Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Resurgent Cubs Are Quieting Rebuilding Chatter

Zachary D. RymerJune 3, 2021

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With Major League Baseball's July 30 trade deadline drawing closer every day, there's nothing stopping other teams from calling the Chicago Cubs about Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and their other pending free agents.

The hard part will be getting the Cubs to listen.

Though they entered May four games under .500 and five games out in the National League Central, a 22-8 stretch since then has boosted them into first place. According to FanGraphs, their chances of winning the division have boomed from 6.1 to 36.7 percent.

The Cubs obviously won't stay this hot forever. And if they do cool down between now and July 30, the summer fire sale that many (yes, including us) had speculated about during the club's slow start may yet happen.

Trouble is, there aren't many obvious signs of impending doom hanging over this team.

NL Central Standings

  1. Chicago Cubs, 32-23
  2. St. Louis Cardinals, 31-25 (1.5 GB)
  3. Milwaukee Brewers, 29-26 (3.0 GB)
  4. Cincinnati Reds, 24-29 (7.0 GB)
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates, 20-34 (11.5 GB)

The Hitters Have Turned It Around

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Even though the Cubs won the NL Central on the strength of a 34-26 record in 2020, their offense slumped to the finish and produced only one run in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Miami Marlins in an NL Wild Card Series.

Of particular frustration last season was the sudden mediocrity utter futility of Bryant and Baez. Whereas the two had combined for a sturdy 125 wRC+ and 60 home runs in 2019, last year they mustered only a 65 wRC+ and 12 homers.

After parting with ace Yu Darvish and slugger Kyle Schwarber over the winter, there was simply no way the Cubs would go anywhere in 2021 without bounce-back seasons from Bryant and Baez. Mercifully, the two are granting that wish in a big way with a 144 wRC+ and have already more than twice as many homers (26) as they had in 2019.

For Bryant, the difference has been a new swing that's allowed the 29-year-old—who won the NL MVP Award in 2019—to make better, more consistent contact. For his part, Baez's horrendous 7-to-74 walk-to-strikeout ratio hasn't crushed his production because he isn't missing when he connects.

To wit, the 28-year-old shortstop is working on a career-best barrel rate and already has more than twice as many batted balls over 110 mph as he had in 2020. The latter sample includes the rocket he hit Wednesday and both rockets he hit Monday:

Chicago Cubs @Cubs

That'll do, Javy.<br><br>That'll do. #LARGE @BinnysBev pic.twitter.com/gNb3Ru9H2E

Chicago Cubs @Cubs

Javy's got a pair!#Cubs have FIVE homers today! #CubTogether pic.twitter.com/6nGGZJo9W2

These days, however, there's more to the Cubs offense than just Bryant and Baez. Whereas the team ranked 13th in the NL with an 88 wRC+ through April 28, it has since led the NL with a 114 wRC+ dating back to a nine-run outburst April 29.

This isn't because the Cubs are hitting for more power, as their isolated power has actually decreased slightly from .172 to .171. Nor is it because they've been more patient, as their walk rate is down from 9.9 to 8.7 percent.

The real difference is that the club's strikeout rate has plummeted from 28.3 to 23.0 percent. That improvement is largely born out of the Cubs' eradication of a collective problem with fastballs. They've gone from whiffing on heat 23.9 percent of the time through April 28 to 18.2 percent of the time since April 29.

Even particularly fast fastballs don't bother the Cubs anymore. They're still seeing an unusually high rate of 95-plus mph heat, yet they've been hitting said heat much better since April 29 than they did through April 28:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Overall, this is the best offense the Cubs have had since they won 103 games and ended a 108-year World Series championship drought in 2016. 

So Have the Pitchers

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Whereas the offense found its stride April 29, the Cubs pitching staff coughed up eight runs the following day and then 13 on the second day of May. At that point, its 5.01 ERA was the third-worst in baseball.

The turnaround started May 4 when Kyle Hendricks shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 7-1 win in the first game of a doubleheader. From that moment to now, Cubs hurlers boast a 2.18 ERA that's easily the best in MLB.

Hendricks is but one member of a rotation trio that's been hot since May 4:

  • RHP Kyle Hendricks: 39.2 IP, 2.95 ERA
  • RHP Zach Davies: 27.1 IP, 1.65 ERA
  • RHP Adbert Alzolay: 33.2 IP, 2.94 ERA

Hendricks (2.88) and Davies (2.73) finished 2020 with ERAs in the 2.00s, so it was likely just a matter of time before each hit their stride this year. Alzolay's breakout, meanwhile, is a classic case of a pitcher with good stuff who finally develops good control. In his last six starts, he's struck out 35 batters while walking only five.

But with all respect to those three, it's more so the bullpen that's been the difference with a microscopic 1.11 ERA since May 4. 

With a revitalized curveball that's drawing whiffs at a career-high rate, veteran closer Craig Kimbrel has basically been untouchable, racking up 22 strikeouts with only two walks and six hits allowed over his last 12 appearances.

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Craig Kimbrel. Reported. Bullying. 😯 pic.twitter.com/wDJsaMGq8G

Yet the award for the NL Reliever of the Month went not to Kimbrel but to fellow right-hander Ryan Tepera. He allowed only one run in May, mainly through the use of a cutter/slider that limited opposing hitters to two hits with 15 strikeouts in 24 at-bats.

While we could dish out due credit to relievers not named Kimbrel or Tepera, it would frankly be easier to list the stragglers among that group. Of the 10 relievers who've made at least five appearances since May 4, only Rex Brothers (2.57) doesn't have an ERA in the 0.00s or 1.00s.

Trade Market Buyers Might Want to Call Other Teams

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

At least on paper, one thing that might cause doubt about the Cubs is their strength of schedule. Per Baseball Reference, they've had it much easier than any team in the National League.

But that's sort of misleading. Though the Cubs have mostly come up against punching bags, they've also had to play nine games against the Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres since the beginning of May. They've won all but one of those.

So rather than ask whether the Cubs are for real, perhaps a better question is if anyone else in the NL Central is a clear threat. And that's where there are no good answers.

Sure, the Cardinals have spent 26 days in first place. But their pitching depth is suspect, and especially now that ace right-hander Jack Flaherty is due to miss extended time with a strained left oblique.

As for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, the former is saddled with one of the NL's worst offenses, while the latter has one of its worst pitching staffs. The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, are certainly the punchiest of the aforementioned punching bags.

If the Cubs were still on the trajectory they were on back in April, it would be appropriate to hypothesize about which players they might trade ahead of the deadline. Not just Bryant and Baez but also Davies, Kimbrel, Tepera, Anthony Rizzo and Joc Pederson. Collectively, those players would be worth the kind of haul that would provide a shot in the arm for the team's middling farm system.

The trajectory the Cubs are on now, however, is certainly that of a buyer.

Even if they don't put all their chips on a last-hurrah World Series run, they at least figure to improve their odds of winning the division by shoring up their depth. For example, another starting pitcher wouldn't hurt. Nor would a reliable regular at second base.

Barring a deviation from this course, any teams that want their players will have to wait until the offseason.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant and accurate through Wednesday's games.


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