”), they only have two of five guys who can do it right now. If it wasn’t for Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, this season may have already been taken out to the curb. The three lefties have been woeful of late. Now maybe that’s something you can paper over for 12 more games, which is all that’s left. But the Cubs have been trying to get around it for a few weeks now, so there just might not be that much sand left in the top chamber here.

Two of them are easily explicable. Jon Lester might simply be past it, and the thin margins of error he already had the past couple seasons are simply now imperceptible and unreachable. His fellow over-35 southpaw, Cole Hamels, is coming back from an injury that derailed his career once already for a year and a half, and he seems completely lost or hurt or both. To expect these two to be anything more than what we’ve seen is almost certainly optimistic at best, deluded at worst. We have the evidence of why this is happening.

Jose Quinana, on the other hand, is a stranger case. There’s no injury that we know of. He’s only 30, though has certainly piled up his share of innings. So health and age aren’t the concerns for him that they are for Lester and Hamels. And yet his recent stretch is worrying as well. With three starters rolling, you figure the Cubs could close this season out triumphantly. With only two, it becomes more of a stretch of imagination as the Cardinals spend a majority of those games making sure the Cubs aren’t actually putting up a touchdown or two.

It’s easy to forget, even if it was just a month ago, how good Q was in August. He had an ERA of 2.02 with 39 Ks and only six walks. He had a four start stretch where he gave up just four runs over 26 innings. And the numbers could have actually been better. He had an extremely weird start against the Nationals where he literally did not give up one hard-hit ball, almost all of it was on the ground, and yet it all found holes or the Cubs starting throwing it around like a shuttlecock. Even his last start of that month was good, though Maddon got a little panicky and pulled him with two outs in the sixth even though he hadn’t given up a run.

But September has been puke-tastic. He’s only seen the 4th inning once, and has given up 13 earned runs in just 10.1 innings. Again, some of this is weird, as his start in San Diego was essentially sabotaged by defense again. But it’s not like Q to fall apart after something like that, which he promptly did after Ben Zobrist did a fine Mitch Trubisky impression on a double-play ball (too soon?).

So is there something going on? On the surface, there’s isn’t a lot of change. There’s no velocity drop, it’s not like his walks have risen hugely, or anything else we jump to first. When digging around a bit, it does look a little like his change-up has flattened and lost some drop:

The past two starts he hasn’t gotten a swing-and-miss on it, which is a problem.

Still, there’s an element of weirdness, as there always is in baseball. Quintana in his last three starts has been getting way more ground-balls than he did during his brilliant stretch in August, which you would think should be a good thing. In those August starts he only got half of his contact-against on the ground once. He’s done that in every start since and including that Washington one, but with these results. Does he miss Baez the most?

What he hasn’t gotten in his last couple outings is any whiffs on anything but his four-seamer, and that’s got to change. As you’d think, or hope, that with the greater amount of grounders, even adding a smidge of Ks to it would get Q back on top sharpish. It’s likely the Cubs will need that.

Baseball

vs.

Records: Reds 70-80  Cubs 81-68

GAMETIMES: Monday-Wednesday 7:05

TV: NBCSN Monday, WCIU/ESPN Tuesday, WGN Wednesday

NOT READY FOR FULL-TIME DALTON YET: Blog Red Machine

DEPTH CHARTS & PITCHING STAFFS

Note: Due to scheduling and traveling, there isn’t a Reds Spotlight today. Picture one in your head if you must. Maybe Votto’s regression or Aquino’s 12 wRC+ in September. Choose your own adventure. 

After 47 runs in three games and thoroughly burning any sense of self-worth the Pirates might have thought about having, the Cubs will look to keep it going against the Reds. The challenge with the Reds is they have one real live pitcher starting a game this series, and a couple ones in the pen, neither of which the Pirates can claim right now. And the Cubs might be without their linchpin.

We all are holding our breath to hear news of Anthony Rizzo, which will come down after this goes to print. Everyone’s expecting the worst, because when a player is helped off the field that generally means a week or two, maybe more. The Cubs don’t have two weeks or more, and face the apocalyptic seven games with the Cardinals. As if the Reds haven’t been enough of a headache. The simplest solution is a lot of Victor Caratini at first, though you may see some of Happ and Bryant there too. The latter gets David Bote’s bat into the lineup, though Caratini and Contreras both being in the lineup doesn’t leave you offensively short either. It just leaves you short of what Rizzo would provide.

Of course, another wonderful aspect of a Rizzo absence is more debate about the leadoff spot,, which has become the Cubs’ TIF funding. Rizzo moved there for the Pirates series, suddenly they turned into Loyola-Marymount, but now they have to figure it out again. Mostly you can count on Zobrist being there, and he can at least be representative. It’s basically a “So What Don’t You Want?” situation. Heyward has proven he can’t do it and doesn’t like it. They won’t try Bryant there, especially as he’s rediscovered some of his power over the weekend (if results against the Pirates even count). Contreras is another candidate against lefties, as long as we never see Almora there again. Go down the list and you see there aren’t a lot of answers.

Still, time moves on, and the Cubs have games to win. And as you know, the Reds are a spikier outfit than the Bucs. They’re coming off taking two of three from Arizona, seriously denting their charge to the wildcard. And they’ll have no compunction about doing the same to the Cubs. At least the Cubs will duck Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo. But they’ll get Sonny Gray, who’s been one of the best starter in the NL and especially of late. Gray has quality starts in 11 of his last 13, and he had a 0.74 ERA in August. His two September starts have seen him give up four runs…so he’s slowing down? Maybe? We’re trying here. Needless to say it would behoove the Cubs to get Monday and Wednesday and consider anything off of Gray a bonus.

The rotation is another problem the Cubs have to solve. All of Quintana, Hamels, and Lester have been backing up for weeks now, and while they got to save the relievers who matter (such as they are) due to the offensive supernova against Pittsburgh, they don’t want to go to that well any more than anyone’s stomach can handle. Hamels doesn’t look healthy, and Lester might just be running out of racetrack in his career. They are wheezing to the finish line and have to find something this series and in the season’s last two weeks, even if it’s just a death rattle.

It’s only two games now. It’s one and a half behind DC while one ahead of Milwaukee. But if the Cubs can at least hold that two games behind St. Louis, that basically puts it all on the seven games they have left together. Let’s do that.

Baseball

Game 1 Box Score: Cubs 5, Giants 3

Game 2 Box Score: Cubs 12, Giants 11

Game 3 Box Score: Cubs 1, Giants 0

And now back on top of the rollercoaster. The Cubs return home, where they’ve looked like a genuine class team all season, and though they did their best to drop one or two to the Giants, they also couldn’t break their own resolve. A resolve they only seem to have when donning the blue pinstripes. Still, they’ll enter the weekend in first place, no matter what the Cardinals do with the Rockies tonight. They won every type of game–a shootout, a pitcher’s duel, and your conventional one. Why does the rest have to be so hard?

Let’s…

-You wouldn’t suggest Cole Hamels is “back,” but he had at least enough stuff and enough savvy to kind of Forrest Gump his way through Tuesday’s opener. It was sort of the Jon Lester thing where you feel like he’s about to give at any moment, but gets through the inning and start simply because he wants to. After what he’d done his two previous you’ll take it, but we’d much prefer the dominating one from earlier in the season back.

-It had been a while since Rizzo had won a game for the Cubs on his own. You have to say though that a mark of a great player is that they’re still finding ways to help even when the power game goes. Rizzo has gotten on base consistently even if he wasn’t slugging, but a slugging binge is what the Cubs need.

-I was worried that with two recent starts for Tony Kemp that Joe Maddon had overreacted to two grounders that were outside Ian Happ‘s limited range during that collapse in Philly, but that fear has subsided since. And thank god for that.

-There isn’t much to say about Nick Castellanos at this point, but it is important to remember an unsustainable binge shouldn’t influence you or the Cubs on whether he should be re-signed this winter or not. There’s going to be a huge push to do so, and that may be the right decision, but just try to keep the whole picture in mind. He’s not a .400 hitter. He might be entering his prime right now and could be better than what he’s been before, but let’s try and keep reasoned here if possible.

-There is so much to say about Wednesday’s win I don’t know if I have time. We’ve been over Yu’s work, so we don’t have to go over that again. There were some curious decisions from Maddon, which he got away with because his offense decided they were going to win no matter what. He definitely got caught cold with how quickly it blew up on Darvish, which meant only Derek Holland was warming up. And when he got through two lefties who both got on, that meant he had to face a righty which he never should have to do. Secondly, Joe never seemed to realize that Little Yaz has been better against lefties than righties all season, even having Kyle Ryan deal with him today (which he also got away with).

In the 7th last night, Joe seems determined to make sure that Steve Cishek warms up and comes in double the amount now to make up for the appearances he missed while on the IL. Right into the fire. But there were runners on, lefties up, grounders needed, which is what Brandon Kintzler does. Cishek got out of it with only a sac fly given up, but you wanted things on the ground or Ks. Kintzler probably should have started the inning. Of course, Kintzler gets out of the 8th relatively cleanly. Coudl have used that in the 6th or 7th.

-Luckily, Kris Bryant is still a Cub. That’s three games in a week he’s pulled the Cubs’ ass out of a sling.

-Today’s game looked a lot like one where both teams played too late last night. The sun was the offensive MVP, and the Giants only real chance came after Castellanos got pretty dizzy chasing what would have been a homer from Crawford on 75 other home dates. Still, the Cubs got six outs from the pen to protect a one-run lead without needing Kimbrel or Cishek. That’s an upset.

-Those two outings were the best Kimbrel has looked since becoming a Cub. I won’t count on it to be a trend, as it’s just going to be a weird season for him given the preparation, but 98 MPH is 98 MPH.

Onwards…

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Giants 63-62   Cubs 66-58

GAMETIMES: Tuesday/Wednesday 7:05, Thursday 1:20

TV: NBCSN Tuesday/Wednesday, WGN Thursday

MISSION REFUGEES: McCovey Chronicles

SERIES PREVIEW POSTS

Depth Charts & Pitching Staffs

Giants Spotlight

Now that yet another nightmare road trip is over, the Cubs return to The Confines, where they’ll probably tease us by looking like an actual team worth giving a shit about fo six games. They’ll kick it off with three games against the walking anomaly that is the San Francisco Giants.

The Giants have convinced themselves, or maybe they have to convince themselves because there’s nothing else, that they’re still in this wildcard race. And technically they are, thanks to the grade-school basketball nature of the National League. They sit 3.5 games out of the second spot (the right to get domed by Strasburg or Scherzer on an October night), but have the Brewers, Mets, and Phillies to leap to get there.

And they’re there even though this team doesn’t do anything particularly well. The offense is second-worst in the NL, the rotation has to cling by its nails to maintain a middling status, and the bullpen has to save everything (which it can’t do as well at the moment after shedding some pieces at the deadline). They got here thanks to a ridiculous month of July where just about everything went right that could, except for that part where it carried delusion with it and may have stunted the whole thing for the next couple seasons.

The Giants are 8-9 in August, which is what they are. This is still the same team that stood 22-34 on June 1st, which is probably closer to the truth of what they are than a 19-6 July. It got a few spasms of usefulness out of some true nobodies like Yaz’s descendant, or Stephen Vogt, or now Alex Dickerson, Donovan Solano, or Austin Slater. None of these guys or the regulars are under 26 and none suggest this is something they can carry out for longer than a sneeze on the great timeline. But it was enough for Fairhad Zaidi to pass on the deadline for the most part, or fall asleep during it, or something.

Perhaps it being Bruce Bochy‘s last season Jewish mother-guilted Zaidi into at least making a half-ass attempt to get to a playoff spot, instead of Bochy having to serve out his last two months in the dugout watching an old, stripped, directionless club have its organs harvested. Or maybe that in combination with the weekend-detention nature of the National League led the Giants to believe something truly strange could really happen.

Either way, for this weekend, this is a lineup the Cubs staff should really buzz through, especially at home. There’s literally no pop here, as no one on the Giants have over 20 homers in a year where your neighbor who never wears sleeves and is always testing his boat engine has 25. And the Cubs will catch a break in that Madison Bumgarner will not pitch in the series, so the Cubs get looks at Tyler Beede and Dereck Rodriguez and his misspelled first name. Of course, they didn’t really do much with Beede back in San Francisco last month, though that was when the Giants swallowed a box of horseshoes and were still passing them. Shark will clean this up on Thursday afternoon, and generally the Cubs have had their way with him since he skipped town.

For the Cubs, it’s been something of a roster-palooza. The cadre of returning relievers from the IL has seen now both Albert Almora Jr. and David Bote punted back to Iowa to search for hard contact. It probably means more Tony Kemp than anyone should ever be comfortable with. Also Addison Russell to make everyone uneasy, but at least he can catch the ball on occasion. Cole Hamels will attempt to find the mechanics he left on the IL with his oblique, and there really aren’t too many lineups you’d choose over this Giants one to try and figure shit out against. Darvish and Hendricks just need to keep their recent form rolling.

Again, with the Cardinals and Brewers playing each other, the Cubs can make up ground on someone by treating this Giants team like the floating garbage ship that it really is. They’ll also, at least looking like, dodge Scherzer and Corbin on the weekend, so let’s do some things here.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Cubs 62-52   Reds 54-58

GAMETIMES: Thursday-Saturday 6:10, Sunday 12:10

TV: NBCSN Thursday, Friday, Sunday, WGN Saturday

SCHOTZIE’S LEAVINGS: Blog Red Machine

PREVIEW POSTS

Depth Charts & Pitching Staffs

Reds Spotlight

Once again, the Cubs will try to take momentum gained from a standout homestand onto a 10-game road trip that could see them, if not put the division to bed, give themselves a healthy cushion. The last time they tried this they stained the floors of each destination to the tune of a 3-6 cough-up. This one sets up even easier as the Reds are still below .500, the Phillies can be anything on a given day, and the Pirates have straight up given up. But with the way things have gone for the Cubs on the road, there simply can’t be any sure things.

One change for the Cubs is that Jonathan Lucroy will meet them in Cincinnati, though as of now Taylor Davis is still listed as the backup. That will change in the next day or two, as the Cubs have seen quite enough of that. Lucroy can’t hit anymore, and his brain might be broken, but he is only a season removed from being a pretty good handler back there, and that itself would be an improvement on Davis. He doesn’t rate highly this year, but maybe the significantly better pitching of the Cubs than the Angels can square that around. Again, he’s not going to hit much, and he hasn’t in three seasons, but he might actually get a hit and the Cubs got Taylor Davis’s annual one in that game against the Cardinals in May.

Everything else stays the same. Cole Hamels should have the training wheels taken off in his second start off the DL. Jon Lester will try to come back down from the stratosphere where the A’s put him on Tuesday.

To the Reds, who remade their team a bit at the trade deadline. Gone is Yasiel Puig from the major league roster, and in his King Galaxy Brain Trevor Bauer, whom the Cubs will see Friday. Bauer is certainly a massive upgrade from Tanner Roark, including the headache department. He’s walking more guys than he has in four seasons, and has had home run problems (who hasn’t?) which won’t be helped by the move south in Ohio. The Cubs will also see Alex Wood for the first time, making his four start spurt before he goes back onto the IL with some sort of arm trouble, given that his left one is made of paper mache at this point. The Cubs have had their issues with him in the past, as he carries a lifetime 2.86 ERA against them.

While the Cubs have had no problem making this offense look like something out of a comic book all season, it’s only lately they’ve done that to other teams. They put up 15 runs in two wins over the Angels earlier in the week. Over the past month everyone in the lineup aside from Votto and Peraza (and Votto has been awful in that span) have put up a 100 wRC+ or better, with Suarez and Ervin particularly molten. The latter of which you already knew about because he murdered the Cubs last trip in there and threw the body into the river rolled up in a rug.

The strength of the Reds, if it’s not the rotation, remains the pen, with Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and his Farnsworth-pants, and Robert Stephenson currently on great runs. The Cubs haven’t been totally ruined when they’ve had to do work against this pen, but it’s not the optimal path when dealing with this crew.

The Cardinals will have the Pirates at home and the Brewers will be entertaining the Rangers in Milwaukee, so if the Cubs want to hold onto this lead it’s likely not going to be handed to them. The Reds have been cumbersome and a nuisance all goddamn season. If the Cubs have turned any corner, finally getting one over on this side would be prime evidence of that.

Baseball

Game 1 Box Score: Cardinals 2, Cubs 1

Game 2 Box Score: Cardinals 7, Cubs 4

Game 3 Box Score: Cardinals 2, Cubs 1

It’s always important to breathe at a moment like this. Sweeps at the hand of those from Mos Eisley tend to accentuate the emotions and anger and whatever your particular grievance is with the team at that time. So it is tempting to say that the offense completely sucks, even though it doesn’t. Or that the rotation isn’t good enough, even though they didn’t do anything wrong this weekend. Or that the pen is an absolute abomination…and that would be correct.

The Cubs lost three coin-flips essentially, one caused by a three-hour rain delay which I’m more and more convinced shouldn’t be a thing that exist unless they have to. Both teams looked pretty damn flat this afternoon after a very late night last night, and the Cubs just made one ore two more mistakes and lost the last one.

It’s still important to note that this team is fourth in runs in the NL, second in wOBA. It might not feel like it right now, especially when they just got bladdered by a corpse, but they were also unlucky. Three of those line drives find holes on another day, and then what are we talking about?

It’s definitely a rough patch, 2-8 in their last 10, but that happens. The encouraging thing, if you need, is that the rotation bounced back which is probably the most important thing going forward. Let’s run it through:

The Two Obs

-It seems a bit silly to complain about the bullpen and its handling on a night when the Cubs scored one run, but that’s Friday for you. Miles Mikolas still has that in the bag on occasion, even if this year has been a struggle for him. But I don’t know why anyone would be in a hurry to get to Dillon Maples when there’s already a guy on base, and I’m a Maples guy and want him to be given every chance and more to finally nail down a spot (he probably won’t ever but I’m a hopeful sort). Mike Montgomery isn’t a situational lefty, and yet because he’s the only one out there besides Ryan (who blows but more on that in a sec) he keeps being used as one. I would trust Monty to get through Wong and Bader, though to be fair to Maples he did strike out Bader and didn’t get a call. But now the bases are loaded and you have to do something dumb and Cishek doesn’t really get strikeouts that much and here we are.

-Going over the woes of the pen is probably useless at this point. Everyone knows and there’s little that can be done via trade for another couple weeks at least. Even a Kimbrel Hail Mary doesn’t do anything until July. But it’s just laughable how the Cubs boasted about the amount of arms they would have between here and Iowa and almost none of them are major league pitchers. Ryan isn’t. Brach probably isn’t anymore. Edwards might not be on his bad days. Maples hasn’t proven it. Neither is Webster, Cedeno, or Collins.

-Saturday’s game goes haywire because of the weather delay. It was about how far Chatwood could go, which wasn’t far, but he’s actually been effective this year and is probably allowed a wonky one. There’s just nothing to be done after him, and Strop’s return isn’t a cure-all.

-Rough weekend for my guy Schwarber. He can’t strike out with the bases loaded on Saturday and it looks like the things are snowballing on him again. He remains simply awful with anyone on base, which actually backs up the logic of leading him off, but you wonder how much longer the Cubs can wait on him. It’s been two and a half seasons for him, and the over-glow of a few singles in the World Series can’t count for anything. I still think he has a big boom within him, but I would also say he’s got a month or six weeks to show it, otherwise the Cubs might want to monitor how the Reds handle their Dietrich-Gennett jam at second (probably by just sitting Winker or Puig and playing both and not sending either here, honestly).

-How does a team in the majors not know how to run a rundown or pickoff? The Cubs always make at least too many throws or outright fuck it up more than any team in the league. Only cost them the game today.

-For all the gifts his arm provide, Contreras has had a bad defensive year. He’s been a subpar framer for a few years now, has been lazy blocking balls far too often, and today’s error was another the Cubs can’t have. That doesn’t mean he should be benched or anything, it’s just something we’re going to live with. Teams are rarely going to run on him or even stray off bases that much, so the arm which made up for his defensive deficiencies elsewhere doesn’t even come out of the holster that often.

Onwards…

Baseball

When the PECOTA projections and others came out before the season and sent greater Cubdom into a Burning Man-like fit, a lot of what those systems saw was questions about the Cubs’ rotation. Well, not questions exactly, because computers don’t have questions they generate answers and this could turn into a philosophical debate that goes on forever about man and machine and that’s not really what we do here. ANYWHO, the Cubs starting rotation is definitely on the old side, definitely contains pitchers (other than Hendricks) who have had dips the past two years and who had peripherals that were a touch worrying.

These questions were basically not considered the first six weeks of the season, or the six weeks after the first one, where the Cubs rotation was probably the best in baseball and took the Cubs from 2-7 to multiple games up in the division. But now the Cubs have had a rough two weeks or so, a .500 road trip and a sub-.500 homestand before losing yesterday to the Astros (which tends to happen). There’s been an iffy couple trips through the rotation, which starts setting off alarm bells and if it doesn’t stop pretty soon will have bonfires and effigies and weird clothing in a desert somewhere (I’ve never been to Burning Man and don’t intend to, so I’m just going to have this very limited and comedic view of it).

Perhaps the most worrying part of the starting staff’s struggles of late is Cole Hamels. His past three starts have basically seen his nuts get kicked up into his throat. He’s only managed 13 innings, and in them he’s given up eight extra-base hits, 11 earned runs, nine walks against just 11 strikeouts, and 23 hits overall. That’s a 2.46 WHIP and a 7.61 ERA. So yeah, that’s not good. On the plus side, he remains extremely handsome.

So what’s been the issue? Clearly the control is something to be looked at, as Hamels had only walked 17 hitters in the previous 49 innings this season But we can go a little deeper.

On the plus side, Hamels hasn’t lost any velocity. His fastball has actually been at a higher MPH the past three starts than it was before, up over a 92.5 MPH average where it has been 91.2 in the three starts before. Hamels hasn’t seen any change in movement either, as no pitch has lost its drop or horizontal movement. His curve flattened out a little in his start against the Nats, but that was a one-off and has been where it has been all of the season for the most part.

There hasn’t been much of a change in usage, either. His last good start, against Milwaukee, he threw his fastball basically 70% of the time, but that was also an outlier and he’s been where he’s been all season, throwing it about just half the time.

But it’s the fastball/sinker where this issues seem to be. Or could be, if three starts are enough to go on. Check out his release point on his the fastball/sinker (which are basically the same thing for Hamels) over the course for the season:

Something of a dip, and his curve has seen the same though it was back to normal in Houston yesterday, it just didn’t get him saved from getting shelled.

Where does that result? Well, accuracy. Here’s where Hamels’s fastball was in his first eight starts of the season:

Pretty much in the strikezone, and when missing it was outside which is away from power for most righties. Basically zoning in on the outside corner, and when he did come inside it was low. Now the last three starts:

Whoops. All over the place, inside more than he’s been, not in the zone, and not surprisingly it’s inside and high in the zone where he’s getting mushed but good lately. It would seem the lower arm angle has cost him control and has led to pitches carrying inside and high to righties more often.

Once Hamels gets back to zeroing in on the outside corner again, or his arm-side corner, things should be fine. Let’s just hope he gets back there sooner than later.