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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Cubs Series Preview: Hendricks, Injuries, and Walks

Kyle Hendricks would be talked about as an ace on many other staffs.
The Cubs may have slowed from their torrid start, but they still have the best record in baseball.  They also have the best projected record over the rest of the season in baseball, and are viewed as a near-lock to make the playoffs--most likely by winning their division.  They have an outstanding offense, they field incredibly well, their rotation has been spectacular, and their bullpen has been at least solid.  They aren't a perfect team, but they're as dominant as you'll find in baseball.  The Reds' goal here is to be as the pesky bad team that delivers a minor setback to a superior team's march to inevitable victory.  It's not a very inspiring, but that's where the Reds are these days.

With the Reds playing at home, one can hope that there will be more Red in the stands than Blue.  But in all honestly, does anyone expect that to happen?  The best thing about this series is that those of us with can tune in to Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies, who are among my favorite broadcasting teams in baseball.

Probable Starters

The Cubs are no doubt pleased with the Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, but the rise of Kyle Hendricks has to be a pleasant surprise.  He took a nice step forward in 2015, and has proven it was no fluke by continuing to post excellent strikeout-to-walk rates this year.  He doesn't get a lot of press, but he has done nothing but perform since arriving in the major leagues two years ago.  He doesn't throw hard, but has an excellent change-up, gets ground balls, and avoids the walk.  

Cody Reed's results have been uneven thus far, but he's doing something that no other Reds starter can do: he's missing bats regularly.  His delivery isn't a thing of beauty, but that slider is nasty and I love his velocity from the left side.  He's even getting ground balls!  I'm pretty encouraged.

Position Players

Brandon Phillips' production has dropped to such a degree that he is rated as an equivalent hitter to Billy Hamilton based on wRC+.  His contract runs through 2017. Yes, BABIP, maybe.  But still.

Also, the Reds have exactly one player in the starting lineup with an above-average walk rate.  Walking isn't everything, but this is clearly an organizational philosophy.

The Cubs entered spring training with unparalleled depth in the outfield, and they've been tested.  Jason Heyward is still playing (though he has been very disappointing), but they've lost Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and most recently Dexter Fowler to injuries.  Nevertheless, by shifting Kris Bryant to the outfield to add Javier Baez to the lineup, and then promoting top prospect Albert Almora from AAA, they've largely absorbed those losses and still maintain a respectable lineup.  Almora's scouting report indicates that he'll be a glove-first fielder, but eventually should hit well enough to be a solid-average regular.  He's off to a decent start.

Still, those losses have hurt.  The team still sports three outstanding hitters in Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant.  But the others, at least this year, haven't been particularly special.  What they can all do, however, is field.  Every single starter on the Cubs rates out as above-average thus far based on fielding metrics, and the only player with negative marks is utility guy and part-time starter Chris Coghlan, recently re-acquired from the Athletics.  That excellence in the field can go a long way in making up any shortfalls with the bat.  Rosters like that don't happen by accident, nor does the fact that six of eight starters in the Cubs lineup have above-average walk rates.  It seems a stark contrast to what the Reds are running out there.


I am a big fan of Raisel Iglesias, and seeing him relegated to the bullpen due to injury concerns is saddening.  He should be excellent out there, however, and should do a great deal to stabilize the back end of the bullpen if that is how Price ultimately uses him.  I'm hopeful he can find a way back into the rotation, but it sounds like the Reds don't think his shoulder can handle that workload.

Michael Lorenzen had a rough first appearance, but he was pumping fastballs at 98 mph and threw strikes.  As a starter, he threw in the mid-90's, but was prone to nibbling, with lots of walks and very few strikeouts.  Maybe he will be the kind of pitcher who really does see his stuff play up in relief?  It might be nice to find a good closer.  But if he does end up in the pen, that basically ends the Reds' experiment with converting college closers.  Cingrani?  Bullpen.  Nick Howard?  Bullpen, if he's lucky.  And now Lorenzen.  It was a good idea, but I guess there's a reason that so few players move from the bullpen into the rotation during their careers.

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