9 things we learned about the Cubs in April


As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a brief 2-game sweep in Seattle and a 4-1 road trip to the West Coast, they return home to Wrigley Field in quite the groove.

This is a very good team that is playing as well as anybody in the National League right now, but they're also about to face a huge test with both the Cardinals and Brewers coming to town on the upcoming homestand.

The first month has been a roller coaster filled with enough ups and downs to make you feel like a whole half-season has gone by, yet more than 82 percent of the 2019 schedule remains.

Here are 9 things we learned about the Cubs in April:

1. Early-season panic is silly.

How does the "opening road trip freakout" crowd feel right now?

Anybody panicking after the Cubs' 2-7 start must feel pretty silly right now, as the Cubs will begin their series with the Cardinals at Wrigley this weekend with a 16-12 record and the best run differential (+38) in the National League.

They've gone 14-5 since that first road trip, watching as the pitching normalized, the defense improved and the offense continued to batter opponents in a very 2016 kind of way.

2. The offense is certainly not broken.

This was the No. 1 takeaway from the Cubs' season-opening series in Texas and it's right near the top of the list after April, as well.

The Cubs rank in the Top 10 in baseball in just about every offensive category that matters and it's been a total team effort — nine position players have an OPS north of .727.

This lineup is averaging 5.7 runs per game five weeks into the season and imagine the kind of production they can churn out once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start hitting like they're capable of on a consistent basis.

3. Javygression?? No way.

Wednesday afternoon in Seattle was a perfect example of how dangerous Javy Baez is: He saw only 2 pitches in the second inning and collected 2 extra-base hits. One went to right field — his 10th homer of the season and the 7th he's sent to the opposite field. The next time up, Baez turned on one and deposited a double down the left-field line. Later in the game, he doubled again, this time down the right-field line.

Not only is Baez avoiding regression, but he's actually getting BETTER. He's no longer trying to pull everything and instead going foul line to foul line and hitting the ball with authority the other way. 

Some baseball analysts thought Baez's free-swinging ways would catch up to him and he would take a step back in 2019, but five weeks into the season, it's clear his superstar status is real and he's building off that 2018 MVP runner-up campaign:

His strikeout rate is up slightly from last year, but so is his walk rate and he's hitting the ball harder than ever and using the entire field in a way we haven't seen from him. 

Plus, Baez's defense at shortstop has been spectacular and he's continuing to grow as a vocal leader in the dugout and clubhouse. 

We said it a month ago and it's still true as the calendar flips to May —this is Javy's team now.

4. Is it time to ping PECOTA?

So much for that aging rotation, eh?

There are still five months left in 2019 and Jon Lester already has a stint on the injured list, but he and Cole Hamels have been lights out to begin the season and Jose Quintana has flashed ace stuff. 

Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have mostly struggled, but both have had very encouraging outings lately and could be turning a corner. 

This pitching staff and defense did not get off to a good start, but they've put that all behind them and flipped the script. The Cubs ranked 12th in baseball in ERA prior to shutting out the Mariners Wednesday afternoon.

5. This bullpen definitely isn't a dumpster fire.

Since the Cubs first stepped foot in Wrigley Field in 2019 (on April 8), they have boasted the best bullpen ERA in the game. They still walk too many batters and the 9-game season-opening road trip was a really rough way to kick things off, but this is not a bad bullpen by any means. 

Remember, the Cubs put together the NL's top bullpen last year despite Brandon Morrow missing the entire second half, Brandon Kintzler's struggles after coming over in a trade and Pedro Strop's injury, among other issues. 

The bullpen was a major area of concern all winter and it will still be under the microscope for the remainder of the season, but this group of relievers will change constantly throughout the summer and will almost assuredly look a lot different by the time September rolls around.

Right now, this bullpen doesn't look like it's built for October, but it's only the first week of May and relievers are the easiest thing to acquire — or find within your own system — midseason.

6. Everybody's Brandon Morrow fears have been realized.

The Cubs confirmed on the last homestand that their closer has suffered a setback and would not be ready to return in early May, as they originially hoped. Who knows when Morrow will return this season — if he's even able to return at all. 

Best-case scenario would probably put him back in the Cubs bullpen after the All-Star Break, more than a calendar year since his last game action.

Morrow's setback means Pedro Strop retains his grip on the interim closer's role (even if Joe Maddon won't ever actually make that claim), but it doesn't mean the Cubs are going to go right out and sign Craig Kimbrel:

"Nothing's change on the bulpen front," Theo Epstein said last week. "We recognize this is a year where we're gonna have to make a lot of important calls in-season and pick the right guys and put them in the right position to succeed and I think things have started to really stabilize in the bullpen. 

"... We'll continue to try to help guys be their best selves, make important calls when we feel change is needed and of course look outside the organization as well as inside to try to find the right combination."

One potential big boost to the overall state of the bullpen would be the re-emergence of Carl Edwards Jr., who is currently working on his physical and mental mechanics in Triple-A Iowa. 

If Edwards can return to his pre-September form or either of the veteran additions from the winter (Tony Barnette, Xavier Cedeno) become reliable options, this Cubs bullpen could actually be pretty good even without Morrow.

Then again, that "if" scenario works the other way, too. If Strop suffers another injury or guys like Brandon Kintzler and Kyle Ryan regress, things could get scary in a hurry.

7. The resurgence is real.

Jason Heyward. Willson Contreras. Brandon Kintzler. Jose Quintana. Tyler Chatwood.

The Cubs knew they were due for some rebound seasons in 2019, but all five of those players are off to phenomenal starts and one month into the season, they're all making a strong case for Cubs Comeback Player of the Year.

Heyward just finished up far and away his best offensive month in a Cubs uniform.

Contreras found the power he somehow lost last season and has already hit 80 percent of the dingers he clubbed a year ago:

Chatwood is throwing 98 out of the bullpen and has worked his way so firmly into the circle of trust, Joe Maddon opted to bring him in with the bases loaded and the game on the line in extra innings Sunday.

Kintzler has been the Cubs' best reliever since Day 1 after many fans grumbled when he exercised his $5 million player option for 2019 following a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 25 games with the team last fall.

Quintana looks exactly like the pitcher the Cubs thought they were getting when they traded away two of their top prosects in July 2017.

The bigger thing with all five guys is not even that they're off to great starts. It's that each of their big months look legit and are more in line with the back of their baseball cards than their 2018 season numbers.

That's not to say Quintana is going to strike out 250 batters or Heyward is going to hit 40 homers or Contreras is going to post an OPS north of 1.000, but it's entirely realistic all of these guys keep the good times rolling for much of 2019.

8. The Cubs don't need Addison Russell...

...and David Bote might be a major reason why.

The 26-year-old Bote signed a contract extension that will keep him in Chicago through at least 2024 and could go through 2026. He's continued his clutch ways while cutting down on strikeouts, displaying solid patience and pop and playing very good defense all over the infield. He's been playing so well, Ben Zobrist voluntarily sat himself to ensure Bote got another start over the weekend in Arizona.

With Baez settling in as a superstar while locking down shortstop and Bote as the primary backup at the most premium defensive position, the Cubs don't really have a need for Russell in a baseball sense at the moment, even if he's checked all the boxes off the field while finishing out his 40-game suspension for domestic abuse.

We'll probably still see Russell in the big leagues this year (maybe even before the next entry in this series comes out), but right now, the Cubs are rolling with their current group of position players and have no need to disrupt their infield.

9. St. Louis is definitely the chief concern in the division, not the Brewers.

Prior to the 2019 season, it was the Cubs' neighbors to the south — not the north — that I thought were a bigger threat in the NL Central. That's exactly how it's played out the first month of the season, as the Cardinals have stormed out to a 20-10 record and built up a 3-game lead on the Cubs in the division.

Standings don't really matter all that much in April or May, but it's *how* the Cardinals are going about their success. Their lineup is scary good and the bullpen has been lights out, even with their most accomplished reliever (Andrew Miller) struggling to find his form. 

This isn't to say the Brewers are no threat (they're only 1.5 games behind the Cubs in the division), but at the moment, their pitching concerns have no clear solution and the Cardinals look like they're going to be among the NL's best teams all season long.

The Cubs will get their first look at Paul Goldschmidt and the Cards this weekend at Wrigley for a big three-game series beginning Friday afternoon on NBC Sports Chicago.

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