The Cubs’ two most overwhelming weaknesses last season were starting pitching and defense. It’s not a state secret that those two areas need to improve this season if the Cubs are going to be competitive.
To this point, including today’s game, the starting pitching has been pretty good. Chris Volstad threw another quality start for the Cubs today, with the 4th run he gave up being unearned. That makes six quality starts in the first nine contests, which is all the team can ask for. Yesterday, Jeff Samardzija seemingly ran out of gas after 5 innings, but the bullpen picked him up. His running out of gas was minimized by the 9 run lead he held before the inning, giving up the only 5 the Cardinals would scratch out all day. He did not have his best stuff, but did manage to get out from under some base runners in the first four innings before getting some of the same medicine the Cubs gave Zack Greinke on Thursday afternoon. The innings being eaten by the starting pitching cannot be understated, either. Last season, the strength of the team was the bullpen, and Mike Quade went to it early and often nearly everyday. This season, we’ve seen the starter pitch into the 7th inning more often already than we did until August last season. At least to this point, the pitching is better, and is the reason the Cubs have been in most of the games they’ve played, even with a lackluster offensive effort so far (the last two days notwithstanding).
The defense is another story. Entirely. There have been 7 errors, 4 of which came by Starlin Castro, 2 of which were high throws to first base today that probably would not have been errors throwing to Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee the last two seasons. The first of those two errors would have led to a 2 out with nobody on situation in the Cardinal fourth. It led to a four run rally. The four runs that the Cardinals lead by today (in the top of the ninth). There have been too many plays that should have been made, like a foul pop-up down the right field line that fell in front of Bryan LaHair this afternoon, that have not been made. The ground ball that Jeff Baker allowed past him on Opening Day that went into right field was the eventual tying run. The early .722 Defensive Efficiency Rating is good for 10th in MLB, but that number is sure to drop after another two errors today. That number is an improvement over last season’s .680, but is still not high enough. The .982 fielding percentage is 16th in MLB at this point. They quite simply need to be better.
I am not exactly breaking news when I say that the Cubs’ roster isn’t going to stack up with elite rosters around MLB. It just isn’t. There are some nice pieces. Matt Garza and Starlin Castro are building blocks for a foundation of a team that can compete for championships down the road. Jeff Samardzija is looking to add his name to that group. At this point, though, the defense is not at the standard it needs to be. The starting pitching is improved. The bullpen has been up and down, to this point. The offense has been the same way. That makes giving extra outs, especially in the tough early part of the season, a costly proposition.