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Cubs hitting their stride as they prepare to play Cardinals in London Series
Major League Baseball

Cubs hitting their stride as they prepare to play Cardinals in London Series

Updated Jun. 23, 2023 12:19 a.m. ET

Sometimes time is the answer. Exhibit A: the 2023 Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs began this season 13-9 before falling to the bottom of the National League Central. Earlier this month, they were 26-36 and looking like a prime candidate to sell at the MLB trade deadline. Now they're on a tear, winning 10 of their past 12 contests. These wins have come in the form of sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates twice (once at home and once in Pittsburgh) and taking two of three apiece against the emerging Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants

The reason for this run? For starters, a lights-out bullpen. Relievers Julian Merryweather, Michael Fulmer, Adbert Alzolay and Michael Rucker haven't surrendered a run in their past 22 combined appearances. Meanwhile, Chicago's starting rotation has been one of MLB's best from the jump, and buoyed by Kyle Hendricks' return from his shoulder injury.

Marcus Stroman is making a case for the NL Cy Young award, boasting a 2.28 ERA and holding opponents to a .191 batting average. Justin Steele has blossomed into an All-Star-caliber rotation arm since becoming a starter late in the 2021 season. Drew Smyly has been one of the best-kept secrets in the NL the past two seasons, as he owns a combined 3.43 ERA over 37 starts for the Cubs. All the while, Hendricks recently tossed eight shutout innings in a near-no-hit bid against the Giants.


Next up for the Cubs is a two-game set against the rival St. Louis Cardinals in London, with Game 1 of the series coming Saturday on FOX (1:10 p.m. ET). Is this the start of a run to the playoffs for the Cubs?

Manager David Ross has a quality collection of hitters. After flashing power and overall starting ability in his 2022 rookie campaign, Christopher Morel has blasted 13 home runs to accompany a .634 slugging percentage this season. Dansby Swanson is one of MLB's premier shortstops and has a lanky but impactful swing that generates slug. Nico Hoerner consistently puts the ball in play with his .284 batting average. Ian Happ has a career slugging percentage of .454, making him a traditionally efficient slugger. Cody Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP who posted a combined 66 OPS+ over the past two seasons, is stabilizing himself with the Cubs, hitting .252 and having more hits (41) than strikeouts (38). 

Patrick Wisdom is hitting .196 but also has 14 home runs and consistently generates power. Trey Mancini is off to a slow start, but he has eclipsed a 100 OPS+ in four of his previous five seasons and can play first base and both corner outfield positions.

The Cubs have been up, in the middle of the pack, down and now up again. What is apparent about this ball club is that it's made up of players in their prime who have a reputable track record. Swanson, Bellinger and Mancini are all no older than 31 and have played critical roles on teams that won the World Series.

Maybe Chicago's starting rotation, which is on the older side, deteriorates a bit down the stretch. Marcus Stroman’s incredible start likely isn’t sustainable. However, Jameson Taillon, who has struggled mightily to the tune of a 6.71 ERA, finding himself and returning to the reliable starter he was with the New York Yankees the last two seasons can help offset that.

Chicago is going through the ebbs and flows of an MLB season while maintaining the potential to take off. When they settle in and play with consistency, the Cubs can be the best team in the NL Central.

Nico Hoerner cranks solo home run to extend Cubs' lead over Pirates

For the better part of the last six seasons, the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers have been the teams to beat in the NL Central. Lately, both teams have been above-average and a little more. 

The Cardinals look like a team that missed their window. They have arguably the best corner infield duo in the sport with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but every season it's the same issues: scattered offensive production from those not named Goldschmidt and Arenado and inconsistent starting pitching. Now, they have the issue of being 13 games below .500.

While there have surely been some noteworthy high points — such as reaching Game 7 of the NLCS in 2018 — the Brewers have been the same team for the better part of the past six seasons. Their pitching staff is going to be in the upper echelon of the sport, but their offense will be at best middle of the pack and devoid of a star hitter.

This has never been a true rebuild for the Cubs. Of course, trading homegrown stars like Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and star closer Craig Kimbrel at the 2021 trade deadline was the franchise signaling that the mid 2010s era — which produced a World Series — was officially over. With that said, Báez, Rizzo and Bryant all yielded minimal trade returns for Chicago. Why? They were all hitting the open market in three months. 

In the offseason that followed them selling, the Cubs signed Stroman (three-year, $71 million deal), Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki (four-year, $85 million deal) and catcher Yan Gomes (two-year, $13 million deal). Gomes replaced the departing Willson Contreras. This past offseason, they added Swanson (seven-year, $177 million deal) and Taillon (four-year, $68 million deal) on long-term deals and Bellinger and Mancini on short-term pacts.

This isn't how a team embracing a full-blown rebuild constructs its roster after trading away four perennial All-Stars. They retooled, gave some of their youngsters the chance to play every day and gradually accumulated proven commodities.

Beyond this season, the Cincinnati Reds have the most upside in the NL Central — Elly De La Cruz's arrival highlights an influx of prized youth, and the club holds a 3.5-game lead on the Cubs for first place. But Chicago has a more proven roster as it pertains to this season.

The Cubs are not elite. Maybe they're not even a true contender, but they're built to be competitive right now.


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