Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 30, 2023 -- "Contending Cubs?"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Contending Cubs?
Vol. 15, No. 42
May 30, 2023

Chiming in as a selfish Cubs fan to say that I would love a higher share of coverage to the popular teams. I've been craving to hear your perspective on Justin Steele/Christopher Morel/the Cubs’ awful one-run record, etc.!

-- Mark W.

I had a snarky lede all ready to go for this one, but yesterday’s result -- a one-hit shutout against the best team in baseball -- makes it seem petty. Marcus Stroman dropped one of the Cubs’ best starts of the century on the Rays.

Stro, the Man (best Cubs starts, by Game Score, 2001-2023)

Jake Arrieta        8/30/15    98
Jake Arrieta        9/16/15    97
Kerry Wood          5/25/01    97
Carlos Zambrano     9/14/08    96
Marcus Stroman      5/29/23    92
Rich Hill           9/16/06    92
Mark Prior          9/30/04    92

This was the Stroman from the catalogue. He threw 105 pitches, 72 of them for strikes, not a single one above 93 mph. Working mostly sinker/slurve -- Statcast pegs his slider as a separate pitch from the latter -- he didn’t allow a single ball hit above 102 mph, and just three with a hit probability above 31%. It’s the kind of performance that’s hard to pull off in today’s game, all weak contact and ground balls, but it’s what Stroman did at his peak with the Blue Jays and what he’s tapped into so far in 2023. He leads the NL in innings pitched and WHIP, and among pitchers with at least 100 batted balls allowed, only Joe Ryan is allowing fewer balls to be barreled.

Perhaps most importantly, he finished the game, allowing David Ross to avoid turning the game over to the grab bag of line drives that is his bullpen. Cubs relievers have a 4.65 ERA, 27th in MLB, and the Cubs have lost four games they led heading into the seventh, two they led heading into the ninth. Yesterday’s 1-0 victory was just the Cubs’ third one-run win, and they’re 3-10 in one-run games as a whole. The results are a bit worse than the quality -- the bullpen’s FIP, 3.97, is above average -- but only journeyman Mark Leiter Jr. and failed starter prospect Adbert Alzolay being consistently effective. The team has just six saves, and no pitcher has more than two. I like a role-less bullpen, but what the Cubs have had is more a situation in which pitchers just haven’t been good enough to claim jobs.

Mark’s underlying point, that I hadn’t written about the Cubs, isn’t an unfair one. As I have said a number of times, teams that get my attention are the ones surprising me, one way or another, early in the season. Even at the Cubs’ peak, when they were 12-7 totally because they were eating dinner together, I never saw it as more than a middling team playing at the top of its range. We’ve seen the bottom of the range since then, and the end result -- 23-30 -- has them slightly underperforming my expectations two months ago (75-87). I’m not sure there’s a team in baseball about which my preseason analysis leaves me more satisfied. The Cubs are paying a lot of money for a team with no superstars. Stroman and Dansby Swanson are on pace for eight- and seven-win seasons, to be sure, but I’ll take the under on both.

The Cubs had a team of good, not great players, and so they needed everything to go right in order to contend. It hasn’t. The bullpen has cost them games. Cody Bellinger, a good pickup, got hurt and exposed the team’s lack of a second center fielder in or anywhere near the majors. The winter’s shopping spree has mostly been a disaster -- Jameson Taillon, Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, Tucker Barnhart, Michael Fulmer. Only Swanson, Bellinger, and Drew Smyly are playing well.

I saw some consternation over the weekend when the Cubs briefly had the worst record in the NL. That’s not meaningful; the entire NL is separated by less than ten games, and the bottom six teams by less than two. To some extent, the Cubs are victims of that offseason shopping spree and that 12-7 start, which set unreasonable expectations for a roster heavy on “average.”

It’s also heavy on age. The Stroman start yesterday got me thinking, and while he still feels like a young guy to me, he’s 32 now. With Kyle Hendricks back, in fact, four of the Cubs’ five starters are at least 31 years old. By weighted age, as Baseball Reference calculates it, the Cubs have the ninth-oldest pitching staff and 11th-oldest set of hitters in the game. The Cubs have yet to give any playing time to anyone under 24, one of just five teams that hasn’t done so. Less than a quarter of their PAs, and about 16% of their innings, have been given to players under 27.

That’s an unusual position for a team that is supposed to be coming out of a rebuilding period, having traded off or otherwise lost the core of its World Champion roster from seven years ago. The Cubs, perhaps feeling local pressure, tried to accelerate their process by signing all those free agents this winter, but they hadn’t put a young core in place yet.

In his email, Mark references Justin Steele, who was drafted during the Obama Administration and will turn 28 in six weeks. Steele has been a success story, getting established in the rotation a year ago and posting a 3.18 ERA (3.20 FIP) in 24 starts. He’s built on that in ’23, with a 2.77 ERA (2.86 FIP) and just shy of six innings a start. Like Stroman, Steele isn’t overpowering, and he leans even more on his two best pitches, a four-seamer and a slider that, combined, he’s thrown 95% of the time this year. His fastball is a single pitch on the page, but depending on how he throws it can have cut or ride action that makes it hard for hitters to pick up. Among 390 qualified pitchers in the league, Steele’s fastball is in the bottom five for vertical movement. Like Stroman, Steele is generating a lot of weak contact.

I was skeptical about Steele coming into the season, and I am uncertain how long he’ll be able to pitch this effectively. For the moment, though, as long as he sits 92 and maintains his movement profile, I have to move him from a #4 to a #2/#3 in my thinking. For a franchise that has struggled to produce pitchers since Hendricks reached the majors, Steele is a massive win.

I’m less excited about Morel, whose recent hot streak was the very definition of “unsustainable,” briefly marrying a 9/1 K/BB, .500 BABIP and 50% HR/FB in something out of a Wiffle Ball game. Morel was a good story a year ago and got exposed as the year went on, with a .194/.269/.376 second half that included nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits. He’s still striking out too much -- 31% at Triple-A, 37% in the majors -- to take seriously. There’s power and speed in this package, to be sure, but not enough bat-to-ball.

More worrisome is finding Morel a place to play. There’s no room for him on the dirt, and he cannot play the outfield. In a bit more than 500 innings over the last two years, he’s been among the worst outfielders in baseball by any measure. The Cubs can spot him now and again for Nico Hoerner and Patrick Wisdom, though it’s not clear Morel can handle third base, either. Morel’s future may have to come in another organization. The best unit on the Cubs is their infield defense, which has enabled a staff with a middling strikeout rate to allow the fifth-fewest runs in the NL. They do not want to mess with that group.

That brings us to the big question: What do the Cubs do now? They invested a lot in making 2023 a contending season. While they’re 23-30, their underlying performance is better than that. Even at 23-30, they’re just five games out in a weak NL Central and 4 1/2 behind the final wild-card slot. The offense isn’t the problem; they’re 11th in the majors with a 105 wRC+, thanks to an NL-leading .333 OBP driven by a 9.9% walk rate that’s third in the game. OBP is Life. (Thanks, Gary Huckabay.) They have, as the Morel situation makes clear, at least one too many good hitters.

The pitching, yesterday’s heroics aside, is the weak spot, especially the bullpen. So do you look to trade a Morel, a Nick Madrigal (26 and with no place to play), maybe even an arm like Jordan Wicks, to strengthen the 2023 team’s shot at a best-of-three at home against the Padres or Phillies or Mets? The Cubs spent the winter trying to do something on the field in 2023, and it will be hard to back away from that, no matter the actual record. Relievers are the easiest thing to add at the deadline, and that’s what the Cubs need most.

The other path is to recognize that there’s no need to be all-in this year. The Cubs’ core isn’t all locked up for 2024, but much of it is. Stroman can opt out. Bellinger has a mutual option. Hendricks has an inexpensive team option. If you keep your prospects, Wicks could be up in September and in the rotation next Opening Day. Big righty Ben Brown, acquired from the Phillies last summer, could be up next month. Pete Crow-Armstrong will be an option in center field next year, playing plus-plus defense, though still developing as a hitter. If you focus on 2024 and beyond, you have a lot of trade chips -- Morel, Stroman, Wisdom, Leiter, Yan Gomes -- to use to make those teams better.

The Cubs being a very good team in 2023 was always wishcasting. The talent base was never there to win 90 games, and their offseason moves seemed less aimed at winning games than winning the press conferences. Recognizing this team’s limitations and reversing that process, taking the focus off the 2023 team to make the 2024-27 ones better, is the way for Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins to go.