Chicago Cubs: Health and a quick start key to 2019 success

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The National League Central will be one of the toughest divisions in MLB.  For the Chicago Cubs, avoiding injury and getting off to a quick start will be more critical than ever.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are formidable foes in the race for the NL Central crown.  And the Reds and Pirates won’t be pushovers either.  But the Chicago Cubs still have the top talent in the division, and I  would argue, in the league.  Keeping that talent healthy will be key.

The need for speed

In 2015 and 2016 the Cubs relied on a fast start out of the gate to establish a lead over their division foes and provide a buffer against slumps later in the season.  The 2015 Cubs were 12-8 in April; the 2016 Cubs bettered that mark by going 17-5 including winning eight of their first 10 games.

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The 2017 Cubs struggled to 13-11 start by April’s end needed a late late-season surge to gain separation from the Brewers.  In 2018 the Cubs got off to their worst start, going 9-9 in their first 18 games before finishing April 16-10.  An 18-10 (.643) August wasn’t enough to propel them past the Brewers at season end.

A key to this quick start will be hitting consistently.  The Cubs worst start in terms of runs scored was 89 runs in April 2015.  They scored 136 runs in April 2016.  And while the runs scored in April 2017 and 2018 were well over 100+, we see a pattern of feast and famine at the plate.

In 2017 they scored five or more runs twelve times in April and lost three of them, but scored three or fewer runs nine times.  They won just two of those nine.  That differential was even starker in 2018.  Through that 9-9 start, they won one game when they scored three or fewer runs.   An end of April five-game win streak was due solely to the pitching surrendering one earned run total.  But 2018 was also the worst year in terms of injuries for the Cubs.

Staying healthy is the key

The 2018 season DL was littered with Cubs.  Cubs went to DL 24 times.  And while that wasn’t the anywhere near the highest in MLB (The Angels at 32 held that mark), it was who went on the DL.

Two starting pitchers, including Yu Darvish for the season, a slew of relievers including closer Brandon Morrow for the season, and Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward twice, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Ben Zobrist once.  Even more troubling is that except for Zobrist all of the regular players are in their prime years.

By comparison, Cubs players made only twelve trips to the DL in 2017, sixteen in 2016 and only one for the season (Kyle Schwarber).  And while you could chalk up some of the increase in DL trips in 2018 to the new MLB rule allowing a minimum of ten days rather than 15-days stints, some of the injuries would have required multiple trips anyway.

So far the word from Arizona is that aside from Morrow everyone seems to be mended and are already in fighting spirit for the season to start.  We will see how things progress as we head into late February and March.  Theo said they have the resources to win.  Jon Lester said the Cubs got the front office message loud and clear. And as Joe Maddon said, it’s time to “Own It, Now.”

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No doubt every team wants to avoid injury and get off to a quick start to the season.  But recent past success for the Cubs has been founded on those two factors and little has changed with Cubs version 2019 to mitigate that need this season.