Archive for the ‘ Matchups ’ Category

Series 32 Preview: Cubs at Diamondbacks


Paul Goldschmidt has been one of the few consistencies in the Diamondbacks’ order this year. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The leaders of the NL West host the Cubs for a four-game series, with Arizona’s half-game lead over the surging Dodgers potentially on the line. The D-backs team has been somewhat of a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squad, with a few standouts making up for some major disappointments. It’s little surprise GM Kevin Towers is rumored to be looking for reinforcements by the July 31 trade deadline. There have been only two constants in the Diamondbacks’ lineup so far: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a terrible running game. On the latter, Arizona is 29-for-54 in steals, a 54 percent success rate that is alarmingly bad. Their steals leader is Goldschmidt, who does much more than run the bases well. He has turned out to be a superb draft pick for the Diamondbacks, selected in the eighth round in 2009 by former scouting director Tom Allison (now with the Mariners). In the rotation, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin has been the only above-average regular, and the bullpen has been a mixed bag for Towers as well.

HITTING: 4.1 Runs Scored/Game (6th in the NL)
In parts of three seasons in the majors, Goldschmidt has proved himself with an ability to improve across the board. His walks, batting average and power are up this year, and his strikeouts have diminished, adding up to a .309 AVG/.392 OBP/.550 SLG that ranks in the league’s top 10 for each category. Beyond his No. 3 hitter, manager Kirk Gibson has had little consistency in the lineup, employing 82 different batting orders in 95 games. Young shortstop Didi Gregorius, acquired via trade, has cooled off considerably (.227/.303/.277 since June 1) and is now splitting time with a can’t-get-hot Cliff Pennington. The other big trade acquisition, multiposition man Martin Prado, also has been cold all year and a major disappointment along with catcher Miguel Montero. Second baseman Aaron Hill missed two months with a broken hand, but he continues to earn his sizable contract despite now being on the wrong side of 30. There’s little help in the outfield either. Youngsters A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra haven’t done much at the plate, while veterans Jason Kubel and Cody Ross have struggled despite being part of a platoon.

PITCHING: 4.1 Runs Allowed/Game (7th in the NL)
The Cubs will face some talented young arms this series. It turns out the first two starters—lefties Tyler Skaggs and Corbin—were part of the bounty that came back from the Angels in the 2010 Dan Haren deal. Skaggs is more of a crafty type, with a low-90s, four-seam fastball that he can use on both sides of the plate and a big, knee-buckling curve. Command has been something of an issue for him in the majors, and his offerings versus righties, notably a change-up and two-seam fastball, are still developing. Selected just a few dozen picks later, Corbin has been the Diamondbacks’ top pitcher by far, with a 2.35 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP and just under seven innings per start. The tall, lanky pitcher can work his fastball up to 94-95 mph with life, before coming back with a hard slider released from a low-three-quarters arm angle. That punch-out pitch has only increased in effectiveness and has the sort of two-plane movement that makes it effective against both hands. The series closes with righty Ian Kennedy—an extreme fly-ball pitcher who has increasingly struggled since his career year in 2011—and lefty Wade Miley. In the bullpen, typically a Towers strength, new closer Heath Bell has been too homer prone to be a true anchor, but sidearmer Brad Ziegler has been Gibson’s most used, and most effective, weapon.

Series 30 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals


Carlos Beltran is having an MVP-caliber season. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

There may be no injury or in-season development big enough to bring down the high-flying Cardinals. No matter what fate has thrown at them, the Birds have turned to one talented rookie after another to plug the holes—all while piling up wins and establishing themselves as one of baseball’s best. Ten of St. Louis’ 13 position players are homegrown, more than one-third of their starts have been made by rookies, and the additions of freshmen Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness have helped stabilize a bullpen racked by injuries and ineffectiveness. But none of this should really come as a surprise by now. These are the benefits of having baseball’s best player development team and part of the reason why the Cardinals may rule the roost in the NL Central for years to come.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored a Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals’ offense grinds pitchers down with its depth, largely because there are no easy outs in the order. The bats deliver a good amount of walks and power while leading the league in on-base percentage via a high team batting average. First baseman Allen Craig, who is in the RBI race as a function of his reliable execution, might be the best reflection of a lineup stacked with effective contact hitters who can provide line-drive power. While most of the Cards’ talent is homegrown, their two big-ticket free agents—Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—continue to provide pop from the outfield corners. If there’s a disappointment, it’s third baseman David Freese’s power numbers. The 2011 postseason hero has seen his slugging percentage drop below .400. But if he gets hot along with the weather, the Cardinals’ league-leading offense could get even better.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed a Game (3rd in NL)
Losing Jaime Garcia for the year and Friday’s starter Jake Westbrook for more than a month would have crippled most contenders, but nothing seems to faze the powerhouse Cardinals. They simply used these setbacks as an opportunity to test out 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha—who has had success despite bouncing between the minors and the bigs. He could join Rookie of the Year favorite Shelby Miller and sophomore workhorse Lance Lynn as the core of this young rotation’s future. The Cubs will miss Miller but are expected to see Lynn on Saturday. And it’s tough to ignore Sunday’s starter Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s elite pitchers with a 12-5 record and a 2.30 ERA. Getting quality starts almost two-thirds of the time with the league’s best offense creates a ton of winnable ballgames, but it’s the improvement in the ’pen since a disastrous first couple of weeks that has helped the Cardinals convert winnable games to actual wins. Unconventional closer Edward Mujica might owe some of his success to his forkball coming right after the blistering heat of Rosenthal and Maness.

Series 24 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals


Matt Carpenter has been a big contributor this year for the Cardinals. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Is there any organization more indestructible than the Cardinals? In recent years, they’ve managed to replace Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal in the lineup without missing a beat. Plus, the pitching staff has weathered losing co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in consecutive years. But mounting injuries in the rotation could bring the Cards back to the NL Central pack this season. The man trying to hold the staff together is the rock the team has leaned on through all of the previous changes: catcher Yadier Molina, now in his ninth season as the Cardinals’ regular receiver. Yadi not only intimidates opposing running games out of existence (he sees less than one stolen base attempt every two games, and throws out more than 40 percent of runners), he’s also an irreplaceable staff manager and a critical offensive cog.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored/Game (1st in the NL)
Though the Cardinals lack a single signature strength in the lineup, they more than make up for it with balance and depth. The team exploited that depth this season when they moved slugger Matt Carpenter to second base, and he’s shown a fine aptitude around the bag. They also have slugging rookie reserve Matt Adams cooling his heels on the bench. Moving Allen Craig from first to an outfield corner would create playing time, but with Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday manning those spots, there’s little room to cram everyone into the lineup. If there’s one thing the Cardinals lack, especially with Furcal out, it’s speed. They’re last in the league in steals and stolen base attempts, a far cry from the days of Whitey Herzog and Vince Coleman. Still, the Cards’ offense could be primed for a big second half once Holliday and third baseman David Freese start slugging the way they can.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in the NL)
Few clubs can contend with a healthy Cardinals starting rotation. Wainwright has undergone a remarkable transformation since completing his recovery from 2011 Tommy John surgery. This year, he’s drastically cut his walk rate while pushing his strikeout rate to an eye-popping 24 percent. And right-hander Shelby Miller, building off a strong 2012 major league debut, is one of the leading candidates to snag Rookie of the Year honors. If there’s a concern beyond the injury to rotation regular Jaime Garcia, who is out for the year after having shoulder surgery, it’s the bullpen. After losing closer Jason Motte for the season, manager Mike Matheny sifted through multiple alternatives before settling on journeyman Edward Mujica to protect ninth-inning leads. Mujica lacks the pure velocity typically associated with a shutdown closer, but he uses his splitter to good effect. If he struggles, you can bet the Cardinals will be in the market for a closer at the deadline.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 23 Preview: Cubs at Mets


David Wright has kept the Mets offense together this season. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Mets’ rebuild continues to hit alarming lows, with the team’s youth mired in some severe struggles. The demotion of first baseman Ike Davis and his .161 average, after a season in which he hit 32 home runs but batted .227, is just the tip of the iceberg. Infielder and leadoff hitter Jordany Vadelspin has a .281 on-base percentage, shortstop Ruben Tejada was batting .209 before going down with a quad injury, and left fielder Lucas Duda barely supplies enough walks and power to justify being the team’s No. 5 hitter. At 24-37 and with few solid indications of bad luck, the Mets occupy fourth place in the NL East only due to the presence of the replacement-level Miami Marlins.The lone bright spot has been the breakout season of 24-year-old ace Matt Harvey.

HITTING: 3.9 RS/G (10th in NL)
The Mets lineup has benefited from a handful of strong veteran performances. Some have been expected—cornerstone third baseman David Wright continues to be the team’s all-around best—while others—like the comeback effort of 35-year-old former Cub Marlon Byrd—have been much more of a shock. Second baseman Daniel Murphy continues to provide high batting averages, though little else in terms of secondary skills. But the Mets haven’t been close to enough to overcome outright poor hitting elsewhere. As a team, they are batting for a .229 AVG/.297 OBP/.380 SLG slash line—and that’s excluding the pitching staff. Still, it’s the struggles of their once-promising young position players that are causing the most long-term concern. At least they’ll have top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud back soon, following a two-month recovery from a foot fracture. Like the few other bright spots so far, he still won’t be able to do it all by himself.

PITCHING: 4.7 RA/G (14th in NL)
The Mets pitching has been a disaster so far, and the staff the Cubs will see this weekend will be considerably worse because it won’t include phenom Matt Harvey. That said, a fielding crew with the worst defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) and the fact that Mets pitchers have the majors’ lowest strikeout rate has compounded the problems. It’s a vicious cycle that, in the end, has led to lots and lots of runs. Tonight’s starter, veteran righty Shaun Marcum, has the rotation’s second-highest strikeout rate (21 percent), as he continues to rely on a mid-80s fastball that he can sink or cut, a good change-up he uses heavily against lefties, and a couple of breaking balls. But despite his ability to miss bats and avoid free passes, his 4.96 ERA has been the product of hard-hit fly balls and poor defense. Lefty Jon Niese and righty Jeremy Hefner keep the ball on the ground a great deal more but allow many more balls in play as well. Closer Bobby Parnell has done well with his power fastball/curve combination, but the Mets have had considerable trouble building a link to him with anyone from the farm system.

Series 22 Preview: Cubs vs. Reds


Shin-Soo Choo has helped guide the Reds offense this season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Reds are still trailing the Cardinals by four games in the NL Central, but Dusty Baker’s club has shown remarkable resilience after a spate of early-season injuries. Though Cincinnati lost both cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick and rotation ace Johnny Cueto for the season’s opening months, they have been able to ride three strengths to a 37-26 record: their deep pitching staff, an above-average defense that has converted 71 percent of balls in play into outs, and the two best players in baseball at getting on base. And the roster is deep enough that Baker doesn’t have to do anything crazy. Once the lineup starts firing on all pistons, watch out.

HITTING: 4.6 RS/G (3rd in NL)
The Reds lost Ludwick from the heart of the order and endured slow starts from most of their regulars, so why are they still scoring runs by the truckload? Quite simply because they have the best on-base combo in baseball atop their order in Shin-Soo Choo and former NL MVP Joey Votto. With both getting on base more than 40 percent of the time, they’re creating a tremendous number of scoring opportunities. That’s part of the reason Brandon Phillips is among the league leaders in RBI (46) filling in for Ludwick in the middle of the lineup. Phillips is plating 19 percent of his men on base—a good mark—but he is also batting with the highest total of runners on base. Once Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart start slugging the way they can, the Reds’ offense could be the league’s best.

PITCHING: 3.8 RA/G (4th in NL)
Cueto’s continued absence has been a big blow, but the Reds have had the depth to deal with it so far, thanks in part to power lefty Tony Cingrani, who is expected to get the start Tuesday against Matt Garza. If Wednesday’s starter, Mike Leake, doesn’t add deception to his repertoire, he might be at risk of losing his job to Cingrani this season. In the meantime, Monday’s starter Homer Bailey’s development into a topline starter has rewarded the organization’s faith in the former first-rounder, while Bronson Arroyo continues to be the staff workhorse, never impressing the radar gun but spinning innumerable variations off his offspeed junk. The ’pen is similarly deep. Lefty Aroldis Chapman may get the most save opportunities, but on nights when his triple-digit heat is a little wild, Baker hasn’t been afraid to turn to rookie righty J.J. Hoover. Veteran set-up men Sean Marshall (currently on the DL again) and Jonathan Broxton also offer closing experience.

Series 21 Preview: Cubs vs. Pirates


Starling Marte’s play has benefited the Pirates this season. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Will 20 be the charm? That’s how many seasons the Pirates have gone without reaching the .500 mark, but this could be the year they get there and beyond. Thanks to a number of additions, superstar Andrew McCutchen finally has enough talent surrounding him that he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load. Though Pittsburgh enters the series on a three-game losing streak, they’re still 10 games over .500. They are also tied for first in the league in defensive efficiency, converting 73.4 percent of all balls in play into outs. Part of that is the result of adding Starling Marte to the outfield mix and moving Garrett Jones back to first base, but Pedro Alvarez’s improvement at third base has been another important development. Preseason concerns about a bullpen backed by journeyman Jason Grilli have also come to naught. The Bucs’ relief corps has been the league’s best at stranding base runners, allowing just 17 percent to score in the opening months.

HITTING: 3.7 RS/G, 12th in the NL
Improving McCutchen’s supporting cast has elevated the Pirates’ offense to league average—or maybe better when you consider they don’t play in a bandbox. The biggest surprises have been Marte’s development as an everyday left fielder with both power and speed, and veteran catcher Russell Martin’s rediscovery of the batting stroke that once made him a Dodger prodigy. Clint Hurdle has also used platoons effectively, pairing Jones with Gaby Sanchez at first base to get more power, and Travis Snider with Jose Tabata (currently on the DL) in right field for OBP. Homegrown talents Neil Walker and Alvarez are expected to return to form and provide the kind of power they have in the past. Plus, McCutchen is capable of slugging .600 for months at a time—put that in the middle of this order, and the Pirates’ offense won’t be mistaken for average much longer.

PITCHING: 3.5 RA/G, 3rd in the NL
The Pirates’ pitching staff has been a revelation in the early going, but will it hold up all season? So far, the boost has had more to do with the team’s slow accumulation of veteran talent than any real breakthroughs from young prospects (though left-hander Jeff Locke, who starts Sunday, is off to a strong start). A.J. Burnett’s late-career renaissance in the NL has stretched into a second season, giving the Pirates a top-shelf starter capable of outdueling contenders’ top guns and cranking out double-digit strikeout totals. With veteran lefty Francisco Liriano settling in behind him, the Pirates could have the starting pitching to sustain a postseason run. The problem so far has been injuries. Wandy Rodriguez recently left a start against Atlanta complaining of forearm pain, and James McDonald and Charlie Morton are both on the DL. One ugly wrinkle to Burnett’s performance: He’s not much for thwarting the running game, as the first 13 stolen-base attempts against him this year were all successful. But when Burnett isn’t on the bump, Pirates catchers are gunning down one-third of all base stealers.

Series 20 Preview: Cubs at Angels


Mike Trout has held the Angels’ offense together this season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Big contracts have left the Angels with outsized disappointment so far in 2013, one year after the Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings failed to ignite the team past a third place finish in the AL West. This winter, the Angels came out of nowhere to snatch up free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton, but the early returns have been equally unsettling. With Hamilton hitting for a .216 AVG/.280 OBP/.380 SLG slash line, and Pujols not much better at .243/.315/.408, the Angels sit in third place once again at just 25-33. The Cubs head to the City of Angels for quick a two-game set starting tonight.

HITTING: 4.3 RS/G 10th in AL
To focus too much on Pujols’ and Hamilton’s struggles would overlook one of the game’s most outstanding players: 21-year-old phenom Mike Trout. The electric outfielder is backing up his breakout campaign with a .299/.371/.547 slash line, with 10 home runs and 12 steals in 15 tries. Combined with very good outfield defense, Trout’s versatile skill set is matched by few—if any—in baseball. He’s also been manning center field while Peter Bourjos, a consistently outstanding outfielder, continues to rehab from a strained hamstring that has kept him out for more than a month. With Hamilton swinging at, and missing, everything and Pujols hobbled by a lingering knee issue, the Angels have had to rely too much on Trout, slugging first baseman Mark Trumbo and second baseman Howie Kendrick for offense. The net result has been roughly league average but with little indication of how the performances will even out in the long run.

PITCHING: 4.6 RA/G 10th in NL
Though the Angels have some depth issues in the back end of the rotation and in the late innings, the Cubs will face some tough matchups the next few nights. Right-hander Jered Weaver takes the hill Tuesday in his second start back from a broken left elbow. Weaver has established himself as one of the game’s true aces despite seeming to have rather ordinary stuff. His fastball velocity has declined steadily to the high-80s, and his strikeout rate has dropped along with it. But Weaver makes such outstanding use of deception, location and sequencing, that he’s consistently ranked as one of the AL’s most unhittable pitchers. The Cubs’ right-handed hitters will have to be particularly wary of the change-up (a rarity from same-handed pitchers), while both sides will see fastballs sneaking up on them with two strikes. Wednesday night’s starter is left-hander Jason Vargas, an extreme fly-ball pitcher who has so far made the transition nicely from spacious Safeco Field to the more neutral Angels Stadium. Vargas is primarily a fastball-curve pitcher, who will sink and cut his fastball to get hitters out in front. Hard-throwing Ernesto Frieri holds down the ninth—at least until veteran addition Ryan Madson returns from injury. Frieri’s a relative wild card due to extremely high walk and strikeout rates.

Series 19: Cubs vs. Diamondbacks


Rookie ace Patrick Corbin will take the mound Sunday for the D-backs. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Arizona’s offseason was probably more notable for what the team lost than for what it gained. The club said goodbye to 2005 No. 1 overall pick and former face of the franchise Justin Upton, a player they desperately hoped would emerge into a bona fide superstar. In return, they acquired the spectacularly versatile Martin Prado, who serves primarily as the club’s third baseman. They also dealt the talented-but-insubordinate Trevor Bauer, the organization’s first-round pick in 2011, for Didi Gregorius, a budding superstar at shortstop and one of the game’s top prospects. Though they share a division with the defending World Series champion Giants and the free-spending Dodgers, the surprise Diamondbacks and manager Kirk Gibson sit in first place as the baseball season rolls into June.

HITTING: 4.1 RS/G 6th in NL
The D-backs’ early offensive output might surprise some people, but it shouldn’t. First-base phenom Paul Goldschmidt has gotten off to an All-Star caliber start with a .337/.416/.605 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line and 12 home runs in his second full major league campaign. The team also added solid two-way player Prado, the key return in the Upton deal. Though Prado is only hitting .262 this season, he gives the club a pure hitter who shows patience at the plate and does whatever it takes to drive in runners (he was tied for the NL lead with nine sacrifice flies in 2012). Throw in upstart prospect Gregorius and leadoff hitter Gerardo Parra, and there aren’t many easy outs in the Arizona lineup. However, the Cubs will benefit with Silver Slugging second baseman Aaron Hill still out with a broken hand.

PITCHING: 3.7 RA/G 5th in NL
As good as the D-backs’ offense has been, the pitching staff has arguably been better. Southpaw Patrick Corbin, who takes the mound Sunday, has 10 quality starts, an NL-best eight wins and a 1.71 ERA (second in the NL) in 68.1 innings pitched. Friday’s starter Wade Miley was an All-Star in 2012, and though he has slightly regressed and is coming off the shortest outing of his career (7 R, 3.2 IP), the lefty still has a respectable 4.53 ERA in 10 starts. Fortunately for the Cubs, they won’t see right-hander Trevor Cahill. In 72 innings this season, the 25-year-old has a 2.88 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP, making the Corbin-Cahill combo a tough top-of-the-rotation punch. And it gets even tougher for opponents when games get to the bullpen. With closer J.J. Putz on the DL nursing an elbow strain, former ninth-inning anchor Heath Bell has racked up nine saves. Setup men Matt Reynolds and Brad Ziegler have also been tough late-inning relievers. The southpaw Reynolds owns a 1.16 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and an 8.1 K/9 ratio over 23.1 innings. Ziegler has fared only slightly worse, with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 24.1 innings. Throw in David Hernandez, and games might be over quickly for D-backs foes.

Series 18 Preview: Cubs vs. White Sox


The Cubs jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the White Sox Tuesday, before the game was postponed due to rain. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

A home-and-home series—in baseball? Welcome to the crazy scheduling world of year-round Interleague Play. Though the South Siders have surprised analysts with their ability to outperform forecasts, they didn’t make any major additions to a roster that lost a late-season lead to the Tigers in the AL Central last year. While the Indians and Royals made big moves to catch Detroit, newly minted Sox GM Rick Hahn had to settle for signing super-utilityman Jeff Keppinger and set-up reliever Matt Lindstrom. Losing longtime catcher A.J. Pierzynski to free agency amplifies concerns about the aging lineup’s ability to score runs, and power lefty John Danks missed the opening weeks of the season as he continued to recover from left shoulder surgery. The Sox may again upset expectations and finish above .500—they’re currently one game below—but they haven’t won 90 games since 2006. The last time the Cubs won 90 was in 2008.

HITTING: 3.6 RS/G, 26th in MLB
Losing Pierzynski was a surprise, but so were his 27 home runs last year. The Sox couldn’t have expected that to happen again. Instead, this lineup will rely on its power trio of Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. It remains to be seen if Dayan Viciedo will make it a core four. If the team hopes to contend, Dunn will need to continue his rebound from 2011, arguably the worst year ever for a designated hitter (.569 OPS). So far, he’s off to a typically Dunn-like start. His power numbers are strong (12 home runs, 27 RBI), but he’s hitting just .156 with 66 strikeouts. The Sox also need leadoff man Alejandro De Aza to repeat his breakthrough performance from 2012. The good news is Rios got off to a hot start, leading the team in almost every statistical category. Still, the Sox will be better off if some of his teammates start challenging his numbers sometime soon.

PITCHING: 4.0 RA/G, 9th in MLB
Much of how well the 2013 season works out on the South Side rests on the Sox’s frontline pair of power lefties. Chris Sale is off to a good start (especially with Welington Castillo’s two-run blast from Tuesday wiped off the stat sheet) and hopes to follow up on his near Cy Young-worthy 2012 campaign, while today’s starter Danks is trying to bounce back from shoulder surgery. Thursday’s starter Jake Peavy has lived up to the veteran ace label in his first starts of 2013, posting a 6-2 record with a 2.97 ERA, but Gavin Floyd has already been lost for the year with an elbow injury. The good news for the Sox is the bullpen looks like a source of strength. Closer Addison Reed seems to have overcome last year’s wildness, and Jesse Crain is off to a fast start.

Series 16 Preview: Cubs at Reds


The Cubs will see Reds ace Johnny Cueto on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

The Cubs go from pitcher’s environment to hitter’s paradise as they head to Cincinnati for a three-game set. GM Walt Jocketty finally addressed an area this offseason that has plagued the Reds for years: the leadoff spot. And, boy, did he ever. Center fielder Shin-Soo Choo has put up a monstrous .300/.449/.535 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line with nine home runs in 45 games. That’s a far cry from the sub-.300 on-base percentage days of Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras and Drew Stubbs—even if Choo is better suited to a corner outfield spot. He is exactly the type of player the Reds need as they look to capture their third division title in four years.

HITTING 4.8 RS/G, 2nd in NL

It’s true that only Choo and other-worldly first baseman Joey Votto get on base with any consistency, but it’s been at such a great rate (roughly 47 percent of plate appearances combined) it’s allowed the team’s power to have maximum effect. Votto, of course, supplies plenty of pop, but so do second baseman Brandon Phillips, third baseman Todd Frazier and right fielder Jay Bruce—though impressively, it’s Choo who leads the team in home runs. On the defensive end, young shortstop Zack Cozart pairs up with Phillips to form one of the game’s best double-play tandems. And Votto has worked hard to become a good fielder at first. In the end, this is a lineup that does it all besides steal bases. It will be vital for Cubs pitchers to limit baserunners in order to mitigate any damage from home runs in Great American Ball Park.

PITCHING 3.6 RA/G, 5th in NL

The lineup gets the plaudits, but the pitching at least deserves a, “You’re not looking so bad yourself.” Every starting pitcher has an ERA below 3.50, from veteran Bronson Arroyo—who throws tonight—to the other four arms (all ages 27 and below). Some of the across-the-board improvements in the last few years could be credited to the defense, but there’s more to it than that. The Cubs will also see ace Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey this weekend. Owner of a corkscrew windup and one of the game’s most deceptive change-ups, Cueto has continually refined his command to become a truly outstanding starting pitcher. The improved control has paid off in reduced walks and home runs, though he didn’t look his finest in last week’s return from oblique and back issues. Interestingly, he’s even spoken about reducing the twist in his motion if it would prevent future injuries. Once seen as a disappointment after being heralded as a top prospect, Bailey is another member of the pitching staff who has seen a downward trend in his walks—and he not only earned a no-hitter last year but also posted a career-best ERA. Flame-throwing lefty Aroldis Chapman is the closer, but rookie J.J. Hoover has also picked up a save or two.

—Sean Ahmed


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