Los Angeles and Chicago are two of America's finest cities, but on the diamond, sunny southern California prevails. The Dodgers are currently battling for baseball's best record, while the Cubs are undergoing full rebuilding mode. Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue was kind enough to answer some questions about the Cubs.
BEN: Who deserves to be the Cubs MVP and Cy-Young?
AL: Travis Wood is definitely the Cubs' best pitcher this year, though he has faded a bit since the All-Star break. MVP? That's a good question, because the offense has been so inconsistent and there have been two Opening Day starters traded. That leaves Nate Schierholtz, who (through Friday) is hitting .273/.324/.516, has an OPS+ of 127, and is leading the team with 19 home runs. He's been a revelation, seems very well suited to hitting in Wrigley Field.
BEN: Evaluate general manager Theo Epstein's performance so far?
AL: Well, if you did that just based on big-league team performance, you'd fail him. The Cubs have been just about the worst team in the league the last two years. However, Theo & Co. have been stockpiling young talent in the minor-league system and hope it will begin to produce at the major-league level within the next couple of years.
BEN: Anthony Rizzo hit .285 last year and is only at .231, why has his average dipped?
AL: It's hard to say. Rizzo has struggled, particularly against lefthanders. However, he is still hitting for decent power (32 doubles, 20 home runs) and is drawing walks (61 walks through Friday, seventh-most in the NL), so he's still been a productive hitter.
BEN: Starlin Castro looked like one of the best young shortstops in baseball over the previous two seasons. However, Castro's production also dropped off exponentially. Looking ahead, do you expect Castro's numbers to be closer to 2013 or 2012/2011?
AL: The front office wants Castro to be more patient. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of hitting that got Castro two .300 seasons and a pair of All-Star appearances. He's going to have to go back to his old way of hitting, in my view, to continue to be successful. Not every player needs to be fit into the mold of "patient hitter".
BEN: Silently the Cubs catchers, Welington Castillo and former Dodger Dioner Navarro, are a formidable duo. Are you surprised by their success?
AL: I'm a bit surprised by Navarro, who had a terrible 2012; he's been an outstanding pinch-hitter, hit well in spot starts, and been a good mentor for Castillo, who got off to a really slow start but who has hit much better since the All-Star break. I would like to see the Cubs keep this tandem together going forward.
BEN: Junior Lake seems to be one of the few bright spots for the Cubs. Will he keep this type of production up for the long term?
AL: Lake has talent. He's still learning how to play center field; he had never played the outfield before this year (was primarily a third baseman and shortstop). His athleticism could make him an excellent outfielder and his speed could help him beat out infield hits. He's a good bunter and though he might not have superstar talent, he looks like he could become a solid regular.
BEN: Travis Wood continues to set career marks in ERA and probably strikeouts. Do you believe this year is a fluke?
AL: Wood has established a new performance level this year, although if you look at his 2010 rookie season with the Reds, you could see this sort of talent make some appearances, too. At 26 he has a chance to be a rotation mainstay for several seasons and I'd like to see the Cubs extend him. He reminds me a bit of a younger Ted Lilly.
BEN: Jeff Samardzija started out the year looking like an ace, however he has been very inconsistent since. Can Samardzija develop into a reliable number one pitcher?
AL: Hemming and hawing about this, I think at this point I'd say no. You're right about his inconsistency; he'll make a start where he looks totally dominant, then get pounded in his next outing. He does seem to be able to stay healthy and doesn't have a lot of mileage on his arm. He's a solid No. 2 or No. 3 on a good team.
BEN: I've never been to Wrigley field and dream about it daily. What's the best and worst part about the historic park and how do you feel about the new scoreboard coming in?
AL: The intimacy of Wrigley is its best feature. No matter where you sit, you're not far from the action, unlike some of the larger, newer ballparks. "Worst"? Well, the team is going to try to address that with some of the renovations. There are parts of the concourses that feel very cramped; there aren't the fan nor player amenities there are in some of the newer parks.
The new video board? In a perfect world, I'd say no. But this isn't a perfect world, and if this is the price we must pay for having Wrigley Field preserved for the next 50-75 years, go for it.
BEN: Series prediction?
AL: The Cubs are having their worst month of 2013 and the Dodgers are the hottest team I have seen in more than 30 years. The Dodgers swept the Cubs at Wrigley. I don't see any reason they won't do it again.