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On the Chicago Cubs bases: Shota Imanaga is amazing and a trade deadline looks ahead

On the Chicago Cubs bases: Shota Imanaga is amazing and a trade deadline looks ahead

Hey, Cubs subscribers!

We’re excited to start our new weekly segment, “Covering the Bases,” where we dive into the latest and greatest happenings with your team. From big plays, quizzes and the best reads on your favorite team, see this as your backstage pass from our two team beat reporters to all things Cubs from the past week. Let us know in the comments if you like this story format.

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Power Rankings: Chicago Cubs are number 9

In this week’s power rankings, we went with the “I wish you were here” theme, highlighting one injured player who would make a difference.

Previous ranking: 7

Wish you Were Here: Seiya Suzuki

Suzuki has been a plus hitter since joining the Cubs, but as of last summer he has been operating at an elite level. He hit .313 with a .938 OPS in the second half of 2023, then started off well this season, posting a .305 batting average and .893 OPS in 15 games before injuring his oblique in April.

Suzuki and Cody Bellinger (ribs) could return to the lineup this week. The Cubs have held up just fine without them. And even though the rotation lost Marcus Stroman this offseason, the Cubs starters currently have the fourth-best ERA in the majors — and they accomplished that without Justin Steele, who returned Monday. — Stephen J. Nesbitt

Quiz in the big league

The latest hits

ICYMI, our national writers have weighed in on what they hear and see

1. A reason for optimism (and pessimism)

Jim Bowden gave every club a reason to feel hopeful, and a reason not to. Here’s what he said about the Cubs:

Reason for optimism: Shota Imanaga appears to be the best signing of the offseason as he has gone 5-0 with a 0.78 ERA and is pitching like he will be part of the Cy Young Award conversation this year. Javier Assad broke out this season with a 1.97 ERA over six starts and Jameson Taillon has impressed since coming off the IL, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in three games. Michael Busch was another smart offseason pickup by the Cubs; the former Dodgers prospect has six home runs and 17 RBIs as their new first baseman.

Shota Imanaga of the Cubs celebrates after the third of the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday. (Griffin Quinn/Getty Images)

Reason for pessimism: Cody Bellinger is on the IL with a broken rib, Ian Happ is hitting .211, Christopher Morel is at .209, Nick Madrigal is at .195. Nico Hoerner has yet to hit a home run and has been caught stealing twice in six attempts. (Last year he had an 86 percent graduation rate.)

2. He doesn’t throw away his Shota

Jayson Stark’s Weird and Wild dealt with Shotamania:

He doesn’t throw away his Shota – Shota Imanaga, Cubs ace. That’s not a sentence I thought I’d type a few months ago. But here we are. Check out this man’s astonishing statement after the first six starts of his Cubs (and big league) career:

5 runs allowed
4 walks allowed

So think about this. Fewer walks than wins? As many runs as wins? Hey Chicago, what do you say? Amazing, right?

In fact, it’s so amazing that in the expansion era (1961-2024), I could only find two other starting pitchers whose four walk and run totals did not exceed their win totals in their first six starts of a season… let alone their first six starts ever.

Cliff Lee, 2008 Indians
5 runs
2 walks

Frank Viola, twins from 1990
5 runs
5 walks

If I were to change the qualifiers from “runs” to “runs earned,” we could also add another iconic name: Juan Marichal, 1966 (6-0, 5 ER, 5 BB). But what does it matter. If that’s the audience Shota Imanaga wants to hang out with all year or for the rest of his career, he’s going to be a star.

3. The pitches they couldn’t master

Andy McCullough and Stephen Nesbitt talked to a dozen all-stars about that one pitch they couldn’t master. On the panel for the Cubs, Justin Steele said:

Justin Steele: Splitter

At his locker this spring, Steele held a ball in his left hand. When he releases the ball, his wrist rotates inwards (supinates). He naturally positions himself on the left side of the ball, which allows for more movement in his fastball cut and slider. Anything coming in to a right-handed hitter, Steele said, is an easy pitch to pick up. Anything that goes the other way – sinker, splitter, change – is a challenge.

Justin Steele of the Chicago Cubs will pitch for the National League All-Star team in July 2023. (Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

Last season, Steele finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting with 96.5 percent four-seamers and sliders. He threw 48 sinkers and 28 changeups. He continues to search for an ideal change grip. His current one – where he spreads his fingers quite far apart and tries to get on top of the seam – almost looks like a splitter grip. Seeing fellow Cubs who are left-wing Shota Imanaga’s splitter just makes Steele want one more.

“I’d kill to have a good one,” Steele said.

Beat baseball

Our beat writers Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma have sorted out what you need to know

Looking ahead to the trade deadline

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has already started preliminary work on potential deals, so he wasn’t surprised when the Miami Marlins sent Luis Arraez to the San Diego Padres for prospects. Sooner or later, Hoyer will have to take steps to improve a bullpen that looks like the glaring weakness for a playoff contender.

Javier Assad of the Chicago Cubs pitched in a game last year. (Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

Why the rotation dominated

The Cubs rotation has been dominant to start the year and a big reason for that is Javier Assad. Instead of just waiting for him to struggle, perhaps it’s time to accept that Assad is a quality starter who can consistently impact a winning team.

Did you catch this?

Jon Greenberg writes that Justin Steele and Shota Imanaga can give the Cubs the 1-2 punch they need.

Not only are the starters keeping the Cubs at the top of the division through a tough spring stretch, but people are also wondering how good this team can be when and if they get it right.

It’s one thing to have Justin Steele and Shota Imanaga start the first two games of a series in early May. But think about it in October. …Okay, enough daydreaming. It’s the first week of May and the Cubs bullpen is more flammable than a dumpster full of cooking oil.

And yet …

To come off a weekend series where three starters threw at least six scoreless innings and then have Steele and Imanaga ready to go, that’s not a bad thing.

Viral moment of the week

“Bear down, Chicago Bears.” The sight of Caleb Williams may have created the loudest noise yet this season for the Friendly Confines.

Back to school

Dexter Fowler, the “you go, we go” leader of the 2016 World Series team, went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational and professional communications after completing his coursework online through Penn State World Campus.

(Top photo by Shota Imanaga: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)