In interleague play, you'd think the Royals would be matched up against the National League Central most of the time. However the Royals and Cubs have matched up just once in the last decade, and haven't faced each other at Wrigley since 2001. These National League teams are strange and mysterious to us - legend has it they don't even use a designated hitter! - so I asked Al Yellon, the editor at Bleed Cubbie Blue, to give us an overview of the Cubs.
Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant has received a lot of attention this year and has thus far lived up to expectations. What have been your impressions of him and are the strikeouts a concern going forward?
Al Yellon: Bryant has been as advertised. After a somewhat slow start he's begun to hit home runs -- he dented the left-field video board the other night, the first player to do that -- but he's also impressed me with the way he works counts and takes walks. He's tied for the team lead in walks and is seventh in the N.L., even more impressive since he missed the first eight games. I'm not worried about him striking out; that's going to happen to power hitters.
Five of the eight Cubs starters are 25 or younger, all of which were highly regarded prospects. Who among that group do you like the most and who do you have the most concerns about?
Al Yellon: My note above should indicate who I like best. Bryant, I think, has the best chance to be a perennial All-Star. He's got power, has hit for a decent average and draws walks. He hasn't been intimidated by MLB pitching at all. Down the road he might have to move to the outfield as he is only average defensively at third base.
Outfielder Jorge Soler has this kind of potential, too, but hasn't shown much power this year. Even though shortstop Starlin Castro is in his sixth MLB season, he's still having too much trouble defensively and he seems to have regressed a bit at the plate from his good 2014 season. He's the subject of persistent trade rumors. Personally, I'd rather keep him and work on his issues with him, but you never know.
Royals fans are familiar with Jon Lester who dominated them in the regular season, but lost the Wild Card game to Kansas City last year. How has he fared since signing a $155 million contract with the Cubs?
Lester got off to a rough start but has had an excellent May. In six May starts he posted a 1.76 ERA and 1.171 WHIP and went seven innings in all but one of them. He's been every bit as advertised when the Cubs signed him. The Royals won't see him in this series, though, as he pitched Wednesday.
Joe Maddon is at the top of every sabermetric-leaning fan's wish-list as manager. How has he been in his first year at skipper for the Cubs?
Al Yellon: I love Joe Maddon. He is, for lack of a better term, a "Renaissance man." He's got many interests outside of baseball and he uses many of them to help motivate his players. He thinks outside the box often, uses unusual lineup combinations, likes to have versatile players who can play multiple positions and in general, has shown us why he was so successful in Tampa Bay.
About the only quibble I have with him is that he's had a tendency to pull his starters early, which has led to a somewhat overworked bullpen. I think he's still getting used to the idea that he has to have his pitchers bat and work around that. Cubs pitchers have batted eighth in every game this year. It's an interesting idea that worked for Tony La Russa with the Cardinals for a couple of years. Too early to say whether it's worked for Maddon with the Cubs, but Cubs pitchers, like most others, are hitting terribly so far this year: 10-for-112 (.089) with 59 strikeouts.
This is the fourth season since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over. What is the expectation for this year and next? How soon before the Cubs are playing in October?
Al Yellon: The farm system Theo & Co. have put together has started to produce MLB players (Bryant, Soler, Addison Russell, the last of those acquired in an excellent deadline deal last year). The young players (and I shouldn't leave out starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, either) have produced well and the Cubs are over .500 for the first time since 2009 this late in the year. With the second wild-card spot, if the Cubs can continue playing at this pace they could contend for that slot as soon as this year. More realistically, 2016 is the year many Cubs fans are targeting for contention.
The Cubs are making some major renovations to Wrigley Field that will take years to complete. How do you feel about the renovation project and about the Ricketts ownership in general?
Al Yellon: The Ricketts ownership had some bumps along the way, since taking over the team after the 2009 season. Some of this was just learning the business, some of it was getting the right people in place. They seem to be hitting their stride. The renovation project finally began last offseason after some legal challenges by rooftop owners, who honestly didn't have much of a leg to stand on. The bleachers won't be finished by the time the Royals arrive for this series, so Royals fans will see uncompleted bleachers in right field, but full bleachers in left and center. The two video boards are a first at Wrigley, and really enhance the park, in my view. The full renovation won't be finished for about three or four more years, but when complete, will bring the best of Wrigley from the past into the present and should help the park last another 100 years.
Many thanks to Al Yellon for his help. Be sure to check out Bleed Cubbie Blue for all the latest Chicago Cubs news.