It’s early in the Chicago Cubs’ season, but it’s not too early for a few trends to begin to emerge.
Among those are at least one or two surprises, like the Cubs’ offense ranking near the top of the league in several categories. Going into Sunday’s game against the Dodgers, the Cubs had the best run differential in the National League and the third-highest in baseball. Their team OPS (.805) ranked only behind the Rays.
The key to this group’s earlysuccess has been the offseason gamble the front office made. Team president Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins chose to bolster their lineup with several veteran bats, but many of them were projects. The only sure thing was Dansby Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million deal, but otherwise they took on guys like Cody Bellinger, Trey Mancini, and Eric Hosmer to fill out the order. The idea for those three was that banking on them to have turnaround seasons would be fruitful one way or another.
Of that group, Bellinger had the highest ceiling and the lowest floor; he played like a future Hall of Famer his first three seasons but fell off of an offensive cliff for the next three. But with about 90 plate appearances in the 2023 season, Bellinger is looking a lot closer to the version of himself that won the 2017 Rookie of the Year and 2019 National League MVP. He has a .927 OPS and five home runs and is hitting well over .400 in his last seven games.
“I definitely thought this would be an all-year process, and I’m happy he’s gotten off to a good start,” Ross said. “But I think we’re all going to go through peaks and valleys throughout this journey. And the more you’re able to get off to a good start I think it just helps the mental side a lot of the time.”
In other words, Bellinger’s great start is good for him and good for the rest of the offense.
And along with Bellinger, don’t miss the fact that another reason for the offense’s success has been Patrick Wisdom’s monster start to the season. He had a 1.002 OPS headed into Sunday and is behind only Max Muncy and Pete Alonso for the most home runs thus far this season.
“I don’t know that I’m surprised by it,” Ross said of the performance of his group. “There’s a lot of potential, and these guys are proven big-leaguers.”
The result has been a lineup that on its best days creates trouble for opposing pitchers from top to bottom. In Friday’s 13-0 win over the Dodgers, for example, every batter in Ross’ starting lineup had at least one hit, and five of them had multiple. Through the first 21 games of the season, the Cubs have scored 10 or more runs six times. Last year, they scored in the double digits six times all season. Currently. they rank fourth in baseball in total runs scored (121). In 2022, they were 22nd.
The offense has done so well that even on their worst days, they are still scoring. In Saturday’s loss to the Dodgers, they still plated four despite not firing on all cylinders.
“It wasn’t our best offensive day up and down the lineup and all of the things we’ve done up to this point, and we still scored four runs,” manager David Ross said.
Take Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Dodgers as another example. Other than Yan Gomes’ fifth-inning home run, the fifth through ninth hitters collectively reached base only once, and in a tough matchup against Clayton Kershaw, the Cubs offense still put up three runs.
The overall success of the offense thus far has a lot to do with how well the top of the order guys have performed. On Sunday, two of the Cubs’ three runs were scored in the first inning on hits by Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki after Nico Hoerner helped set the table.
As a result, key members of the team brim with confidence. Despite dropping the overall series against Los Angeles four games to three over the past two weekends, the guys in the Cubs locker room still see themselves as able to go toe-to-toe with the best of the National League.
“We see where we stack up against them,” Marcus Stroman said of their two weekend slates with the Dodgers. “We know that we can compete with them each and every day. We don’t feel like we’re way behind them.
“We truly think we can compete with anybody in the league. There’s nobody that we’re looking up to thinking ‘That’s where we need to get.’”
This is all good, and it’s safe to expect that reinforcements will come before too long in the form of Matt Mervis, Christopher Morel, and even others waiting on the 40-man roster. But the reality is that a very productive offense and mostly good starting pitching has yielded a 12-9 record thus far. That’s not bad, but it’s tough to get enthused at this point when the Pirates and Brewers are both off to very hot starts. The Cubs have not faced Pittsburgh yet, and they lost the opening series of the season to Milwaukee two games to one.
So take it all with a grain of salt. It’s about a month into the season, and that is enough to start taking some of the trends that have emerged seriously. But it’s still only April. The Cubs have shown so far that they have an offense capable of scoring a lot, and even on their bad days. It’s likely that they will get even better when promotions from the minor leagues start to come. But at the same time, they’re still looking up at the Pirates and Brewers in their division. Tempering expectations might be in order.
Or just listen to Stroman:
“There’s no one that we’re scared of. There are no things we feel like we need to do to be more of a team to compete with anybody else.”