Don't sleep on the Cubs: Continuity, youth delivering for Chicago as they begin to find their stride

Through seven weeks of the 2024 MLB season, the National League picture has begun to take shape, and while the Dodgers, Braves and Phillies appear to be the teams we expected — cementing themselves at the top — the rest of the NL is full of unknowns. Things in Chicago haven't exactly followed the script so far this season, yet the Cubs look well-positioned to have one of the NL's six playoff spots within their grasp come the end of the season.

Chicago is currently 24-19 and 1.5 games back of Milwaukee in what increasingly seems like a two-team NL Central. The Cubs' pitching has shined, with a 3.17 starter ERA that ranks third in MLB. While their offense has cooled in recent weeks, they rank fourth in the National League in walks and fifth in home runs — two stats that are usually key in determining which teams reach the postseason.

Following the surprise hiring of new manager Craig Counsell, the Cubs’ offseason didn’t consist of many splashy moves. Chicago signed left-hander Shota Imanaga, re-signed Cody Bellinger and acquired first baseman Michael Busch in an under-the-radar trade with the Dodgers, but beyond that, the front office kept together most of the roster that went 83-79 last season. In fact, of the 37 players who have appeared in games for the Cubs so far this season, 29 (or 78%) were on the 2023 team.

After being in position to reach the postseason and falling just short in September, the Cubs believed they were good enough to make the playoffs with the crew they had. Heading into this season, the continuity up and down the roster only added to the belief that this group has the ability to do more.

“I felt like when July started [last year], I’m like, OK, we're really starting to click. We're really starting to speak each other's language. We're really starting to get on the same page with how we talk about things,” outfielder Mike Tauchman told Yahoo Sports. “So having a really similar group this year, it's like all those growing pains, all that learning, feeling guys out — that happened. So I feel like this year, we were able to kind of hit the ground running.”

So far, that is bearing out with several of the team’s key hitters. Tauchman leads the team with 0.7 WAR. Nico Hoerner’s 114 OPS+ would be a career high. Ian Happ has drawn 23 walks in 39 games. Christopher Morel is on pace for 35 homers, well more than the 26 he hit last year. Bellinger has a 1.044 OPS in his past 15 games, and not to be left out, the newcomer Busch has fit right in with seven home runs and 13 walks.

‘Those younger guys are so prepared’

The Cubs’ commitment to continuity has not come without bumps in the road in terms of their health. For the second year in a row, Chicago’s depth has been challenged by injuries, with the likes of Bellinger, Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Seiya Suzuki, Adbert Alzolay, Jameson Taillon and Dansby Swanson all going on the injured list during the season’s first month-plus. Through that, the performances of the bench pieces helped keep the Cubs afloat.

Two prime examples are third baseman Patrick Wisdom and right-hander Javier Assad. With Taillon starting the year on the injured list, Assad got the opportunity to start the season in the team’s rotation, and he has been masterful, carrying a sparkling 1.70 ERA through eight starts. Wisdom, like many other players, began this year on the IL, but once he came off, he got into a rhythm, with a 1.047 OPS, and he has thrived as a pinch hitter.

“We've been tested with our depth, and our depth has proved to be quality,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I think over the course of 162 games, that's a really good thing.”

The Cubs have also been bolstered this season by young players who had been waiting in the wings. Top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong didn't have much success in his brief stint in the majors last season, and he didn't get off to the greatest start in Triple-A this year. But forced into major-league action by Bellinger's broken ribs in late April, PCA has been elite defensively in center field. Since being recalled, he has five defensive runs saved and has been worth two outs above average.

Right-handers Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown have also been unexpected contributors filling in after the injuries to Hendricks and Steele. Brown, who surrendered six runs to the Rangers in his MLB debut, has been impressive since then. He owns a 2.12 ERA over his past eight appearances in the swingman role for Chicago.

“I think those younger guys are so prepared,” Hendricks said when he went on the injured list. “They've put in so much work, and they've known from the start that they were going to contribute at some point. You see what they're doing, just mentally and how they're handling themselves going out there, it’s really fun to watch.”

Offered Counsell: “We've had a bunch of contributions from young pitching. That's been really impressive. We've had five kids who started in Iowa make pretty good contributions. They've done a pretty nice job and have been key contributors.”

‘It takes the entire roster to win’

When teams are forced to turn to depth to weather injuries, it also creates opportunities for veteran players to find new ways to make an impact. The past two seasons, Tauchman has been the beneficiary of such opportunities. The 33-year-old outfielder, who logged a career-high 401 plate appearances in his first season with the Cubs last year, is slashing .260/.391/.407 while playing almost every day this year.

Tauchman, who has bounced around MLB and Korea since his major-league debut in 2017, has experience being on playoff teams. He was a member of the 103-win Yankees in 2019 and the 107-win Giants in 2021, and he sees some key similarities to those teams in this season’s Cubs squad.

“[There’s] two things,” he said. “One is just the quiet confidence in the dugout. Like, regardless of what is going on in the game, it's like, ‘We're gonna make our run. We're gonna have our inning,’ and [we] just keep plugging away and keep trusting that that's going to come. That's a big thing.

“And then, I think we're seeing it now with the guys that have gone down and others have stepped out. There's a different hero every night. I think it speaks to the depth, the depth of the 40-man roster. All the good teams I have ever been on, you obviously have your every-day players, your All-Stars players, but it takes the entire roster to win.”

Looking ahead to the trade deadline

As the Cubs finally seem to get their heads above water after scratching and clawing their way through April and May, there’s a lot to feel good about. The fact that despite numerous injuries to key contributors in the rotation and lineup, they are on the precipice of first place in the division is something to take pride in going into June. And lately, with the stars back in the dugout alongside those who got the team this far, the Cubs are starting to look more like the team many believed they could be when the year began.

Memorial Day is unofficially the time when teams start to evaluate their rosters, assessing their strengths and weaknesses as the season progresses toward the All-Star break. Chicago’s most immediate need lies in the bullpen, where they’ve struggled. With a 4.50 bullpen ERA that ranks 24th in MLB, the Cubs are in serious need of high-leverage arms. That’s one area the front office will need to address at the trade deadline.

But the Cubs’ play and standing in the division have positioned this team to add to their roster and feel confident about their chances of keeping pace with Milwaukee and — unlike last year — securing a spot in the postseason.

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