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Don’t sleep on the Cubs: Continuity, youngsters deliver for Chicago as they start to find their stride

Through seven weeks of the 2024 MLB season, the picture of the National League is starting to take shape, and while the Dodgers, Braves and Phillies appear to be the teams we expected – cementing themselves at the top – the rest of the NL is full with strangers. Things haven’t exactly gone to script in Chicago so far this season, but the Cubs still appear well-positioned to have one of the NL’s six playoff spots within reach come season’s end.

Chicago is currently 24-19 and 1.5 games behind Milwaukee in what is increasingly looking like a two-team NL Central. The Cubs’ pitching has excelled, with a 3.17 starter ERA that ranks third in the MLB. Although their offensive power has waned in recent weeks, they rank fourth in the National League in walks and fifth in home runs – two stats that are typically critical in determining which teams reach the postseason.

After the surprise hiring of new manager Craig Counsell, the Cubs’ offseason didn’t consist of many splashy moves. Chicago signed left-hander Shota Imanaga, re-signed Cody Bellinger and acquired first baseman Michael Busch in an under-the-radar trade with the Dodgers, but otherwise the front office kept together most of the roster that last went 83-79. season. Of the 37 players who have played in games for the Cubs so far this season, 29 (or 78%) were on the 2023 team.

After being in position to reach the postseason and falling just short in September, the Cubs believed they were good enough to make the playoffs with the roster they had. Heading into this season, the continuity up and down the roster only added to the belief that this group has the ability to do more.

“I had this feeling when July started [last year], I’m like, okay, we’re really starting to click. We’re really starting to speak each other’s language. We’re really starting to get in tune with the way we talk about things,” outfielder Mike Tauchman told Yahoo Sports. “So because we have a very similar group this year, it’s just like all those growing pains, all that learning, feeling guys – that’s happened. So I feel like we were able to get off to a good start this year.”

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So far, that’s reflected in some of the team’s key players. Tauchman leads the team with 0.7 WAR. Nico Hoerner’s 114 OPS+ would be a career-high. Ian Happ has drawn 23 walks in 39 games. Christopher Morel is on pace for 35 home runs, well above the 26 he hit last year. Bellinger has an OPS of 1.044 in his past 15 games, not to mention rookie Busch fits right in there with seven home runs and 13 walks.

The Cubs’ commitment to continuity hasn’t come without bumps in the road when it comes to their health. For the second year in a row, Chicago has been tested by injuries, with the likes of Bellinger, Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Seiya Suzuki, Adbert Alzolay, Jameson Taillon and Dansby Swanson all on the injured list during the first month of the season. -plus. As a result, the bench piece performances helped keep the Cubs afloat.

Two good examples are third baseman Patrick Wisdom and right-hander Javier Assad. With Taillon starting the year on the injured list, Assad was given the opportunity to start the season in the team’s rotation, and he was masterful, posting a sparkling 1.70 ERA through eight starts. Wisdom, like many other players, started on the IL this year, but once he got released he got into a rhythm, with an OPS of 1.047, and has thrived as a pinch hitter.

“We have been tested with our depth, and our depth has proven to be quality,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I think that, over a period of 162 games, that’s a really good thing.”

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The Cubs also received support this season from young players waiting in the wings. Top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong didn’t have much success during his brief stint in the Majors last season, and he hasn’t gotten off to the best start in Triple-A this year. But Bellinger’s broken ribs in late April forced PCA into Major League action, and PCA was elite defensively in center field. Since being recalled, he has saved five defensive runs and is two outs above average.

Right-handers Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown have also made unexpected contributions following the injuries to Hendricks and Steele. Brown, who surrendered six runs to the Rangers in his MLB debut, has been impressive since. He has a 2.12 ERA in his past eight appearances in the swingman role for Chicago.

“I think those younger guys are so well prepared,” Hendricks said of going on the injured list. “They put in so much work and they knew from the start that they would contribute one day. You see what they do, just mentally, and how they handle it when they go out there, it’s really fun to watch.

Advice offered: “We have had a lot of contributions from young pitchers. That was really impressive. We’ve had five kids who started at Iowa and made some pretty good contributions. They did a pretty good job and made a significant contribution.”

When teams are forced to go deep due to weather injuries, it also creates opportunities for veteran players to find new ways to make an impact. Tauchman has taken advantage of such opportunities over the past two seasons. The 33-year-old outfielder, who recorded a career-high 401 plate appearances in his first season with the Cubs last year, is slashing .260/.391/.407 while playing almost every day this year.

Tauchman, who has bounced around MLB and Korea since his Major League debut in 2017, has experience on playoff teams. He was part of the 103-win Yankees in 2019 and the 107-win Giants in 2021, and he sees some key similarities to those teams in this season’s Cubs roster.

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“[There’s] two things,” he said. “One of them is just the quiet confidence in the dugout. No matter what happens in the game, it’s like, ‘We’re going to run. We’re going to have our inning,’ and [we] just keep unplugging and keep trusting that it will come. That’s something big.

“And then I think we’re seeing it now with the guys who went down and others who got out. Every night there is a different hero. I think it speaks to the depth, the depth of the 40-man roster. On all the good teams I’ve ever been on, obviously you have your everyday players, your All-Stars players, but to win it takes the entire roster.

Now that the Cubs finally seem to be getting their heads above water after scratching and clawing their way through April and May, there’s a lot to feel good about. The fact that, despite numerous injuries to key players in the rotation and lineup, they are on the brink of first place in the division is something to be proud of as we head into June. And lately, with the stars back in the dugout alongside those who got the team this far, the Cubs are starting to look more like the team many thought they could be when the year started.

Memorial Day is unofficially the time when teams begin to evaluate their rosters and assess their strengths and weaknesses as the season progresses toward the All-Star break. Chicago’s most immediate need is in the bullpen, where they have struggled. With a 4.50 bullpen ERA that ranks 24th in the MLB, the Cubs are in dire need of high-leverage weapons. That’s an area the front office will have to address at the trade deadline.

But the Cubs’ play and status in the division have positioned this team to add to their roster and be confident in their chances of keeping pace with Milwaukee and – unlike last year – securing a spot in the late season.

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