Quick Pitch: Big League Cubs Middling, I-Cubs Mashing, Bellinger Breakout Officially Legit

Baseball is a funny game. Two weeks ago, the Cubs took five of six from the Dodgers and Athletics on a short West Coast swing. Through five of seven games at Miami and Washington, the Cubs are 1-4. The Marlins swept Chicago, which if I’m being totally honest just eats at my insides because I loathe that team. The Nationals are a shell of their former selves and not much better than the A’s on paper, so the Cubs should be manhandling their D.C. opponents.

The good news lies in Chicago’s run differential. At +44, they are blowing out opponents but losing the tighter games. They need to reverse that latter trend if they intend to compete, especially because that’s how this team was built. The power is only moderately better than last year, while the team’s up-the-middle defense is considered among baseball’s best. That’s not necessarily the case all over the diamond, however.

The Cubs are in the bottom half of the National League in team defense. Though they are third overall in pitching, those close games inevitably become losses if you give your opponent extra outs. It’s tough to say if Chicago’s offense will remain the juggernaut that it has been through 29 games. Regression seems likely, and that means a lot more tightly-contested games. As that run differential decreases, so do the Cubs’ chances of making the playoffs.

I’m not opposed to winning 3-2 or 4-3 instead of 13-0. The problem is, the Cubs aren’t winning enough of those closer games. Chicago’s North Side baseballers are 8-2 in blowout games but just 2-5 in one-run affairs. They’re also just 8-8 at Wrigley Field. The Cubs come home this weekend for three-game sets against the Marlins and Cardinals, and I’d like to see the squad reverse some of the more troubling trends.

Midwest Farm Report

The Iowa Cubs are mashing, and it’s more than just Matt Mervis and Christopher Morel. Last week they combined with Louisville to produce a scorching 42 hits in one game. Jake Slaughter, Yonathan Perlaza, Sergio Alcántara, and Jared Young have had their share of home runs and you’d be forgiven if you thought the ghosts of the ’27 Yankees strolled through the cornfields and into Principal Park.

Put simply, they are making baseball look like a Playstation sport. The numbers are just eye-popping. Check out some of these statistics through their first 24 games:

  1. The I-Cubs averaged 8.3 runs per game. Though that stat is buoyed slightly by two 18-run contests, it’s a nearly unbeatable number.
  2. They hit 41 home runs in those games. The big league Cubs have 40 in 29 games, but Patrick Wisdom and Cody Bellinger have combined for 18. Morel leads Iowa with 11, followed by Mervis (6). Every player in their starting lineup has at least two home runs.
  3. Oh, by the way, Morel is slugging .835 which is nearly twice the big league Cubs’ team number, and dwarfs Wisdom (.629).
  4. The team’s OPS is .930 and tops in the International League. If Brennen Davis (.689) breaks out, they could push that above 1.000.
  5. Iowa also leads the IL in BA (.296), OBP (.400), and SLG (.530).

I’ve always considered 2023 to be a gap year for the big league Cubs, but you could easily replace Chicago’s four worst role players with Morel, Mervis, David Bote, and Miles Mastrobuoni, and the North Siders could have the best offense in the National League. I understand exercising patience, but the Astros, Brewers, and Rays proved that you can win with rookies. It’s even more exciting that Pete Crow-Armstrong, Kevin Alcántara, Owen Caissie, and Cristian Hernández have yet to make it to Iowa.

Like Carter Hawkins, I’ll err to the side of patience for now, especially with Mervis. Nobody wants another Clint Frazier on their hands, but that din from Des Moines gets exponentially louder with each game.

Big League Chew

I think we can officially say Bellinger is back. I personally refuse to issue judgment until a player has had 100 PAs, which the former MVP and Rookie of the Year has now reached. He’s slashing .303/.377/.973 with seven home runs, 18 RBI, and five stolen bases. The Cubs have committed to a core of Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, and Seiya Suzuki. I know Crow-Armstrong is Chicago’s future centerfielder, but I’d sure like Jed Hoyer to find a spot for and extend Bellinger.

That’s not likely to happen unless the team puts Mervis at DH and moves Bellinger to first base. I’d have absolutely no problem with that, but there’s no way they’d extend Bellinger and then pursue Shohei Ohtani. The best-case scenario is that the Cubs move Bellinger at the deadline for a veritable haul and then revisit Scott Boras in free agency if they cannot land Ohtani. Sometimes the pillow contract works, but this might be the best example of all time if the star outfielder keeps his pace. What a smart play by all parties involved.

Which teams might be interested in pursuing Chicago’s centerfielder? What about the Orioles? They’re 20-9 with an outfield of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander. They’re also stacked in the minor leagues. The Rays, Jays, Twins, Rangers, and Angels make sense, too. Imagine sending Bellinger to Anaheim, the Angels win the World Series, and then the team extends Ohtani. O death, where is thy sting?

Don’t sleep on the Diamondbacks or Pirates, either. Both teams have equally talented systems and are playing surprisingly good baseball this year. Neither seems like a permanent destination, so Bellinger would be longing for Chicago after stints in either of those cities. I say trade Bellinger to anybody but the Marlins, Cardinals, or White Sox. That pill would be a little too tough to swallow.

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