- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- This is one of those times in the Chicago Cubs season when you need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Actually, that's every day in the Cubs season, but especially now, with the first month in the rearview mirror.
The Cubs are 9-17, one game worse than a year ago at this time, but this April had so many more positives. Forget the record, this wasn't a bad month. Not for a rebuilding team.
Consider this: Almost everyone who struggled -- save Junior Lake and Mike Olt -- won't be in the Cubs' long-term plans. Or at least they won't be a big part. Carlos Villanueva, Jose Veras, Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, James Russell, John Baker and Darwin Barney are just a few of those names. Some might be gone by season's end, others soon after.
Those who had success -- namely Anthony Rizzo (4 HRs, .407 OBP, 18 BB) and Starlin Castro (.308, 14 RBI) -- are the faces of the franchise, and if April is any indication, they are on their way to rebound seasons. Their success alone made it a good month for the Cubs. One month doesn't make a season, but there are many good signs for the two of them.
Welington Castillo is also showing more promise at the plate, batting .276 with four home runs and 11 RBIs. If Emilio Bonifacio sticks around, he showed his value in the first three days of the season, playing center field, shortstop and second base while starting the season as hot as anyone in the league. Even though he slowed down, he still batted .337 for the month with a .385 on-base percentage. He could be trade bait as could Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, who both pitched lights out. Travis Wood wasn't as effective in every start, but he's shown he's a good pitcher. These are core guys or core "flippable" guys. Either way, it's good news.
In the bullpen, arms emerged. Hector Rondon has been great, Neil Ramirez burst onto the scene with two impressive appearances and Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop are still showing promise despite some control issues.
The one in-between player is Edwin Jackson. He really isn't a long-term building block, but he is signed for two more years after this one. Either way, he's not going to make or break the Cubs' rebuilding efforts despite another mediocre month in a Cubs uniform.
Then there is Lake and Olt. There is no getting around it, they both struggled. The strikeout totals alone -- Lake has 30, Olt 23 -- are alarming, but there is a way to look at their Aprils with the glass half-full. I don't think you could do that if Rizzo and Castro had struggled. Olt's problems aren't what happen at the end of his at-bats, which have produced a .164 batting average; it's what's happening at the beginning. He's getting behind in the count way too often to have success. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Olt is in a pitcher's count -- defined as 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2 -- in 56 percent of his plate appearances. For comparison, the league average is 45.6 percent. He's in the top 10 percent in the league in that category. He was in a pitcher's count in all five plate appearances Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds.
"I think the biggest thing for me is to stop thinking so much [at the plate]," Olt said Wednesday. "I'm thinking about things way too much, and I'm getting behind. That's not me. That's what I'm concentrating on this next month."
It sounds exactly like what Castro had to figure out as he struggled with the same issue last season. And despite the batting average, we can see Olt's power. Having four home runs with 11 RBIs and a .164 average is at least a silver lining. We don't know if he's going to be any good, but he deserves a chance to work through it. That's what this season is about.
Lake's issue is that he just needs to relax. When he's trying to force something, a lot goes wrong. When he lets his athleticism do its thing and he shows some semblance of plate discipline, he can do some damage. But as a prospect who wasn't highly rated, he still needs to show consistency.
"I need a good mentality in May," Lake said. "Play hard and not think about the past. Need to focus more."
The jury is out on both players, but these aren't veterans off to bad starts. They're young players. It doesn't look as if there will be a rookie of the year award winner on the Cubs, but to call them busts now would be premature. And of course, the same can go for Rizzo's and Castro's rebound seasons. It's too early to make those declarations, but it's not too early to find the silver lining in a bad month for the Cubs in the standings.
Most of the bodies just holding spots will be gone soon enough; so far the remaining core players have shown some good signs. The next issue: Who takes the place of those on the way out -- and will they be any good?
One step at a time. Where it matters most right now, it wasn't an awful month.
13hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information