The baseball season is about one-third done, and there are several significant surprises in the standings. Who expected the Brewers, Rockies, and Twins to be division leaders? Who thought the Giants have the same dismal record as the Padres?
Even more shocking is the play of the defending champs. The Cubs, who were a ludicrously short 3/1 to repeat at the start of the season, are barely over .500, with a run differential (+4) that indicates they are indeed an average team. Chicago is now between 5/1 and 6/1 to win it all depending upon what sportsbook you bet with. My advice? Get in while value exists.
Remember when the Golden State Warriors hit a mild skid in early March? Kevin Durant was hurt, and things just weren’t flowing. Their odds briefly jumped up, only to return to enormous favorite status when they went on a 14-game run (without KD).
The Cubs are in the same boat.
Chicago won the World Series last year after putting together a regular season-best 103 wins. Their +252 run differential was the top mark in baseball by more than 65 runs. Obviously, there has been a hangover, but is the difference performance or personnel?
There were ample changes in the offseason. Gone are Aroldis Chapman and Dexter Fowler, two key contributors, plus role players Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler, and Travis Wood. While the signing of Wade Davis reduced the sting of Chapman departing, and the return of a healthy Kyle Schwarber seemed to be a big plus, the team probably got a bit worse, overall. But, at the same time, the Cubs didn’t take a major step backward in terms of personnel. They still have the meat of last year’s feast.
Chicago’s biggest issue is that many of the returning pitchers are underperforming, both versus last year and versus their career numbers. Jon Lester had a 2.44 ERA last year. That was much better than his career figure (3.46), so some regression was expected. His 3.91 mark this season, though, is the worst he has posted since 2012.
Jake Arrieta’s ERA is currently 4.60 and he’s surrendered 11 homers in 11 games. The last three years, he had an ERA of 2.53, 1.77, and 3.10, with home run totals of five (in 25 starts), 10 (in 33 starts), and 16 (in 31 starts).
John Lackey, who has always been prone to allowing home runs, is on pace to give up 30 or more for the first time since 2003. His ERA is 4.90, a full run more than his ERA in six of the past seven seasons.
Finally, Kyle Hendricks posted a 2.13 ERA and gave up 15 homers in 31 appearances last year. This season has a 4.09 ERA and has allowed nine long balls in 11 starts.
Age and lingering injuries could be playing a part in this regression for a couple of those names. That said, two or three of these pitchers are going to progress closer to the mean as the season goes on.
It is less clear whether slow starts at the plate from Schwarber and Addison Russell are long-term problems, and sub-par defense may continue to be an issue. Yet, if only one of Schwarber and Russell get going, the Cubs should be just fine; good teams with Hall of Fame general managers make moves to improve in June and July, and the competition in the NL Central is lacking.
The Cubs are one game behind Milwaukee in the division standings, and unquestionably have the best roster in the division. They are likely to be in the NL playoffs with the Nationals and Dodgers, two perennial underachievers, plus the Rockies or Diamondbacks, who are both exceeding expectations. Chicago might not win the World Series, but they have a pretty good chance to win the NL, and with the odds up, now is the time to pounce.