Monday, April 20, 2015

Next Up: Chicago Cubs

The Pirates have now completed four three-game series: two with Milwaukee and one each with Cincinnati and Detroit. The Brewers and Reds are generally expected to be National League Central also-rans, while the Tigers are--what's the opposite of also-rans? Rans?--in the American League Central. True to form, the Reds and Brewers occupy the last two positions in their division, and the Tigers have the best record in baseball.

Keeping with the Central theme, the 6-6 Pirates now host the 6-5 Cubs for four games. This could be the start of a pretty lively rivalry. They're both young teams. The average age of Cubs batters (weighted by at bats plus games played) is 27.3, second-youngest in the National League, with the Pirates just behind at 27.7, tied with the Padres for third. Pirates pitchers (weighted by 3 times games started, plus games plus saves) are fifth youngest at 28.9, with the Cubs at the league average of 29.3. Both teams should stay pretty young, as their farm systems are stacked: ESPN's Keith Law rates the Cubs No. 1 and the Pirates No. 7. And, after a long, long period of ineptitude--excluding the Houston Astros, who are now in the American League, the Pirates or Cubs have been last in the National League Central in each of the past ten seasons--both teams are poised to compete for a wild card and, if the Cardinals falter, the division. After years of one team or the other (or both) being punching bags, the two teams (both of which are data-savvy) are now positioned to be rivals at the top of the division.

That doesn't mean they're identical. The Cubs' estimated payroll of just under $113 million is 14th in baseball and the highest in the division. The Pirates, at $83.5 million, are 23rd in baseball and last in their division. The Cubs made a big splash in the free agent market over the winter, adding left-handed starter Jon Lester for $155 million over six years (or, depending on a team option, $170 million over seven). The biggest move by the low-budget Pirates was re-signing free agent starter Francisco Liriano for $39 million over three years. Going forward, the Cubs have more money to burn, while Pirates fans worry about second baseman Neil Walker, first baseman Pedro Alvarez, and closer Mark Melancon departing as free agents after the 2016 season. The Pirates farm system includes some top-notch pitchers, including Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham. The Cubs' top prospects are all position players, suggesting that the team may spend some of its available cash on free agent pitchers next winter.

And there's Kris Bryant. The No. 2 pick in the 2013 amateur draft, Bryant was Baseball America's No. 1 rated prospect entering the season. He batted .425 with nine homers in 40 at bats in spring training, but was sent down to the minors to start the year, ostensibly to work on his defense at third (which remains weak) but actually to preserve a year of control for the Cubs. In any case, he was called up last Friday and has batted .300 with a .500 on base percentage in three games since.

Fun fact about Kris Bryant: He is 23 years, 106 days old. He has three career hits. At a similar age, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper had...well, we don't know, because Harper won't be 23 years, 106 days old until 2015. He's got 368 career hits, and he's more than nine months younger than Bryant. That says something about both of them.

The Cubs will start Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks in the series, which means they'll miss Lester, robbing Pirates fans of the opportunity of seeing pickoff attempts like this:

and throws to first on comebackers to the mound like this:

So far this season, the Cubs hitters have a .227/.316/.372 slash line, ahead of the Pirates' .222/.281/.355 across the board. Several hitters are having nice, if not noteworthy, seasons, and the only batter to have struggled a lot is second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, who's batting .077 with no extra-base hits and strikeouts in 34% of plate appearances, the eighth-highest rate in the league among batters with 30 or more plate appearances.

Cubs starting pitchers have a 4.52 ERA, fourth worst in the league, nearly a run and half worse than the Pirates' 3.07. The Cubs' bullpen ERA of 2.65 is ahead of the Pirates' 2.94. Among the starters, Arrietta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) and Wood (1-1, 2.31 ERA) have started the year much stronger than Hammel (1-0, 5.11 ERA), Hendricks (0-0, 6.10 ERA) and Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA).

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