Here we are at the end of July, and meaningful baseball is finally happening! The Boys of Summer are playing games that actually count! I find myself having to pinch myself to prove that I’m not dreaming.
I could wax hyperbolic about what baseball means to our country right now, but that is perhaps best suited for a more gifted writer. Suffice it to say, I am personally over-the-moon excited about this 2020 season, whatever it may bring or look like. No matter what happens, it is baseball. The world can only bet better with America’s pastime in it.
Questions surround the MLB season in general, but the Chicago Cubs have their own fair number to answer. Only time will tell how this rotation temporarily sans Jose Quintana will fair. Will their bullpen be able to cobble together enough success from its spare parts? Is Craig Kimbrel going to earn that paycheck this year? How will David Ross fair as a rookie manager in this weird season?
Ever since Theo Epstein worked his magic, Northside fans have heard a lot about the “core.” More than ever, it is time for that core group of players to step to the plate and carry the team. In this writer’s humble opinion, the 2020 season will not come down to the rotation, pen, or rookie skipper. This season belongs to the core. With only sixty games to earn a spot in the postseason, there is simply not enough time for players to struggle out of the gate. Along those lines, three players absolutely must start hot if they plan to seek October glory.
The Cubs have a new leadoff hitter, and he may be the perfect man for the job. His job is now to set the table for the guns behind him. I mean this both in terms of the lineup card and the calendar. In the past, of the three hitters I am spotlighting today, Kris Bryant has had the most consistent early-season success.
In 2017 and 2018, Bryant slashed .289/.391/.515 and .291/441/.506 respectively during the first month of the season. Historically, he tends to start a bit slower in the power department, notching only seven homer runs total during March/April of 2017 and 2018 combined. However, the on-base and slugging are definitely still there. In 2019 he saw those numbers dip to .230/.355/.420. It is precisely this sort of dip that the Cubs do not need from him. Which Bryant will start in 2020? The 2017-2018 variety or 2019? Here’s hoping for the former.
Once upon a time, Kyle Schwarber defied all conventional expectations and pulled off the superhuman feat of returning from a dreadful knee injury in time for some absolutely critical at-bats in the World Series. Albert Almora might have scored the go-ahead run in the tenth inning, but he was on to pinch run after Schwarber’s single. That offseason, the front office elected to let Dexter Fowler walk in free agency, and the keys to the leadoff spot were handed to Schwarber. The results were nothing short of a disaster. After a slash of .204/.333/.344 in March/April and .120/.232/.337 in May, the one-time hero was in the minors.
He rebounded, though 2017 was mostly a lost cause for him. The 2018 campaign began better, resulting in a .291/441/.506 slash over the first month, but 2019 saw a return to the slow start with a .241/.308/.434. Schwarber is now the Cubs cleanup hitter. He protects Baez and provides a critical on-base heavy, power bat from the left side. Additionally, he now has the benefit of the universal DH (when he’s not in left), meaning more opportunities for him to play every day. The Cubs desperately need 2018 Schwarber to start the season.
As someone who is coming off a spinal fusion surgery, I know personally how difficult it is to live with severe back pain. As he begins to hit the middle stages of his career, Anthony Rizzo is having increasing issues with his back. His return to action for the last exhibition game of summer camp was quite encouraging, but there is no question that Anthony Rizzo is the heart and soul of this Cubs franchise. He may not be their flashiest player. He’s not even their best, but he is the engine that makes the team go. His personality is exactly what this team needs, but he’s more than that. He’s the pillar of consistency on the field.
Rizzo started hot in 2017 and 2018, posting a .289/.391/.515 and .291/441/.506, respectively. In 2017, he followed it up with a dreadful May (.194/.347/.398). While the team saw success early last season, Rizzo did not, at least by his standards, posting a .230/.355/.420 slash. His consistent bat is what the Cubs need to weather some of the all-or-nothing stretches that Javier Baez or Jason Heyward bring to the table. Penciled in at the two hole, Rizzo needs to be the on base machine that brings pop to the lineup, protects Bryant, and forms a murderous top of the order.
The beauty of Major League Baseball is found in its marathon season. It is a game typically battled over enormous sample sizes. “Hot” teams can only go so far when success is necessary over a 162 game season. This strange 60 game sprint is going to test many conventions. Getting “hot” is going to be critical. If Bryant, Schwarber, and Rizzo can catch fire early, the Cubs just may find themselves in pursuit of October glory.