Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele displayed glimpses of potential in the weekend series against the Braves that provide hope for the Cubs’ rebuilding foundation.
But the Cubs will need more pillars before proving that foundation is sturdy enough to regain their status as a National League title contender.
The reigning World Series champion Braves serve as a model without investing heavily in the free-agent market.
After losing two back-to-back games in the wake of a 14-game winning streak, the Braves rebounded Sunday by pounding Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks en route to a 6-0 triumph at Wrigley Field.
The Braves have built a cohesive roster comprised of dazzling prospects and seasoned veterans. Ian Anderson, 24, who pitched five no-hit innings to beat the Astros in Game 3 of the 2021 World Series, controlled the Cubs with 6? scoreless innings.
Michael Harris II, 21, the Braves’ top prospect whom they declined to trade while acquiring first baseman Matt Olson from the Athletics, fueled a three-run fifth with a home run against Hendricks.
Travis d’Arnaud, 33, set the tone with a three-run homer against Hendricks in the first and provides balance behind the plate with William Contreras, 24.
”There’s an unlimited amount of young talent,” said Cubs left-hander Drew Smyly, who posted an 11-4 record in 29 games for the Braves last season. ”Everyone is young over there, except for Charlie Morton, and he’s on a whole different level with the way he pitches at 38, throwing 98 [mph]. He gets better every year. He’s like a fine wine.”
Morton pitched seven innings of three-hit ball, but Thompson countered with six-plus scoreless innings as the Cubs seized a 1-0 victory in the series opener Friday. But the Braves haven’t lost more than two consecutive games this season.
Meanwhile, injuries have compounded the Cubs’ growing pains, and May sensation Christopher Morel is six for his last 36 with 17 strikeouts.
Hendricks (2-6) has an 8.10 ERA in his last five starts and has a 15.00 ERA with nine homers allowed in his last three starts against the Braves.
”Right now . . . repeating that [consistency] from outing to outing has been a little bit of a struggle,” manager David Ross said.
The Braves have survived nicely without first baseman Freddie Freeman, who signed with the Dodgers after Olson was acquired. Olson went 3-for-3 with three doubles Sunday, including one that knocked out Hendricks in the fifth.
”It’s mostly the same team they had last year, minus Freeman, so I see a team that’s hungry to win, competitive and pretty good,” Cubs infielder Jonathan Villar said.
The buy-in process by the young players has allowed the Braves to win and develop consistently, even as they recover from the loss of speedy second baseman Ozzie Albies to a fractured left foot.
”We do a really good job in the minor leagues of preparing our guys,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. ”We’ve got guys like Greg Walker, Terry Pendleton and Eddie Perez before I stole him from the minors. They’reestablished and very successful major-league players and coaches, and they do a great job of preparing these guys.
”And none of them know before they get [to the majors]. I don’t think anyone does until you get here and do this. And the makeup of the player has a lot to do with it. We pride ourselves on the makeup of our players in the system.”
Shortstop Dansby Swanson, who is batting 381 in his last 26 games, might be peaking as he reaches free agency.
”We want a finished product,” Snitker said. ”It doesn’t work that way. It takes a lot of at-bats and years to figure things out. I think he’s starting to do it.”