Chicago Cubs

Cubs looking for more out of Nos. 4-5 SPs


Cubs looking for more out of Nos. 4-5 SPs

Last season, starting pitching was all doom and gloom for the Cubs. It was the main reason for their 71-91 record.

Early injuries knocked both Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells out of the rotation after just one start and the Cubs did not have any depth behind them.

As a result, Chicago was 26th in the MLB in quality starts with 76 and had the worst starter's ERA in the National League (4.79).

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer set out to right that wrong this season. And so far so good in the large scheme of things. But the Cubs are still looking for more from Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm at the back end of the rotation.

Matt Garza (1.23 ERA0.75 WHIP) and Ryan Dempster (1.880.91) have been simply fantastic and have four of the Cubs' six quality starts this year. Jeff Samardzija was brilliant in his first outing, picking up the Cubs' first win of 2012. After the Cubs offense staked him to a big lead in St. Louis on Friday, however, Samardzija got complacent and allowed five runs in the fifth inning.

But Volstad and Maholm have struggled some. Volstad hasn't been bad, he just hasn't necessarily been good. The big right-hander has a 4.91 ERA and 0-1 record in two starts, but a sparkling 1.18 WHIP shows he has pitched better than his numbers indicate. He also had a quality start on Saturday against the Cardinals.

Mahlom, meanwhile, is bringing the whole rotation's numbers down. He has allowed 12 earned runs and three homers in just eight innings pitched. Maholm, whom the Cubs signed as a free agent this offseason, has not gotten more than 12 outs in a start yet this season.

The Cubs will hang their hat on starting pitching this year, as their bullpen is inexperienced and the offense isn't set up to out-slug teams. Even in losses so far this season, the starters have battled enough to keep their team in the game. Maholm has gotten rocked early in his outings, but both times he was able to settle down and at least give the offense a chance.

Maholm has a 4.42 career ERA in more than 1,100 big-league innings. He will rebound and should still wind up with a more manageable ERA.

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch


Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

The Cubs may be in some trouble, with the injury bug hitting them at an inopportune time.

First it was Addison Russell (strained right foot), then it was Willson Contreras, arguably the best catcher in baseball and one of the hottest hitters on the planet before going down with a hamstring injury, and now it's Jon Lester who may be on his way to the disabled list after suffering a strained left lat muscle in Thursday's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati.

All of this occurring during a time Joe Maddon's club is looking to pull away from the pack in the National League Central and capture their second straight division crown, which appears to be the only way the North Siders can control their own destiny.

So what should the Cubs do if Lester is sidelined for an extended period of time?

One option could be re-opening trade discussions surrounding Justin Verlander, who cleared revocable waivers in early August. But what would it take to get him, and how much salary would they have to take on for it to happen?

The SportsTalk Live panel weighed in on that possibility in the video above.