A week ago it looked like the Reds and Brewers had earned a comfortable separation from the rest of the NL Central. But an 8-game winning streak by the Cubs (53-52) has them third in the division, 3.5 games behind the Brewers (57-49) and trailing the Reds (58-49) by four. The winning streak was the longest for the Cubs since 2016. This four-game matchup at Wrigley Field that begins tonight could play a huge role in sorting out the race for the Cubs.
The Reds lead the season series so far, 4-1. The two teams split a two-game series the first week of April at GABP, then the Reds swept three in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend. That latter series signaled the start of the Reds offensive surge, with the club outscoring the Cubs 25-10. As for the Cubs 8-game win streak, it has come at the delicious expense of their two biggest rivals, the Cardinals and White Sox.
All four games will be played under the lights at the historic corner of Addison and Clark.
- Monday (8:05 pm)
- Tuesday (8:05 pm)
- Wednesday (8:05 pm)
- Thursday (8:05 pm)
The Cubs have missed the last two postseasons. The last time they won the division in a full-season year was 2017. That team of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, etc. has been dismantled other than Reds killer Ian Happ. The Cubs won the 2016 World Series. This is the fourth season David Ross, former Reds catcher, has managed the Cubbies.
For the Reds, this is the final stop of a ten-game, three-city road trip. They head back to Great American Ball Park for a weekend series against the last-place Washington Nationals.
The Cubs offense ranks 11th in run production over the season (104 wRC+), but has been #1 by far since the All-Star break (138 wRC+). Meanwhile, the Reds have been 20th for the season (96) and dead last since the break (71). In other words, the series features the hottest lineup against the coldest.
2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger has become the runaway favorite for the Comeback Player of the Year award. He’s not hitting at his MVP level, but he does have 15 homers and 12 stolen bases to go with a .315 average. That’s a stark contrast to his previous three seasons.
In the three games played Memorial Day weekend, the Reds held All-World Reds Killer Ian Happ in check. In 14 plate appearances, he had just one hit (a double) and two walks. He struck out four times. Over his career, in 358 PA against the Reds, Happ has posted a 167 wRC+ (MVP level) with 26 homers.
CF Mike Tauchman platoons and bats in the leadoff spot against right-handed pitchers. The 32-year-old Tauchman played in Korea last season. The Cubs signed him to a minor league contract for 2023 and called him up on May 19. He has a nice walk-rate (12.4%) and has hit for average (.270). You might have seen Tauchman’s game-winning catch Friday night. Two outs, one-run lead, one runner on. Playing the much-hated Cardinals. Tauchman brings the ball back from over the fence. You hate to see something that heartbreaking happen to the Cardinals.
Nico Hoerner leads off against lefties — the Reds plan to throw two in this series. Hoerner has 25 stolen bases (3 CS) and seven homers. 24-year-old Christopher Morel strikes out a lot (31.2%) but he does have 16 homers (that would lead the Reds) in just 250 plate appearances. Dansby Swanson, who the Cubs signed to a 7-year/$177 million contract is having a solid season at the plate and leads the NL in defense at shortstop. Tucker Barnhart is the Cubs backup catcher.
Starting Pitcher Matchups
Overall, the Cubs rotation has been middle of the road since the All Star break in ERA, xFIP and xwOBA.
Marcus Stroman is in the second year of a three-year contract that affords him the right to opt out after the 2023 season. He’s making more than $23 million/year. Stroman has been an excellent pitcher for a number of years, going back to his days with the Toronto Blue Jays. His walk-rate and average exit velocity are up a bit, but otherwise he’s the same pitcher, sitting at the top of the Cubs rotation. Half his pitches are a 91.5 mph sinker that results in an extreme ground-ball rate (58%). Stroman’s second pitch is a slurve with a 32.5% whiff rate. Left-handed hitters will also see a nasty splitter. The Reds have had trouble with Stroman, who has faced them five times. This should be a terrific matchup with Andrew Abbott.
While Stroman is the nominal ace of the staff, lefty Justin Steele has been the Cubs best starter in 2023. Steele, who turned 28 earlier this month, is in his third season pitching in the majors. He was a Cubs pick in the 2014 draft out of high school. Steele made 24 starts last year (3.59 xERA, 3.89 SIERA) and has followed that good season up with an even better one in 2023. He’s cut his walk rate to 5.4%, 11th lowest among MLB starters. He’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his 92-mph four-seamer and 83-mph slider 96% of the time. The Reds have done well against him most of the time. Edge to the Cubs in this matchup.
The Reds have faced veteran Drew Smyly twice this season, scoring 11 earned runs off him in 9.1 innings. Smyly made 19 starts for the Cubs until mid-July when it appeared he had been assigned to the bullpen. His two most recent appearances have been long relief. Youngster Heyden Wesnesky took Smyly’s last start on Friday but only pitched two innings. And here Smyly is back. Manager David Ross might be planning a piggy-back strategy, which might be more effective because the Reds platoon at several positions. Smyly is basically the same pitcher he was last year, with a slightly better than average xERA. His SIERA is higher because Smyly is a fly-ball pitcher. 88% of his pitches are either a curve or sinker. Brandon Williamson has gone eight starts without giving up more than three earned runs. Even matchup.
Jameson Taillon has had a rough year through his 18 starts. He features (35%) a four-seam fastball that has been clobbered (.432 xwOBA) and his second pitch, a cutter (20%) has fared only a little better (.366). Three of his last four starts have been successful although the most recent two were against the last-place Cardinals. Taillon gave up four runs in 4.2 innings to the Reds in May. In terms of matchup, sitting here before the trade deadline, if the Reds acquire another starting pitcher he would likely slide in for Luke Weaver. Otherwise, this is an even, but ugly pairing.
The Cubs bullpen was viewed as the team’s biggest weakness early in the year. But the emergence of Adbert Alzolay as closer and a couple set up guys, combined with a couple big young arms has stabilized the situation. Conventional wisdom is they’ll be looking for a lefty bullpen arm at this deadline.
Adbert Alzolay has been in the Cubs system since 2013. He was used in a starter role until 2022 when he spent half the season on the IL. Alzolay returned to a starting role in the minors but was assigned to the bullpen in a long relief role when promoted to the Cubs in September. He began 2023 in the pen, but didn’t step into the closer role until mid-May. The Cubs only had a couple saves in April and both went to veteran Brad Boxberger who has been on the IL since May with a strained forearm. Alzolay has taken to the closer role in much the same way Alexis Diaz did last year and his numbers are comparable. He has a more diverse portfolio as you would expect for a career starter. He’s begun to rely more on his slider (57%) as the year has progressed.
The Cubs had won eight in a row before finally losing to the Cardinals yesterday. In the space of a week, they have gone from a team likely to sell at the trade deadline (Bellinger, Stroman) to one looking to add a little. Momentum is strong on the Northside. This four-game series is between two teams on the rise and should be closely fought. Andrew Abbott holding his own in the opening game is crucial. Since the series straddles the trade deadline, it will be interesting to see how the two teams might tweak their rosters as it progresses.
Photos: Cubs Twitter