The Cubs lead the division at the all-star break. As constituted, they are clearly a better team than any other in the division (which isn’t saying they are guaranteed to win it). The primary reason for that is a completely dominant performance by the bottom of the lineup, by far the best squad in the National League and in the conversation for best in all of baseball. Though the position players are not without some disappointments, they have for the most part crushed preseason expectations.
It’s hard to imagine a more disappointing performance on the team than Anthony Rizzo, but that should tell you how great the performance has been this year. While .246/.341/.407 is certainly a fine line, it’s well under average for both a first baseman and for himself (it’s the lowest avg/obp/slg) since 2013 for each stat. His most recent 4 full seasons saw him hit 32, 31, 32, and 32 home runs, and he’d need 20 more after the all-star break to get that. His walk rate is the lowest of his career, and his defense has been poor this season. Rizzo went through two distinct slumps this season, and while he emerged from the first, he’s still in the second. He has an argument for the best pure hitter on the team, so I expect him to be there at the end of the season, but it’s still unfun to watch.
Tommy La Stella has had a bad season, no doubt about it. He doesn’t strikeout, but that is appealing only if he can hit the ball with some authority. Tommy’s ISO of .039 is the fifth lowest mark of all players with at least 100 PA. For some perspective, 8 teams have pitching staves with higher ISOs than Tommy La Stella. La Stella is an adequate backup infielder, even with the dearth of power, so it’s not a huge deal, but it’s fair to call his season disappointing.
Kris Bryant has been good this year, but injuries and a slight dip in power have led to a merely very good season, as opposed to an MVP or All-Star level. Bryant has always been a pull hitter, but he’s taken it to the extreme this year, and it’s led to more and more shifts being employed against him. He can beat the shift, though, so I’m not worried about it.
Ian Happ leads the Cubs in strikeouts, and it’s not actually close. His strikeouts are the primary reason that he has a tendency to get in these deep slumps where he looks like an independent league player. That said, Happ has been a fairly valuable player. He is actually on the Pareto frontier for walk rate and strikeout rate (nobody can say they both walk and strikeout more often than Happ – they might have one, but not the other). If Happ can strikeout even at Javier Baez levels, he’ll be an All-Star – as it is, he’s a bit better than league average (very good with the stick, solidly below average in the field).
Victor Caratini will be the centerpiece of a trade for a good reliever or an innings-eater pitcher at the trade deadline. I think it’s clear that he’s a major-league starter as a catcher. He’s blocked by perhaps the best catcher in baseball, though.
Albert Almora Jr. has coupled solid defense (he’s not elite due to well below-average foot speed) with an incredible knack for putting the ball where people aren’t. I’m not convinced that is a skill he can maintain forever, and it makes me think the Cubs should sell high on Almora, especially if that gets you a pitcher you can ride for a few years. If you operate under the assumption that there is a finite number of PAs available to outfielders and Schwarber/Happ/Heyward will all demand more than Albert (to say nothing of acquiring Bryce Harper or something), then it makes sense to deal him.
Addison Russell has probably fixed it. Talked about him here.
I’ll be the first to admit that I just wanted someone to take Ben Zobrist and his contract. He’s been super valuable this year. Like many of his seasons, he’s walked more than he has struck out, and his BABIP regression has, uh, progressed again. Hopefully the Cubs save Zobrist for the postseason. Last year notwithstanding, he’s been unbelievably consistent.
Willson Contreras has taken another step forward, this year adding workload to his arsenal. Contreras is on pace for 580 plate appearances this season, 150 more than last year. Depending on your feelings about J.T. Realmuto or Buster Posey, Contreras has a compelling argument for the best catcher in baseball at this point, and the Cubs would be wise to absolutely lock Contreras up for as many free agent years as his agent will cheaply allow.
Jason Heyward gets a mention here just for pulling himself out of the absolute abyss. Two seasons ago, Heyward was horrible. Last year, Heyward was bad. This year, Heyward is good. If he doesn’t take another at-bat this season he will be about as valuable as he was the last two seasons combined. It might not seem like it, but Heyward has the lowest strikeout rate on the entire team. Couple that with an uptick in exit velocity (up 2.2 MPH over last year) and he’s been tracking in the right direction (and he’s still a very good defender).
Kyle Schwarber has an outside shot at being the best hitter in baseball. Schwarber has elite plate discipline, and enough power to hit 40 HR on a routine basis. Despite the fact that this is his 4th MLB season, he only has 1100 or so plate appearances in his career. Schwarber has some swing-and-miss to his game, but as long as he keeps his preternatural ability to not swing at bad pitches, he’ll only improve at the plate. On defense, Schwarber is pretty average, which is not a disappointment at all. As I write this, Schwarber just lost the home run derby to future teammate Bryce Harper.
Javier Baez might just be the MVP this year, and he’s done it without taking a walk in his entire career (look it up). There is literally nobody in the National League that walks less often than El Mago (among qualified hitters), and it doesn’t matter, because Baez is tied for 2nd in the league in isolated power, with a wRC+ of 132 while playing very good defense and being an elite baserunner. Joe Maddon likes to say if Baez stopped swinging at sliders, he’d be Manny Ramirez. That’s pretty dumb, because it’s like saying if Rizzo could play 3B, he’d be Alex Rodriguez – if it could happen, it probably would have by now. I just want Baez to walk 7% of the time. If he does that (and that’s not asking for something impossible!), he’s going to win an MVP award.
As a complete unit, the Cubs lead the National League in runs scored. They lead the league in wOBA. And AVG. And OBP. And wRC+. And offensive wins above replacement. And defensive wins above replacement. The Cubs have the best position players in the National League.
The challenges to that claim in baseball come down to a matter of personal preference. A quartet of American League teams have outscored the Cubs (Red Sox, Astros, Yankees, and Indians), though none of them have a higher OBP. The Cubs paste all of them defensively, however. In fWAR, only the Yankees are within a full win of the Cubs overall. I’m not ready to say the Cubs are the best team in baseball, positionally, but it’s a very defensible stance. As a team, they lack elite power (mostly because their two best hitters prior to this season have combined for 22 instead of 42), but they make up for it with incredible patience and superior defense (only the Rays have a lower BABIP allowed, and the Cubs current mark is good for 4th-best of the past 5 years). It’s a great time to watch the Cubs play defense and hit the ball.