ESPN’s Boone talks Cubs’ modest start, starting pitching, Schwarber

Nearly forty thousand baseball games. Thirty-eight Hall of Famers. Thirty World Series championships (though, that total is one-sided). Baseball history will converge on Chicago’s North Side this weekend when baseball’s two most storied franchises play a weekend set.

While the Yankees are the most successful team in baseball history, the Cubs currently have the bragging rights as reigning World Series champions. Both teams, though, sit atop their respective divisions about a month into the 2017 season. While it may not be as historic as Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932 at Wrigley, the series is bringing more excitement to Wrigleyville.

Because of that, and the promise of significant viewership, ESPN is also coming to town with the crew from Sunday Night Baseball, the popular broadcast franchise led by play-by-play man Dan Shulman, color commentators Jessica Mendoza and Aaron Boone, and on-field correspondent Buster Olney.

Boone, who played twelve seasons in Major League Baseball, mostly for the Cincinnati Reds, chatted with Chicagoly magazine about the exciting series, the Cub’s good-not-great start, and the pleasure of playing at Wrigley Field.

Aaron Boone said he could see the Cubs chasing starting pitching depth before the seasons’s through. Photo by Allen Kee/ESPN Images

Chicagoly: How do you think the world champs have looked so far this year?

Aaron Boone: Just okay. They are obviously in a pretty good position. … With all the hoopla that comes with being the world champs in the opening part of the season, there can be that hangover effect. They’ve held their own this first month. As long as they stay healthy, I’d expect them to go on an excellent run. So I think they’re certainly not playing their best baseball yet, not even close, but to be sitting there at the top of the division one month in, I think you take that.

What are some areas you are seeing that aren’t firing yet?

I think their starting rotation has been just okay. Last year, it was almost a historically great run for their starting pitchers. The fact that they were able run five guys out there for basically thirty starts—that kind of health is rare in today’s game—but to also have the high success they’ve had. … To expect that great a year from all those guys again, it’s hard to hang your hat on that. That said, it should be formidable rotation before it’s all said and done.

A lot’s been made about allowing first-inning runs. Cubs have allowed thirty-five in twenty-eight games. Is there anything to that?

I don’t know. A lot of times with great pitchers—I remember as an offensive player and even talking to great pitchers over the years; Curt Schilling would talk about this a lot—you got to get them early when they’re just settling in and trying to find their rhythm. Usually you’re best hitters are coming up in the first inning so there’s more opportunity there. I think it’s just one of those oddities, but it will probably correct itself and come back toward the norm as the season goes along.

It is early, but any glaring needs you see for the Cubs?

No. I think they might want to add to the starting rotation depth. I think that’s the one area where they don’t have overwhelming depth or a bunch of guys sitting in the minor leagues that are going to impact the club this year. Injuries change everything, obviously, but at this point the bullpen has been pretty strong for them. Hector Rondon throwing the ball the way he is is encouraging. Wade Davis is looking like the Wade Davis he’s been the last few years for the Royals. There’s always little tinkerings you could do in bullpen, but I’m sure they’re always monitoring the starting pitching trade market. That could be an area where they add a little more depth or possibly upgrade if they feel like they need to come the deadline.

Last year, their team defense played a big role in their success. This year, they’ve been closer to league average. What’s behind that?

The first thing I like to talk about when I talk about the 2016 Cubs is, for as great as their offense was and starting rotation, they were great defensively, like next-level great. To be able to hang your hat on that kind of defense night in and night out is really special. I would expect when the dust settles I think this is going to be a very good defense, but you are running Kyle Schwarber out there every day in left field. That’s a little bit of a downgrade, even if he turns out to be an average outfield defender. But I still think when they go with (Jason) Heyward out there and (Albert) Almora, and John Jay or (Ben) Zobrist, then with (Javier) Baez, Addison Russell and (Willson) Contreras, and then (Kris) Bryant continues to get better. (Anthony) Rizzo is a Gold Glover, I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll be sitting here saying this is a very good defense.

Kyle Schwarber is having some struggles at the plate early. Do you see any problems in his first real season?

For as much success he had in postseason last year, he still missed an entire year of baseball. For a young major league player that didn’t have a ton of major league experience, that’s a lot of time to miss. I don’t think it should be that shocking that he’s off to a little bit of a slow start. That being said, I think he’s going to be a great hitter. Over time I think he’ll be fine. He’s managing to get on base, still the power threat. I think eventually he’ll heat up and get in a good groove where he starts stringing together games with multiple hits. He’s too talented a hitter to struggle the entire year.

What are your impressions of Wrigley Field when you were a player?

I loved going there. I had success there, hit well there, so that always shapes your opinion of a place. … But I always loved going there. That’s a special place to play.

Why is that? Anything specific you can point to?

I think the uniqueness of the old ballpark, the charm, and the history, being in Chicago, playing games there, summer in Chicago where you have a daygame or two and a night game, and you get to experience Chicago and the restaurants after a day game. It’s just always a special place to go play.

The Yankees coming to Wrigley Field is exciting. Why is that?

I think it’s a big deal. We’ve been lucky on Sunday night. We had Cubs and Red Sox last weekend and that was special having those two franchises and all they’ve been through. That was really neat to be there at Fenway Park. And I think similarly, it will be like that this weekend with the Yankees. With the Yankees off to the start they are, you have two really good teams playing each other on top of the history around Wrigley Field, around the Cubs, and around the Yankees.

What are the chances of Cubs pulling off a repeat?

I would say as good as any team we’ve seen in a while. Obviously it’s incredibly hard to repeat, just hasn’t happened very often. But there’s no denying the talent, this Cubs team has, and they are set up for the long haul to be a great team with the depth they have in their minor leagues, the young star players they have, the financial resources they have to go out and address any issues, an elite front office staff and manager. They have all the makings to be a long term success. It’s just very difficult in today’s baseball to repeat. But I’d say they are as well-equipped as anyone.

Why is it so hard to repeat in baseball?

Especially since the wild card era when you’ve gone to three rounds of playoffs, it’s hard to win series. It’s not the N.B.A. or even N.F.L. where the best team wins, especially that first series, that best of five. You come up against a hot pitcher and they take two and you have a bad game, that five can end in a hurry, even for a good team.

When you do a Sunday Night Baseball game in Chicago, do you get in early? Are you able to enjoy Chicago at all?

I usually make sure I’m at batting practice at the Saturday game. Usually, in Chicago, we’ll get out and get dinner. Hit up (Chicago) Cut for dinner, one of our favorite places to go eat. There are so many great places to go eat, but I always try to get there a day and a half and take in Chicago a little bit.

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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