After a brief series with the defending American League champions in Denver, the Rockies (38-23) now travel to Chicago to take on the other World Series participant, the Chicago Cubs. Fresh off their first World Series in over a century (I heard there was something significant to the 108-year drought), the Cubs (30-28) sit in the middle of a surprisingly close battle for first place in the NL Central.
The Rockies are 92-96 all-time against the Cubs, including a 40-50 mark at Wrigley Field. Last year the Rockies (4-2) and the Mets (5-2) were the only teams in baseball that had a winning record against the World Series champions. The two teams faced each other in Denver in early May; they split a doubleheader on May 9 and German Marquez flirted with a no-hitter en route to a Rockies victory.
We asked Al Yellon, of our SBNation partner site Bleed Cubbie Blue, to answer some questions to help preview the four-game set.
How long before the honeymoon phase of winning the first title in (almost) everyone’s lifetime ends?
I think that was definitely a factor in the Cubs' slow start. There were a lot of distractions early on, including two ceremony nights. In addition, several of the players made multiple promotional appearances for various companies on off days or mornings before night games. It seemed that the Cubs were tired fairly often. If this was an issue, it seems to be gone now and they are re-focused on winning now.
It may not be fair, but since I’m sure plenty of Cubs fans are doing it I’ll ask anyway: how does this team compare to last year’s champions?
They do miss Dexter Fowler, or at least what Fowler was last year, since he's not doing so well with the Cardinals. Joe Maddon has had to mix-and-match several positions in an effort to find the right combination. One of the biggest differences is starting pitching. Even though four of the same guys are back, none of them are doing as well as they did in 2016. They've put the Cubs behind early -- allowing 51 first-inning runs, which is a huge number, and often it's tough to come back from that. And offensively, only Kris Bryant is performing at a level comparable to last year. Jason Heyward has improved, but nearly every other hitter is struggling.
Last year the Cubs got off to a historically good start and many people expected them to run away with the NL Central. That hasn’t happened. What’s different and is there any concern over the comparatively slow start?
It's really impossible for any team to do that kind of thing two years in a row. Everything went right for the 2016 Cubs from day one, and to expect that to be repeated just isn't the way baseball works. One of the things that's different is that in 2016, the Cubs really had a fairly easy early-season schedule. They actually had a two-month run in 2016 when they went 27-29, but hardly anyone noticed because they had gotten off to such a big lead early. This year when they were two games under .500 (25-27) in a similar period, everyone's all "What's wrong with the Cubs?" -- when really, almost every good team goes through a stretch like this. That's the long way of saying that there's no real concern.
Amidst the disappointment, fair or not, what has gone right for the team? Who’s been carrying the team to this point? What else has gone well?
As noted above, Kris Bryant is about the only player who's playing up to expectations. Jason Heyward worked hard on revamping his swing over the winter and is definitely seeing positive results. He looks like he's going to have a year like the one he had in St. Louis in 2015, which would be just fine. And Wade Davis has been exactly as advertised at closer: lights-out nearly every time, and always looks like nothing will bother him on the mound.
How bad does Addison Russell (70 OPS+) have to hit for the Cubs to remove his glove from the everday shortstop position? On the flip side, Kyle Schwarber (69 OPS+) was supposed to be a wunderkind with the bat. How long before they bail on him in the field? And is that Jason Heyward (88 OPS+) contract ever going to look good? Is this too many questions for one question?
Russell is leading all big-league shortstops with 12 defensive runs saved already (via Fangraphs) so they can definitely live with his bat. Joe Maddon is mixing-and-matching him with Javier Baez at shortstop, playing the best matchups. Schwarber might have been ticketed to Triple-A if not for the game-winning grand slam he hit on Saturday. Heyward's rain-delay speech during World Series Game 7 makes the entire contract worth it, in my opinion. And yes, this is too many questions for one question. :)
Last year’s rotation was pretty otherworldly--Jason Hammel’s 106 ERA+ was the worst of the bunch by far. Right now they all have ERA’s closer to 4.00 than 3.00. What’s the story this year?
This is a good question and pitching coach Chris Bosio would like the answer if you have it. The long postseason might be a factor here, as nearly everyone in the rotation has had velocity issues. That's particularly troubling for Kyle Hendricks, who doesn't throw 95+ and depends on changes of speed to be successful.
Rockies fans are intimately familiar with Eddie Butler, who put up a 6.50 ERA in parts of three seasons in Denver. This year he has a 3.75 ERA but a 18:14 K/BB in 24 innings. Is his success just a case of “change of scenery” or is something else going on?
The walks actually are surprising, because Butler didn't do that in spring training this year with the Cubs (three walks in 14⅔ innings) or in Triple-A (eight walks in 30⅔ innings). So the lack of command has been puzzling. He had a really good outing against the Marlins Monday, and Cubs fans are hoping for more of the same. You will see him on Saturday.
What--or who--else do you hope Rockies fans know about this year’s Chicago Cubs?
The Cubs seem to be putting things back together after their rough start. They're not quite to 2016 level, but they have been playing solid baseball for the last week. I look forward to a tough series as I know the Rockies have been solid top to bottom and took two of three from the Cubs in Denver last month.
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Probable Pitchers and Schedule
Thursday, June 8 @ 6:05 pm p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, KOA)
Tyler Chatwood (5-7, 4.60 ERA) vs. Jon Lester (3-3, 3.91 ERA)
If the Rockies were planning on trying to start Chatwood only on the road, you would forgive them. He brings a 2.68 ERA and 0.967 WHIP on the road into Wrigley Field.
Friday, June 9 @ 12:20 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, KOA)
Germán Márquez (4-3, 4.53 ERA) vs. Kyle Hendricks (4-3, 4.09 ERA)
The last time German Marquez faced the Cubs, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He hopes to repeat that performance on Friday as he recovers from a bruised thumb suffered in his last start, which was last Friday in San Diego.
Saturday, June 10 @ 12:20 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, KOA)
Jeff Hoffman (3-0, 2.61 ERA) vs. Eddie Butler (3-1, 3.75 ERA)
Hoffman gets another shot to make his claim for a permanent spot in the rotation. He allowed one earned run (on a home run) with two strikeouts and no walks in 11⁄3 innings against the Cubs on May 9, his only relief appearance of the season. In his three starts so far in the majors he has allowed five runs in 19 1⁄3 innings with 24:5 K/BB and a 0.724 WHIP.
Sunday, June 11 @ 12:30 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, KOA)
Antonio Senzatela (8-2, 3.49 ERA) vs Jake Arrieta (6-4, 4.46 ERA)
After claiming the National League lead in wins (#PitcherWinz) on Tuesday (since relinquished), the rookie out of Venezuela hopes to extend that lead on his way to getting to 10 wins before the All-Star Break, something that hasn’t been done by a Rockies pitcher since Ublado Jimenez.