By Nate Johnson
A year ago, the Cubs were sitting well underwater at 18-30 and fans were already looking toward another trade-deadline roster purge, crossing another season off the calendar as they waited for “next season” to come. Fast-forward to current time and the Cubs remain in second place in the National League Central, four and a half games behind the Cardinals and still holding a ticket to the Wild Card round.
It would be easy enough to chalk up their best start in seven years to luck, the rest of the Central besides the Cardinals playing below their talent, or the magical bat of Kris Bryant, but the fact is this truly is a team on the rise, not just at one or two positions but organizationally, both in practice and in process.
Despite a disappointing Memorial Day weekend that saw the team drop two of three to Arizona and the first of a three-game home series against the Nationals, the Cubs have seen a strong push from their starting pitching over the last two weeks, notching nine quality starts over the last fifteen games while striking out five times as many batters as they’ve walked. Kyle Hendricks capped off this dominant streak with the first complete game shutout of the season for the club, beating the Padres 3-0 on May 21. The bullpen has continued to be shaky, but the impending return of Neil Ramirez should help shore things up in the middle innings.
As the corner infielders, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, continue to mash the ball, trade winds continue to swirl around the middle infielders. Rumors persist that one of the team’s shortstops, most likely incumbent Starlin Castro or minor-league prospect Javier Baez, could be used to add strength in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. The Mets have been frequently cited as a possible trade partner, but nothing is done yet.
This continued improvement by the team will be tested over the next two weeks, as Chicago continues a stretch of 12 out of 15 games against teams who reached the playoffs last year between Washington, the Royals and the Tigers. If the Cubs remain firmly in the chase behind the Cardinals after that run, this season will be a lot harder to write off than the past few.