August 11, 2020

Should the Chicago Cubs Be the World Series Favorites in 2020?

There’s no need to double-check your calendars; we’re not re-living 2016 all over again, which doesn’t sound too bad these days. However, it might feel like it’s 2016, especially in the Windy City, because the Chicago Cubs look like a World Series contender.

Despite playing just 13 games before their season was temporarily put on pause following the Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak in the St. Louis clubhouse, the Cubs have looked the part of a championship contender during the first quarter of the season. After a disappointing third-place finish in the NL Central last year, most pundits overlooked the Cubs, who were +2500 to win the World Series heading into the season, lower than nearly a dozen other teams. It’s not farfetched to think that Chicago has been the best team in the National League up until now and will be a serious threat when October rolls around.

The Man Calling the Shots

When the Cubs collapsed down the stretch in 2019 and missed the playoffs, it became apparent that the club had given up on manager Joe Maddon. Despite Maddon taking Chicago’s young core to great heights and winning the 2016 World Series, the Cubs players grew tired of his voice and needed to move on from the veteran skipper. Longtime Cubs catcher David Ross has turned out to be the perfect fit for his former team. 

Countless players have praised Ross for the job he’s done this season, referring to him as an ideal fit for the team. As a former teammate of many of Chicago’s key players, Ross already has a strong rapport with the team’s stars. That has led to better communication between the manager and players than what existed late in Maddon’s tenure. In a season in which off-field matters are more important than what’s happening on the field, Ross has managed to keep the Cubs disciplined and focused, which has made all the difference in the world and allowed the Cubs to maximize the talent on their roster.

The Right Rotation

Speaking of the talent on the roster, Chicago’s rotation has been the biggest catalyst for the club’s early-season success. The Cubs are just one of three National League teams whose starting rotation has an ERA under 3.00. 

Kyle Hendricks has been his usual consistent self after getting the start on opening day. But veterans Yu Darvish and Jon Lester have helped elevate Chicago’s rotation to one of the best in the National League. Darvish has had his ups and downs over his first two seasons on the North Side of Chicago, but he’s been sharp early in 2020, posting a 2.12 ERA over his first three starts. Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Lester has been a revelation in his first two starts. The aging southpaw started to show his age last year, only to allow one run on four hits over his first 11 innings in 2020.

Of course, the key to stringing wins together and maintaining a lead at the top of the division is rotation depth, which the Cubs have had early in the season. Before getting knocked around in his most recent start, Tyler Chatwood was dominant in his first two outings. He looked more than comfortable pitching at Wrigley Field and should be a stable fixture in Chicago’s rotation for the rest of the season. 

Finally, Alec Mills has been a pleasant surprise for the Cubs in his first two starts. His opportunities in the majors have been rare in recent years, but he’s making the most of his chance with Jose Quintana sidelined. Mills has two wins and a 1.38 ERA in his first two starts, giving the Cubs the kind of rotation depth they need to keep up their hot start.

Hitters Gonna Hit

The safest assumption with the Cubs this season is that they’ll have no trouble scoring runs most games. Roughly a quarter through the season, the Cubs rank in the top five among National League teams in both batting average and OPS. They’ve done that without much production from Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward, two everyday players who have started slowly and are hitting under .200 on the season. That gives the Chicago lineup the potential to get better if those guys can get it going.

In the meantime, the Cubs still have a formidable lineup that’s akin to teams that play deep into October. The core of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Wilson Contreras have all hit the ground running and flexed a little muscle. If Bryant can get going at some point, he’ll add even more depth to Chicago’s lineup and give the Cubs balance amidst left-handed power hitters like Rizzo and Schwarber.

However, the Cubs have been helped by some unexpected sources. The universal DH has allowed the Cubs to give backup catcher Victor Caratini regular at-bats. Cartini and Contreras have been Chicago’s best hitters to this point, as both are batting better than .300. Getting them in the lineup at the same time can only help the Cubs. Equally important, center fielder Ian Happ has hit the ground running in 2020. Happ’s inconsistency early in his career has been frustrating. But he’s been able to carry over his success from last August and September into this season and has a team-high 1.031 OPS thus far. If Happ can keep producing at that rate, he can play a key role in taking Chicago’s lineup to a championship level.

The Remaining X-Factor

Through the early part of the season, the only serious question the Cubs are facing is their bullpen. Recent history suggests that teams with a strong bullpen are best positioned to succeed in October. They are also likely to continue to play a pivotal role in a 60-game season. Unfortunately for the Cubs, they have the worst bullpen ERA in the big leagues at the moment at 7.30.

Seven-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel has been an utter disaster in the closer’s role, throwing the entire Chicago bullpen into a state of uncertainty. Ryan Tepera, Duane Underwood and Kyle Ryan haven’t been much better, either. Outside of Jeremy Jeffress, who has been close to perfect in his first six appearances of the season, the Cubs are struggling to find trustworthy relievers.

If the Cubs can figure out their bullpen somewhere along the way, they will be legitimate World Series contenders come October. For the moment, Chicago has an early cushion atop the NL Central with no other team in the division having a winning record. The Cubs should also get enough from their rotation and lineup to be one of the eight teams from the National League to make the postseason. In other words, making the playoffs shouldn’t be a problem for the Cubs. More importantly, if they can sort out their bullpen issues by the start of October, the rest of the pieces are in place to make the Cubs a serious threat to win the World Series for the second time in five years.

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